Heraldry as a Systematic and International Language? About the Limitations of Blazonry in Describing Coats of Arms
Usually, this blog is dedicated to approaches to heraldic sources from the perspective of cultural history. To the contrary, this post will deal with one of the central subjects of heraldry as an auxiliary science: blazoning. However, I do think that this does preclude interesting insights also from the perspective of cultural studies, since I am convinced that heraldry as such can also be studied from this perspective.
As a matter of fact, I am about to write a paper for a conference in Nancy next month, where I will speak about our project to develop a technology that is meant to enable us to encode and thus digitally edit heraldic sources on a state-of-the-art level by using semantic web technologies. The main focus of this effort are, to begin with, historical sources, texts and illustrations from the twelfth to the sixteenth century.
I will spare you the technical details for now, since we are going to elaborate on more explicitly in an upcoming paper. But to understand the question I will ask you later in the text, you nevertheless need to know the main idea at the background of this project.
At the moment, all blazonry, whether in books or in databases on the internet, is done by text. Any blazon is a combination of natural language words (even though there are attempts to standardise this), which is why they are dependent on an existing language (most of all French).
What we want to do is not to represent coats of arms and their components by parts of text, but by concepts. This means not to enter the description/blazon of a coat of arms, but the very idea of it. This sounds more complicated than it is—mostly. By using a special technology (semantic web technologies), we are able to represent the different parts of a coat of arms, their attributes and relations to each other by simple numbers and statements.
The great advantage of this, besides others, is that we are not bound to any natural language such as French, German or English in order to do so. It is as if you have the ideas of things represented in your computer, in the same way as if you had them depicted in an illustration, before giving them any name. Names you can add later on by declaring how those concepts should be called in the different languages, be it French, English or German. Thus, they can be retrieved from the system in any (heraldic) language, as you have taught the system the conceptual, non-textual information, which is always the same, and the according terms in those different languages. In addition, you can teach the system what properties different concepts may have or not, and specify them this way (e.g. that a lion may have different attitudes, that he may be armed in a different tinctute than gules, etc.).
The problem is that such as system must be coherent, especially if you work with sources and blazons from different countries and in different languages. I am aware that there were several attempts to unify the blazon of different languages in order to establish concordances. The most prominent is perhaps the one by Baron Stalins for the International Heraldry Academy, published in 1952 as ‘Vocabulaire-Atlas Héraldique’, which later on was expanded by François Velde in his very useful ‘International Illustrated Glossary‘.
What I am interested in, however, is the exact opposite of this.
I do not want to know how to harmonise international heraldic language and thus to overcome and remove any differences that may exist. What I am interested in are exactly those differences, the incompatibilities between different heraldic languages and traditions.
I know that heraldists like to understand heraldry and blazonry as a well ordered, highly formalised logical system. But to understand it better, e.g. in order to rebuild it in a computerised model as it is the case here, we have to know more about its actual limits. What is possible, what is not? Which difficulties occur if you dig a little deeper and go beyond the basic rules?
In my experiences, there are minor yet important differences in the way coats of arms are blazoned and even conceived:
- by different persons (having different personal backgrounds and styles),
- by different languages (based on different traditions in the use of heraldry),
- at different times (because the heraldic system is a historical one and is thus subject to change over time).
By Different Persons
I think this point may be obvious. Different people may very well blazon the same coat of arms very differently. But where do they start to disagree and to use different terms? And why? Are there any cases where people had different ideas of what is represented in a medieval orearly modern coat of arms and which term should be used to blazon it (e.g. in different editions of the same armorial)? Are there any charges and terms that can be easily confounded or that are ambiguous, so that you need more knowledge to be able to know what is meant? Thus, where are the limits of the clarity and unambiguousness of blazonry in a given language?
Just to give you a small, German example: For the extent of horizontal ordinaries, Vaclav Filip, in his ‘Einführung in die Heraldik’ only gives two options: ‘Balken’ and ‘Leiste’ . Georg Scheibelreiter offers three options: ‘Balken’, ‘Leiste’, ‘Faden’ . The ‘Lexikon der Heraldik’ by Gert Oswald adds the ‘Strichbalken’ to this.  But if we look now at the ‘Handbuch der Heraldik’, written by Adolf Mathias Hildebrandt, we have again ‘Balken’, ‘Leiste’ and ‘Faden’, though ‘Faden’ is presented here as an very small vertical ordinary . Which, if we look in the Wappenbilderordnung of the ‘Herold’ may represent a ‘Stab’ . Heraldica.org finally gives ‘Balken’, ‘Querfaden’ and ‘Leiste’, depicting, in contradiction to the other examples cited, the “Leiste” as the smallest one.
Of course, these may be problems of modern heraldry. We are looking for more medieval and early modern examples. Where could the same coat of arms be legitimately described in quite different manners?
By Different Languages
Heraldry and the use of coats of arms developed quite differently in different countries. It seems plausible that the same holds true for their design and corresponding vocabulary. The question is, therefore, whether national or regional systems did indeed become incompatible. Are there elements of heraldic design in one country that are unknown in other countries, which as a result had no corresponding label in other languages? Where there things that mattered in one country and in one language that were irrelevant in another?
When you look for different types of bends on Heraldica.org, for instance, you find four English terms, ‘bend’, ‘bendlet’, ‘baston’ and ‘riband’, while there are only three terms in the German translation: ‘Schrägbalken’, ‘Schrägleiste’, ‘Schrägfaden’. It appears that there is no German equivalent for either baston or riband. The English language, in this case, is thus making a distinction that does not exist in German.
At Different Times
Heraldry is a historical system, and thus its components as well as its rules are subject to historical development and change. This means that the heraldic language, in its visual forms as well as its textual blazon, may become more complex or simpler as new conventions are established while others disappear, and there may be things that simply change their meaning. The term ‘sinople’, for instance, which initially stood for red, changed its meaning in the fourteenth century and began to refer to green . The lions tongue as a mark of difference became relevant only in the 14th century. Are there other terms that changed their meaning, or are there any conventions that changed their subject or their significance?
Your Experience is Needed!
To develop our system for future digital editions of heraldic sources, we require more clarity. While in your daily practice you will have become aware of differences that require some flexibility, a computer system cannot think this way. But you can teach it to. This is what we need to do, a little further into the process.
Consequently, already from the start we have to be aware of problems we will encounter, and we have to know about differences, ambiguities, and changes. As we all know, knowledge grows with practice. When you deal with historical coats of arms on a daily basis, you will know a lot about the problems I mentioned in this post. That is why we are asking you for your help! Do you know, from your experience, of any examples of the problems, differences and ambiguities outlined above? Where, in your opinion are the limits of traditional blazoning, especially if you want to do so in different languages?
 Václav Vok Filip, Einführung in die Heraldik, 2nd edition, Stuttgart 2011, p. 75.
 Georg Scheibelreiter, Heraldik, Wien et al. 2006, p. 41.
 Gert Oswald, Lexikon der Heraldik, Leipzig 1984.
 Matthias Hildebrandt, Handbuch der Heraldik: Wappenfibel. 19th edition, Hamburg 2007, p. 75.
 See Gérard J. Brault, Early blazon: Heraldic Terminology in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Century with Special Reference to Arthurian Literature, Oxford, 2nd edition. 1998., p. 275.
 See Walter Leonhard, Die große Wappenkunst, München 1978.
If you have any ideas, thoughts or examples, please feel free to comment on this blogpost (be it in Englisch, French or German)!