Evaluating armorials (III) – Comparing armorials

In the first two parts of this series on evaluating armorials, many mistakes regarding coats of arms and legends have been discussed. This third part deals with the topic of comparing different armorials, and in this process the incorrect coats of arms prove to be quite useful. Comparing armorials can be important for several reasons. As we have seen in Steen Clemmensen’s previous blogposts, it is not uncommon to find variations of the same coat of arms in different armorials. By comparing their depiction in these armorials, one can gain insights on the various appearances of a certain coat of arms and maybe be able to seperate the correct from the incorrect depictions. Furthermore, many armorials are partly copies from other armorials. Comparing them is an important research technique to increase our limited knowledge on topics as the production of armorials, the heraldic knowledge of their makers and the relation between different armorials.


Armorials as non-verbal documents

Detailed identification and documentation for all or most items is nice to have when comparing armorials, but it is not necessary. In essence, an armorial is just a non-verbal document like a pack of cards or a frieze on a wall. Kings, Queens and Jacks may be drawn differently, and spades and hearts may change colours, but all will instantly recognize the 52 cards (excluding Jokers) ready for a game of cards and understand the meaning and value of each card.


So the individual items of an armorial (blazoned or painted, with or without legends) can be regarded as cards, but the stack is much larger, and the possible variations of each item infinitely greater. The easiest way to compare items in different manuscript is to use a placeholder (a code, usually the number in the sequence, the family name, and a letter to indicate the appropriate variant of the arms) to represent each entry. When comparing arms, one ought to be able to explain whatever differences there may be among concordant items, i.e. similar items occupying similar places in the compared sequences.


Size matters

What to do when comparing armorials depends partly on their size. In a rough break-down, less than a hundred is a very small armorial, 100-500 a small, 500-1000 medium–sized, above 1000 large, and above 2000 a very large armorial. Most of the armorials dated before 1350 were fairly small, usually featuring a few hundred arms rather than thousands. As such, it is fairly easy to get an overview of their contents and composition. In the Late Middle Ages, larger armorials became common, made up of many segments taken from different sources (or observations made at different times, if one prefers to leave that option open). With more than 3000 items placed in some 50 or more segments, which might be disordered, getting an overview takes some effort – and establishing possible relations to other armorials becomes rather complicated. Many modern editors and commentators were, not surprisingly, usually content with listing references to seals and items in other armorials, where arms and legends were more or less similar to the item in question.[1]


Comparing armorials

There are a couple of fundamental differences between evaluating a family’s or a person’s use of arms and comparing armorials. For the former even minute details could arguably be of vital importance and one would use many forms of evidence besides armorials, not least seals and decorations on and in buildings and on furniture and utensils. For comparing armorials, only the arms in the set matters and many details are essentially irrelevant. Of course, it is nice to know whether a certain coat of arms and/or a certain title is specific for one person at one time. But it is only nice, not necessary. It helps dating a manuscript and may shed light on the knowledge of the collator or compiler, but the key question in comparing is whether two items are sufficiently similar to warrant a place in the concordance.


Noting an unusual coat of arms or a certain combination of items may provide a hint of similarity between armorials. Markers like a very unusual, often imaginary, coat of arms, e.g. a lion with human head and a Jew’s hat (Judas Macchabeus), or a lion sitting on a throne holding a sword (Hector of Troy), are strong evidence of a relationship. It would be unlikely for two individuals to independently create such a figure for the same person, unless the story behind it gives a natural lead, e.g. with canting arms. Remarkable mistakes or otherwise unknown combinations of legend and arms are other forms of strong markers. Personal arms specific to one individual may be used as a weak or soft marker and as supporting evidence.

The coats of arms of Judas Maccabeus and Joshua

The coats of arms of Judas Maccabeus and Joshua in the Ingeram and the St. Gallen armorial

Crests are generally of little value in comparing armorials. They may change with time or be rendered with different details, if at all present. Many armorials do not have crests on the shields. When such armorials are used as sources, the copyist may add crests from a different source, as did the Bergshammar-compiler in several segments.[2]


Evaluating and comparing drawing and painting styles is the province of specialist art historians, and falls outside this commentary. Nonetheless, the reader of an armorial will benefit from knowing a little of the terminology and elements used in assessing and describing pictures as well as coats of arms.


The next and last post in this series is a case study of the Grünenberg armorial, in which many elements that have been discussed in the previous posts come together.

[1] Notable exceptions are Jan Raneke: Bergshammarvapenboken, Lund 1975, Léon Jéquier: l’Armorial Bellenville, Cahiers Héraldiques, vol. V,  Paris 1983), and J-C. Blanchard: l’Armorial d’André de Rineck, Paris 2008.

[2] Raneke Bergshammarvapenboken (note 1), items  818-915, fo.68r-72r, Flanders, most of the arms were copied from the Toison d’or and some crests added later from items in the Gelre with similar arms

Cite this blog post
Steen Clemmensen (2014, November 26). Evaluating armorials (III) – Comparing armorials. Heraldica Nova. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/phvp

Steen Clemmensen

born 1948; Danish; retired; biochemist, worked for government, industry and organisation in toxicological research, regulation of chemicals, food safety, occupational health and environmental protection; current interests are medieval and renaissance heraldry, especially armorials from all over Europe, of which I have edited and indexed several, published on my website.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search