Heraldry is Vanity! Moral Criticism of Heraldic Commemoration in Germany – A European Phenomenon?

Pounder brass (1525), Ipswich.

brass of Thomas and Emma Pounder (1525) in Ipswich, drawn and etched by Wat Hagreen. (Image: Frontispiece of John Wodderspoon, Memorials of Ipswich, 1850.)

Medieval churches still abound in coats of arms depicted on tombs, epitaphs, windows, altarpieces and other commemorative devices. And of course it was not just knights, nobles, princes and kings that tried to preserve their memory by means of heraldry. Medieval townspeople, too, left behind heraldic reminders in the churches in England and Germany, for instance. The Nuremberg patrician Sebald Schreyer (d. 1520) noted a stained-glass window embellished with the Schreyer arms given to a local church as a ‘remembrance’ (gedechtnus) of his late father,1 just as York alderman and merchant Richard Wartere (d. 1465) commissioned a liturgical garment whilst revealingly requesting ‘that my executors add a shield of my arms to said vestment, in the same way as it is made above the sarcophagus of my tomb, […] with the intention that the people may pray especially for my soul.’2

Naturally, modern historians argue that next to an admonition for pious prayer and commemoration, a certain desire for status representation and elevation also motivated the donors of such displays.3 Strikingly, medieval contemporaries, too, were at times similarly suspicious of the ‘true’ intentions behind heraldic memoria, and in fact addressed the ostentatious display of heraldry in (urban) churches quite critically.

German Criticism of Heraldry in the Middle Ages

The primary literary example appears to be Hans Vintler’s Die Pluemen der Tugendt (1411), which harshly scolded the ‘vanity’ of those seeking to display their shields and banners in churches; some, the poet warned, even wanted their arms to ‘embellish the vestments and chalices with which one worships God’, causing priests to look like minstrels and heralds and thereby making a mockery of the divine service!4

In Nuremberg, which is of course famous for its many heraldic memorial shields (Totenschilde), the urban administration at the end of the fifteenth century likewise grew to dislike the presence of heraldry in churches and showed considerable concern over their moral implications: It was forbidden ‘to engrave, affix, or paint any shields, signs or plates’ inside the city’s churches and chapels.5 Neither were there to be ‘shields or signs on any tombstones’ without prior consultation and official consent.6 Indeed, in an attempt ‘to suppress haughtiness, pomposity, and squandering’, the council declared that ‘memorial shields and stained glass’ ought not to cost more than three guldens in total, since previously ‘the size and splendour of memorial shields in the churches had caused bountiful copiousness’, whose ‘costly vanity’ was believed to contradict the common weal and proper praise of God.7

Conveniently for the council, their critical view on overly elaborate and expensive heraldry in churches was supported by the teachings of religious scholars and preachers. The preacher Johannes Tauler (c. 1300–1361), for instance, accused the donors of stained glass, altars and ecclesiastic vestments of having ulterior motives in front of an audience in Cologne:

People are generous in their donations only so that people know about it and pray for them. For this reason they furnish the churches with windows, vestments and altars, and mark them with their arms and names so that it may be seen by everyone.8

In 1469, similar opinions on heraldry in churches must have moved Johannes Philippi, vicar general of the Franciscans, to ordain that all liturgical vestments in the city of Nuremberg were to be purged of the coats of arms of their donors.9 Again, in 1480, Johannes Altpart, guardianus of Nuremberg, attempted to abolish heraldry in the city’s churches and started by gathering ‘all arms and ensigns of burgesses, until then hanging in the Franciscan church without order’.10 Although both times the preachers’ efforts were thwarted by defiant burgesses, opposition towards pompous heraldic display in churches remained present, especially once the German Reformation had begun to spread its iconophobic attitudes: Martin Luther, for example, argued in the sixteenth century: ‘If one wishes to honour burial places, it is a decent thing to embellish the walls with fair epitaphs or bible verses so that may be right in front of the observer’s eyes […]; such verses and inscriptions are more suited to decorate the cemeteries than other secular signs [such as] shields, helmets and others.’11

Early-Modern Criticism of Heraldry in England

While I would be most curious to find similar criticisms of heraldic commemoration for medieval England—particularly for medieval English towns and cities—at the moment it seems to me that this was quite a German-speaking phenomenon, at least in the middle ages.

In England, moral criticism of heraldry only appears to emerge in the early modern period under the impression of the English Reformation, for which Mervyn James generally observed ‘a denigration of the honour cult of lineage, ceremony and magnificence, and of such honour symbols as coats of arms.’12 Laurence Humphrey’s treatise The Nobles or of Nobilitye (1563), for instance, poses the provocative question ‘What braggest thou then thy stately enseignes, or thy vayne armes?’,13 and admonishes the vain sinner that ‘lytle accompte his stocke, armes, name, titles, hys parents glorie, hys owne fame, honor, welth, and al the rest, that seeme to other noblest, and moste gorgeous’.14 Rather, the theologian warns, ‘the lorde wyll roote oute the rootes of the proud’.15 Two decades later, in 1583, Bishop Marmaduke Middleton as well as his colleague Anthony Gilby similarly criticised the ritual custom of offering shield, helmet and crest at the (heraldic) funeral of an armiger as a ‘popish’ habit that was better abandoned. However, as Jennifer Woodward further observes, ‘the very fact that both Middleton and Gilby felt the need to comment indicates […] that offerings were still common practice in the 1580s.’16 Indeed, later still the poet John Gay (d. 1732) famously criticised the vanity of heraldic funeral  pomp:

Why is the hearse with scutcheons blazon’d round,
And with the nodding plume of ostrich crown’d?
No the dead know it not, nor profit gain;
It only serves to prove the living, vain.

Since such accounts are highly indicative of contemporary attitudes to heraldry and underline the co-existence of different and indeed sometimes critical perceptions of heraldic communication in the medieval and early modern period, I would be most grateful for any similar examples of moral criticism of heraldry in England or other parts of Europe that you may be aware of, and I am looking forward to any other comments you may have.

Cite this blog post
Marcus Meer (2018, January 24). Heraldry is Vanity! Moral Criticism of Heraldic Commemoration in Germany – A European Phenomenon? Heraldica Nova. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/pi18

  1. See Gümbel, Albert, ‘Kirchliche Stiftungen Sebald Schreyers 1477–1517’, Mitteilungen des Vereins für Geschichte der Stadt Nürnberg, 18 (1908), 99–133, 100–132. []
  2. Raine, James, ed., Testamenta Eboracensia: A Selection of Wills from the Registry at York, The Publications of the Surtees Society, 30, 6 vols. (Durham; London; Edinburgh, 1855), ii, 274: ‘Volo quod executores meo faciant scutum cum armis meis, sicut factum est super sarcophagum sepulcri mei, sculptum super libellum dictae capae, ea intencione ut populus specialiter oret pro anima mea.’ []
  3. See, for example, Badham, Sally F., ‘Status and Salvation: The Design of Medieval English Brasses and Incised Slabs’, Transactions of the Monumental Brass Society, 15 (1996), 413–65. []
  4. Vintler, Hans, Die Pluemen der Tugent, ed. by Ignaz Vincenz Zingerle (Innsbruck, 1874), vv. 9653–9719: ‘So haben ietzund etleich herren / die allerschnödisten hochfart, / als sie ie bechennet wart, / als umb die schilt und panier / und ander wunderleich groyr, / die da in der chirchen stecket, / und mit dem selben so wecket / man neur die abgötterei / und vergisst man got da pei. / wann es sicht maniger man / die wappen alsomit vleis an, / das er vergisst der heilichait da, / […] Wilhelmus tuet uns auch chunt / in seinem puech Racional / das etleich edling sein so chal, / die sich lassen genüegen nicht / an den schönen panier liecht, / die da in der chirchen hangen, / es müessen auch ir wappen prangen / auf den kaseln und umeral, / da man got inne wandeln sol; so sein die kelch mit wappen geziert, / da man got inne celebriert. / […] sullen nu pfaffen ain soleich chrei / tragen mit den spilleuten, / die da pfeifen sullen den preuten, / und sullen wappen als herolt tragen! / […] es möcht sich leicht also füegen, / das etleich den teufel trüegen, / ob er in wurd auf genat / für ain wappen. also stat / sein si an dem lieben got, / also machen si in ze spot.’ []
  5. Baader, Joseph, ed., Nürnberger Polizeiordnungen aus dem XIII bis XV Jahrhundert, Bibliothek des literarischen Vereins in Stuttgart, 63 (Stuttgart, 1861), 114: ‘Auch gebietten unnser herren vom rate, das hinfür kayn ir burger, burgerin, ir gewalt oder yemants vin iren wege zu sant Sebolt, zu sant Lorennntzen, zum newen spital und unnser lieben frowen capeln inn eynichen stull derselben kyrchen, noch an oder inn dieselben kyrchen eynich gemeldhe, schylt, zaychen oder tafeln nyt schlahen, henncken oder malen, auch nicht absprechen lassen, auch auf kaynen grabstayn eynichen schylt oder zaychen machen lassen, on wissen unnd sonnder vergunst des kyrchenmaysters.’ []
  6. Ibid. []
  7. Ibid., 113–114: ‘Eyn erber rate dieser statt ist […] zu verdruckung hoffart, kostlichkayt und uncost daran komen, ernstlich und vestiglich gebietennde, das hynfür eynicher ir burger oder burgerin dieser statt oder yemands anders von iren wegen an gemaynen stetten und ennden inn dieser statt und gepiete nyt auffrichten uder aufnhencken sollen oder zu bescheen verfügen eynichen leychenschilt oder scheyben, der über drey guldin cost oder werdt sey. […] Es soll auch eynicher leychschylt oder scheyben hie inn dieser statt unnd inns eins erbern rats gepiettem am gemaynen stetten nit aufgehanngen werden on sonnders wissen und gunst der kyrchenpfleger oder der jhenen, die des zu erlawben macht haben bei der gemelten peen zehen guldin. Nachdem bisshere auch mit aufhenckung der lychschylt in namen und von wegen der abgestorben personen hie inn den kyrchen mit grosse und kostlichayt manigfaltige uberflüssigkeit fürgenomen, geübt und gebruacht worden, ist ayn erber rate, got dem allmechtigen zu lobe auch umb gemyned nutz und notturft willen, solliche eytelkayt des uncostens, auch sorgveltigkait des abfalles sollicher schylte, veryhdnerung der liecht und anndere ursach angesehen […] daran komen […] das hynfür eynicher burger […] eynichen leychschylt über die grosse und mass, von eynem erbern rat darzu verordnet […] nicht auffhencken […].’ []
  8. Tauler, Johannes, Die Predigten aus der Engelberger und der Freiburger Handschrift sowie aus Schmidts Abschriften der ehemaligen Strassburger Handschriften, ed. by Ferdinand Vetter (Hildesheim, 1910), 185: ‘So gebent die lute ir almusen und wellent das es die lute wissen, als das sie fur si sullen bitten. Und so machent sie venster und elter und gerwe, und wellent das man das wisse, und zeichenent das mit schilten, das es alle lute sehen.’ []
  9. See Analecta Franciscana sive chronica allaque varia documenta ad historiam Fratrum Minorum spectantia, 10 vols. (Ad Claras Aquas/Quaracchi, 1887), ii, 440–441. []
  10. See ibid., 471. []
  11. Luther, Martin, Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed. by Joachim Karl Friedrich Knaake (Weimar, 1923), xxxv, 480–481: ‘Wenn man auch sonst die greber wolt ehren, were es fein, an die wende, wo sie da sind, gute epitaphia oder sprüche aus der schrift drüber zu machen oder zu schreiben, das sie fur augen weren denen, so zur leiche oder auff den kirchoff giengen. […] Sölche sprüche und grabesschrift zierten die kirchoff besser, denn sonst andere weltliche zeichen, schild, helm etc.’ []
  12. James, Mervyn Evans, ‘English Politics and the Concept of Honour, 1485–1642’, in Society, Politics and Culture: Studies in Early Modern England, ed. by idem (Cambridge, 1986), 308–415, 320–321. []
  13. Humphrey, Laurence, The Nobles or of Nobilitye: The Original Nature, Dutyes, Right, and Christian Institucion Thereof Three Bookes [etc.] (London, 1563), ch. ii, no page. []
  14. Ibid., ch. iii, no page. []
  15. Ibid., ch. ii, no page.
  16. Woodward, Jennifer, The Theatre of Death: The Ritual Management of Royal Funerals in Renaissance England, 1570–1625 (Woodbridge; Rochester [New York], 1997), 48. []
  17. The Poems of John Gay (London, 1812), ii, 54. []

Marcus Meer

Research fellow in late medieval history at the German Historical Institute London.

13 Responses

  1. Marcus Meer says:

    I have just come across another article that might be of interest in this context: Édouard Bouyé, ‘L’église médiévale et les armoiries: Histoire d’une acculturation’, Mélanges de l’école française de Rome, 113.1 (2001), 493–542, https://www.persee.fr/doc/mefr_1123-9883_2001_num_113_1_11116, esp. 512ff.

  2. Maggy says:

    During the iconoclastic fury of 1566 in France and the Netherlands lots of heraldic display in churches was smashed and burned as well, you can see one example in https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ea/Frans_Hogenberg_Bildersturm_1566.jpg, the man in red reaching up to a shield on a column, near the middle. Lots of arms were chiseled off gravestones. In France this probably started much earlier during the Huguenot wars.
    During the French revolution l’histoire se répète, even with more anger against heraldic display than against stone and wooden saints.

    • Marcus Meer says:

      Dear Maggy, thank you very much for your reply! I did wonder how this all relates to the overarching iconoclastic movement at the time. The question would be whether arms were targeted explicitly, because of perceptions of ‘ungodly vanity’, for instance, or whether they were ‘merely’ collateral damage. That’s why I am very curious about your second statement regarding the French revolution. Why, do you think, was there ‘more anger’? Was it because of arms being seen as something inherently bad (e.g. ‘elitist’), or was it because they often belonged to members of the monarchy/nobility they wanted to get rid off? Was it political reasons or religious sentiments?

  3. Luisa Gentile says:

    Dear Marcus,
    I was very interested in reading your article. I join the comment of Torsten. Since the proceedings of the Congress of Dublin 2002 are very difficult to find (they were published only on CD-Rom!), and in the meanwhile new sources were available, I’ve written a new article (in Italian) on the subject: « Amibitiosa decorandi arrogantia : l’avversione per gli stemmi nelle chiese, dai predicatori medievali ai trattatisti della Riforma cattolica », in « Armas e trofeus. Revista de historia, heraldica, genealogia e arte”, 2018 (still under press), pp. 29-60. Very interesting contributions came from Édouard Bouyé, « L’ Église médiévale et les armoiries. Histoire d’une acculturation », in Mélanges de l’École Française de Rome – Moyen Age, 113 (2001/1), pp. 493-542, and – as written by Torsten – Monica Donato (whose article is unfinished: she passed away from this life in 2014).
    I can confirm you that critcism about heraldry in the churches is really a European phenomenon, crossing the borders with moral literature and homiletics, from late XIVth century to XVIIth and over. For instance, Hans Vintler belongs to a border region, the Tirol: he lives near Bozen (nowadays in Italian Alto-Adige), a german-speaking town on the southern side of the Alps, along the Brenner way, where lives also a community of Tuscan merchants; he speaks italian, a bit of latin and Die Pluemen der Tugent has among its sources the writings of Tuscan moralists. So, his criticism of heraldry could come from both sides of the Alps: even the mockery of priests looking like minstrels or heralds, because of their liturgic vestments embroidered with arms, could be found in a text of Franco Sacchetti, as Monica Donato pointed out.
    Thank you for your contribution to build a global vision of the phenomenon , underlining its German and English sides – this latter was for me totally unknown !

    • Marcus Meer says:

      Dear Luisa, many thanks for your bibliographical suggestions! There seems to be a European pattern after all!

  4. Alex Maxwell Findlater says:

    After the reformation in Scotland, traditionally dated from the 1560 Parliament, it seems that there was a spirit to limit display; the later Presbyterian churches on the whole lack the heraldic displays which we see in the older churches which survive. I don’t know if there is any study of this. It is certainly a theme which is consistent with the reformation, but whether it has any great significance I am not sure. If heraldry moved out of the church, it certainly did not move out of the kirkyard. If anyone doubts this, visit the Greyfriars in Edinburgh – an austere preaching hall for the kirk, but the tombs outside are grand and frequently armorial.

    • Marcus Meer says:

      Dear Alex, thank you very much for your comment. I think it would be great, as you suggest, to pay close attention to the changes in church interiors before and after the Reformation. In many ways this of course does open up the question of heraldry as a potential ‘victim’ of the changes in attitudes towards the visual in the early modern period: If it did remain inside the kirkyard, why was the sacred space of the church forbidden?

      • Alex Maxwell Findlater says:

        I am only hypothesing, however I expect that the smashing of icons which we see in England in the time of the Commonwealth was only possible because the secular authority allowed, even encouraged it. In Scotland that didn’t happen in the same way, so my take on it was that it was more gradual. As for kirkyard vs kirk, nowadays the kirkyard is the responsibility of the local authority, ie state responsibility. If this was also the case in the middle ages in Scotland, that would indeed explain it, but I just don’t know where responsibility lay then. In could easily imagine that in a Royal Burgh the burgesses always had responsibility, but in the country parishes, I don’t see it as being the same.

  5. Dear Marcus,
    thank you very much for this excellent blog post. I was aware of the text of Hans Vintler and had always planned to follow this line of research a little bit further. I’m glad that you did it and that you are on it. Concerning your question about other European countries: Apparently, in France, there is no such thing known, for the moment. However, in another forum on FB, Matteo Ferrari pointed out that in Italy, there was, from the 14th century onwards, a strong criticism by a part of the clergymen concerning the exposition of coats of arms in churches and on holy objects and pieces of work. For further details, the refers to:
    Gentile , Luisa Clotilde, Ambitiosa decorandi arrogantia. La querelle sur l’usage des armoiries dans la pensée religieuse italienne entre Moyen Âge et Âge Moderne, in: International Congress of Genealogical and Heraldic Sciences XXV (2002), and
    Monica Donato, “Ogni cosa è pieno d’arme”. Uno sguardo dall’esterno, in: L’arme segreta: araldica e storia dell’arte nel Medioevo (secoli XIII-XV), ed. by Matteo Ferrari, Florence 2015, p. 19-27.

    • Marcus Meer says:

      Thank you very much, I was not aware of anything similar in Italy. It’s great that the blog allows us to connect the local spotlights to paint a more European picture of the phenomenon – I shall have a look at Luisa’s and Monica’s papers!

  1. 07/03/2018

    […] Marcus Meer, „Heraldry is Vanity! Moral Criticism of Heraldic Commemoration in Germany – A European Phenomenon?“, in: Heraldica Nova: Medieval and Early Modern Heraldry from the Perspective of Cultural History (a Hypotheses.org blog), published: 24/01/2018, Internet: https://heraldica.hypotheses.org/6122 […]

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