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In Poland the noble class was entitled to bear armorial signs. Signs were acquired differently in Poland than in other areas of Europe. Polish arms belong to groups or clans, not related by blood, who share a common armorial shield (herb). Originally Polish kings rewarded people who distinguished themselves in battle, performed a heroic deed or notable achievement, or held a prominent position in government by granting them a noble title and the right to use an armorial shield (often called a coat of arms). In the era of elected kings, people could be admitted to a shield either by election by nobles assembled in the parliament (sejm) or by adoption to a noble family. Only with rare exceptions could an elected Polish king grant nobility and a coat of arms to anyone other than a foreigner.
Each Polish armorial shield has its own individual name, which is different from the family names associated with it. Many different families, with different surnames, may have shared the same armorial shield.
A higher proportion of Poles possessed noble status than was the case in Western Europe. Once obtained, an armorial shield was handed down through the generations. Arms and nobility status were inherited by all family members, not just the first son. For this reason, the noble class in Poland encompassed even the least country squire and the poorest knight.
Documentation for armorial shields is published in works called armorials (herbarz). An armorial is a collection of descriptions of coats of arms and the families that bear them. Poland has produced numerous armorials prepared by various authors dealing with the genealogy and armorial shields of Polish knights and nobility. The armorials describe each family’s entitlement to the arms. They may also note early bearers of that coat of arms, sometimes with relationships, birth dates, and other genealogical information.
Each armorial differs from others depending on the research of the author. No one armorial includes all Polish nobility though significant families are included in all of them. Some minor noble families are not included in any armorial. Polish armorials generally contain genealogical information as well as illustrations of the heraldic arms. They are a good place to start a study of genealogy and heraldry for noble families since they list family members and descendants from a common arms-bearing ancestor in the distant past. The following is an easily accessible popular Polish armorial:
Herbarz Polski Kaspra Niesieckiego.(Kaspar Niesiecki’s Polish Armorial). 10 vols. Lipsko: Breitkopf i Hærtel, 1839–1846. (FHL book 943.8 D5n; film 0865225-0865233.)
The Family History Library has collected many armorials. These are listed in the FamilySearch Catalog under:
POLAND - HERALDRY
Sources with information about noble ancestors may also be listed in the catalog under:
POLAND - NOBILITY