The Language of Heraldry


 The Origins of Heraldry


Among specialised vocabularies in which the French element is of great importance, a prominent and distinctive place is occupied by the terminology of heraldry. For an outsider, the language of heraldic descriptions has a curious look. “Azure three wheat sheaves or” has been known to call forth the question, “Or what?” The difficulty vanishes when one realizes that the language used is French and that or is the French for gold. 

Heraldry is defined as “the science and art that deals with the use, display, and regulation of hereditary symbols employed to distinguish individuals, institutions, and corporations.” [Encyclopaedia Britannica] It probably originated in the devices used to distinguish the armoured warriors in tournament and war, and by the end of the twelfth century was firmly established as a system over a wide area of Western Europe. The identification devices, like, for instance, arms displayed on shields and banners, required precise verbal descriptions to be recorded in rolls of arms and other documents. Such descriptions came to be known as blazons, from the French blazon. There is also the verb to blazon, i.e. to describe a coat of arms. 

The early heralds described shields and banners in the Norman-French of their day, with a minimum of technical expressions. To them, the Earl of Leicester’s shield was de gules ove un leon blank la cowe furchée – red, with a white lion, the tail forked. Sir Anketyn Salveyn’s shield was d’argent ove j cheveroun de goules iii testes de sengler de goules – silver, with a red chevron and three boars’ heads. Certain words had acquired a definitive heraldic meaning, for example, those applied to the various parts of the shield; but for the most part early blazon consisted of straightforward descriptions in the ordinary language of the period.  

Thus, the word blank in the first of the two examples is not a recognized term for colour in heraldic terminology. The recognized colour terms are gules (red), azure (blue), sable (black), vert (green), and purpure (purple). In heraldry they are known as tinctures. Alongside the colours, tinctures also include metals: or (gold) and argent (silver), as well as furs: ermine, represented as silver with black tails or “spots”, and vair, alternate patches of blue and silver. In painting, gold may be represented by yellow, and silver is usually represented by white. Thus, in modern terminology, “un leon blank” will be styled as “a lion argent.” 

Some ancient blazons were poetical. One of the earliest among the rolls of arms is the Roll of Caerlaverock, contained in a poem, The Siege of Carlaverock. Written in Norman French, the poem related the siege and capture of a small castle in Dumfrieshire in the year 1300 during the July campaign of that year in Scotland by King Edward I. The author’s main purpose was, without doubt, to describe the arms of those present. He describes over a hundred of them. The language of his blazons shows the heraldic terminology in ferment. Poetical licence could, no doubt, be another reason for the use of other than technical words, including words for colour. We learn, for example, that Robert Fitz-Roger had his banner “De or e de rouge esquartelée, O un bende tainte en noir”. This would now be blazoned as “Quarterly or and gules, a bend sable”. And the Earl of Hereford had 

Baniere out de Inde cendal fort

O une blanche bendelée

De deus costices entrealée

De or fin, dont  au dehors asis

Ot en rampant lyonceaus sis. 

Nowadays, this would be blazoned as “Azure, a bend argent cotised or, between six lioncels rampant of the second.

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  The Origins of Heraldry

  From Ancient to Modern Heraldry

  The Language of Heraldic Mottoes

  Heraldic Syntax

  Heraldic Orthography & Pronunciation

  Contemporary Uses of Heraldry


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