Research Project: Coats of arms in practice. The history of heraldic communication in late medieval culture and society (12th to 15th centuries)

Summary: The aim of this project is to reassess medieval heraldry from a historical perspective. Drawing on cultural history in its approach, it shall unlock the value of heraldic sources and make them available to medieval scholarship. Combining the analysis of images, artefacts and architecture with written sources, and drawing together history, art history and philology, the project addresses the central question of how these once arbitrary signs could become such an omnipresent and potent means of communication. It shall thereby cast late medieval culture and mentalities in a new light and contribute unique and distinctive elements to ongoing interdisciplinary discussions of semiotics and visual culture.


Coats of arms are enduring emblems of persons, families, offices or corporations whose design follows certain formal rules. Their function is commonly seen as that of a visual aid that refers to or identifies its owner. This understanding still prevails in the majority of engagements with coats of arms and thereby marginalizes them in academic discourse. The history of coats of arms has remained astonishingly untouched by developments in the humanities over the last twenty years, with the increasing turn towards issues raised by cultural history (the pictorial turn, analysis in symbolic communication, visual culture) – although a new generation of scholars throughout Europe is now giving new accents to their treatment.

Queste del saint graal (Paris, BnF, fr. 342, fol. 102v, 13th c.)

Queste del saint graal (Paris, BnF, fr. 342, fol. 102v, 13th c.)

In fact, the role of coats of arms in late medieval society can hardly be overestimated. Arising in the milieu of twelfth-century knights from the initially individual devices on their shields, coats of arms soon spread rapidly through media and social orders, coming to be used by women and burghers as well as all kinds of institutions. Inheritable from the beginning of the thirteenth century, they now served as familial rather than personal signs. Simultaneously, their use became ever more differentiated and their sphere of application ever more comprehensive.

By the fifteenth century, coats of arms were finally ubiquitous. They could display ownership, office and rank; solicit remembrance; announce political claims; construct allegiances; create identifications; construct new ties between families merely through similarities in their designs; and mark public honour as well as disgrace. Abstract political ideas as well as concepts such as virtues and death could be expressed in the form of coats of arms.

In the late Middle Ages, no one of rank and renown could remain without a coat of arms. Suitable coats of arms were retrospectively assigned to ancient kings and emperors, like Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, as well as to the heroes of medieval romances. In the end, even Jesus Christ and God himself were provided with their own heraldic bearings. Coats of arms were a central element of medieval culture and society that made their way into the depths of medieval mentalities and actions.

State of the art

To date, there is no systematic analysis of the differentiation of coats of arms as media, or of their various possible uses. The same is true of the associated transformation in contemporary understandings of coats of arms, which would be of the upmost significance to an adequate interpretation of their use.

If one considers the significance of coats of arms and heraldic communication in scholarship over the last two decades, it is clear that in the various areas (especially those shaped by cultural studies) where coats of arms could open new, previously unknown horizons on identity, kinship, representation, etc., the immense potential offered by an engagement with heraldic sources has so far largely remained unexploited and probably also unrecognised.

What is urgently needed is a historical overview that clarifies the specific significances and meanings of heraldic communication in the Middle Ages, documents its development, reveals its potential, and transmits the necessary background for the numerous smaller studies. If one looks for such a historical overview of medieval coats of arms, then beyond the brief and general expositions of Michel Pastoureau (1979/2007), there remains only the Geschichte der Heraldik of Gustav A. Seyler, which – published in 1889 – still marks the limits of the state of research on this question.


The goal of this project is therefore to employ the methods of cultural history in order to reassess mediaeval heraldry and its sources, and make them available to medieval research in an innovative way. Working from a genuine historical perspective, it will retrace the development of the coat of arms from a simple token of identity to a complex signifier and central component of late medieval culture in its diverse social and cultural historical dimensions.
By opening new horizons on medieval society’s changing treatment of signs and symbols, and transformations in the significance of the visual, the project will, moreover, contribute distinctive elements to ongoing interdisciplinary discussions of semiotics and visual culture.


In contrast to previous research, carried out largely under the influence of heraldry as such, this investigation will not focus on the formal development of the coat of arms and its components (shield, helmet, crest, etc.). Instead it concentrates on performance, that is, on the capacities and effects of heraldic arms as signs and symbols within medieval society.

To give a full account of the process of differentiation, an analytic distinction will be made between signs and symbols. A sign is understood here as an arbitrary sign with a purely denotative function: in the case of a coat of arms, that is, the sign simply indicates its owner. A symbol by contrast stands in some kind of relation to what it represents. This relationship can in turn be interpreted in one way or the other:

a) as a function of substitution and representation; that is, the coat of arms not only refers to its possessor, but instead directly represents the owner, being understood as part of his or her person or standing as a medial substitute for the person.

b) as a transcendent relationship; that is, the coat of arms refers beyond itself to overarching ideas and concepts. This can take place at three levels in the context of heraldic arms: first, that of the individual components of the coat of arms or its image (i.e. in motifs, tinctures, etc.); second, that of concrete coats of arms, individually or as a group (i.e. in relation to a particular person or group of people, e.g. in the form of a legend of origins); and finally, that of the coat of arms as abstraction (e.g. as a sign of rank).

Given the inherent intermediality of coats of arms, the project must operate at the interstices of traditional disciplines in order to adequately grasp its phenomenon and, building on the material provided by classical heraldry, must also include the work and approaches of medieval philology and art history.

Work programme

Wappenturm Innsbruck, 1499

Wappenturm Innsbruck, 1499

The first section of the project will address the question of how and in what ways coats of arms spread through social strata and media. It will ask, more precisely, how coats of arms “medially seized space”, a process that involves an expansion of the contexts, and as such also of the possible or intended uses of heraldic arms.

The second section will draw on the available literature to construct an overview of the different functions coats of arms could perform in the late Middle Ages and from what date on they were used in the respective manner.

A third section, finally, will ask what conceptions and ideas contemporaries themselves associated with coats of arms. On one hand, this is a question of the conceptual world specific to the coat of arms and their place in the mediaeval imaginary (imaginaire). Here we will ask from what point onwards coats of arms were endowed with deeper meanings; which concepts and ideas were connected with them; and how contemporaries imagined the connection between the coat of arms and the person, but also between the coat of arms and rank, land or authority. On the other hand, this is a question of what coats of arms were thought to be able to express in completely concrete settings, e.g. in normative texts.

Subproject: Structure and Function of Medieval Armorials (Elmar Hofman)

While medieval armorials have frequently been edited and used as repertories of historical coats of arms, they have, at least on the Continent, rarely met with interest as sources in their own right.

Armorials form not only a central source for the project, but also an instructive parallel and potential corrective to its main investigation. Armorials seem to have undergone a very similar process of development to coats of arms themselves, metamorphosing from simple lists and enumerations to complex media of representation (Codex Cotta, Armorial Revel) and political argumentation (Armorial Ryneck), all the way to the attempt to picture the whole world through coats of arms (Armorial Grünenberg). The subproject seeks to understand the changes in the structure and function of armorials, or, more precisely, transformations in their intended uses and contexts. In doing so, these transformations will be set in the context of intermedial relationships with collections of heraldic arms beyond manuscript sources.

For more information about the subproject see:


Late medieval heraldry is a unique and unparalleled phenomenon. We know of no symbolic system comparable with heraldic representation in its complexity and medial impact. By addressing the question of how such a complex visual system could emerge in precisely this context, the project has the capacity to grasp the singularity of the late Middle Ages in a new and innovative way, and thus to make a major contribution to our understanding of this crucial transitional epoch, a period which in many respects laid the foundations of modern society.

Principal Investigator: Torsten Hiltmann
Funded by: VolkswagenStiftung (Dilthey-Fellowship)


For an overview of the different publications and lectures that emerged from this project, please see: here.


Cite this blog post
Torsten Hiltmann (2013, June 12). Research Project: Coats of arms in practice. The history of heraldic communication in late medieval culture and society (12th to 15th centuries). Heraldica Nova. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from

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 medieval and early modern visual communication and heraldry, the medieval notion of kingship and the methods and technologies of Digital Humanities.

4 Responses

  1. Pfeifer Gustav says:

    ganz wunderbar!

  1. 12/02/2014

    […] leitet das Forschungsprojekt: ”Die Performanz der Wappen. Zur Entwicklung von Funktion und Bedeutung heraldischer Kommunikation in …” (Dilthey-Fellowship der VolkswagenStiftung) ; organisiert die Vortragsreihe “La jeune […]

  2. 06/03/2015

    […] and political alliances, mentality, the imaginary or gender. These new perspectives are promoted in programmatic posts on the potential of using heraldry in cultural history, and demonstrated in case studies and […]

  3. 23/05/2017

    […] Herr Dr. Hiltmann hat an der Universität Münster eine Juniorprofessur für die Geschichte des Hoch- und Spätmittelalters sowie für Historische Hilfswissenschaften inne. Im Rahmen eines Dilthey-Fellowship der VolkswagenStiftung bearbeitet er zur Zeit das Projekt: „Die Performanz der Wappen. Zur Entwicklung von Funktion und Bedeutung heraldischer Kommunikation in mittelalterlichen Kultur (12.-15. Jahrhundert)“. Einen Blogbeitrag zu dem Projekt finden Sie unter Heraldica nova. […]

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