Legends in doubt – the end of medieval heraldry in the 17th century: On the continuity of medieval imaginary in early modern thought (Torsten Hiltmann) – Krems an der Donau, 16 May 2014
The proposed paper tries to offer new perspectives on the turn from the Middle Ages to modern times by not focusing on given events, but by considering the imaginary and the way of thinking during these times. This does not mean to just emphasise the medieval roots of those events which are usually used to mark the turn of times and thus to show and judge medieval foundations of early modern times. It shall rather ask for an incessant continuity between the Middle Ages and early modern times which may all the more put the usual stiff segregation of these two epochs in doubt.
To exemplify this approach, the paper will draw on the medieval and early modern treatises on blazon and their representation of the origins of coats of arms and their meanings. This is a field of research which has previously been associated with auxiliary sciences and thus has rarely been studied by historians – even though it offers an enormous potential for modern cultural historical perspectives which is as yet largely untapped.
At least since the 14th century onwards, authors of miscellaneous treatises on blazon were searching for the origins of coats of arms – which, as we know now, developed in the 12th century. Closely attached to the medieval tradition of legends of origins, they focused primarily on great personalities of the ancient times: Julius Cesar, Alexander the Great and Aristotle. Heroes who, by the way, were provided with their own coats of arms, which has been understood as their authentic armorial bearings. Those ideas about the ancient origins of coats of arms have been carried into and extended in the 16th and 17th century. Apparently it was only by authors like Claude François Menestrier in Middle of the 17th c. that the medieval accounts of the ancient origins of heraldry as well as the imaginary coats of arms of ancient heroes were most severely questioned, only to be marked and dismissed as ridiculous some years later. Thus, the question occurs whether the break with the medieval imaginary wasn’t ultimately done until the 17th century, which may also be true for many different other fields.
The idea of the ancient origins of the coats of arms is only one example of many different medieval legends of origins and thus of historical patterns of thoughts which continued to be seen as a (historical) fact in early modern times, and hence could still serve as guidelines for actions: Legends which are closely linked to the self-concept and the legitimation of the respective powers, institutions and families and were thus all the more persistently defended. Following the example of the treatises of blazon, the paper will ask what happens when the medievally legitimizing imaginary collides with a new, challenging early modern historiography. It will ask when and how – beyond all the epochal events – the early modern times also detached themselves in their way of thinking and in their notion of the medieval traditions, and how this could lead us to a qualifying perspective on epoch boundaries.
The paper will be presented at the conference “Kontinuitäten | Umbrüche | Zäsuren. Die Konstruktion von Epochen in Mittelalter und früher Neuzeit in interdisziplinärer Sichtung” (Krems an der Donau, 14-17 May 2014). For the programme of the conference please see: here.