[Project:] Heraldry and Urban Visual Culture in Late Medieval England and Germany

Heraldic display in a depiction of the induction of Bristol’s mayor from The Maire of Bristowe is Kalendar (1478/9). (J. F. Nicholls and John Taylor, Bristol Past and Present, [Bristol: Arrowsmith, 1882].)

The medieval city was a stage of heraldry: It was displayed on the city gates and towers, the façades of the burghers’ houses and the merchants’ and craftsmen’s shops, on the ceilings and walls of the town hall, the stained glass and epitaphs of the city’s churches, the commune’s seals and coins. It was part of the visual programme of urban rituals such as the ruler’s entry, civic processions, plays, and inauguration ceremonies (see for example the induction of Bristol’s mayor on the left). In charters, chronicles, armorials and other urban records coats of arms appeared depicted, blazoned or as a subject-matter as well. Everywhere, it becomes manifest, heraldic signs embellished the permanent and ephemeral spaces of the medieval city.

Yet despite its omnipresence in urban visual culture, heraldic display in medieval cities has remained largely understudied. Only the Italian communes have so far profited from an explicit study of the the ways in which heraldic communication was employed in urban social discourse. In terms of England and Germany, a dedicated study of the uses and functions of heraldry in the medieval city is still wanting. However, interest is increasing: A session at the International Medieval Congress 2013 explored heraldry’s place in-between aristocratic and urban spheres, and in 2015 a conference in Rome also explored the potential of a more detailed investigation of ‘Heraldry in the Medieval City’. A project taking an interdisciplinary interest in heraldry and cultural history, and putting heraldic signs in urban visual culture into a comparative European perspective, therefore seems about time.

My PhD project aims to explore heraldic signs as a means of visual communication in urban society. The comparison of late medieval German and English cities seeks to demonstrate the functions of heraldic signs in, for example, reflecting and reinforcing political and social structures, and expressing individual and collective civic identity.

The Nine Worthies in the Town Hall of Cologne, each bearing their coat of arms. (Source: Wikimedia)

The Nine Worthies in the Town Hall of Cologne, each bearing their coat of arms. (Source: Wikimedia)

I aim to establish the mentality of townspeople toward heraldic signs, i.e. the functions and meanings attributed to them, by looking at their ubiquity in urban material culture as well as scrutinising the cities’ textual record for references to the pragmatics of heraldry in urban life. Heraldic signs seem to have been essential to civic individual identity: They were explained in genealogical and historical myths, recorded in urban chronicles and armorials, contested in legal cases, and placed or defaced as an expression of individual or communal consensus and conflict. Likewise, corporations such as guilds, societies, and the urban commune itself employed heraldic signs to represent collective identities and embody urban ideals.

I aim to relate these findings to the visual display of heraldry in urban space, both in the permanent spaces of urban architecture (monuments, gates, towers, palaces or town halls), and in the ephemeral spaces of urban ritual (entries, processions, demonstrations, oath-taking). This is meant to reveal the strategies of competing social formations (factions within the burgher commune; resident nobles; princely, royal and ecclesiastical rulers) using heraldic representations to establish presence, legitimacy and authority, and how these representations reflected, reinforced or negotiated political structures and social hierarchies of urban society.

Introduction to the Gossembrot Armorial, accompanied by a depiction of Augsburg’s coat of arms. (Cgm. 98, fol. 1v°)

Introduction to the Gossembrot Armorial, accompanied by a depiction of Augsburg’s coat of arms. Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm. 98, fol. 1v°.

The comparison of both English and German cities is meant to test if structural differences, for example regarding the relation of cities to the kingdom or empire, could be reflected by the use of heraldry in civic self-fashioning. Considering existing scholarship in Italy, this will hopefully answer the question whether urban heraldry was a geographically differing or indeed homogenous European cultural phenomenon.

I was thankfully able to develop and discuss the formative beginnings of this project during my work as a research assistant at the ‘Performance of Coats of Arms’ project at Münster University in 2014/15. In 2015, I was awarded with a Doctoral Scholarship by the Leverhulme Trust, which will allow me to represent the cultural-historical approach to heraldry of the Münster project as part of a project at the Centre for Visual Arts and Culture (University of Durham). The centre aims to encourage interdisciplinary research on the perception of ‘the visual’ and its function in the construction of social realities in past and present, and the focus on heraldry as a means of visual communication  in this context promises to reveal an important element of the ways townspeople perceived and employed the visual in the Middle Ages.

I warmly welcome any contributions and suggestions on the project’s scope, approach, existing scholarship and sources of potential interest that the community of Heraldica Nova may have, and I am excited to post further updates on the project as my studies progress. I am looking forward to discussing both the general progress of the project as well as smaller case studies on this blog!

Cite the article as: Marcus Meer, "[Project:] Heraldry and Urban Visual Culture in Late Medieval England and Germany", in: Heraldica nova. Medieval Heraldry in social and cultural-historical perspectives (blog on Hypotheses.org), published: 04/11/2015, Internet: https://heraldica.hypotheses.org/3768.

Marcus Meer

Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar at the Centre for Visual Arts and Culture, University of Durham, working on a PhD thesis on heraldry as a means of visual communication and element of medieval visual culture in English and German towns and cities.

2 Responses

  1. In Coesfeld (westfalian City near Münster) a special space outside the City was marked with four stones. Each stone wears the wellknown picture of the urban coat of arms the head of an ox used earlier as urban secret seal or marks urban products (linen, probably meat and stones). The stones are called “fredesteene” which will mean an area of peace and /or freedom. This is not exactly defined till now. The first written account is dated 1494. There are no other topographical marks in relation to the original position of these stones (f.e. “Stadthagen” or “Landwehr”) but one of the four main streets passing the city. Perhaps you’ll find other stones marking a space outside a city with the coat of arms of this city inside this space I would agree a short Information.

    • Marcus Meer says:

      Thank you very much, I was not aware of this example. I am currently working on a paper on the relation of such heraldic objects and urban space, and their function in expressing and indeed contesting the affiliation and (legal) quality of spaces, in my case in particular the immunity of the Augsburg cathedral chapter. I think the issue you raise is rather important, since the “material culture” of heraldry seems to have communicated so publicly in medieval cities.

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