Heraldry and History – Why is there so much and at the same time so little heraldry in historical research?
I think everyone dealing with medieval heraldry and heraldic sources is aware of the important mismatch between the number of articles and contributions dealing with medieval heraldry as such and the very poor role coats of arms and heraldic sources have played in the academic historical research so far.
While a query at the International Medieval Bibliography with the keyword “Heraldry” offers you already more than 2000 hits for the period between 1967 – 2013 alone, the vast majority of those papers were published in local or regional publications, as well as in journals and congress proceedings specialised in heraldry. Only very few of them are dealing with heraldry and heraldic communication in a proper historical approach. Another eye-catching fact: There are almost no monographs dealing with heraldry.
This disregard for heraldry is especially obvious when it comes to the newer cultural history with all its different fields of interest: be it individuality, identity, kinship or political culture, mentality, the imaginary, or gender. And it applies especially to all that concerns historical discourses, symbolic communication, representation, communication or visual culture – fields to which the study of heraldry and heraldic sources could contribute a great deal.
I’m not saying there is nothing. But it is far beyond its possibilities, and having a very limited impact. This is a really astonishing fact, considering the place of heraldry in late medieval culture, especially in the 14th and 15th century when coats of arms are ubiquitous, almost everywhere. They had penetrated the mentality and thinking of late medieval society, and could lead us directly to the core of (late) medieval culture and society.
And it is even more astonishing if you see what powerful and versatile kinds of sources coats of arms are, and to what kind of results you can come by analysing their use and the way people were thinking about them. Following clear rules in their composition, they were also characterised by a significant semantic and medial openness. They were some sort of screen where people could choose what to put on and change its meaning as desired, and which they could introduce into almost every imaginable context, from the most public to the most private space.
Despite their great usefulness for historical research in so many different perspectives, coats of arms and heraldic sources did not gain the attention of the historical scholars up to the last couple of years (while there are of course exceptions such as Michel Pastoureau, Werner Paravicini or Maurice Keen). So dealing with coats of arms and heraldic sources apparently did not enjoy the best reputation among historians. And to be frank, it was and sometimes still is rather disdained.
But why is that so? Why this imbalance between the immense wealth of essays on medieval heraldry and its negligence in more general historical research? Why this disregard for heraldry (and, more importantly, how can we change that)?
My answer to this question is that heraldic literature has been largely misunderstood as to being part of historical literature – which, as a matter of fact, it is not. The studies of heraldists have been too often read and criticised as if they were historical studies – which they are not. This leads historians to think that this field has been already widely dealt with or at least taken care of.
Heraldry as such is usually only conceived in the idea of being an ancillary discipline of history and therefore even as a part of historical research itself. But in doing so, it is often overlooked that heraldry is – in the first place – a discipline sui generis, following its own questions and its own methods – as the doctrine of coats of arms, their formal rules and their proper description and visual representation. Concentrating on the coats of arms and the heraldic system as such, it pursues its own objectives, its own interests.
The major part of heraldic papers is characterised, in the eye of the academic historian, by certain restrictions: often they only pursue the heraldic expressions of a noble house or a ruling dynasty, confining themselves to the description of formal problems specific to heraldry – for an historian, this is potentially very boring.
And even more conspicuous for scholars in history is that certain anachronistic formalism which often marks heraldic studies – assuming the existence of a generally binding semiotic code already for the Middle Ages, with the result that evidence is interpreted in a certain ahistorical fashion.
As an historian, you can criticise this. Or you can read those papers as to what they are: papers from another discipline, interested above all in the coats of arms, the heraldic system and representation as such. Only because they are dealing with historical coats of arms does not mean that those papers are dealing with history or that they are historical papers (similar to papers in art history).
While historical research wants to understand past societies, past structures and events, the interest of heraldry – in my understanding, at least – concentrates on the coats of arms and on heraldry itself, its form and use. Or, to put it the other way round: While the heraldist searches a better understanding of the coats of arms (also in the past and in their historical evolution), the historian will utilises them, their forms, their uses and the way people were thinking about them, to come to a better understanding of the past.
Therefore, I think that heraldry has to be understood – in the first place – as a separate, as an individual discipline and not as an auxiliary science.
That doesn’t mean that some scholars cannot be both: heraldists and historians, and combine those approaches and interests. As an historian dealing with heraldry, you even need a good deal of heraldic knowledge provided by heraldists to understand your topic properly (even if you are not a great admirer of coat of arms nor fascinated by their aesthetic). What is important, in my eyes, is to clearly differentiate between those both approaches and to be aware of the different interests of heraldry and history.
In changing the perspective in such a way, in understanding heraldry as an individual discipline, separated from history, you can accept their differences and peculiarities much better. You can sharply distinguish the respective approaches of both disciplines. This gives us the possibility to come a new form of collaboration: An interdisciplinary one, to the benefit of both.
At least, that is the idea I have of this relationship and that is also the fundamental idea of my research project, which in the end aims at no less than writing a history of medieval heraldry and heraldic communication from a historical perspective.
But before I cast those thoughts (which were also at the centre of my paper in Leeds this year) in an article to be published in an academic journal, I would appreciate to have your comments on it.
What are your ideas about dealing with heraldry and heraldic sources as historians? Are the problems I described rather limited to the case of Germany and – in an already smaller scale – to France? Or is it a general fact?
And of course I would really appreciate to learn more about the perspective of the heraldists themselves on what they are interested in when dealing with heraldry!