Flags nowadays are everywhere. Whether you want to see them or not you can’t escape them. They’re on buildings, hanging outside houses, on every athlete’s jersey even as tiny pins on backpacks and clothes. They have been around for centuries it’s easy to not give a second thought about them. But where exactly did they originate from? And who was the first person or population to use them?
Vexillology is defined as the study of the history, usage and symbolism of flags. The term was coined by Whitney Smith, an avid flag student and enthusiast in 1961. Later that year he published “The Flag Bulletin” the oldest vexillology journal till this day. Though the origin of flags itself is unknown, there have been flag-like symbols discovered worldwide throughout history. The first ones dating as early as the 11th century BC during the Chinese Zhou dynasty – portraying colourful animals and treated with the same respect one would treat their ruler and – or the Indian Subcontinent. The Indian Subcontinent flags were often triangular in shape and depicting a yak’s tail and/or the state’s umbrella. Both groups of flags were even used by other civilizations such as ancient Egypt or Rome. The oldest national flag still in use is that of Denmark, The Dannbrog.
So what is a flag? A flag is a piece of fabric that can be used as a symbol, a way of signaling, decoration and originally for warfare. Any individual, office, community, or sovereign state can choose to create a flag to represent them. Often, but not always in an oblong shape, flags are comprised of unique patterns, designs and bright colours.
Each aspect of a flag is used to symbolize something. The side of the flag closest to the pole/staff is called the “hoist” and the outer part is called the “fly”. The main area of the flag is called “field” or “ground” and a “canton” is a symbol/design/element usually found in the upper corner of the hoist. Today flags can be used for something as obvious as distinguishing a country from another one, to a sports team to communities/groups of people (i.e. LGBTQ+ pride flags).
An example of a flag with a canton is the Taiwanese flag. It’s composed of a red field and a blue rectangle with a centered white sun make up the canton.
The Roman Empire was the first to use and popularize items such as vexillums and labarums. Vexillums were flag-like objects containing symbols, used as military standards that were draped horizontally from a staff contrary to the modern flag. While there haven’t been many types of vexillums discovered, the one that was mostly found was a red with the letters SPQR stitched in gold material. It stood for “the Senate and People of Rome” and it was usually presented with a layer of fringe at the bottom side.
Labarus in form were similar to vexillums but they were used almost exclusively by emperors to symbolize emperors and sometimes members of their family. One of the more famous people that labarus was associated with was Constantine the Great. It was rumoured that he marched under a labarum with the Chi Rio symbol, which was one of the earliest forms of Christograms – a monogram whose letters are used to abbreviate the letters of Jesus Christ. This in turn was influential in the use of labarus in later Christianity.
The medieval era brought the invention of silk, with a big amount of it produced in China and it paved the way for the creation of flags as we know them today. The Arabs introduced flags hanging upright on poles in the Western world around the 1st century without them having high popularity until much later. By that time multiple civilizations had started using their own flags to differentiate between people and units. Different Islamic dynasties used different coloured flags to identify each other, usually flown by their prophet during his life. Another example is the Conquest of Mecca, during which Muhammad would hold a black flag whilst his followers held green ones.
As the medieval ages progressed, so did their advancements with the west developing heraldry. Heraldry was a discipline used to design and display armoury, and dealt with the identification of knights and other upper-class people with the use of symbols placed on shields.
The crusades of the era lead various holy orders adopting the usage of flags, with a lot of them being based in Europe. Both England and France under the ruler ship of Phillip II and Henry II respectively commanded that a flag consisting of a white field and a red cross were to be used as symbols for them and subsequently their kingdoms.
The symbol for the English kingdom was named as Saint George’s Cross and variations of it are still being used to this day. The modern flag of England depicts the same field and cross, and the City of London flag displays a red sword as a canton to symbolize the patron saint of the city’s – Saint Paul’s – beheading.
The peak of the age of sail introduced flags to marine units or anything naval and seaborne related. Even though flags were used by ships and naval units dating as early as Ancient Greek time, it was purely for communication purposes. Italian maritime public started using distinct flags from the 13th century, and by the 16th century English and Scottish had adopted the system as well. During the 17th century ships used flags to state status (trading or military), origin/nationality or designation. It became a legal requirement for all units to use them and they later evolved into national and maritime flags of today.
With many different ways of communicating and symbolizing created, flags have become a staple. Many fail to realize just how often they are used or for how many things. With vexillology developing drastically over the last few decades, and flags becoming even more common, we can only imagine the capacity in which flags will be used and evolved.