Heralds and Heraldry in the Middle Ages (Torsten Hiltmann)

Even if for us it is clear that the office of arms is much more than coats of arms and blazonry, it still seems to be a largely accepted idea – among heraldists, but also among historians – that heralds dealt almost exclusively with heraldry, and that, the other way around, heraldry (coats of arms) was almost exclusively the business of heralds.

That there is a close relationship between those two is beyond any doubt. But I think we have to reflect more thoroughly on the exact nature of this relationship and to put it in a historical perspective.

In my opinion, it is very important to do so, for two reasons: Firstly, because it shapes a perception of heralds which is misleading. Secondly, because this idea of the almost exclusive relationship between heralds and heraldry considerably affects also our ideas about medieval heraldry and its social and cultural impact in late medieval society as such.

I think the range of terms that could describe and classify the relationship between heralds and heraldry varies between: knowledge, expertise and regulatory authority or professional responsibility and control.

It is beyond any doubt that the rise of coats of arms played an important, if not the crucial role in the formation of the office of heralds. It seems to be likely that in the beginning, the knowledge of coats of arms, above all, was a key qualification of heralds to be able to recognise the participants of an tournament, which was the perhaps their major function at those events. And they haven’t been the only ones to be able to do so.

There are also many references to their expertise in dealing with coats of arms, especially in the 14th and 15th centuries. But here as well, they were not the only ones and, above all, as the example of the treatise tratados de las armas by Diego de Valera demonstrates it, their points of view were also in heraldic matters was not uncontested.

Finally, Concerning the creation and control of coats of arms, there are no evidences so far that would prove that heralds were granting and supervising coats of arms, at least for the 12th to 14th centuries. But it seems that things may have changed at the extreme end of the Middle Ages, especially concerning the idea of a heraldic supervision by heralds.

Even if there is still more research to do, I’m rather convinced that for the Middle ages, the relationship between heralds and heraldry was closely linked and perhaps even dominated by another necessary skill and preoccupation of heralds: the knowledge of persons. This would bring us to the question whether this preoccupation with persons and their deed remained a major preoccupation of this office also after the Middle age, and if so, if it changed somehow?

Torsten Hiltmann


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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