Heralds are not heraldry, heraldry not heralds: On the benefits of clear distinctions

héraut de Charles VII devant Rouen

A herald on a diplomatic mission: summoning the inhabitants of the city of Rouen in behalf of Charles VII, king of France (Paris, BnF, fr. 5054, fol. 172r)

The biggest problem in dealing with heralds as well as with heraldry is the fact that both subjects are much too often seen as one. As a matter of fact, the relationship between heralds and heraldry is a tricky one and the link between both, as far as I see, has been largely overestimated.

Heralds, on the one hand, are usually presented as THE experts and authorities in all what concerns heraldry and armorial bearings. Heraldry, on the other hand, is very often presented as the doing exclusively of heralds, that a herald is always needed to conceive an armorial bearing or, at least, to explain it. But, to put things straight, this close connection between heralds and heraldry is misleading.  At least for the Middle Ages.

Very often, those ideas are to be found in general introductions into heraldry or when it comes to the attribution of authorship for heraldic works as treatises in blazonry or armorials. Vaclav Filip, just to take on example, dedicated a whole chapter of his “Einführung in die Heraldik” to the office of arms (“2. Das Heroldswesen”[1]). Besides an introduction into the office of heralds, this chapter also features a subsection on tournaments as a general inventory of sources of heraldry. Filip states that heraldry, as it is has been handed down to us, would not be imaginable without the doing of the heralds. For him, they are at the beginnings of the “regulation” of the use of coats of arms. Thus, he doubts the very fact that heralds, in their early stage, could have been simple vagrants of a minor social state. In addition, he refuses to accept the idea that they could have been on the same social level as kitchen staff or other court servants, not only because they were expected to compose poetry what was also done by princes and kings and thus could not be the business of lower social status. But, most of all, the simple fact that we dispose of rolls of arms and other heraldic sources made by heralds already in the 13th century would prove that they must have been able even then to read and write. Thus, he concludes, we should estimate the social position of many heralds even more prominent – which is not quite correct.

His argumentation is based on another mistake: the attribution of the authorship of the early armorials (and armorials in general) to heralds. This is usually done even if the concerned roll of arms does not include any hint at all regarding its author. The simple fact that it has to do with heraldry leads to the idea that it must have been made by heralds. So, for instance, Robert Nussard, the editor of the Bigot roll of arms (13th c.) states that it has been made by an “unknown herald”, even though there is no evidence for this attribution at all[2]. The same applies to many other medieval rolls of arms, which do not offer any clue on authorship but are automatically attributed to a herald or, for more important rolls of arms, even to a college of heralds[3]. Based on by what we can read in other sources, the attribution of early rolls of arms to heralds is rather impossible, given their social status. The argument just leaves out the idea that also anybody else could have done it, which is quite possible (see below).

We are thus confronted with a vicious cycle here. Rolls of arms must have been written by heralds because they are the experts in heraldry. Heralds must have always been the experts in heraldry because they composed all those rolls of arms. All this goes back to the idea of an almost exclusive link between heralds and heraldry, heraldry and heralds.

But why is that so? I think one of the causes is the proximity of the term heraldry and herald. It implies a close link between them, allegedly since the beginnings of heralds and heraldry in the 12th century. However, this is not the case: the term “heraldry” is of a much younger date. On the continent, it only goes back to the 17th century. The first evidence of the use of this term in French (“héraldique”) can be found in the dictionary of Pierre Richelet, which dates from 1680. And here, the term héraldique is used only as an adjective. As a noun, it finds a larger acceptance from the 19th century onwards. In England, things developed differently for the office of heralds, where apparently they really did receive some authority on coats of arms from the 15th century on, with their grants of arms and their heraldic visitations. The term Heraldry appears here much earlier, but still only in the second half of the 16th century[4].  And it is important to state that this term was used here to refer to the business of heralds as such and not only to describe the preoccupation with coats of arms.

Another reason for this mix up of heralds and heraldry may be the fact that the history of heralds has been discussed until now mostly within the context of heraldry where, furthermore, contributions on England are dominant. As stated above, the situation in England was different. The perhaps most influential study so far, the “Heralds and Heraldry” by Anthony Richard Wagner, clearly had such a limited focus in enquiring, as it states in its subtitle: “the Growth of the Armorial Function of Heralds”. However, it was more than once cited and understood as a study of the history of heralds in general.  The same goes for the chapter “Le temps des hérauts d’armes (vers 1320- vers 1560)“ in Michel Pastoureau’s classical study Traité d’héraldique, often cited in French publications, or for the instructive article of Paul Adam-Even on the military function of heralds. Under a more general title, his study focuses as well on a rather limited field, searching for its influence on heraldry (subtitle “Leur influence sur le développement de l’héraldique”).

All this has led to a severe limitation of the perspective on heraldry as well as on heralds, which is regrettable – and has to be overcome. This is something we will hopefully contribute to with two upcoming workshops in the next months.

Herold bei Obsequien (New Haven, Ms 230, fol. 182)

A herald accompanying a funeral procession (New Haven, Beinecke MS 230, fol 182r)

Of course there are strong bonds between heralds and heraldry. But they are much less important than usually thought. Most of all, they are not exclusive. The office of heralds was much more than just coats of arms. Yes, they had special competences in this field. But, as far as I see it, this was not their main preoccupation. These ‘heraldic’ competences were rather a means to an end. In the first place, they were no experts on coats of arms but on the persons who bore those coats of arms, thus able to recognise them. They were experts on knights and nobility. They were eye-witnesses and reporters of their deeds; they were messengers and diplomats; symbolic representatives of their masters, of nobility and honour; participants and sometimes perhaps even masters of ceremony and specialists of the chivalric culture. This is the case especially for the period from the mid-fourteenth to mid-sixteenth centuries. Whether this period was really followed by an increasing limitation on their armorial functions in modern times, as one could suppose, is one of the questions we hope to address within the workshop on the “History of Heralds in Europe (12th-18th Centuries)”, held in March 2014 in Münster (Germany).

So in the Middle Ages, heralds were not exclusively occupied by heraldry or, more precisely, coats of arms; also, heraldry was not only the business of heralds.

Clément Prinsault dedicates his Treatise on Blazon to Jacques d'Armagnac, son of the duke of Nemours (Paris, BnF, fr. 5936, fol. 2)

Clément Prinsault dedicates his Treatise on Blazon to Jacques d’Armagnac, son of the duke of Nemours (Paris, BnF, fr. 5936, fol. 2)

For the second point, it suffices to cite the different treatises and heraldic collections in the possession of noblemen who wrote or composed some of them as well[5]. As a matter of fact, some of the most important texts on heraldry were written by jurisprudents (Bartolus de Saxoferrato), clerics (Nicholas Upton, Johannes de Bado Aureo [?]), or knights and noblemen (Diego de Valera, Clément Prinsault). Given the omnipresence of heraldry in late medieval society, from the great houses of princes to the patricians and burghers of modest cities, you cannot but wonder how heralds alone should have done it, especially when there are regions such as Germany and milieus, e.g. cities where they are rarely found. And here it gets interesting: If not the heralds, who else could have done it? Who has executed all the armorial depictions, who has compiled the different rolls of arms, not only in the early days of heraldry (13th century), but also later? How widely spread was heraldic knowledge in the medieval society and part of daily life? These are some of the questions we will discuss on a second workshop on “Heraldic artists and painters in the Middle Ages“, held in April, this time in Poitiers (France).

The idea that heralds had some authority in heraldic matters has to be doubted as well. There are some indications that this assumption is not the case either. Not only were some of the most important texts on coats of arms written by others than heralds, as mentioned above, but these authors also questioned the proclamations of heralds in most fundamental matters, as for instance Diego de Valera did when discussing the question of heraldic tinctures. Here, he clearly contests the statement of heralds when they differentiate between colours and metals, which is so important for the application of the fundamental heraldic rule: Although most of the heralds speak of five colours and two metals; speaking under their correction, I think we can speak of seven colours.[6] Or when he discusses the ratio between pieces and shield in the depiction of coats of arm by saying,  The officers of arms generally accept that [i.e. that this ratio should be 1:3], but the custom does not follow them and we think that every figure in coats of arms should take a fifth of the shield[7] Also in legal court decisions concerning coats of arms, heralds are not as present as one would suppose. Naturally, this matter should be researched in much more detail – something which I have planned to do in connection with the two workshops mentioned above.

What is to be retained by this, I hope, is that one should make a clear difference between heraldry and heralds, and that it is much more instructive to deal with them separately and without any artificial restrictions. Then, I think, both fields of research will reveal themselves as even more prolific and enlightening, opening yet more perspectives and provoking more new questions on many a different field of research.

I am completely aware of the fact that this mistake is easily done and that even this blog may contribute to it, in putting both subjects on the same page. Thus I will separate it and create a new blog on heralds themselves, which should accompany the workshop and book project on the History of Heralds, 26-28th March 2014, in Münster (Germany).


[1] Václav Vok FILIP, Einführung in die Heraldik, 2nd ed., Stuttgart 2011, p. 38-68.

[2] Robert NUSSARD, Le rôle d’armes Bigot. Publié d’après le manuscrit Fr. 18648 (f°32–39), conservé à la Bibliothèque nationale, Paris 1985, p. 5.

[3] For more examples see: Torsten HILTMANN, La paternité littéraire des hérauts d’armes et les textes héraldiques. Héraut Sicile et le Blason des couleurs en armes, in: Estudos de Heráldica Medieval, dir. par Maria de Lurdes Rosa, Miguel Metelo de Seixas, Lisboa 2012, p. 59-83, p. 77-81.

[6] Diego de Valera, Tratado de las armas, in: Mario Penna (ed.), Biblioteca de autores espanoles. Prosistas castellanos de siglo XV, vol 1, Madrid 1959, p. 137 (for a in some parts difficult French translation see: Béatrice Leroy, Le traité des armes de Diego de Valera, vers 1455-1460, in: Bulletin hispanique 110:1 [2008], p. 283-317).

[7] Ibid., p. 138.

Cite the article as: Torsten Hiltmann, "Heralds are not heraldry, heraldry not heralds: On the benefits of clear distinctions", in: Heraldica nova. Medieval Heraldry in social and cultural-historical perspectives (blog on Hypotheses.org), published: 24/01/2014, Internet: http://heraldica.hypotheses.org/766.

Torsten Hiltmann

Torsten Hiltmann is Juniorprofessor for the High and Late Middle Ages and Auxiliary Sciences at the University of Münster. He is interested in new approaches to late medieval and early modern heraldry, the medieval notion of kingship and the methods and technologies of Digital Humanities. On hypotheses.org, he is maintaining, among others, the blog “Heraldica Nova”.

2 Responses

  1. Gemma Watson says:

    You make a very interesting point and agree that there should be made a clearer distinction between heralds and heraldry. During my research into the herald Roger Machado, it soon became clear that he had little to do with the creation of rolls of arms, heraldry, or with tournaments. His main duties appear to have been diplomatic, being sent around Europe on embassy, to deliver messages, and also to gain intelligence on other kingdoms concerning matters of import to the English crown.

  1. 24/01/2014

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