PhD Project: Structure and Function of Medieval Armorials – Part 2

In the last blogpost concerning my PhD project, I briefly sketched some of the starting points of my research. These remain largely unchanged, but I have refined my view on them. In this second blog post, I will highlight one of the approaches in my research on the structure and function of medieval armorials.

Armorials and Codicology

One of the first things I noticed when I started studying armorials is that they are very complicated sources, not only concerning the content, but codicologically as well. The structure of armorials often seems disordered, frequently one sees that parts were added or omitted and sometimes one finds that a clear coherence between an armorial and other parts of the same manuscript is absent.

A folio of the Armorial Le Breton with three foliations

A folio of the Armorial Le Breton with three foliations

In recent research, scholars have only rarely discussed the codicological structure of an armorial. One of the few exceptions is Marie-Françoise Damongeot’s article in Emmanuel de Boos’ edition of Armorial Le Breton. [1] We know that the current state of this manuscript is somewhat disordered, but luckily the folia in this work contain three different foliations from the 15th and 16th centuries. The sequence of these three foliations, written in Roman numerals, does not coincide. Hence the order of the manuscript has been altered at least twice in the 15th and 16th century. Damongeot’s efforts to reconstruct the order of the folia in the manuscript do not only clarify our view of the order of the armorial in the different stages of its existence, but it might also have the potential to provide insights on the use of armorials in this period. Her short article demonstrates that, to understand armorials properly, codicological research is a necessity, and I am glad Emmanuel de Boos included this article in his edition, since it immensely increases our understanding of the Armorial Le Breton.

Armorial in the Schichtbuch

In the last few months I studied the armorial in Hermann Bote’s Schichtbuch, and, again, I experienced that codicological study of a manuscript may be of major importance. Hermann Bote’s Schichtbuch is a reasonably well studied document from the early 16th century that discusses different civic revolts in the history of Braunschweig. The sizeable armorial (more than 100 folia) in the back of the manuscript has never been subjected to extensive research though. This might not come as a surprise, since in my last blogpost I already pointed out that historians tend to neglect armorials as a source, and the lack of research on the armorial in the Schichtbuch affirms this statement. What might be more astonishing is that such an important manuscript as the Schichtbuch has never been examined in terms of its codicological structure. The manuscript consists of various segments, and the textual part of the Schichtbuch holds no references to the armorial, nor vice versa. A study of the material aspects of this source will greatly enhance our understanding of the relations between the armorial and the rest of the Schichtbuch.

The Source and the Project

These two examples demonstrate the importance of codicological research. One should realize that not only the contents of the manuscript are transmitted to us, but that we are lucky to have the whole manuscript with all its material elements. It would be a pity if one neglects this material part of the historical source, since it can provide answers on challenging questions such as the dating, order or the relation between the different parts of an armorial.

This focus on the material part of the source is not only an essential aspect of my own research, but is central to the entire project Performanz der Wappen. This project aims for a critical and historical reassessment of the development and use of coats of arms through combining cultural historical approaches with auxiliary sciences.

Of course, my research does not only consist of codicological studies of manuscripts. This is merely an important first step on the long way towards understanding the structure and function of armorials. Other vital aspects include the historical development of armorials and the visual aspects of the sources; topics I will discuss in the next blogposts.

[1] Marie-Françoise Damongeot, ‘Analyse codicologique’ in: Emmanuel de Boos et al., L’Armorial Le Breton (Paris, 2004), pp. 27-31.

Cite the article as: Elmar Hofman, "PhD Project: Structure and Function of Medieval Armorials – Part 2", in: Heraldica nova. Medieval Heraldry in social and cultural-historical perspectives (blog on, published: 19/12/2014, Internet:

4 Responses

  1. I can only agree with you: codicological analysis is baldy needed in out field of research. This is even more urgent given that there is no tradition of critical edition for armorials in the same sense as it exists since at least the 19th century for texts. There are heraldic editions (normally based on a single manuscript), facsimiles and increasingly digital reproduction, and all these formats are very useful; but they do not provide the same information that critical editions of historical texts normally do provide: a quick and complete overview over variants in the mss (apparatus criticus), information on formal and material sources (apparatus fontium), a model how the single manuscripts depend from each other (stemma codicum) etc. Of course, much of this is much easier with texts (we can put orthographic variants in footnotes, but not pictures) and many armorials are transmitted in single manuscripts only. Nonetheless, it would be really good if we had something comparable for armorials.

  2. Elmar Hofman says:

    Dear Steen,
    Thank you for your elaborate comment and your interesting examples. You are right noting that a full codicological analysis is destructive and therefore difficult to perform. But, as you said, there are ways to study some material aspects of the manuscript and if one is lucky one can discern the different quires without tearing the manuscript apart. Examining a manuscript, one should consider all possibilities, because, as your examples show, studying the material aspects of the manuscript can improve our knowledge of the armorial.

    Even when a codicological examination is not possible, one should learn from the other studies that the current state of the manuscript might not be the original state and that the relations between the different parts of the manuscript might not be what they seem. Thus, in total absence of any codicological analysis, I think one should be careful with statements regarding topics as the structure, the relations between the different parts of the manuscript and the production process.

    Although codicological analysis can often not be performed, one should at least be aware of the material problems and possibilities.

  3. It is very appropriate for Elmar Hofman to highlight the importance of the physical features or codiological analysis of armorial manuscripts. His observations are very pertinent, and one could easily name a number of armorials needing such treatment, the Bellenville coming high on the list. Unfortunately, as Michel Pastoureau notes in his introduction to the Bellenville, such an analysis is destructive, and to do it properly, one has to take the binding to pieces, which was what the AnF did with the LeBreton. Christiane v.d. Bergen-Pantens did a nice analysis of the Gorrevod armorial (Les armoriaux, Cahiers Léopard d’or, 1997, 8:231-241), but we still need to have the edition of the contents – institutional employees have more pressing work! Most holding institutions do not allow taking manuscripts apart – or do not have the funds for it, and in any case do not like readers fiddling too much with their precious manuscripts.
    It is possible to do a primitive form of codicological analysis with the help of an UV-lamp for watermarks (caveat: differences in size and relative positions may change the dates!). With a soft plastic ruler, one may discover size and positions of bifolios and inserts in quires. Smears of paint can also be used to identify neighbouring pages. Whether subsequent numeration or foliation of pages can be of any use, except for highlighting the problem, I doubt – but see below.
    May I give a few examples of the use of quire analysis. The codiological analysis and the contents of LeBreton can be taken a step further. It appears that the entries were made on loose bifolios folded to 4 pages. One segment to one side of a bifolio and if needed continued on another bifolio, e.g. Normandy on bifolio 2ab (nos.216-235, p.22, 4v; nos.156-175, p.19, 3r) and bifolio 14a (or 14c, other half not used) with nos.136-155, p.18, 26v. Bifolio 7ab have Flanders (p.42/39, 13v/14r, 616-635 / 556-575) and bifolio 7cd have Brabant (p.40/41, 14v/13r, 576-595 / 596-615).
    In the Paix de Arras (London, BL, Add.11542:96v-101r; as APA, app.A, 2006 on ) 3 bifolios were folded into a quire and entries added (by long lines) across the double page spread. As an example 100r12 ‘josse de wulfsberghe’ must have preceded 99v13 ‘son frere’, though conventional reading has Josse as no.204 and the brother as no.189.
    If one is lucky, somebody may already have done the hard work. Aires Nascimento did the codiological analysis of the Herald’s Book or Livro de arautos (Manchester, J.Rylands Library, ms. latin 28; ARK, app.C-D, 2011,, and made it easy to show that most segments (or chapters) had their own quires.

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