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A heraldic family or heraldic clan (Polish: ród herbowy: literally, "coat-of-arms gens [or clan]") is an institution unique to Polish heraldry, relating to the tradition of a number of — not necessarily consanguineous — szlachta (noble) families bearing the same coat of arms. The numbers of such families bearing the same coat of arms often reached several dozen; several hundred were not uncommon.
The persons and families that shared a coat of arms were called "herbowni", "klejnotni", or "współherbowni".
There are various hypotheses about the origins of the Polish nobility, including the tradition of heraldic families.
The Polish nobility, the szlachta, had its origins in Middle Ages chivalric clans which provided military support to the king, dukes, or various overlords. Over the centuries, various families — indeed, whole noble classes from other nations, for example, Lithuania — were incorporated into the Polish clan system by adoption.
Exceptions apart, all Polish families belonging to the same noble clan used the same coat of arms, sometimes with minor variations of tincture. The Polish word "herb" denotes both the heraldic family and the coat-of-arms that the heraldic family bore.
Membership in a Polish clan does not always connote consanguinity or even territoriality, as does membership in a Scottish clan, but refers to the fact that member families belong to the same heraldic clan. This is why hundreds of different, sometimes unrelated families are to be found within the same clan, all of them being entitled to use the same coat-of-arms. For this reason, rather than being parallel to the Scottish clan model, the Polish clan system may be considered as being more akin to the Scandinavian ætt and the Germanic sippia.
Polish coats of arms have their own names, which usually stem from the clan's ancient seat or war cry or from a description of the way the arms are depicted (the so-called canting arms). The war cry or battle cry derivation of many Polish clan and armorial names has given rise to the now outdated term proclamatio-arms, refer to the hortatory nature of the name which proclaims or invokes something. In fact war-cries consisting of the clan's name alone are nothing particularly Polish and are found in other medieval European nobilities.
The German word Wappengemeinschaft (Armorial-Association), as difficult as it seems to be, may be the best simple description of the concept of Polish Herb and the Polish institution of the clan / coat of arms.
Nevertheless, in daily life, (from the 17th to the 20th centuries), the sense of belonging to a family predominated. This is indicated by the organisation of most Modern-Era Polish armorials, which are arranged by specific family names and not by the names of their coat of arms, unlike their 15th-century models that were arranged by clans, which were still a legal, genealogical and social reality.
It is known that a sense of belonging and attachment to a shared noble armorial lineage existed in the consciousness of the old Polish nobility carried down from the Middle Ages, but it was probably more ceremonial and symbolic than actual. This was especially true because fairly frequently, particularly among the poorer nobility in 19th century, accidental, and sometimes deliberate, instances occurred wherein people misidentified themselves with various coats of arms to the heraldic offices of the partitioning countries. In this way, members of the same family sometimes formally obtained recognition for different coats of arms. At the same time, Polish magnate families and some middling landowning families obtained titles such as Prince, Count, Baron along with their “own” particular coats of arms, (variations of their original Herb), contrary to Polish armorial custom, from the three partitioning powers, the French empire, the Pope, and other sovereigns.
- Maurycy Orgelbrand - (praca zbiorowa): Słownik Języka Polskiego. Wilno 1861: Wydawnictwa Artystyczne I Filmowe - /reprint/ - Warszawa, 1986, s. 398.
- "Tworzenie się polskich rodów heraldycznych" ("Creation of Polish Heraldic Families"), Pro Fide, Lege et Rege no. 1 (48) /2004 (retrieved February 22, 1013)