Medieval Writing
Works on Heraldry
The imagery of heraldry provides one of the definitive visual concepts of the middle ages. It combines in our minds with chivalry and feudalism to crystallise major concepts of medieval life. It has an arcane vocabulary and complex rules, but in fact, a great deal of this dates from the later middle ages, and even into the Tudor period in England.
heraldic tomb The face of a late medieval tomb chest in Newark parish church, with heraldic shields restored to their proper colouring.
A brief history of medieval heraldry, and some magnificent illustrations, can be found in P. Lovett 2000 The British Library Companion to Calligraphy, Illumination and Heraldry London: The British Library. Some colour illustrations here have been taken from a little book, A. Wagner 1949 Heraldry in England Harmondsworth: Penguin. The official web site of the College of Arms is a little sparse, but you can also investigate The Heraldry Society. Most works on heraldry seem to concentrate on the modern complexities of the subject rather than the history of its development. The personal websites Heraldry and Early Blazon contain much material about medieval heraldry.
Ever since boys started fighting each other, probably over a decomposing wildebeest carcase a few million years ago in Africa, people have adopted insignia to identify themselves and distinguish friend from foe. The intricate system of heraldry which began in the middle ages seems to have developed some formal rules around the 12th century, and these became more complex later.
Carolingian cavalry In this Carolingian era manuscript, the mounted soldiers are following a standard, rather in the Roman manner. Whatever the standard is supposed to represent, it was no doubt intended to act as an identifying symbol and rallying point. There are no obvious signs of individual heraldic devices.

A Carolingian manuscript depicts mounted soldiers armed with lances and shields going to war behind a standard bearer (St Gall, Bibl. conventuelle, ms.22).

To see this image in full colour from the original manuscript (St Gallen, Stiftsbibliotek, Cod. Sang. 22, f.140), click here.

Drawing from a segment of the Bayeux Tapestry.
The Bayeux Tapestry, believed to have been executed very soon after the events of 1066 and an authentic witness, if just a wee bit biased to the Norman side, shows the combatants bearing coloured shields and carrying banners. There is nothing like the distinct heraldic markings and insignia of later times.
The costume worn by soldiers to the Crusades is believed to have contributed to the development of heraldry. While clattering along through foreign lands it was pretty important to be identified as a fighter for Christianity rather than a wandering vagabond, and the long surcoats worn over their chain mail armour, as well as their long shields, provided a canvas for conspicuous identifying symbols. The Christian cross was the most important emblem to display at this stage of proceedings.
Barbarossa as crusader
Drawing after an image of Friedrich Barbarossa as a crusader, from a Bavarian Manuscript of 1188 in the Vatican Library.
The image at right is composed of purely symbolic elements. The emperor wears his crown and carries an orb to indicate his temporal authority. While not in armour, he displays the emblem of the cross on his clothing and shield in the manner of the crusading knights.
tomb of Geoffrey Plantagenet The first known example of personal armorial bearings were those bestowed on Geoffrey Plantagenet, also known as Geoffrey of Anjou, in 1127 by King Henry I of England. He married Matilda, the daughter of Henry, who produced the future Henry II of England and founded the Plantagenet line of kings. His coat of arms of six gold lions on a blue ground is preserved in full glowing colour on his enamelled funeral slab, now in the Musée Tessé in Le Mans, from which the image at left is derived. The lion on a blue ground also appears on his helmet.
Geoffrey Plantagenet with his coat of arms.
tomb of William Longspee
Tomb of William Longspee, Earl of Salisbury (d.1220) in Salisbury Cathedral.
The fact that this was regarded as a hereditary privilege is shown by the effigy on the tomb of his grandson, William Longspee, in Salisbury Cathedral. The six lions are shown carved in relief on his long shield. Undoubtedly this tomb would have been coloured to show it in its full glory, but a certain post-medieval aethetic has ensured that most medieval sculptures in churches have been scrubbed back to the stone.
So, the heraldic thing was being done, at least at the level of a personal coat of arms, in the 12th century, but when did they start writing about it and setting out the rules?


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This site is created and maintained by Dr Dianne Tillotson, freelance researcher and compulsive multimedia and web author. Comments are welcome. Material on this web site is copyright, but some parts more so than others. Please check here for copyright status and usage before you start making free with it.This page last modified 21/6/2011.