Mythical Origins of Coats of Arms: A Brief Overview

Bedford Hours (1410-1430), BL MS 18850, fol. 288v.

Thanks a lot for all the responses I received following my request about heraldische Herkunftslegenden, as I am calling the very type of narrative that deals with the mythical origins of coats of arms. Your responses in emails and comments were crucial to the progress of my master’s thesis, and they enable to me to present some first thoughts on the topic. The points I will make derive from dealing with about a dozen of legends, and therefore the argument (as for now) lacks a larger sample. Still, your responses allowed me to gather legends from many European countries, including England, Portugal, France, Italy, Germany and Bohemia. These legends share some features which allow me to outline a few important aspects that may be interesting with regard to further research: This includes: When (1.) and where (2.) these legends rose to popularity in medieval Europe, and in what kind of sources these legends were common to be written down (3.).

1. Date of Origin

The earliest legend I have found so far dates back to the beginning of the fourteenth century. In the Dalimil Chronicle (c. 1314), the origin of the Bohemian coat of arms is explained. Many more examples follow during the mid-fourteenth to early fifteenth century. Between 1350 and 1420 most legends I am working with were written down for the first time.

2. Country of Origin

An easy answer to the question of the “country of origin” could be given by simply naming the region from which the earliest legends came from. In this case, the answer would be Bohemia or Italy, because the Dalimil Choncile was composed some 30 years earlier than the other sources I have found so far. A Chronicle from Italy is second to follow. Still, there are some aspects which strongly oppose such a simplistic view. Even though the Dalimil Chronicle was written in Old Czech, due to its author (most likely a Bohemian intellectual familiar with “German” language and culture) and the political climate of the time it was composed, the chronicle was heavily influenced by traditions of the Holy Roman Empire. This can also be said about the early legends that were written in Italy in the mid-fourteenth century. Still, I have not found any legends from other regions of the Holy Roman Empire dating back earlier than the fifteenth century. Additionally, most legends I have found are from mid- to late fourteenth-century France. If one now considers the provenience of the sources and the possibility that many legends were passed down orally for decades before they were actually written down for the first time, an answer to the question of the origin of heraldic legends becomes more and more obscure. To cut it short: From my state of research, I am not able to give any strong evidence for a particular region in which heraldische Herkunftslegenden emerged and from which they spread to the rest of Europe.

3. Sources to Consider

Augustine, La Cité de Dieu (1486), vol. i, 3. BnF, Réserve des livres rares, RES-C-554.

Legends on the origin of coats of arms are not limited to a particular type of text. The French Fleur-de-Lys, which according to legend was given to king Chlodwig by an angel from heaven, is a good example for this: A narration on the origin of the Fleur-de-Lys is recorded in a Chanson de Geste of the mid-fourteenth century. A few years later the story is part of the introduction to a French translation of Augustine’s De Civitate Dei by Raoul de Presle. In Presle’s account, the story had been slightly changed, but the plot remained the same. In the fifteenth century, miniatures were added to later copies of Presle’s translation. These miniatures depicted the very same story in fabulous quality, which can also be found in other works from other contexts. During the centuries, it had always been this specific legend that was equally depicted in lyrical and prose texts as well as in miniatures.

To put it in a nutshell, there is still much research to be done on the legendary stories on the origins of coats of arms. The examples I gathered because of your responses, supplemented by some further research on my behalf, show that these very legends were commonly used in all European countries from the fourteenth century onwards. They were depicted in many different sources and therefore appear as an important aspect of medieval heraldry. How important of an aspect they actually were can only be shown by further research.

Cite the article as: Jörg Schlarb, "Mythical Origins of Coats of Arms: A Brief Overview", in: Heraldica nova. Medieval Heraldry in social and cultural-historical perspectives (blog on Hypotheses.org), published: 15/12/2014, Internet: https://heraldica.hypotheses.org/2246.

2 Responses

  1. 23/01/2015

    […] Vgl. die vielfältigen Reaktionen von Heraldikern und Historikern zu Jörg Schlarb, “Wer kennt mittelalterliche Wappensagen?”, in: Heraldica Nova (blog on […]

  2. 10/02/2015

    […] Zu Wappensagen vgl. jüngst Jörg Schlarb: Mythical Origins of Coats of Arms: A Brief Overview. In: Heraldica nova vom 15. Dezember 2015. […]

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