Survey: What are the fundamentals about heralds?

In order to prepare the discussion about our collaborative book project, I’d like to start a little survey.

Imagine you want to learn something about heralds. You have heard and read already something here and there, but now you need a consistent overview on the topic. What should you learn about heralds? What are the main features of this office and its history that you should know about to be able to deal with it adequately?

Looking forward to your answers in the comments below which you can post in English as well as in French or German.


Torsten Hiltmann

Torsten Hiltmann is Juniorprofessor for the High and Late Middle Ages and Auxiliary Sciences at the University of Münster. He is interested in new approaches to late medieval and early modern heraldry, the medieval notion of kingship and the methods and technologies of Digital Humanities. On hypotheses.org, he is maintaining, among others, the blog “Heraldica Nova”.

3 Responses

  1. Jean-Christophe Blanchard says:

    Studying heralds of the Duchy of Lorraine, I noticed that one of them, Emond du Boullay, was the grand son of a french herald. Apparently this herald worked during the reign of Louis XII. So I tried to find some bibliography about french heralds during this period but my researches were vain. Maybe I’m wrong but according to me the french heralds aren’t well known. It’s quite a paradox for the french kingdom ! May be this fact could be one point of our future discussions. What are you thinking about it ?

    • I think you are completely right about that. We often refer to the French heralds as some kind of role model, at least on the continent. But indeed, we know very little about them. There is still so much to do that perhaps no one ever really considered to start with it properly. The first thing to do would be the basic research on the institutional development of the office of arms at the French court – which could be done, by the way, much more easily using our database (Heraudica). If one would start with it I’m sure it would prove to be a very fruitful thing to do since all the important changes of the office of arms at the turn of the 15th to 16th centuries may show up here: there are ennoblements of heralds in duty, there is the appointing of a marshal of arms (herald Bourbon) in order to start a heraldic visitation of the kingdom (which apparently was never properly executed), and there are also exciting biographies to write about heralds travelling all over the known world.

      So, besides the book project, we should perhaps also speak about the important desiderata of our common research topic and how we can deal with it?

    • Steven Thiry says:

      Such a kinship bond between a herald from Lorraine and a French officer of arms seems, to me, a quite interesting fact. Familial relationships like this point towards the existence of some networks of affinity and acquaintance that transcended national/territorial boundaries (something which the ‘companion volume’ should address as well, in my opinion). One of the fundamental prerequisites for a thorough study and understanding of the topic is probably the disentanglement of such ‘international’ networks. A reconstruction of bonds – be it in the guise of familial connections, professional contacts, exchange – can yield important insights into the essential circulation of knowledge and know how. In the middle ages and at least also for the sixteenth century, travelling and mobility were an important characteristic of the office. Moreover, because it was an outspoken duty of the first king of arms in rank (e.g. Toison d’Or in the Burgundian-Habsburg context or Hector le Breton/Montjoie in the reign of Louis XIII of France) to accompany his sovereign master at any time, the prevailing model of itinerant rulership witnessed a lot of displacement. Another interesting viewpoint in that regard are exiled rulers at foreign courts.

      Without doubt, networks and interaction greatly affected the evolution of organizational forms, functions and practices, but it is not yet a well-known or well-trodden path(?) It can be equally fruitful to look at correspondence and cooperation with other players in the field of symbolism and ceremonial. I’m not sure to what extent such research is really feasible for medieval sources (given the problem of the identification of names)? Is the Heraudica database already attuned to reconstruct such interactions? I also came across some instances of (late-)sixteenth-century heralds cultivating friendships with other state officials and courtiers; or cooperating with royal historiographers and erudites in larger projects. They had to balance these regular contacts with an ideal of secrecy/attempts to keep their knowledge exclusive to the inner circle. Given that many of their registers, genealogies, armorials and ceremonial papers – in short, the libraries of heralds − were seen as ‘private’ property, questions of transmission to succeeding generations were crucial in preserving a certain relevance and exclusive position.

      At the same time, perhaps seemingly at odds with the above remarks, I am convinced that future research has to realize that there were crucial differences between kingdoms and principalities as to the organization, status and duties of officers of arms. Different political choices and structures had different outcomes. The rather centralized outlook of the English case, for instance, can hardly be used to describe or summarize ‘the’ history of the herald. Nor can it be assumed, in my opinion, that the French ‘incorporation’ of 1407 had the same implications as the English college of arms.

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