It is not much of an exaggeration to say that average readers see the entire span of the Middle Ages as a homogeneous mass of history. They assume that everything from the fall of Rome up until the Battle of Bosworth is filled with highborn damsels in flowing dresses and armored knights with lions rampant on their shields.
|"The Accolade" by Edmund Blair-Leighton|
Naturally, these tales took on the clothing and characteristics of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, rather than the realities of the sixth, further muddling up our ideas of what part of the Middle Ages looks like what. The complex system of knightly tournaments and symbolic heraldry in the Arthur legends makes us assume that such was the case through the whole of the Middle Ages.
My first novel, I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, is set during the fourteenth century, in the chivalric world that many associate with the whole of the Middle Ages. But when I began researching my second novel, Road from the West, a tale of the First Crusade set at the end of the eleventh century, I found myself having to expunge many of my “stock” medieval notions in order to be more authentic to the time period.
Two hundred and fifty years can effect radical changes. The differences between the eleventh century knight and the fourteenth century knight might not be quite as dramatic as the differences between the Lexington militiaman and the modern day Navy Seal, but they are there nonetheless.
One example of the difference is in the use of heraldry. In the fourteenth century world of the Black Prince, every character had an emblem on his shield, specific colors in his banner, and a motto he had adopted—many of these devices having been passed down from father to son. In the eleventh century, these defining characteristics of knighthood had not yet developed.
Historian Elizabeth Hallam writes:
Heraldry—the systematic use of hereditary devices—attained its maturity under the later Plantagenet kings. Symbols like the Roman eagle, the dragon of Wessex and the Viking raven had been known for centuries, but these belonged to peoples, not particular people.At the time of the Norman Conquest, a mere thirty years before my setting of the First Crusade, we begin to see knights taking up specific symbols for themselves, but, according to Hallam, these “seem to have been personal rather than inherited.”
Francois Velde writes:
The Bayeux tapestry provides a terminus a quo: no heraldry there. Combatants have designs on their shields, but the same design is seen on different individuals' shields (even on opposite sides of the battle) and the same individual uses different designs at different times.In other words, the symbols adopted by eleventh century knights seem rather random, and certainly not something passed from father to son. It is not until the twelfth century when we see the Plantagenets taking the golden lions for their coat-of-arms and passing them down from father to son.
|The nondescript knights of the Bayeux Tapestry|
So why the change? Why do my knights of the First Crusade have no family crest to deal with, whereas my knights of the Hundred Years’ War are awash in stripes, blocks, chevrons, lions, dragons, and other heraldic beasts?
Velde says the change was
…due to the evolution of military equipment from the late 11th to the mid-12th c, with fighters unrecognizable under their helmets (there is a nice illustration from the 11th century Bayeux tapestry showing William lifting his helmet so as to be recognized by his troops in battle). This led fighters to paint emblems on their shields. The question is then to establish a proper chronology of this emergence and of the transformation of these emblems into armory, i.e., constant use of one design by the same person and application of strict rules in the design itself.Hallam agrees with this assessment. “Protected by an enveloping helm instead of the old open-faced Norman helmet, knights were unrecognizable in battle or tournament except by the devices emblazoned on shield, surcoat (or ‘coat-of-arms’) and horse trappings.”
The greater protection afforded by the new helmets also afforded a virtual anonymity. To be recognizable, a knight must adopt a consistent symbol which others would associate with his name.
Velde (summarizing the work of heraldry expert Pastoureau), says that we can distinguish two phases in the birth of heraldry: “the transformation of decorative motifs painted on shields into permanent and individual emblems (1100-1140) and the transformation of the latter into hereditary emblems subjected to precise rules (1140-80).”
So, that red flag that my eleventh century Duke Bohemond flies from the towers of Antioch? A mere whim. No connection to his family heritage. Probably only hung there because he liked the color red.
Those three golden lions on my fourteenth century Black Prince’s shield? The established coat-of-arms of the Plantagenets, seen in an early form on Geoffrey of Anjou’s shield, seen again as a pair of lions on Henry II’s shield, and formalized to three lions in 1198.
Just one of the many differences that two-and-a-half centuries make in the complex period known as the Middle Ages….
I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, a historical adventure/romance set during the Hundred Years' War, and Road from the West, the beginning of a trilogy which takes place during the First Crusade.
You can learn more about Rosanne's books at her Author Website where she also blogs about writing, mothering, and things historical.
Hallam, Elizabeth, ed. Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry. London: Greenwich Editions, 2002.
Velde, Francois. "Origins of Armory." Heraldica. http://www.heraldica.org/topics/origins.htm