Heraldic Language in French Narrative of 12th-13th centuries
In memory of Gerard J. Brault, 1929-2020
Being an MA in linguistics I was invited in 2013 by the group of Heraldry and Genealogy Project of the Institute of World History, Moscow, to conduct research on blazon as a professional language of heraldry. The idea was to add a new – linguistic – perspective to a primarily historical topic. When I started my inquiries in the world of heraldry (and I started from the very beginning) my attention was drawn to the sudden appearance of armorials as specific kinds of documents circa 1250. The fact looked too strange from the linguistic point of view as there is nothing sudden in language. Thus began my journey into the world of “Heraldry without pictures”, as we have designated it.
During the years the issue of appearance of heraldry and its earlier practices became the main direction of my work with method of linguistic analysis being its main tool. Of course, the idea to look for answers in the blazon is not new and is developed in a number of marvelous papers starting with Louis Bouly de Lesdain’s “Études héraldiques sur le XIIe siècle” and all the way to Gerard Brault’s fundamental “Early Blazon: heraldic terminology in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with special reference to Arthurian literature”. To some extent my work became a continuation and polemic to Prof. Brault’s investigations.
In my research however I did not compare early heraldry to what we know about it now but attempted to see it with the eyes of those who first started using it (which was easier for me as a novice in heraldry) and what is more important to “hear” them talking about it. In this context the language became the live marker of perception of arms in society of 12th century. The results of the work done so far are presented in my PhD thesis, defended in September 2020.
To get the whole picture of heraldic evolution it is essential to start from the very beginning with the issue of appearance of heraldry. Its genesis and development during its first 150 years of existence is probably one of the trickiest questions. The sources are few and not very informative. Images of coats of arms, which are often regarded the main (if not the only) source of heraldry, fail to answer most of the questions that modern heraldic studies tend to raise: who could be involved in all kind of heraldic activities, who were the armigers, heralds, painters, scribes and generally who shared the knowledge of this brand-new visual-sign system.
The accepted date of appearance of first coats of arms is mid-12th century while the first written heraldic documents – armorials – appeared only circa 1250. Thus these first hundred years are a “dark age” of heraldry, however, crucial for understanding the success of medieval heraldry. It was the period when its rules and practices, pictorial features and its special language were formed. The latter – the blazon – being the textual hypostasis and voice of heraldry became the main subject of this research.
It is widely accepted after G. Brault’s conclusion that “the language of heraldry had become relatively fixed by the end of 13th c.” New analysis and reevaluation of former data however showed that blazon was actually fixed and stable already by 1250 and most important features found in the earliest blazon have remained unaltered till modern time. That means that it appeared and was established as oral practice long before first record and the process of its formation in general remained undocumented. However, some hints of it can be found in 12th-13th centuries narrative.
Thus the following project became an attempt of retrospective reconstruction of the history of blazon based on what could be gathered from literary texts of the period.
It was decided to approach textual component of heraldry with methods of linguistic analysis. The data obtained this way suggested certain amendments to the general view of early history of blazon, mainly formed by fundamental research of Gerard Brault.
The first stage of work implied comparative analysis of blazon in earliest rolls of arms available: Bigot Roll, Chifflet-Prinet Roll, Glover’s Roll, Walford’s Roll, Camden Roll, Falkirk Roll, Galloway Roll, Sterling Roll – that helped to distinguish special features of 13th century blazon.
One of such features is of course special vocabulary. The scope of heraldic lexis used in the given rolls of arms is gathered in tables and show that most of the terms used in 13th century blazon can be found in all armorials, while words that appear only once or twice are few and usually present elements of canting arms. The synonyms are rare and most of them remain in modern blazon presenting English and French variants of the term (e.g. mullet – etoile, escallope – coquille). Looking ahead, it is important to note that all blazon instances found in narrative preceding the first armorials use the very same terms with little deviation.Other features characteristic of early blazon are word order, grammatical ellipsis, use of collocations (“heraldic phrase”, introduced by G. Brault’s), and appearance of certain kind of neologisms that seem to be peculiar to heraldic jargon. The neologisms are participles derived from nouns, omitting verb forms: chevron – chevroné, billet – biletté, losange – losangé, trefle – treflé. The term chevroné literally means “to be chevronned” while there is no such verb “to chevron” (at least in heraldic sense). Such words denoting usually qualities of the field are also peculiar of blazon.
A special term heraldic sentence was introduced to denote a blazon as a single shield description (or a single armorial entry) as opposed to blazon as a whole language. Thus heraldic sentence possesses all distinguished features: special vocabulary, special grammar, special syntax.
The main score of the work was to find in the narrative of 12th-13th centuries passages with arms-like shield descriptions and examine whether they possess the special features of heraldic sentence, thus to conclude whether they are blazon or not.
As an example, shield description from Chretien de Troyes’ Lancelot (1190) possesses no features of heraldic sentence and even though it uses some of the vocabulary it cannot be regarded blazon:
A cel escu vert d’une part,
S’a sor le vert point .i. liepart
Et d’azur est l’autre mitiez?
C’est Ignaurés li covoitiez.
However descriptions of arms from Li Tournoiemenz Anticrit by Huon de Mery (1230-1240) show all features of heraldic sentence and no matter that its lexis is so peculiar they are perfect heraldic sentences:
Et portoit l’escu endenté
A i. rous mastin rechignié;
The lexis of the latter is also very important. The analysis showed that all the heraldic mistakes were made by the author on purpose, that proves author’s proficiency in blazon and not his ignorance as was proposed earlier.
Such distinction is of course conditional to some extent, as some features may be present and some not, and some of them seem to be more important than others. However the analysis showed consequent and steady growth of the number of correct heraldic sentences in literature of 12th-13th centuries. That proves that the knowledge of heraldry was spreading fast and was not a prerogative of heralds as specialists only. The ability of 13th century authors to write blazons, rhyme blazons and even to mock blazons as done by Huon de Mery, proved that there was a demand from the audience for this sort of literature.
- Chronology of Blazon
The research helped to build up a consequent history of French blazon development and spread of heraldic knowledge in the audience. It showed that the blazon is likely to have appeared at the same time with coats of arms and achieved its fixed form by 1200. The consequent growth of interest of the audience led to more numerous heraldic entries in literature that resulted in 1250 in appearance of wholly heraldic sources – armorials, which was not sudden but a logical continuation of development of the genre.
- Heraldry and blazon in particular were common knowledge
The appearance of numerous heraldic documents proved that the audience of medieval authors was interested in coats of arms and was able to perceive it not only in the pictorial form but also as a text, thus the first armorials of the 13th century were not just working notes of heralds but could be read and understood by a wider audience.
- Perhaps it were the trouveres and the clerics who contributed most to codification of heraldry
We know well that in the 12th‑13th centuries heralds used to be listed in pay rolls together with dancers, musicians and jongleurs under a common name of menestralli. So it can be suspected that they could neither write nor read and, even knowing the blazon and using it by word of mouth, they could hardly write it down for further use. The fact that blazon appeared in narrative long before first armorials suggests that it were not the heralds who created the first armorials or put down first shield blazons.
The full scale of work done by the moment is presented in the PhD thesis (in Russian):
- Staroskolskaia, D.: Dissemination of Blazon as Special Language of Heraldry in French and English Texts of 12th and 13th centuries, available here https://igh.ru/dissertations/35?locale=en.
In English the work is presented so far by two papers:
- Staroskolskaia, D. (2019): Heraldic Blazon in Tournoi de Chauvency, 1285. ISTORIYA (4 (78)) DOI: 10.18254/S207987840005014-4, that gives a general idea of the method and its application;
- Staroskolskaia (Ryzhova), D. (2020): Modern Criticism of Earlier Heraldic Sources. ISTORIYA. 11(9 (95)). DOI: 10.18254/S207987840012420-1, which is a short report on the work done so far and a preview of the thesis.
Daria Staroskolskaia (Ryzhova) is a research fellow at Heraldry and Genealogy Project of Institute of World History RAS, Moscow: https://igh.ru/departments/67?locale=en.
 Bouly de Lesdain, Loius: Études héraldiques sur le XIIe siècle, in: Louis Bouly de Lesdain: Etudes héraldiques. Vol. 1 (Miscellanea heraldica, 1), Paris 1978, pp. 127-186.
 Brault, Gerard: Early Blazon: heraldic terminology in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with special reference to Arthurian literature, Oxford 1972.
 Brault, Early Blazon, p. 3.
 Brault, Early Blazon.
 The concordance tables of heraldic terms can be found in Staroskolskaia, D.: Dissemination of Blazon as Special Language of Heraldry in French and English Texts of 12th and 13th centuries, available here https://igh.ru/dissertations/35?locale=en.
 The word “blazon” has two meanings “1. a verbal or written description of a coat of arms” and “2. a formalized language for describing a coat of arms”. To tell two notions apart I call the first one a “heraldic sentence”.
 On special lexis in Li Tournoiemenz Anticrit see: Staroskolskaia (Ryzhova) D. (2020). Modern Criticism of Earlier Heraldic Sources. ISTORIYA. 11(9 (95)).