The baron who became an architect: (mis-)remembering Konrad Grünenberg (d. 1494)


Fig. 1: Street name sign “Grünenbergweg”, Konstanz (picture: Christof Rolker; licence: public domain).

Konrad Grünenberg (d. 1494) and his armorial for a long time have attracted the attention of heraldists; in the late 19th c. in particular, his work was praised by German heraldists as one of the most important medieval armorials, if not the greatest armorial ever. At Konstanz, he was remembered as well; several local historians studied his life and works, and a small street was named after him. The short text on the sign is a good starting point for the question how Grünenberg was remembered (Fig. 1). It reads:

Ritter Konrad von Grünenberg Bürgermeister, Verfasser des bedeutendsten mittelalterlichen Wappenbuches 1483.

[Knight Konrad von Grünenberg, mayor, author of the most important medieval armorial of 1483.]

Footnotes to a street name sign

As a historian I can’t resist to correct the errors (or ‘alternative facts’, these days), and given that they are repeated in many publications on Grünenberg, this may actually be a useful thing to do:

  • Knight: Grünenberg was born to a merchant family, and although the evidence is complicated, it seems that he was knighted in 1485. According to his travel diary, he was knighted in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem; after his returned, he was called ‘sir’ (for example, in the tax rolls) and referred to himself as ‘burgher and knight’ in the preface to his armorial.
  • Konrad von Grünenberg: The “von” is interesting. In the Middle Ages, a “von” would not necessarily imply a noble title, and both noble and non-noble families would sometimes vary with their names. However, Grünenberg never referred to himself as “von Grünenberg”. Rather, modern heraldists claimed that he was member of one of the noble families called “von Grünenberg”, possibly even the the barons of Grünenberg (Stillfried-Alcántara 1875, VII). The claim never was well-founded, and local historians easily proved it wrong (e.g. Ruppert 1890), but it was repeated time and again. Partly, I think, 19th c. heraldists wanted Grünenberg to be noble because they assumed that heraldy was about ancient noble traditions and such an important armorial could only have been compiled by a member of an ancient noble family. The “von” in any case was part of the modern image of Grünenberg as a nobleman, not the contemporary view of Grünenberg.
  • mayor: Like the alleged descent from the barons of Grünenberg (and slightly at odds with it), the idea that Grünenberg was mayor of Konstanz is both popular and plain wrong. It goes back to the confusion of Konrad Grünenberg, the compiler of the armorial, with his father, who was also called Konrad Grünenberg and indeed several times elected mayor. Unlike his son, he was and remained member of a merchant guild all his life, while his son left the guild and joined a society of the local nobility called Zur Katz. (Membership in these guilds and societies was important in many ways; namely, the seats in the city council were reserved partly for members of the guilds, partly for members of the Katz society.)
  • most important medieval armorial: Well, I will not disagree too much with this claim. Richental’s armorial would be another candidate (for slightly different reasons), but the Grünenberg armorial no doubt is one of the most important medieval armorials. In the 19th and 20th centuries, normally only two copies were discussed, but more recent scholarship has identified a rising number of copies, making clear that the armorial was indeed widely spread.
  • 1483: No. In 1483, the armorial as extant in the Berlin copy (or the Munich copy for that matter) cannot possible have been finished, although it is quite plausible that the armorial was begun in or even before 1483. The most recent material dates to 1485/86, the time when Grünenberg was travelling to the Holy Land and back. So 1485 or rather 1486 seems to be the earliest date the armorial as we have it was completed. (If you are interested in the manuscript tradition the the overview over the known manuscripts here; as for the date, have a look at my earlier post here.)

Nineteenth-century literature in the age of digitazation

The literature on Grünenberg is vast, and given the substantial number of factual errors already on a simple street name sign, it comes at no surprise that this literature contains many more errors on Grünenberg. Most of them go back to 19th c. reference works and editions – from where they were copied time and again into more specialised literature. More recently, the digitization added to this effect, as pre-1921 books in particular became widely available online; unfortunately, even those 19th c. position that had disappeared from the Grünenberg literature now resurfaced. As a result, early 21st c. accounts of Grünenberg are sometimes more dated than those of the mid-20th c.; for example, the entry for one of the Munich manuscripts of Grünenberg’s armorial in the World Digital Library ( reads as follows:

There is no evidence for the exact date of his birth or death. His name first appears when he is mentioned as a builder commissioned by the town of Konstanz in 1442. Grünenberg occupied himself with heraldry and composed an armorial that came to bear his name. Several copies later were produced from Grünenberg’s original autograph copy, one of which is this splendid manuscript from the Bavarian State Library. Grünenberg was a member of the town council of Konstanz in 1454–62 and several times was elected mayor. In 1465 he and his brother John were appointed to serve Emperor Frederick III. From 1468 onwards he bore the title of a knight.

Every single date given in this short account is problematic at best:

  • It was the father and not the son who was elderman in the 1450s and elected mayor, and the earliest entry for Grünenberg as baumeister in 1441 (not 1442) most likely refers to the father too. The relevant entry is found in the Ratsbuch: Stadtarchiv Konstanz, B I 6, fol. 23r.
  • In 1465, he was not “appointed” to serve Frederick III; rather, Frederick in 1465 mentioned that Conrad Grünenberg had served him for some time (ettlich zit) in a charter forcing the city of Konstanz to accept Grünenberg’s move from the guild to the Katz society – a change the city council had vehemently opposed before. This intervention was unusual, and it is unlikely that the emperor would have done this for a new member of his court; Grünenberg probably had been in imperial service for several years in 1465. See Chmel n. 4322, in: Regesta Imperii Online, URI:
  • As for Grünenberg becoming a knight in “1468”, this simply is an error for “1486” (an error that can be found in reference works like Oswald’s Lexikon der Heraldik, too).
  • Finally, the date of the date of Grünenberg’s death can be established very precisely – in the list of eldermen of 1494, his name is crossed out, and his death is noted: Stadtarchiv Konstanz, B I 5, fol. 71r.

Other popular myths

It is normally considered bad style simply to list other people’s errors the way I have done in this blogpost. However, as I hope to have made clear, for various reasons the number of errors and misconception on Grünenberg’s biography exceeds the normal level of slopiness by far. This is a pity, all the more as there are many extant sources documenting his life, and a good number of reliable studies too. Unfortunately, the myths produced in the 19th c. (mainly supporting the idea that Grünenberg was a member of the high nobility) not only survive but resurface.

Thus, it may be useful to debunk the most common errors:

  • Grünenberg was fighting tournaments: No, almost certainly not. The claim was made, without any foundation, by the 19th c. editor of Grünenberg’s armorial (Stillfried-Alcántara 1875, VIII “eine sehr naheliegende Vermutung”). The only argument was that Grünenberg knew his heraldy very well, and that heraldy had to do with tournaments. A very weak claim, especially as not even Grünenberg himself ever claimed to have fought in tournaments (he may well have watched, of course). Also, there were good reasons why Grünenberg did not attend tournaments. First, they were quite dangerous (a good reason not to attend, many noblemen thought). Secondly, the tournaments Grünenberg was interested in most, the tournaments of the Vier Lande, would not accept him. Indeed, in his own armorial one finds the rules of the Würzburg tournament in 1479 which specifically excludes people like Grünenberg from participating.
  • Grünenberg travelled to Paris: Not that we would know, but at least the idea goes back to claims Grünenberg

    Fig. 2: Grünenberg claims to have seen Claude de Vaudrey at some tournament. München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 145, p. 219 (detail).

    himself made: in his armorial, he mentions to have seen the famous knight Claude de Vaudrey (see Figure 2). The most recent editors of the armorial have concluded that this must have happened at the marriage of Charles VIII (Popoff) or Louis XI (Pastoureau). In fact, neither Claude de Vaudrey nor Konrad Grünenberg are known to have participated in these festivities (which are extraordinarly well documented in the sources). However, they have indeed met at a different occasion: Claude de Vaudrey for decades attended many tournaments and feasts, among them the famous marriage of Charles the Bold and Margaret of York in July 1468. The list of participants also includes a certain seigneur de Grimberghen (von Seggern 2003, 449 n. 351 and 452, respectively), and it is not impossible that this indeed was Conrad Grünenberg.

  • Grünenberg was an architect: Definitively not. As a member of the rather small local elite and elderman, Grünenberg held various posts. Typically, these (unpaid) posts implied the supervision of a specific part of the administration. There were very many such posts, and the number of candidates was small, so most eldermen accumulated many positions. This is also true for Grünenberg, who over time served in some 20 different functions, often four or five at the same time. One of these posts was called baumeister – the elderman responsible for the supervision of municipal building works. This had nothing to do with architecture; if so, one could also call Grünenberg a baker as he was supervising the bread stalls (brotbeschau), a lawyer, a goldsmith, and so on.

Perhaps ironically, misconceptions of Grünenberg mostly going back to the 19th century today are more widely spread than ever. However, there is no need to dispair. The digitazation not only made available (dated) secondary literature but also primary sources and other useful resources. When Stillfried and others published their accounts of Grünenberg, only very few scholars had actually seen the armorial in manuscript form; today, many of these manuscripts can be accessed online, making it easy to look at the arms themselves – and to compare various armorials in detail. In the long run, the confusion caused by resurfacing 19th c. myths will be rather small compared to the advantages of having available so many digitized primary sources and blogs like Heraldica Nova to discuss them.


Primary sources


Konstanz, Stadtarchiv Konstanz, B I 6.

Konstanz, Stadtarchiv Konstanz, B I 15.

München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 145. [For other manuscripts of Grünenberg’s armorial, many of which are digitized, see my on-going project.]


Armorial Grünenberg. Édition critique de l’armorial de Conrad Grünenberg (1483), ed. Michel Popoff (Milan, 2011).

Secondary literature

Gert Oswald, Lexikon der Heraldik (Mannheim, Vienna and Zurich, 1985).

Michel Pastoureau, ‘L’armorial universel de Conrad Grünenberg (1483)’, in Michel Popoff (ed.), Armorial Grünenberg. Édition critique de l’armorial de Conrad Grünenberg (1483) (Milan, 2011), III–XXXII.

Philipp Ruppert, ‘Nochmals Ritter Konrad Grünenberg’, in Konstanzer geschichtliche Beiträge. Zweites Heft (Konstanz, 1890), 101.

Harm von Seggern, Herrschermedien im Spätmittelalter. Studien zur Informationsübermittlung im burgundischen Staat unter Karl dem Kühnen (Kieler historische Studien 41,  Ostfildern, 2003).

Rudolf Graf Stillfried-Alcántara, ‘[Einleitung]’, in Rudolf Graf Stillfried-Alcántara and Adolf Matthias Hildebrandt (eds.), Des Conrad Grünenberg, Ritters und Burgers zu Costenz, Wappenpuch (5 vols.,  Görlitz, 1875–83), here at vol. 1 (1875), V–VIII.

Cite the article as: Christof Rolker, "The baron who became an architect: (mis-)remembering Konrad Grünenberg (d. 1494)", in: Heraldica nova. Medieval Heraldry in social and cultural-historical perspectives (blog on, published: 01/02/2017, Internet:

Christof Rolker

Christof Rolker, MSt PhD, is a historian interested in the Middle Ages, esp. canon law, kinship, family, sex and gender, and the use of symbolic goods (names, coats of arms etc).

6 Responses

  1. ladislaus says:

    he was called ‘sir’ (for example, in the tax rolls) and referred to himself as ‘burgher and knight’

    Glaub ich nicht, das da irgendwo “sir” steht oder gar “burgher and knight”. Man kann’s mit dem Englisch auch wirklich übertreiben, zumal bei einem Thema, zu dem es nur deutsche Quellen gibt.

    • Vielen Dank für Ihre Anmerkung. Unser blog ist ein internationaler blog, auf dem wir verschiedene Forschungsfragen und Beobachtungen mit Kollegen und Interessierten nicht nur aus Deutschland sondern auch aus anderen Ländern diskutieren, die nicht alle deutsch sprechen. Um sicherzustellen, dass wir die gleiche Sache meinen, ist es m.E. kein Problem, auch die Quellenauszüge zu übersetzen.

      • ladislaus says:

        Übersetzen schon, aber nur, wenn man gleichzeitig auch feststellen kann, was in der Quelle denn nun steht. Bei “burgher and knight” kann ich mir’s noch zusammenreimen, aber den “sir” wüsste ich schon gerne genauer.

  2. Elmar Hofman says:

    Dear Christof, thanks for this critical post. You say it might be bad style to point to other people’s errors, but I think it is absolutely necessary to address them if these myths blur the view on Conrad Grünenberg. With regard to the entry of Claude de Vaudrey in the armorial, I am wondering why Grünenberg has included this text on Claude’s performance at a tournament. He adds short texts to other arms as well, but these are mostly referring to this person/family establishing or donating to a monastery. The text next to Claude’s arms seems to be an exception. Do you have an explanation for this? Further, I do not know the source that lists the participants of the tournaments during the festivities the marriage of Charles the Bold and Margaret of York, but does the seigneur de Grimberghen not refer to the lord of Grimbergen in Belgium (just north of Brussels)?

    • Dear Elmar, thanks for the feedback! Yes, the entry regarding Claude de Vaudrey is exceptional, also in being one of only two instances where Konrad Grünenberg writes in the first person. I would infer that this reflects the importance the event had to Grünenberg, or rather how important it was for him to report on this. (His account of his travel to the Holy Land come to mind – a lot of nobles travelled there, and while still quite a few of them wrote travel accounts, that by Grünenberg still stands out as a relatively long, lavishly illustrated exemplar).
      As for Grimbergen you are absolutely right – a much more probable explanation. So we know even less – which is good to know.

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