The Bavarian Charlemagne: Communicating through attributed coats of arms

Charlemagne. Dresden, SLUB, Mscr. Dresd. P. 47, f.22r

Charlemagne. Dresden, SLUB, Mscr. Dresd. P.47, f.22r

The series of Bavarian princes in a late 15th-century manuscript contains an interesting coat of arms attributed to Charlemagne. It differs slightly from the common design of his arms. This subtle variation can open a door to more insights into the function of coats of arms as a performative means of communication.

Charlemagne’s arms

This coat of arms of Charlemagne consists of three elements: per pale, the dexter half Or, a double-headed eagle displayed Sable (Holy Roman Empire), the sinister half per fess Azure, three fleurs-de-lis Or (France) and fusilly in bend Argent and Azure (Bavaria). The Bavarian element is striking, since it is normally not part of Charlemagne’s coat of arms.

Although this great ruler lived before the 12th century and therefore never bore arms, the design of the coats of arms commonly attributed to him is quite consistent throughout the late Middle Ages: a combination of the arms of France and the Holy Roman Empire, either parted or quartered. There are variations, for example Argent (white) instead of Azure (blue) for the French part, or shields which include just one of the two arms, but a variant with another coat of arms included is rare, at least according to my own observations. To understand this variant, the context of the manuscript has to be taken into account.

St. Gallen, Stiftbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1084, f.10r (Haggenberg)

St. Gallen, Stiftbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1084, f.10r (Haggenberg)

Paris, BnF, ms. fr. 5930, f.57r

Paris, BnF, ms. fr. 5930, f.57r

Paris, Archives Nationales, AE I 25, no. 6 (MM 684), f.4v (Breton)

Paris, Archives Nationales, AE I 25, no. 6 (MM 684), f.4v (Breton)

München, BSB, cgm 145, f.1v (Grünenberg)

München, BSB, cgm 145, f.1v (Grünenberg)


Since this is a blogpost, I will deal with this very briefly, with simplification as an inevitable result. Charlemagne’s presentation is part of a series of Bavarian princes in the manuscript Dresden, SLUB, Mscr. Dresd. P.47[1]. It probably stems from the early 1480s[2]. On each page, a prince is presented with a portrait (without personal physical features), a short verse, and a coat of arms. The are 121 princes in total, from Bavarus, who was assumed to have lived in the Antiquity, to George the Rich, who lived in the late 15th century.

The second part of the Dresden manuscript contains the earliest version of the Bavarian Chronicle (Bayerische Chronik) by Ulrich Füetrer. Füetrer was a Bavarian writer and painter, and in 1478 Albert IV, Duke of Bavaria-Munich, commissioned him to write a history of the Bavarian dynasty of the Wittelsbach family.

Antje Thumser, in an article on the transmission history of the Bavarian Chronicle, observes that the series of princes and this first edition of the chronicle in this codex were not part of the same manuscript in the first place[3]. There are two indications: First, the paper folios of the two sections have different watermarks, and second, and more importantly, the content of the series of princes does not have a lot of similarties with this first edition, which contains for example fewer princes. However, the content of the series of princes in the Dresden manuscript does have a lot in common with a second edition of the Bavarian Chronicle from 1481, which is not part of this Dresden codex, but can be found in several other manuscripts.

Theodo. Dresden, SLUB, Mscr. Dresd. P. 47, f.13r

Theodo. Dresden, SLUB, Mscr. Dresd. P. 47, f.13r

A pictorial presentation of the chronicle

In this second edition, the content was revised and expanded[4]. More ancestors, actual and fictional, were included into the written history and this created a genealogical and dynastic continuity from Bavarus to the 15th-century Bavarian dukes. Historians generally agree that the second edition of the Bavarian Chronicle can therefore be regarded as a genealogical-dynastic chronicle in which Bavaria and the Wittelsbach family were inextricably linked and in which dynastic continuity was a central theme[5].

Because of the similarities concerning the content between the second edition of the Bavarian Chronicle and the series of Bavarian princes, Thumser states that this series of princes in the Dresden manuscript is a pictorial presentation of the second edition of the Bavarian Chronicle, which was written down in several other manuscripts.[6] She also notes that there are many references to the Bavarian Chronicle in the verses of the series of princes, such as: “Diser fürst Theodo / Von dem dy cronick sagt allso” (This prince Theodo / about whom the chronicle says this).

Rupert. Dresden, SLUB, Mscr. Dresd. P. 47, f.38v

Rupert. Dresden, SLUB, Mscr. Dresd. P. 47, f.38v

Furthermore, there are indications that this series of princes in the Dresden manuscript was meant to be presented; to be seen and heard by an audience. One verse reads: “Pfalltzgraf Rüprecht und auch Fridreich / Zwen edel bruder lobeleich / Vil tugent pegingen pey ir tagen / Hört zü ich wil eüch fürpas sagen” (Counts of the Palatine Rupert and Frederick / two noble praiseworthy brothers / did much virtuous deeds / listen I want to tell you the following). Perhaps this series of princes should be considered a performative presentation of the genealogical-dynastic Bavarian Chronicle.

Attributed coats of arms and dynastic continuity

Adalgerus. Dresden, SLUB, Mscr. Dresd. P. 47, f.4r

Adalgerus. Dresden, SLUB, Mscr. Dresd. P. 47, f.4r

This context could shed more light on the design of Charlemagne’s arms in the series of princes in the Dresden manuscript. Most arms in the series have been attributed according to a certain method: the pre-heraldic princes received the contemporary coats of arms of the regions over which they had ruled. Since most princes have been presented only as rulers of Bavaria, such as Adalgerus, the attribution is straightforward: just the Bavarian arms. Of some of the coats of arms attributed to great and well-known rulers, such as Charlemagne, there was a stable tradition in the later Middle Ages. In the light of this tradition, the Bavarian lozenges in his arms seem a bit odd, especially since Bavaria cannot be considered a defining part of Charlemagne’s realm. This suggests that other reasons might be in play, and considering the observation that this series of princes was a pictorial presentation of the dynastic Bavarian Chronicle one could argue that this Bavarian quarter in Charlemagne’s arms has a double function:

  1. on an individual level: to visually emphasize Charlemagne’s connection to Bavaria. In the Bavarian Chronicle Charlemagne is presented as an ancestor of the Bavarian Wittelsbach family, and in his presentation in the series of princes this connection is conveyed through the Bavarian quarter in his coat of arms.
  2. as part of the series: to visually construct the dynastic continuity of the Bavarian Wittelsbach family. In almost all arms in the series of princes the Argent and Azure lozenges are depicted, to establish an uninterrupted line of Bavarian princes from the Antiquity to the 15th century.
Pippin. Dresden, SLUB, Mscr. p. 47, f.18v

Pippin. Dresden, SLUB, Mscr. Dresd. P.47, f.18v

Charlemagne’s coat of arms is not the only one indicating this. There are other early medieval rulers whose attributed arms with a Bavarian element are remarkable and suggest a specific function in this context, such as the arms of Charlemagne’s ancestor Pippin.

So if the series of princes should be seen as a pictorial presentation of the second edition of the Bavarian Chronicle meant to be performed in different contexts, then in this performative presentation the coats of arms appear to be one of the key means of communication to convey the main theme of the Bavarian Chronicle: the dynastic continuity of the Bavarian Wittelsbach family.

Loose ends

The main argument of this blogpost rests partly on the assumption that there was a widespread and stable tradition of Charlemagne’s attributed arms, and that the maker was aware of this. According to my own observations Charlemagne’s coat of arms was almost always depicted according to the fleurs-de-lis/double-headed eagle design, with some variations, but please correct me if I am wrong.

Detail of Fresco in Alter Hof. Charlemagne is on the far right. Source:

Detail of the fresco in Alter Hof in Munich, now in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum. Source:

It is hard to ascertain whether the maker was aware of this tradition, since we do not know his sources. In the Alter Hof in Munich, there was a fresco from the 1460s with a similar theme, Bavarian princes, and a similar presentation: portraits, verses, and coats of arms[7]. Only a small part has survived, but here too, most of the coats of arms have Bavarian elements, including the arms of Charlemagne. Was there a tradition in Bavaria to depict Charlemagne with Bavarian arms? If so, it could be that such a more widespread Bavarian tradition also had the function to establish a relation between Charlemagne and Bavaria.

However, it is not certain that the maker knew this fresco. At least he did not copy it, since the verses and coats of arms, including those of Charlemagne, are not exactly the same. Further, there are some indications that the maker had sufficient heraldic knowledge to use coats of arms as communicative tool himself. The example of Ornolf in the series of princes illustrates this.

Ornolf. Dresden, SLUB, Mscr. p. 47, f.14r

Ornolf. Dresden, SLUB, Mscr. Dresd. P.47, f.14r

The early medieval prince Ornolf is presented as a bishop of Metz, both in the verse (“Ain rainer bischof zu Metz”) and in the portrait, with a mitre and a crosier. His coat of arms obviously contains a Bavarian (and Palatine) part, but also the French fleurs-de-lis. This is odd, since all other bishops in the series are presented with the arms of their diocese (combined with the Bavarian arms), and the verse says nothing about a French connection. However, it is not a mistake by the maker. In the second edition of the Bavarian Chronicle Ornolf is presented as both a bishop of Metz and a king of France (“er het auch künigklichen titel zu Franckreich“) [8]. Given the close relation between the series of princes and the Bavarian Chronicle, it seems plausible that the maker deliberately included the French fleurs-de-lis in the arms to present both of these two sides of Ornolf. This indicates that the maker used heraldry as a means of communication in the series of princes to convey extra information and establish connections, and therefore it is not improbable that he did the same in the case of Charlemagne.

Uncertainties remain, and there are many other questions to be asked and subtleties to be dealt with that cannot be discussed in one blogpost. Yet I hope this case has demonstrated how a minor variation in a coat of arms attributed to Charlemagne can be the incentive for further thoughts on the way coats of arms were used as a means to convey views on a dynasty and to efficiently translate the main theme of a chronicle in various contexts.

If you know of further examples of such interesting regional variations of Charlemagne’s arms, or if you have any other remarks, please let me know by using the comment box below. I would be delighted to learn from your input.


[1] The manuscript is digitized:

[2] Antje Thumser, “Die ‘Bayerische Chronik’ des Ulrich Fuetrer († Um 1496) – Neue Überlegungen Zur Überlieferungsgeschichte,” in Editionswissenschaftliche Kolloquien 2005-2007, 2008, 306–7.

[3] Ibid., 306.

[4] There is no agreement in the research on the possible incentives for writing this second edition. Thumser states that the commissioners were not pleased with the content, which showed many genealogical gaps and treated the Bavarians marginally in their early history: Thumser, “Die ‘Bayerische Chronik’, 309–10.  Jean-Marie Moeglin acknowledges that the manuscript was intended to legitimize the rule and politics of the Wittelsbach family through a genealogical history, but the spur for making the second edition was according to him a technical one; Füetrer learned of a new source, Hans Ebran von Wildenberg’s chronicle, which contained a lot of valuable information for him which he inserted in his second edition: Jean-Marie Moeglin, “Das Reich Und Die Bayerischen Fürsten in Einer Ersten (?) Fassung Der Bayerischen Chronik von Ulrich Füetrer,” in FS Peter Moraw, 2000, 693–94.

[5] See for example: Horst Wenzel, “‘Alls in Ain Summ Zu Pringen’. Füetrers Bayerische Chronik Und Sein Buch Der Abenteuer Am Hof Albrechts IV,” in Mittelalter-Rezeption. Ein Symposium, 1986, 11–12; Birgit Studt, “Symbole Fürstlicher Politik. Stammtafeln, Wappenreihen Und Ahnengalerien in Text Und Bild,” in The Mediation of Symbol in Late Medieval and Early Modern Times, ed. Rudolf Suntrup, Jan R. Veenstra, and Anne Bollmann (Frankfurt a. M., 2005), 215. There are however some different interpretations of the purposes of this chronicle. Moeglin has argued that it served to legitimize the position and politics of Albert IV of Bayern-Munich. Moeglin, “Das Reich Und Die Bayerischen Fürsten”, 676. Stefan Dicker, on the other hand, states in his dissertation that, although the Bavarian Chronicle entangled Bavaria and the Wittelsbach family, its primary purpose was not political, but mere entertainment: Stefan Dicker, Landesbewusstsein Und Zeitgeschehen: Studien Zur Bayerischen Chronistik Des 15. Jahrhunderts, vol. 30, Norm Und Struktur (Köln [u.a.], 2009), 117–19.

[6] Thumser, “Die ‘Bayerische Chronik’, 314.

[7] On these fresco’s: Siegfried Hofmann, “Die bayerischen Herzöge im Bild: die Wandbilder im Alten Hof in München,” in Bayern -Ingolstadt Bayern -Landshut 1392 -1506. Glanz und Elend einer Teilung (Ingolstadt, 1992), 261–88; Studt, “Symbole Fürstlicher Politik”, 214.

[8] Reinhold Spiller, Ulrich Füetrer, Bayerische Chronik, Quellen und Erörterungen zur bayerischen und deutschen Geschichte (München, 1909), 55–56.

Cite the article as: Elmar Hofman, "The Bavarian Charlemagne: Communicating through attributed coats of arms", in: Heraldica nova. Medieval Heraldry in social and cultural-historical perspectives (blog on, published: 28/09/2016, Internet:

2 Responses

  1. Aaron Jochim says:

    Thanks, Elmar, for this most interesting blogpost! Although the coats of arms attributed to Charlemagne do indeed seem to be relatively stable from the late Middle Ages until the Early Modern times, I think you are absolutely right to stress that research should be aware of existing variations which can tell a lot about the use of coats of arms as a visual communicative and narrative tool. Your striking example of the Dresden Manuscript gives a hint that also Charlemagne’s coats of arms were subject to certain dynamics studied earlier by W. Paravicini, although with different approach and sources (“Karolus noster. Jean de Montreuil in Aachen…”, I suppose you know the article?).
    In asking whether the maker referred to a tradition or created the (modifications of the) arms by himself, you raised one of the key questions in the survey on imaginary arms; by referring to the comparative example of prince Ornolf, you can offer a convincing possibility for this case.
    I recently studied in Berlin (probably) early copies of the fresco of the “Alter Hof” and, being aware of further copies, it is nonetheless quite tempting to guess that there might have been a Bavarian tradition or a certain kind of heraldic discourse around these coats of arms. But this is just a rather unfounded impression. Unfortunately, I do not know any other example of regional variations of these coats of arms which I could tell you.
    May I ask, last but not least, if you have any information concerning the maker of the first part of the manuscript, or if there are any hints in the manuscript for further contextualization in this regard?

    • Elmar Hofman says:

      Actually, I did not know Paravicini’s article, but it sounds like an interesting read, thanks! With regard to the copies of the Alter Hof and similar series of princes, Studt and Moeglin mention a couple of them in their articles, it would be interesting to compare the coats of arms. I know of a late 15th century copy on a rotulus, perhaps you have seen this one (it is in b/w in “Die bayerischen Herzöge im Bild”), and although the arms are slightly different, most have a Bavarian element in the shields.

      Thumser writes in her article that the hand of the verses in the series of princes (first part of the manuscript) and of the first edition of Füetrer’s chronicle (second part of the manuscript) is the same. I cannot determine from the article whether this is Füetrer’s own hand or not. Further, Moeglin writes that possibly Füetrer was the artist of the portraits (and coats of arms?), but Thumser says he very probably did not make them. Both do not support their statements with arguments, so this remains unclear.

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