by His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the January 2007, A.S. XLI issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
Anyone who has spent more then a little time in the SCA can recite the basic spiel arose from the need to identify as knights wore ever more enclosing armour. Most do not go any further in their exploration of heraldry then mastering the arcane rules of heraldic design sufficiently to create their own arms. But there is much more to heraldry. This essay will explore the rest of heraldry.
The need to identify units and leaders has always been a military necessity. In the classic era before the Middle Ages, the best known method was the Roman standard. This continued to be used in the Byzantine Empire until the 7th century, though the Christian Cross replaced the Roman Eagle. A curious side note is that while the construction of the Roman shield did not allow for much decoration, in the surviving depictions of these shields showed them to be heavily embellished.
The use of flags or banners as an identifiable rallying point is also easily documented for the early Middle Ages. The raven banner is the most celebrated of these banners. These early banners carried various totems or pagan symbology. It was not until the 10th century that Christian symbology began to appear. As could be expected, the size of the flag indicated its importance. Large banners usually were for regions or leaders of large armed forces. In Italy they were called gonfalons. The triangular pennon was for individuals. Windsock banners could also be found in 13th century Germany.
Another early form of heraldry is seals. Seals are among the earliest forms of writing used to denote ownership and authority. And thus each seal would be identifiably different. It is entirely possible that various heraldic elements began as seal designs.
The original purpose of heralds was as messengers and announcers. As the latter role required them to properly identify the contestants, by necessity became experts in heraldic usage. From here it is a short step to being placed in charge of heraldic design. From being the conductor of tournaments, their area of responsibility expanded to other ceremonies such as weddings, funerals, and coronations. The use of heralds as ambassadors is a very late period practice.
While a number of heraldic traditions had become evident by the 13th century, it was not until the early 15th century that efforts to formally regulate heraldry came into existence. The French College of Arms was organized in 1407, while the English College was not established until 1485. The English Heraldic Visitations to check on the right to bear heraldic arms did not begin until 1530.
In the beginning, heraldic designs were whatever a person could successfully lay claim to. And this would occasionally lead to soldiers rallying around the wrong banner and being captured. The first recorded grant of arms was to Bartolo da Sassoferrato by the Emperor Charles IV in 1355. It was not until after 1500 that the right to assume arms became restricted.
Bartolo also happens to be the first person to write about heraldry in 1356. The main subject of this treatise is the legal right to bear arms. It lays down two main points: that anyone of a given rank can display the insignia of the rank, and allows one person to use the arms of another, much like two people sharing the same name.
While the early books had an element of practicability to them, by 1500 many had become sheer flights of fantasy. It is here where we may find arms for legendary figures, meanings behind heraldic elements, and supposed stories for the granting of various arms. The Rolls of Arms, which first appeared in 1250, are a different animal being just a list of existing arms and their owners.
Having arms is generally seen as being a sign of nobility. But this was not exclusively so till the end of the Renaissance. There is a record of French peasant in 1369 having arms. Merchants, guilds, and towns routinely had their own arms.
Heraldry is usually associated with Western Europe, but other areas had similar systems. The best known of these is the Japanese mon. Closer to home, the Byzantine Empire used a system of flags and banners to control military units with size and color denoting various meanings. These flags could have various images of saints, crosses, and pseudo Arabic lettering. Elements of western heraldry entered into Byzantine symbology after the Fourth Crusade. Similar rules governed Muslim banners. The use of the crescent as a symbol is Islam is associated with the Ottomans. More common was the use of various Koranic verses.
As can be seen from above there is more to heraldry then abstruse pictures on a shield. It is also about establishing identity and one’s place. The need for heraldry on the battlefield was relatively short lived. Its use in the civil arena has lasted to this day. Now we call it trademarking.
Nicolle, David. Medieval Warfare Source Book: Warfare in Western Christendom. London: Brockhampton Press, 1995.
Nicolle, David. Medieval Warfare Source Book: Christian Europe and its Neighbours. London: Brockhampton Press, 1996
Pine, Leslie. "Heraldry." The New Encyclopedia Britannica. Vol. 20. 1986.
Wagner, Anthony . Heralds and Ancestors. London: British Museum Publications Ltd., 1978.
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