Heralds and Armorists as Editors of Armorials (Steen Clemmensen)

Among the possessions of a danish herald, who fled the country in 1523 was “a book with arms, such as heralds used to have”. Does this imply that all heralds possesed armorials, or that they habitually entered the coats of arms that they encountered into armorials or armorial notebooks?

Hardly – most of the surviving armorials appear to be works compiled, written or painted at the desk. Perhaps there were too many heralds with too different forms of employment to do so in general. And we know that at least some armorials were not made by heralds. The attribution of specific armorials to named heralds generally have very feeble foundations. To what extent heralds were involved in the making of armorials and whether we can establish criteria for their involvement needs to be explored. We also need to explore to what extent professional artisans and amateur armorists were involved, and whether there was a commercial aspect to their making.

Many late medieval armorials can be divided into 6 groups by their common contents. These are all large composite compilations with up to 50 or more well-defined segments each. Some groups were made in England, others in France or Germany. They comprise different types of manuscripts, some illustrated with miniatures in addition to the tables of arms.

One group, named for the Toison d’or, had its origin at the burgundian court. The members include the Bergshammar, Lyncenich, Arras, and a compendium written by Hendrik van Heessel. These were probably conceived by heralds, as the Bergshammar has inputs from more than 3 armorials, incl. the Gelre. One person was responsible for painting near identical tables of arms for several armorials, and the compendium includes artwork by more than one artisan.

The members of the german Bodensee group have common representations of imaginary kingdoms and heroes. These can be traced back to the Richental chronicle of the concilium of Constance in 1414-18. Some members were compiled by heralds, while others were sold commercially or presented as gifts for personal advancement. Technically, some have common features.

A ‘commercial’ element is also evident in the Berry with its 29 miniatures and a dedication to the king of France. Curiously this armorial, made by and for a senior royal herald, used both paper and parchment.

At present there are no obvious criteria to distinguish between works by heralds or those made for or by armorists.


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”.

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