PhD project “Structure and function of medieval armorials” – The kick-off
Torsten Hiltmann’s innovative project on late medieval coats of arms has a subproject attached to it called ‘Struktur und Funktion mittelalterlicher Wappenbücher’. Some of the faithful followers of this blog might remember the vacancy that has been posted on this site a couple of months ago. This has recently been filled. I have been given the opportunity to work on the interesting and challenging subject of late medieval armorials. In the next few lines I would like to shortly introduce myself.
As a history student at the University of Groningen (The Netherlands) the Middle Ages immediately attracted to me. This period has a constant interpretive tension to it: on the one hand the foundation of many structures and ideas of our modern western society have been laid during this arbitrarily confined time period, but on the other hand it is popularly referred to as the Dark Ages and perceived as a period of barbarity, brutality and decline. The latter is particularly true for post-Carolingian age and spurred to study this saeculum obscurum in its own right I specialized in the late ninth and early tenth century during my Research Master Classical, Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the University of Groningen.
However, my fervor went further than that, or actually, closer to home. The province of Groningen is blessed with a large amount charming medieval churches, some of which have surprisingly rich interiors. I studied the hatchments in these churches and that is where I first professionally encountered heraldry. Although my research focused on the complicated survival history of these hatchments and not on the coats of arms in particular, heraldry had captured my interest.
History is not a quest for the truth, neither a factual recreation of the actual course of events, but an attempt to make sense of the remnants we have of the past in order to understand contemporary society. History is therefore not a static thing of the past, but a dynamic product of our current conceptions. Consequently, historical methodologies and interpretations vary in different countries and universities and it is important for historians to be aware of that, to enter into dialogue with each other and learn from other perspectives.
The semester I studied at Ghent University, for example, was an eye-opener. At the institute for medieval studies in Ghent all attention goes to the sources: source criticism is elaborate and the amount of information the Ghent researchers extract from a source is impressive. At the University of Groningen, on the other hand, focus is more directed on theoretical history, grand narratives and the relation between history and reality. Both approaches are invaluable for a well-balanced historical research and I would like to bring both of them together in my study of late medieval armorials.
From the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, a wide array of armorials have been produced, ranging from short blazoned texts to rich illustrated manuscripts. One of the first problems one encounters when studying armorials is the definition of the study object. What is exactly an armorial? This simple question has been proven difficult to answer. The makers of armorials have presented the coats of arms in different ways and have dealt with different themes, varying sometimes within the frame of one armorial. This makes it hard to classify them as well. Former classifications have been proven useful, but their rigidity does not do justice to the fluidity of the contents of armorials. The first goal of this research is to find a suitable definition for armorials, to categorize them and to reassess the way they are classified.
Many armorials have complex origins. They have often been copied, assembled and reassembled, so they should be approached with extreme caution. Copies have often not been exact reproductions of the originals, but have been adapted to the intentions and the needs of the copyist. Content was added, left out or changed, and consequently these copies should be treated as unique armorials of their own. Approached in this manner, copies are actually important sources that can provide insights on the intentions behind the production or compilation of armorials and their purposes. In this study, therefore, both originals and contemporary copies will be considered valuable sources.
Armorials have often been consulted, mostly by heraldists, but have seldom been studied as a historical phenomenon in its own right. This is a shame, since coats of arms were an important means of communication in the later Middle Ages and armorials played a crucial part in this system. Armorials have the potential to increase our understanding of many processes of later medieval culture and society, such as perceived world order, symbolic communication and family representation, and can be a fruitful source for researchers working in many fields. This project wishes to initiate a reevaluation of and increased scholarly attention to these important and insightful sources.
In order to achieve that, I aim to define the structure and meaning of late medieval armorials and their development from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century. The point of departure is to realize that armorials were not an end in itself, but a means of communication. The artist, author or compilator passed on information or told a story and casted his content in a certain format. By analyzing the presentation and content, combined with the background an origins of the armorials, I wish to increase our understanding of them. Why do they have the outline they have and what were they used for? How can they be approached and what can be learned from them? These questions are meant to shed light on these rather obscure sources and give them the attention they deserve so they can sharpen our view of late medieval culture and of themes in many more scholarly fields.