Georg Scheibelreiter, Wappen im Mittelalter, Darmstadt 2014

Scheibelreiter, Wappen im MittelalterThere is no shortage on introductions to heraldry. Recent publications by for example Václav Vok Filip and Georg Scheibelreiter himself were added to the bookshelf already filled with classics such as Galbreath/Jéquier’s Lehrbuch der Heraldik and Neubecker’s Wappen.[1] This book, however, promises to be something different. It is not meant to be an introduction to nor a textbook on heraldry, but a study on the human need to identify itself by the use of signs. Rather than an ordinary overview of coats of arms, Scheibelreiter wants it to be a social/cultural history and a history of mentalities of this phenomenon (p.7). Does Scheibelreiter succeed in his aims? Partially. On some themes he demonstrates he is one of the leading authors on the subject and his detailed arguments are supported by interesting examples and anecdotes. On the other hand, however, the book does have its blind spots and voids. Furthermore, it proves to be difficult to write a comprehensive book on coats of arms without heraldry as a starting point.

The first thing to notice is that Wappen im Mittelalter is a feast for the eyes. The book is enriched with beautiful illustrations, some filling the entire page. Since coats of arms are a visual source more than anything else, they should be presented as such and Scheibelreiter did a good job in doing so. The book contains six chapters, dealing with different aspects of coats of arms, ranging from the signs on the shields themselves to the heralds and the symbolism of the coats of arms.

As promised in the preface, this book is not about heraldry and therefore it lacks an introduction to the specific rules of this study. This can be quite confusing for the uninitiated, for whom this work seems to be meant, since the adjective ‘heraldic’ is used throughout the book. For them it might be hard to understand why, to take a random example, the coats of arms of Dionys of Kistárányi (p.161), that at first sight appear to be regular, are not heraldic, if the concept of heraldry has not been explained. The same is true for the color rule. For instance, while treating the cadencies, Scheibelreiter notes that in these cases the heraldic color rule was not enforced (p.100), but this rule is only shortly explained, much later, in passing on page 127. There is a certain tension in the book in the aim to be a non-heraldic work on a heraldic subject, and this is most evident in the first chapter called ‘Die frühheraldische Zeit’ (‘the pre-heraldic era’).

In this chapter Scheibelreiter does something different. Instead of painting the traditional portrait of the rise of heraldry, in which the different theories are treated and falsified, he focusses on forms of visual representations of identity that were not heraldic. After sketching the social changes in the eleventh century which created a need to identify oneself in a different manner than before (Scheibelreiter stresses the influence of the new agnatic family structure here), he gives many examples of signs on shields used in the eleventh and twelfth centuries that were a form of expression of identity, mostly of a group, but were not heraldic in the true sense of the concept (although it is not entirely clear what were the defining characteristics of a heraldic coat of arms. A hard working reader might be able to distill some characteristics from the examples of non-heraldic expressions of identities, but a clear definition fails). This perspective is to be admired for it shows that the rise heraldry was not the inevitable outcome of one or a series of processes. People were experimenting with different forms of expressions. However, by focusing so hard on non-heraldic signs (twelfth century examples of heraldic presentations are hardly given attention to), Scheibelreiter fails to explain why it was in the end the heraldic system that occurred. Although the book is not an introduction to heraldry, the reader is left with this question, since Scheibelreiter’s emphasis on the need of identification that rose from the change in social structure does not satisfactory explain the whole process and in the next chapter the phenomenon of heraldic coats of arms is presented as an accomplished fact.

Where the first chapter is in some ways original in its outset, the next chapters follow the more traditional presentation of the subject. Especially for the ones that have read Scheibelreiter’s Heraldik this part will not contain any surprises, since the chapters 2, 3 and 4 mainly correspond to the fourth chapter of his introduction into heraldry, which demonstrates the challenge of writing an account on the history of coats of arms that is entirely distinctive from a heraldic introduction. In these chapters, the different aspects of coats of arms are discussed, such as the shield, the helmet, the crest, the figures and the colors. Scheibelreiter’s treatment of these aspects is not limited to a mere description however, as is the case in many classical heraldic works on heraldry. The author includes the rise of these phenomena, the different forms in which they occurred and he gives particular attention to the symbolic meaning of them, a topic which will be turned to later. He therefore deals with coats of arms not in a historical vacuum, but tries to place them in the medieval society. With this more historical approach to heraldry, Scheibelreiter fits in the current of the so-called ‘new heraldry’, with Michel Pastoureau as one of the main exponents. The central themes (colors, stylization and animals) in these chapters are typical ‘new heraldry’ themes and have received a fair amount of attention over the last few decades.[2] Although this approach is very valuable and has greatly increased our understanding of coats of arms, the consequence is that some parts of the arms are neglected. For instance, Scheibelreiter mentions the ordinaries and partition lines only briefly (2 pages) while he dedicates a significant part of the book to animals (28 pages).

Heralds seem to be an indispensable topic in any book on coats of arms and Scheibelreiter has devoted a chapter to it as well. In some ways his depiction of these elusive persons is well-balanced and nuanced. His survey of the development of the office clearly stresses that heralds were not only occupied with coats of arms, but conducted many tasks, ranging from diplomatic missions to announcing and organizing tournaments. However, on the delicate topic of the relation between heralds and heraldry, which is often seen as an exclusive one, his account seems to be contradictory. On the one hand he rightly notes that some medieval authors that included heraldic descriptions in their texts were not heralds, such Conrad of Würzburg (p.141-142), but on the other hand he declares the heralds as the exclusive shepherds of heraldic knowledge and that anyone who wished to gain some understanding of heraldry should be educated by them (p.142). However, recent studies have questioned the herald’s position as the sole authority on coats of arms (see the proceedings of the conference held on this subject: For one thing, many medieval authors of important treatises on heraldry, such as Bartolo di Sassoferrato, were not heralds at all. Furthermore, Scheibelreiter follows the classical literature in which armorials and treatises on heraldry are easily, and often without foundation, ascribed to heralds, which is the case of the attribution of Les blason des couleurs to Jehan Courteois, the famous herald Sicily. Recent research has shown that this document has a very complicated coming into being and that this herald Sicily should not be seen as the primary author of this treatise.[3]

The theme of heraldic symbolism, already a silver line throughout the book, is central to the last two chapters. This subject is essential to the principal aim of this book, since the choice of certain coats of arms could reveal how people represented their identity through these particular signs and might improve our understanding of the symbolic value of these signs and of medieval mentalities. Imaginary arms are considered to be particularly valuable for this kind of research, since their coats of arms might have been attributed in correspondence to the supposed character traits, values and identities of the bearers. In these two chapters Scheibelreiter deals with different sorts of canting arms, imaginary arms and the theme of the Nine Worthies.  He shows by many examples why people chose for certain arms and what was the symbolic meaning behind them, sometimes referring to textual sources. Scheibelreiter is one of the experts on this topic and his examples are definitely stimulating. However, his analyses seem to be missing the last step: what does it say about medieval mentalities and identities? For instance, Christ was depicted with coats of arms containing the instruments of torture, Death had a coat of arms with a skull, but there were no heraldic symbols attributed to Maria (p. 169-171). Three interesting givens, but how does this exactly increase our understanding on how people thought, perceived coats of arms and perceived these persons? The many examples are not bound together by a common direction and therefore they remain in the field of ‘examples of meanings of arms and signs’ and fail to make the final jump to ‘insights of medieval mentalities gained through arms’. To make this last connection would be a difficult task, to be sure, and Scheibelreiter clearly explains that the study of heraldic symbolism has many obstacles on its way (p. 156-157), but since the theme of medieval mentalities is the special approach of this book, one might have expected more.

Other cultural-historical aspects of arms than mentalities have received considerable less attention. The practical use of coats of arms in medieval society is, for instance, hardly treated. In one interesting paragraph Scheibelreiter deals with the political application of them, giving among others attention to the famous case of Edward III who adopted the French lily in his arms to stress his claims to the throne of France and the very early case of Philipp of Flanders who in 1160, a time which Scheibelreiter regards as the pre-heraldic era in the first chapter, changed his arms from eagle to lion after his conflict with the German Emperor (p. 166), but further elaboration on the use of coats of arms outside the political stage is lacking. That is a shame, since coats of arms were ubiquitous in medieval society, used in many different media and on different occasions and this is an aspect of the subject that would fit right in the aim of this book to place heraldry in the framework of the history of society, culture and mentalities. This is, however, a largely unexplored field of study and it might be unreasonable to expect too much on this point from any author writing a history of coats of arms today.

‘Wappen im Mittelalter’ is an attractive and accessible cultural-historical overview on coats of arms, although the absence of a heraldic introduction might fall hard on the uninitiated reader. It represents most, though not all, of the research undertaken in the field of ‘new heraldry’ that aims to pull heraldry out of its historical vacuum and place it into medieval society. A proper German work on this topic with this particular approach was lacking and it is one of the very few books that focusses exclusively on coats of arms in the Middle Ages. This makes ‘Wappen im Mittelalter’ an appreciated addition to the heraldic library. This work demonstrates the valuable results of this approach. The lacunas indicate that there is still a lot of research to be done.

Georg Scheibelreiter, Wappen im Mittelalter (Primus Verlag, Darmstadt, 2014), 192 pages, ca. 100 illustrations, ISBN 978-3-86312-025-2, € 49,90.

[1] Václav Vok Filip, Einführung in die Heraldik (2nd edition; Stuttgart, 2011); Georg Scheibelreiter, Heraldik (Vienna, 2006); D.L. Galbreath and Léon Jéquier, Lehrbuch der Heraldik (München, 1978); Ottfried Neubecker, Wappen. Ihr Ursprung, Sinn und Wert (Luzern, 1990).

[2] See for instance Michel Pastoureau’s Traité d’héraldique (Paris, 1979) and many of his other publications, for example: ‘L’armoirie médiévale. Une image théorique’ in: G. Duchet-Sucheaux ed., Iconographie médíevale. Image, texte, contexte (Paris, 1990) 121-138, Figures de l’héraldique (Paris, 1996) and L’art héraldique au moyen âge (Seuil, 2009). Scheibelreiter himself has published a fair amount of works on these themes as well, for example Tiername und Wappenwesen (Vienna, Cologne and Graz, 1977) and many articles collected in the volume Wappenbild und Verwandtschaftsgeflecht. Kultur- und mentalitätsgeschichtliche Forschungen zu Heraldik und Genealogie (Vienna and Munich, 2009).

[3] Torsten Hiltmann, ‘La paternité littéraire des hérauts d’armes et les textes héraldiques. Héraut Sicile et le Blason des couleurs en armes’, Estudios de Heráldica medieval (2012) pp. 59-83.

Cite the article as: Elmar Hofman, "Georg Scheibelreiter, Wappen im Mittelalter, Darmstadt 2014", in: Heraldica Nova: Medieval and Early Modern Heraldry from the Perspective of Cultural History (a blog), published: 27/05/2014, Internet:



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