[Project:] Municipal Heraldry in the Portuguese Medieval Society (13th-15th centuries)

Seal of Castelo Rodrigo. (© Marta Santos)

Drawing of the seal of Castelo Rodrigo. (© Marta Santos)

The main purpose of my doctorate project is to have a perspective on the present situation of municipal medieval heraldry. This research is going to provide an updated gathering and analysis of heraldic sources and it is unique as it considers multiple types of heraldic imprints and at a national and comparative level.

This text aims to highlight the importance of this subject in order to perceive the role of municipal arms in the national territory during the Middle Ages as a vehicle for a discourse of affirmation and legitimation of local power.

The project currently developed is based on the analysis of arms and their specific language – the blazon, through which is intended to enhance the relation between civic heraldry and the multiple agents of power, showing the importance of this discipline to local, social, political, institutional and symbolic history of medieval Portugal.

Furthermore, it also targets to analyse its evolution, considering the development of new aesthetic paradigms allowed by the increment of heraldry in kingdoms with close relations to Portugal such as France, England, Castille, Aragon and others.

Research challenges of seals as a source

This project has three phases. The first is the systematic gathering of sources. In this stage, the sources that are considered are sigillographic, monumental, iconographic and documental data sources related to Portuguese civic heraldry between the 13th and 15th centuries – more specifically between 1205, the first known municipal seal and 1495, the beginning of D. Manuel’s reign, what we may consider a hinge moment for a new heraldry.

Drawing of the seal of Santarém  (1255). (© Marta Santos)

Drawing of the seal of Santarém (1255). (© Marta Santos)

The lack of an updated inventory for these objects and references leads to the need to establish a limiting methodology concerning these sources. It means that the research was designed focusing the National Archive (Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo) – the main source for municipal seals, and both District and Municipal archives which have well known examples of documental funds and present a large amount of sealed documents. As for monumental sources, the collected data is to be completed with local studies and heritage inventories.

It is important to emphasize that many of this material is in very fragile condition and poorly preserved, whether it is from environmental problems or material decay due to time and careless handling. Seals that are referenced but no longer exist, are also considered as “ghost sources”. These seal-striped documents allow us to draw a more accurate map for towns holding a municipal seal, which is often difficult if we only consider the few remaining preserved examples. The documentation also provides information related to the use these seals: who sealed the documents, the reasons for using these specific seals, and who asked to use the town seal? It is interesting to notice that, most of the times, the town seal was used for commercial contracts between people or institutions who didn’t have their own seal. Other times, the seal was used to validate documents related to a large amount of money. Ultimately, the majority of these documents are, as one could expect, related to territory acquisition, selling and donations. This way we can understand the importance and the relationship between the population and their local heraldic symbols.

Iconography and symbolism of heraldry in seals

The second stage consists on the analysis and the interpretation of the quantitative and qualitative outcome from the first phase. This concerns shape, heraldic components, the evolution, modification and dynamics of these elements, additions or total substitution of motifs, amongst other variables.

Drawing of the seal of Santa Maria da Feira (1284). (© Marta Santos)

Drawing of the seal of Santa Maria da Feira (1284). (© Marta Santos)

Some results point towards a direction that confirms a tendency to certain heraldic shapes, themes and a consistent evolution, in several towns. For instance, concerning religious city arms, the iconography related to Saint Mary is most predominant, whether it is in Her full or half-bodied representation, or symbols as the 8-point star, lunar crescents or the fleur-de-lis. In fact, the appearance of Saint Mary is many times related to the name of the town itself, like Santa Maria da Feira or Santa Maria de Faro, turning these into canting arms. And if there is the case when the town has a specific relation to a certain saint, such as Saint Vincent, in Lisbon, that is going to be the religious matrix.

Still on canting arms, they can also be very simple, evoking the towns names by a single element, like Freixo de Espada à Cinta, with a sword, Vila Flor with a fleur de lis and Torre the Moncorvo with a crow representation, amongst other examples. But, as we’ve noticed with the image of Saint Mary, they are often mixed with other elements, such as architecture, like the town of Chaves, with a pair of keys flanking the royal shield, over a bridge.

When the architecture is the main theme, there are both realistic and ideographic forms to represent the town’s castle. The case of Santarém is the most interesting for this typology, not only for being one of with most preserved seals and stones, but also because it shows a series of changes on its arms, each time with a more detailed castle, always depicting Moorish details, related to an important part of the city’s history and its conquest.

As for the legendary arms, we can find the arms of Évora and Beja. The first, representing the image of Geraldo Sem Pavor and the second, portraying a bull. These are just a few examples from the research. Nevertheless, with the data already collected, is now possible to draft a heraldic topography of medieval Portuguese towns, between recurring motifs and legendary elements to canting arms and also the blending of several of these themes, as mentioned.

Heraldry and the sociology of identity

Drawing of the seal of Chaves (1308).

Drawing of the seal of Chaves (1308). (© Marta Santos)

Finally, the third stage implies a reflexion and conclusions on the significance of municipal heraldry as a symbol of identity and power and as a constituent element of the notion of “concelho” (county), the town itself and its territory, not only geographically but also on a sociological level because it is important to understand the origin of these arms, how they spread though the territory, how they reflect local history, the population dynamics or a Lord dominance.

Also noticeable it is if whether there were foreign aesthetic influences, the presence of royal symbols within these arms and the consistency or not of these heraldic practices in medieval Portugal.

In conclusion, this project aims to understand the importance of heraldry in medieval Portugal in local communities and in the kingdom itself. As important as the use of arms by nobles, clergy, institutions or even the king, the use of heraldry by the people, represented the vast diffusion of a symbolic language in a time when imago was auctoritas.


Marta Gomes dos Santos is a PhD candidate in medieval history at the University of Coimbra, Portugal. She is a member of the Portuguese Heraldry Institute as well as the Academie Internationale d’Héraldique.


Leave a Reply

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