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"Heraldry" Topic

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Dn Jackson Supporting Member of TMP18 Apr 2022 11:16 p.m. PST

I grew up with, I think, a pretty standard understanding of heraldry and how it works. So, if a knight had a white eagle on a red shield as his coat of arms he would carry a red shield with a white eagle, wear a red surcoat with a white eagle on it and his horse would have red barding with white eagles on it.

Apparently I was wrong.

I've been working on a large number of knights for a medieval project and started paying close attention to various medieval illustrations in different manuscripts. I've seen most of them in 'Medieval Warfare' magazine.

I was quite surprised at some of the variations in the illustrations of knights. One might have that red shield with the white eagle while wearing a yellow surcoat and riding a horse with blue barding. Or, a blue shield with yellow device, red surcoat, and white barding. I've even seen some knights with pink barding, (which isn't a faded color as other figures are shown in red in the same illustration). This is while ignoring those figures that are supposed to represent Muslims.

Am I misreading the illustrations? Some follow the rules I grew up with, but a lot don't. Am I missing something?

Any thoughts?

Aidan Campbell19 Apr 2022 1:01 a.m. PST

Don't be fooled in to thinking medieval illustrations were accurate records.

They were for decoration, the wealthier the illustrator/client the more illustrations and finer detail there would be on a manuscript and the greater the variety of inks/pigments they would want to use to "show off" that wealth.

I've been through similar debate with clients when choosing colours for making replica period costume… manuscripts have a very distinct style that may be separated from reality.

Swampster19 Apr 2022 1:41 a.m. PST

With any historical source, there is always the issue that the artist is portraying something he thinks looks good rather than reflecting reality. However, I think the mix of colours in, say, the Manesse Codex makes sense for various reasons. Since it looks good and can be explained, I think it is worth following.

A lot of the horse barding, and some of the surcoats, have some base colour with the heraldry scattered over it on e.g. small shields. This would be a step down in expense compared to a housing completely depicting a coat of arms. Geometric designs would be simpler to produce than e.g. zoomorphic types.
Some barding was definitely decorative and either fanciful or only for a tournament. The 'amor' design on the Manesse illo. of Heinrich von Breslau is one of these. I painted mine with the same design but left out the letters.

There are certainly fanciful elements in this codex – some of the arms are just made up and some show the arms at the time of making rather than how they were even a generation earlier. However, I think it is noticeable that the variety of representation has a greater purpose than simply decorating the manuscript or being limited by the skill of the artist. There is a social hierarchy which is evident – this may represent reality on the battlefield or just being an artistic thing. My current p.o.v is that I am also portraying something in an artistic and representative way and I will try to balance that with the definite historical features.

Some of the surcoats would have been made with cloth provided by a lord, and not necessarily in anyone's heraldic livery.

On the other hand, there are plenty of instances where the various places do match. The Liber ad honorem Augusti shows almost proto-heraldry and some of the first European caparisons, and in this the patterns are repeated, including at time on the helmets. There are a few where shield and helmet do not match – my guess is that this shows two levels of allegiance.

There may well be regional preferences: Spanish knights in particular seem to take the matching to extreme – whole bard covered, with arms repeated on each quarter, shield, front and back of surcoat, surcoat cap sleeves and helmet.
In Italy, arms on caparisons are often placed in a roundel.

I use and frequently recommend link (which I have tagged for 'herardly')
This is useful for seeing not only various combinations of non-heraldic colours, but also seeing how the arms can be adapted on barding – it can be turned 90 degrees or front and rear can be different.

You sometimes need to be careful with the colours. Most of them are amazingly well preserved, but 'argent' in particular can oxidize to black.

As an aside: For anyone new to painting heraldry, one of the most common mistakes is on the reverse of flags and barding. The arms should be reversed, so for example lions will face towards the horse's head or the flag pole. Heraldry on the back of a surcoat is usually _not_ reversed.

Berg geit19 Apr 2022 1:51 a.m. PST

I agree with Aidan. There is always the question of whether iconography depicts reality, more fantastical or some creative touches.

I would imagine listings from jousting tournaments are more accurate. Based on the assumption that directly represents the participating knight. But I feel that they only really show the shield and the helmet. (I am pretty sure that later elaborated helmets are more fantastical, like the ones you might still see in modern heraldry).

The illustrations of single, named, knights might also not always be accurate.

In the end, I would say the choice is upon what you want.

(These are my interpretations, in no way an expert)

Dn Jackson Supporting Member of TMP19 Apr 2022 6:14 a.m. PST

"Don't be fooled in to thinking medieval illustrations were accurate records."

That's why I discount the figures that represent Muslims. However, I've seen some that have 'normal' figures next to odd ones. There was one where it was an illustration of the author of a book. It showed him mounted and his coat-of-arms, which was fairly complex, was well rendered on his shield, but his horse had pink barding! Really odd.

rampantlion19 Apr 2022 8:23 a.m. PST

Also, these "important" people wanted to stay alive and stay in command of their retinues. If they could not be identified on the battlefield it could be to their own peril. Also, they were often leading a contingent of soldiers with feudal fealty to them. These soldiers with fealty needed to protect their leaders. Just as these leaders would attempt to protect theirs. I think that they would have made themselves quite recognizable. Just my opinion though.

Grelber19 Apr 2022 9:27 a.m. PST

I would think there was a certain amount of non-matched heraldry.
I don't know why Dad had to have everything gules. I want my surcoat and barding azure.
Wretched squire put the barding too close to the fire and I have to make do with whatever color cloth is available.
The duke's livery is vert, so maybe if I wear a vert surcoat and vert barding, will make me his steward.
What do you mean you couldn't get enough dye for the barding, so it doesn't match the surcoat?
Looks too much like Sir Don's stuff. Who in their right mind would want to be mistaken for Sir Don?
These are all individual, one-off things and none of them represent a long-term plan, but any of them (and no doubt plenty of other explanations) could be used to justify a few variations in strict heraldic design. I would think the shields at least would remain consistent with the "official" heraldry.

Like Berg geit (These are my interpretations, in no way an expert)

Swampster19 Apr 2022 11:47 a.m. PST

As well as manuscript images, some equestrian seals also show caparisons with small shields bearing the arms.
This is obviously not simply to allow greater use of colour. Nor would it seem to be down to lack of skill or because of expense – Ottokar, for instance, was wealthy and had multiple seals done.

Sometimes, this is a way of showing off a number of different possessions by using different arms on each shield, as with Ottokar of Bohemia. One of his surviving seals is finely enough carved that some kind of abstract decoration can be seen covering the rest of the caparison.


The use of the small shield isn't just for multiple different designs. Albrecht I of Bavaria's seal shows the same shield five times on the caparison – two on the fore quarter and three on the rear.
Otto of Mecklenburg has his arms repeated twice on each quarter.
The seal of the Count of Hohenberg shows a single shield on each quarter – this is a very simple device too. The same arms are borne by one of the Manesse Codex knights, though he repeats the design more times. (Seals and codex don't always match e.g for Brabant). Note, the presentation isn't down to lack of skill – the arms are simple but the engraver has used fine hatching to differentiate the colours.

Some seals seem to have no device on the caparisons at all, but I wouldn't be sure that this is due to wear rather than being made without them.

I think, though, there may have been a regional fashion as well – most of the examples I've seen where there is a smaller device on a different background have been from Germany and Italy.

Cost may have been a factor too. Remember that these surcoats and caparisons were expensive items. The more decorative they were, the more expensive. Joinville has a discussion with the king where he basically says 'we didn't need them in my day' – the king says he had some which cost 800 livres and he would have been better off giving them to charity.
Using smaller sewn or embroidered devices would reduce the cost substantially. This would still have been a large expenditure.

Seals and illustrations are ways in which rulers etc. wanted to have themselves portrayed. They could have chosen to represent themselves with their arms covering the whole caparison – as was done in different times and places, but they didn't. Since the representation looks good and fits the evidence we have, I think it is worth using.
Eventually, seals stop matching other sources and become increasingly stylised, so I wouldn't use them for the whole medieval period.

Dn Jackson Supporting Member of TMP19 Apr 2022 8:47 p.m. PST

"Some of the surcoats would have been made with cloth provided by a lord, and not necessarily in anyone's heraldic livery."

Something I hadn't considered. I figured knights would provide all of their own gear to include clothing.

"Spanish knights in particular seem to take the matching to extreme – whole bard covered, with arms repeated on each quarter, shield, front and back of surcoat, surcoat cap sleeves and helmet."

I had noticed this on illustrations in 'Medieval Warfare.'

Thanks Swampster, great link.

Great discussion and ideas from all. Thanks

Greylegion20 Apr 2022 7:05 p.m. PST

Very interesting discussion guys. You learn something new every day.

Zephyr120 Apr 2022 9:34 p.m. PST

Paint them up how you like. ;-)
Long ago, I painted up 3 boxes of 1/72 knights, each one with different heraldry (not all of them based on actual examples.) Makes for colorful formations… ;-)

Dn Jackson Supporting Member of TMP22 Apr 2022 12:04 a.m. PST

So far I've painted two units in what I consider traditional heraldry and two in the 'wrong' heraldry. I find the cacophony of colors on the 'wrong' figures jarring. They do stand out though.

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