Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Birth of Heraldry in the Middle Ages

By Rosanne E. Lortz

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
The King Arthur legend has not helped matters. Arthur supposedly lived in the sixth century—that beginning of the Middle Ages which is sometimes referred to as the Dark Ages—however, many of the legends and tales concerning him and his Round Table were invented during the High Middle Ages, six hundred years later.

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….


Rosanne E. Lortz is the author of two books: 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.


  1. Rosanne,
    Important post. You are so right about people lumping the "Middle Ages" together and not recognizing how fashions, armor, shipping, architecture, etc. changed over the centuries. As a footnote to your entry, I'd note that it was the crusades in hot climates that led to the introduction of surcoats over armor (the cloth kept the metal from becoming too hot to touch) and surcoats lent themselves so beautifully to heraldry that I'm sure they greatly encouraged the practice.

    Also, the arms of Jerusalem pre-date heraldry because the do what was not later forbidden -- show metal on metal, i.e. gold crosses on a silver field. I am even going to risk speculating that the heraldic rule against metal on metal was to set the arms of the Holy City apart from all other arms, to give them pre-eminence. But that's just a theory.

    Has your book on the first crusade been released already?

    1. Thanks for weighing in, Helena! Road from the West was released a couple years's the first in a trilogy and I am about 3/4 of the way through writing the second book.

  2. Thanks for this great article! One thing I am curious about is how widespread the knowledge of heraldry was. In my own 14th century work, I have an uneducated barber surgeon who does not recognize the arms of one of the nobles from a different area. My assumption was that he'd probably know a few of the more important local nobles, but wouldn't have much experience outside his neighborhood, as it were.

    Your books sound fascinating!

    1. From my research, I'd say your assumption is exactly right. Heraldry got so complicated that they needed "specialists" at the tournaments to determine who was who. I don't think the average person would recognize the arms of those who weren't in his normal daily orbit.

  3. Engrossing read, thank you. I'm only a reader of middle ages novels and not (yet) an author of the period but the earliest heraldic symbolism aspect is an interesting one. I

  4. Thanks for stopping by, Nancy! It was definitely something I hadn't thought about a whole lot before I researched it...I think all the King Arthur stories I read when I was younger put me down the wrong path about it. :-)

  5. Rosanne,
    thanks so much for this post. It made me feel safe in having my 11th century knight take a wolf as his personal symbol and put it on his banner. I have to say that doing research for a story set just after the Conquest has been a huge challenge! I have books and hundreds of hours of online research and still I had to talk to an expert to learn knights did not ride their destriers around the countryside as some authors portray.

  6. Great post, Rosanne. The casual observer tends to forget the Middle Ages lasted 1,000 years. Things do change. Even horses were not the same.


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