The “History of Heralds” Book Project – Update

BNF, fr. 1280, fol. 59r

Heralds writing together.
(Paris, BnF, fr. 1280, fol. 59r)

The first of our workshops on the history of heralds was not only the occasion for a very stimulating exchange on the topic as such. In the latter half of the workshop, we also discussed the book project and its eventual content and structure in more detail. In the following, I will try to resume the results of this very fruitful debate and formulate a proposition of what could be the possible outline of this book. I would be glad to discuss this with you.

Presentation of the Book’s Topic

The history of heralds is a largely understudied one. Most of the studies on heralds published so far are limited to heralds in a certain period, in a certain area, by mostly offering some unrelated case studies. There is almost no coherent general overview, especially not over la longer period. There are also only a few or non-existent overview studies on specialised subjects such as the social status of heralds or the particularities of that office, which are so important to understand it more adequately. I think the cause of that is the fact that our field of research is in some way a largely underestimated one. Its enormous potential for historical research but also beyond hasn’t been realised so far, or at least hasn’t led to more thorough research. Yet, the history of heralds is not only a long history (chronologically), but also a wide one geographically. You have to deal with a lot of single developments, which haven’t been put into context yet. Here, I think, lies the enormous strength of the topic. Because we are dealing with an office

  1. which is very close to nobility (not only, but almost exclusively). It deals with persons, deeds, the culture and perception of the leading group of society.
  2. which was dealing with different areas of life: tournaments and courtly ceremonies as well as warfare, diplomacy, espionage or even literature and antiquarianism.

And this office could be found almost all over Europe (and even beyond) for such a long period – more than 600 years, or even more than 800 years, seen that for instance in England, this history has not yet reached its end. So we are involved here with a pan-European office which deals with nobility and aristocratic culture in many different areas of life, and a history that can be studied for a period of more than 600 or even 800 years, thanks to a huge amount of sources – external sources as much as many different kinds of writings done by the heralds themselves. Bringing all this together and laying down a first roadmap for a more intensive research on this office and all the opportunities it offers would therefore be a very helpful thing, and beyond any doubt also a very fruitful and inspiring one as well.

The Purpose of the Book

The idea of the book project is thus to bring together the very diverse expertise of the participants of the project (geographically, chronologically, and thematically) and to combine these to form a new perspective on this office and its very telling history. The book shall be a neat introduction to the office of arms and its history in the longue durée, laying down the basic knowledge in that concern. But more than that, it shall also present the diversity and openness of this topic, the wide range of different approaches that can be chosen for research and finally, the outstanding potential that it holds for many other fields of research. In doing so, in presenting the inspiring variety of this history, it shall also demonstrate the open questions in this field and refer to the eventual avenues for further research.

The Basic Principles of the Book

There are some principles that shall guide us in our writing:

  • Instead of only giving a fact-oriented description of the office as such, the contents of the book shall emphasise the question what may be learned by the history of this office and its features. Instead of asking what a herald was, it shall rather describe what it meant.
  • In writing the book, the traditional narrative scheme of “rise and fall” shall be avoided and substituted by an idea that understands history as a concurrent succession of differentiations, adaptations and continuities which have a meaning and need to be explained.
  • By no means does the book intend to give a complete account of the history of heralds and the particularities of this office. Seeing the fact, of how little we actually know about this phenomenon and the richness and diversity of the sources and its history, this would be a largely misleading claim. The idea is rather to give an overview of the fertility of this fascinating field of research and to emphasise the new perspectives it might open.
  • But most of all, all kinds of generalisations must be avoided. The papers and discussions of the first workshop just demonstrated the diversity of the different shapings this office could take in different regions and in different times. All findings must thus be given a clear context, geographically and chronologically.

Format of the Chapters

The book shall consist of seven chapters. Besides the introduction and the resuming outlook at the end, each of these chapters shall be composed of an introductory text and a number of short spotlights and case studies. While the introductory texts (about 30 pages) shall give a succinct outline of the topic in question, trying to give at least a first synthesis on a matter and to throw some light on the most important points of it, the spotlights and case studies with a couple of pages each (and a total of about 20 pages) shall develop and illustrate some of the points made. Already by their arrangement in putting contradictory stories side by side shall they demonstrate the exciting variety of this history and create further research questions by providing a narrative tension.

For the intended content of the different chapters of the book, please see the following posts:


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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