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Neither party would listen to the antiquaries who delivered learned lectures in the neighbourhood, showing the Bleeding Heart to have been the heraldic cognisance of the old family to whom the property had once belonged.

(Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, Chapter 12)

What is heraldic cognisance? I tried to Google it, but I couldn't make out the actual meaning.

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    Anjan, you must say exactly what your research was. A simple Google search for heraldic cognisance gives the definition "a heraldic badge, emblem, or device formerly worn by retainers of a royal or noble house", so the Bleeding Heart is an emblem appearing in the heraldry of the old family.
    – Andrew Leach
    Mar 30 at 8:41
  • @AndrewLeach: Sorry about the citation (it was there in the original post). I forgot to add it when editing the question.
    – Justin
    Mar 30 at 8:46
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    @Justin Not to worry. The form of the question is a great improvement (and even better with a link :-)
    – Andrew Leach
    Mar 30 at 8:50

1 Answer 1

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In heraldry, a cognisance (or cognizance) is a particular symbol used by people employed by or otherwise affiliated with a particular house, and also on the property of that house. It is not necessarily the same as a coat of arms, but may share some symbols with it.

A heraldic badge... indicates allegiance to, or the property of, an individual or family. Medieval forms are usually called a livery badge, and also a cognizance. They are para-heraldic, not necessarily using elements from the coat of arms of the person or family they represent, though many do, often taking the crest or supporters. Their use was more flexible than that of arms proper.

Badges worn on clothing were common in the late Middle Ages, particularly in England. They could be made of base metal, cloth or other materials and worn on the clothing of the followers of the person in question... The badge would also be embroidered or appliqued on standards, horse trappings, livery uniforms, and other belongings.

The UK College of Arms, which is the body responsible for granting official heraldry in many Commonwealth realms, further describes the difference between a coat of arms and a badge (cognizance) as follows:

While arms and crest are personal to their bearers the badge may be used by others wishing to show connection or allegiance to the individual or corporation to whom it belongs. Thus it is appropriate for the employees of a company to wear a tie bearing the company's badge, but not the company's arms.

So the learned antiquarians are saying that "Bleeding Heart Yard" used to belong to a noble family who used a bleeding heart in their heraldry. The bleeding heart is itself a common element in Christian iconography.

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  • The (English/Welsh) College of Arms has a good description of a badge versus a coat of arms: "While arms and crest are personal to their bearers the badge may be used by others wishing to show connection or allegiance to the individual or corporation to whom it belongs. Thus it is appropriate for the employees of a company to wear a tie bearing the company's badge, but not the company's arms." college-of-arms.gov.uk/services/granting-arms
    – dbmag9
    Mar 30 at 13:08
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    @dbmag9: Nice find! I've added the quote to the answer. Mar 30 at 15:34
  • Badges come in handy, as in The Wars of the Roses with the Red/White conflict resolved by the Tudor Rose; or the UK national plant badges (shamrock, thistle, leek) that Olivier used to such good effect at the Harfleur scene in his Henry V film. Mar 30 at 16:07
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    The way I learned it, a coat of arms says "this is me", while a badge says "this is mine".
    – Marthaª
    Mar 30 at 17:55

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