Thorsten Hutwelker, Die Darstellung des Rangs in Wappen und Wappenrollen des späten Mittelalters

HuthwelkerCan one determine the rank of a person through his coats of arms? Can armorials be used to examine social hierarchy? These are the exciting questions posed by Thorsten Huthwelker in his book Die Darstellung des Rangs in Wappen und Wappenrollen des späten Mittelalters. He has chosen an interesting as well as a difficult object of study and this review will discuss whether Huthwelker managed to tackle the many obstacles on his path.

The outline

Huthwelker’s study is embedded in the larger project called RANK, which aims to gain insights on the process of social differentiation of the higher nobility in England and the Holy Roman Empire in the 13th and 14th century. The overall project has set the boundaries for this research, which has a positive and a negative consequence. Geographically Huthwelker focusses on England and the Holy Roman Empire and compares the situation in the two regions. Since studies on this topic are often confined by national borders and their historiographical traditions, such a comparative approach has the potential of putting the results in perspective. On the down side, this research unfortunately stops at 1400, which leaves out the entire 15th century, a period that has witnessed many interesting developments in the use of coats of arms and armorials.

This book deals with coats of arms and armorials separately (giving more attention to latter [107 pages] than the former [46 pages]), and both themes are provided with a short but decent introduction. This review will discuss the book along the lines of three significant themes concerning research on medieval armorials and coats of arms: source criticism, the value of the source for the historian and the open mind of the researcher. All these themes are relevant issues in Huthwelker’s work.

Source criticism

Since coats of arms and armorials have been little researched, thorough source criticism is essential. It forms the foundation the rest of the study can build upon. Before the source can be of any value for the historian, it should be subjected to questions regarding its origins, the context in which it was produced and the relation it has to the phenomena it describes. Huthwelker does introduce his sources, but this introduction is narrowed to a short description and critical questions generally remain unposed. This can have some problematic consequences.

Treatises and colors

In the chapter concerning the issue of rank in coats of arms, Huthwelker examines the medieval heraldic treatises on the hierarchical order of colors and figures. These treatises are thorny sources which contain at least a certain degree of literary constructions. Huthwelker recognizes this, by stating that the authors tried to structure and give meaning to a heraldic system that was already full-grown by the time these treatises were written down and their influence on the practice of coats of arms was therefore minimal (p. 50-51). Still, some strong and recurring statements from these treatises about the practice of heraldry are being upheld by Huthwelker, as is the case with the supposed low appreciation for the color green.

An extract from the Zürcher Wappenrolle with some coats of arms in green

An extract from the Zürcher Wappenrolle with some coats of arms in green 

According to several treatises the color green has little value and indeed it has not been used frequently in coats of arms. To demonstrate that green has therefore been associated with low social class, Huthwelker presents a 14th century Italian charter in which the coats of arms of Southern German nobles of lower rank are painted (p.46). Their arms contain a relatively high percentage of green (16%) and with this Hulthwelker sees the low social connotation of green, as stated in the heraldic treatises, confirmed. The near contemporary Zürcher armorial displays many green coats of arms as well, and not exclusively by the lower ranks, but this is explained by the author as a temporary fashion or regional preference. Although the assertion that green has a connotation of low social rank is not confirmed by the table of the occurrence of colors in German armorials (in two of the five examined armorials the color green is more frequent in coats of arms of the higher nobility than in those of the lower nobility, p.56-57), it is maintained by the author in the conclusion: “In gleicher Weise wurde das Diktum des Thüringer Gelehrten [Johannes Roth, author of the Ritterspiegel which contains some passages on heraldry] durch die Praxis bestätigt, wonach die Farbe grün weniger wert sei.” (p.178). The repeated emphasis on the low value of the color green in the questionable heraldic treatises seem to be guiding the argumentation here. Thorough examination of these textual sources on their intentions and their meaning might however put the value of their statements in perspective.

Problematic armorials

Armorials have not been subjected to extensive historical research either and therefore source criticism is of major importance. For practical reasons the author choses to work exclusively with edited sources. This is a pity, since a fair amount of armorials have not been edited and he narrows his scope by leaving these out of consideration. Further, there is a lot that remains unknown about the context of the armorials: who wrote them, with what intention and what message do they contain? Huthwelker does touch on these problems, but does not always accept their consequences. In his article ‘Potentialities and limitations of medieval armorials’, Torsten Hiltmann emphasizes that the use of armorials for questions concerning real social rank is problematic, since we do not have enough contextual information in order to judge their value properly. Huthwelker sidesteps Hiltmann’s reservations by stating that these do not inflict on the specific research questions and sources of his study, but he does not respond to the problem of the lack of contextual information (p. 74). The essence of the issue is that we often do not know the relation between the content of the sources and the social, political and cultural phenomena they refer to. Therefore, without in-depth examination of the source (these sorts of questions are generally not dealt with in the editions of the armorials on which Huthwelker’s study is based), we cannot determine in how far presented social rank in armorials corresponded to actual social rank.

Source and reality

This source-reality relation is in fact central to the underlying question of this study: what can be the value of coats of arms and armorials for the historian?

Quantitative research

If armorials are to be examined on their usefulness for indicating rank, the complex matter of the relation between their content and social reality should be considered. Huthwelker does acknowledge this issue, but does not always let it guide his argumentation. This is for example the case in a significant section of his research, namely his quantitative analysis of the relative position of the earls in the English armorials in the second half of the 13th and the 14th century, most of which have been produced during the reign of Edward I (1272-1307). This is the only case in which there seems to be some sort of correlation between hierarchy in armorials and social rank. Huthwelker’s examination of armorials in the Holy Roman Empire, which were not subjected to a quantitative research, did not show any such relation.

The problem for the results of the quantitative research of these English armorials is that it remains unclear in how far this hierarchical order in the framework of the armorial corresponds to real social rank. Huthwelker is indistinct on this point. On the one hand he notes that the armorials display the world view of their authors or commissioners (p.162), but on the other hand he explains the fluctuations in the relative positions of the earls by means of real social, political and economic phenomena and events such as marriages, possessions, a new earl that needs to prove himself, etc. (p. 134-146), therefore suggesting a direct relation between real social standing of the earls and their position in the armorial. The difficulty is that we are badly informed about the backgrounds and the intentions of the armorials and consequently it is hard to ascertain why the earls were put in this specific order and what criteria or intentions laid on the basis of these presented hierarchies. Even if the earls were positioned according to rank, it is still problematic to use these sources to determine actual social rank.

Open mind and the representativeness of research

Huthwelker is aware of the fact that with his research he sets foot on new territory. When exploring a largely untrodden field, it is important for the researcher to keep an open mind. Regrettably, in Huthwelker’s work this does not always seem to be the case. His study reads as a search for rank in coats of arms and armorials instead of an open research to it. One cannot help getting the impression that he selects his sources on their potential of giving a positive answer on the research question and with this he narrows the scope and the representativeness of his research.

Source selection

This is for example the case in Huthwelker’s source selection for the part in which he examines heraldic treatises on their color hierarchies. For the areas and time period of this research, the Holy Roman Empire and England in the 13th and 14th century, few of these treatises are known. In order to expand his source base, he includes 15th century treatises, which mainly originate from France and the Italian area. One can wonder in how far any conclusions drawn from these sources are representative for the situation in England and the Holy Roman Empire prior to 1400.

There are many armorials and for any scholar it is impossible to include them all, or even a large part of them, in his research. One has to make a selection. Huthwelker choses to select armorials from which it is clear that they contain a certain hierarchical order and in these armorials he only deals with the upper class, such as the earls, since social stratification is the clearest in these cases. He excludes for instance the occasional rolls, since they often are not structured according to a hierarchical principle and high nobility is often not represented in them (p. 122). Within these selected sources, only the quantitative research on the English armorials, with its center of gravity on the reign of Edward I, shows a certain hierarchy in rank, thus one can wonder how representative the results of this study are and therefore conclusions like the following are problematic: ‘Die Sektionen der Könige, die Positionierung Llewelyns ap Gruffydd und die Wappenrollen der Zeit Eduards I. zeichen recht eindrücklich, dass die allgemeinen Wappensammlungen des späten Mittelalters vornehmlich nach Rang sortiert waren.’ (p. 162). To be fair, Huthwelker does nuance his statements in his conclusion, but this does not sort out the indistinctness of the representativeness of his research.

Memorial coats of arms

A part from this, a short word on the last chapter, which deals with memorial coats of arms. These are coats of arms of deceased persons that are included in armorials. The reasons for their insertion can be simply because they were copied from older armorials, but they can also be presented on purpose to commemorate the person in question and to send a certain message at the same time. Huthwelker provides a short but interesting excursion on how, since Matthew Paris, memorial coats of arms in armorials have had an anti-royal connotation and were therefore a subtle form of criticism (p. 173). The relevance for the main question of his research remains unclear, but from the perspective of the intention and meaning of armorials Huthwelker touches on a theme that is very stimulating and deserves to be examined further.

Die Darstellung des Rangs in Wappen und Wappenrollen des späten Mittelalters has posed very interesting questions on the possibility to determine social rank through coats of arms and armorials. This work shows how many obstacles there are on the path of the study of coats of arms, armorials and their use as a source by historians. Huthwelker does not tackle all these issues, but the starting point of the study is a stimulating one. In his last paragraph Huthwelker states that he wants his book to incite further research. It most definitely will.


Book review: Thorsten Huthwelker, Die Darstellung des Rangs in Wappen und Wappenrollen des späten Mittelalters (Ostfildern, Jan Thorbecke Verlag, 2013), 222 pages, 5 illustrations, ISBN 978-3-7995-9123-2, € 34,00

Cite this blog post
Elmar Hofman (2014, September 28). Thorsten Hutwelker, Die Darstellung des Rangs in Wappen und Wappenrollen des späten Mittelalters. Heraldica Nova. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from

1 Response

  1. 28/10/2014

    […] Thorsten Huthwelker, Die Darstellung des Rangs in Wappen und Wappenrollen des späten Mittelalters (…. […]

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