Origins of Armory

A much-disputed topic, to be sure. I hereby summarize the discussion of the origins of armory in Pastoureau's Traité d'Héraldique (Paris, 1993).

The Causes

Form the 14th to the 20th c., many hypotheses have been mad eabout the origin of armory in the Western World. Three leading theories are now all abandoned: a direct origin in classical antiquity, or in runes and family emblems of German-Scandinavian populations, or in Muslim countries via the Crusades. He states that it is now accepted that the emergence of armory is due to the evolution of military equipment from the late 11th to the mid-12th c, with fighters unrecognizable under their helmets (there is a nice illustration from the 11th century Bayeux tapestry showing William lifting his helmet so as to be recognized by his troops in battle). This led fighters to paint emblems on their shields. The question is then to establish a proper chronology of this emergence and of the transformation of these emblems into armory, i.e., constant use of one design by the same person and application of strict rules in the design itself. (This last point the most puzzling, and which sets apart European armory from most other systems).

The Formation

Pastoureau summarizes Galbreath's opinions (which he thinks have been confirmed over time). Armory resulted from the combination of several pre-existing elements into one system. The elements pertain to insigns, banners, seals and shields. Insigns have contributed certain figures and the collective character of some arms. Banners brought colors as well as some geometric elements (ordinaries, partitions, semys) and the link of arms to fiefs. From seals come a number of family emblems already in use by some families in Germany, Flanders and Italy, canting arms, and the hereditary aspect. Shields contributed the shape of the design, furs, and some ordinaries (border, pale, chief).

This combination did not take place uniformly over time and space. It does seem that banners played a predominant role, and textiles in general, in shaping the way colors were used, as well as yielding a number of terms (more than half of the heraldic terms common in the Middle Ages come from the vocabulary of textiles).

The three main sources of emblems are thus the individual's own distinctive marks, used in battle for recognition, the family's emblems, probably in use for some time, and the fief's rallying banner, which served as a flag for vassals in combat. Elements from these three sources combined to form armory, which tries to play all three roles at the same time: identify individuals, be transmissible within a family, and represent ownership or claims to fiefs. In order to fulfill these contradictory goals, heraldry has developed mechanisms such as differencing (which allows to reconcile individual marks with hereditary emblems) and marshalling (which allows to express property rights as well as lineage).

The Date

The Bayeux tapestry provides a terminus a quo: no heraldry there. Combattants have designs on their shields, but the same design is seen on different individuals' shields (even on opposite sides of the battle) and the same individual uses different designs at different times. The usual first example is the Le Mans enamel from the tomb of Geffrey Plantagenet. The enamel is now dated to 1160-65; the chronicle of Jean Rapicault which narrates the gift of the shield in 1127 is itself also from a later date, 1170-75. Furthermore, the only extant seal of Jeffrey (on a 1149 document) shows no arms. So there is no contemporary evidence for the 1127 "birthdate" of heraldry.

A recension of all seals dating from before 1160 and displaying unmistakable heraldic elements, about 20 in all, show that the emblems appear on the banner before they do on the shield, they appear all across Western Europe in a short period of time (1120-1150) and until 1140 geometric patterns dominate floral or animal motifs. The oldest exactly dated seal with a coat of arms is a seal of Raoul of Vermandois from 1146; an earlier seal, dated ca. 1135, shows the same arms on a banner.

Pastoureau thus distinguishes 2 phases: the transformation of decorative motifs painted on shields into permanent and individual emblems (1100-1140) and the transformation of the latter into hereditary emblems subjected to precise rules (1140-80).

He suggests a number of alternative sources: illuminated manuscripts, sculptures, everyday objects (textiles, eating instruments) though they all suffer from a problem of dating. Texts may yield information. Finally, coins, especially bracteates (one-sided thin silver coins from Germany) present a promising avenue of research: pre-1160 coins show some fluctuation in shield designs, but remarkable stability of banners for the owners of a given fief.

It seems clear to him that, throughout the 12th c., individuals used motifs on their shields primarily based on taste, but banners presented a constant emblem for rallying, linked not to the individual but to the fief. Seals and miniatures show us the banners of some major fiefs around 1150, and they are all geometric and bi-color: Luxemburg (barry), Vermandois (chequy), Savoy (cross), Burgundy (bendy), Aragon and Provence (pallets), Flanders (girony), Hainaut (chevronny).

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François Velde

Last modified: Sep 03, 1999