Bonet's Arbre des Batailles (1387)

Last revised September 1996

Honoré de Bonet

Honoré de Bonet (ca. 1340-ca. 1410) was a Frenchman from Provence, a cleric who was prior of Salon near Embrun. He studied at the University of Avignon where he was received a doctor, traveled around France and Aragon, and held various minor official positions. His book L'Arbre des Batailles is a treatise on war and the laws of war. It is not meant to be a scholarly book, but rather written for a fairly broad readership, in ordinary French. It found great favor and was extremely influential.

Bonet on Heraldry

The following text comes from the edition of Bonet's work by G. W. Coopland, Harvard University Press, 1949.

The substance of Bonet's treatment of heraldry (chapters 124 to 129) comes from Bartolo da Sassoferrato, although he does not cite his source. The details vary somewhat, in interesting ways.

In chapter 124, Bonet distinguishes from the outset arms of dominion:

    "There are some [coats of arms] made or ordained for a position of dignity:" and he cites the arms of the Empire, France, England, and "the same for all other kings. Likewise, there are those for lesser dignities: ermine for the Duke of Brittany, the silver cross for the Count of Savoy; and so on for all others who occupy like dignites, whether they be princes or viscounts, and who have each by long prescription their special arms. And no man whatsoever may bear such arms without a difference, nor affix them in his house or town, except him who is chief lord of that dignity. And if any man did so he would be punished. For this reason we see that the uncles and brothers and other relations of kings and other princes never bear the unaltered arms of their house, but make certain differences therein. Then we have arms according to office, as in the case of the Capitoliers of Toulouse who, during their term of office, beat the town arms. That is by reason of office. And the consuls of Montpellier, id they weer to go in arms, would bear an apple gules, for these are the arms of the consulate. And if any other man took upon himself to bear these arms, or to hang them in his house, or to have them in his possession with the intent to keep them, he would be punsiehd as a forger."

Having set aside arms of dominion and arms of office, Bonet discusses whether gentlemen, that is barons or small landowners, can bear the arms of another at will (Chapter 125).

    "There are certain barons, and other gentlemen, whose predecessors had their arms by gift of the Emperor, or by gift or privilege of kings: Hence our masters said that such arms should not be borne by one not of that blood. And I hold this true, if it be understood of that country which is subject to him who has bestowed the arms. But if the king of France had given a silver lion to my line, what harm would result if Germans in Germany bore similar arms? They would certainly not be punished by law.

    We have another kind of arms that a man assumes at his pleasure. You must know that men's names were invented to show the distinction between persons. Such names any man may choose at pleasure, either the father for his son of the godfather for his godson. And further, a man may change his name, provided he does not do so dor purposes of fraud but merely to have a pleasanter name. The same is true of arms. So, such arms as may be chosen at pleasure each may take as he wishes, and may have them painted on his horse and on his belongings, but not on the belongings of others."

In Chapter 126, Bonet distinguishes himself further from Bartolo, and expresses the opinion that even among self-assumed arms, there is a public interest in avoiding confusion.

    "Let us consider another matter which in law is still more doubtful. My father, by his own wish, has adopted as arms a cow gules with three stars above it. Another person of the same locality, who has no connection with my father, wishes to adopt and bear these same arms. My father decides to oppose this, because he takes a great pleasure in these arms. I ask whether he may do so. The contrary appears to be the case, and I prove this clearly. A man is allowed to take at will another man's name, and there may be in the same house, town, or village, several men called by the same name, for the law allows this. Why then should there not be in a town several men bearing the same arms? but let something be said on the other side. Common things belonging to no person in particular, such as birds, seafish, deer, wild boar, hinds, and hares, are the property of the man who takes them first. And since no man in our countryside has taken these arms before him, it appears as if my father, being the first, is in the right. On this question our masters come to the following conclusion: if a man,or his house, has adopted a new coat-of-arms and has worn it publicly, lords should not support any other man of that town or region who desires to adopt it, for such arms are adopted for the sake of distinction and difference, and in such case we should have no distinction by which to recognize people, and the result would be confuision. Further, it is the lord's business to see that no one of his subjects causes shame or injury to another or encroaches on his rights. It would appear that the second man who takes the arms does it maliciously and in contempt of the first, with a view to enmity and strife, so that it is the sovereign's duty to find a remedy. Again, it is not a good statement to say that there can be several me nof the same name in one town, for one man can be distinguished from another, and the difference is also to be ascertained from the surname. But in the case of the identical arms mistkae might easily arise as to their ownership. For these reasosn I think that the sovereign should intervene."

In Chapter 127 Bonet takes up the story of the Italian and the German from Bartolo, adapted to France and with a picturesque dialogue added (notice the digs at the Germans).

    "Let us examine another question which might well arise. A German takes himself to Paris to see the King's court, and to become acquainted with the gentle manners of France. He meets a knight or squire bearing the arms of his house, and confronts him, as roughly as the Germans are accustomed to do, denying his right to bear such arms.

    The Frenchman replies courteously: "Worthy Sir, what are you saying? Am I not allowed to bear the arms that my rather and ancestors have born so long that memory runneth not to the contrary?"

    "By Heaven," say the German, "my house is more ancient and more gentle than yours, and the arms you bear belong to us. I say you do wrong to bear them, and if you wish to defend yourself in the matter, there is my gage."

    The Frenchman replies politely: "I do you no injury, but all the same I am ready to defend myself against your charge."

    Now I ask whether the King, when the dispute is brought before him, should decide for wager of battle. It appears that he should, for the German is of the more ancient house and has borne the arms first, and if he was first he has the better claim, and as he has no witnesses to bring before the King, and wishes to prove it by his body, it would seem that combat should take place.

    Our masters, however, do not agree with this view. The reasons why there should be no combat are patent and manifest; for the two men do not belong to the same kingdom and hence there can be no confusion between them in warfare, nor can any great harm result to the King. Nor can the German be dishonoured in his own country because his arms happen to be borne by a Frenchman in France, unless this were done for a dishonest purpose. For suppoise a French knight, a man of evil life, a great vagabond and pillager, were to take the arms of a very worthy German, a good knight, and then, bearing them, were to carry fire into Burgundy, or steal cattle, or rob everyone he meets in Lorraine. If the worthy German knight offered his gage against such knight and before the King, on such facts, his complaint would be sufficiently well founded; but even then I do not say that the King should decree battle. If the King, on sure information, foudn the story true, I do not dare to speak of the gibbet or of beheading, for I am a clerk. But if he administered good and strict justice in the affair I should not be astonished thereat. On the other hand I do not see that the law allows him to ordain trial by combat against a man who is a criminal, or who can be proved to be of evil and unjust life."

Bonet, in Chapter 128, discusses fraudulent adoption, for example a soldier of modest descent adopting the arms of an ancient house in order to receive more honor and credit; or a craftsman counterfeiting the mark of another, better skilled craftsman in order to increase the sale of his goods. Both cases would call for punishment.

Chapter 129 is devoted to the tinctures and their significance.

Impact of Bonet's Writings

Bonet was very influential in the 15th century. Christine de Pisan copied liberally from him, quoting him as one of her sources: her writing was popularized by Caxton in England in the late 15th century. The herald Sicile, herald of Alfonso V of Aragon, also used Bonet extensively in his Blason des Couleurs, as well as 15th century Burgundian heralds.


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François Velde

Apr 01, 2000