During the 12th and 13th centuries, the developing tenets of the chivalric code were giving rise to new phenomena. As warriors strove to display chivalric qualities, those who had been dubbed knights also strove to differentiate themselves from common soldiers, as well as from upstart bourgeois merchants who could use their newfound wealth to mimic chivalric manners and styles of dressing.
According to the knights, what set them apart was their noble nature, which was not a mere disguise but an endowment that could be traced back through their family lineage over many generations.
At the same time, changes in military technology and warfare were requiring knights to wear heavier armor that obscured their entire bodies, including their faces. The basic helmet that had been in use since antiquity—a metal or leather skullcap with nose and chin guard—was replaced by the bascinet, a steel head covering with a pointed crown that extended all the way down to the base of the neck, where it joined with a collar. The bascinet was fitted with a full visor that could be pulled down over the face, with only slits for the eyes and for ventilation.
These two parallel, and rather paradoxical, developments—that is, the desire for knights to advertise their nobility, and the necessity for armor that effectively disguised the identity of its wearers—gave rise to a new symbolic system, one that could identify and brand the individual knightly persona and tie him to a noble lineage at a glance.
This new visual language was called heraldry because, like the heralds who verified a knight’s ancestry, it publicly announced and vouched for a warrior’s nobility, family pedigree, and personal achievements. One might not be able to tell who was wearing the armor, but the insignia displayed on his banner, shield, and trappings would reveal it to those who knew how to decode this symbolic system.
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Patenting Symbolic Brands
These developments, in turn, necessitated a system which would allow a knight or an aristocratic family to patent their own symbolic brand, so that it could not be used by anyone else. This patent was often accompanied by a documented narrative of one’s ancestors’ valor and status, or a genealogical table, or both.
From the 12th century onward, the medieval art or science of heraldry was the process whereby the distinctive inherited traits of an individual or family could be condensed into pictorial motifs, often accompanied by mottoes that expressed that identity in a few bons mots. Together, these symbols and maxims became a noble family’s coat of arms because it was—at least originally—emblazoned on the colorful surcoat that covered a knight’s armor, as well as on his shield, banner, and other accoutrements.
Signs of collective identity, too, were important in the ancient world. The legions of republican and imperial Rome carried standards called vexilla—unique banners that identified each unit. And of course, royalty and nobility have almost always been associated with bloodlines and lineage, so that boasting of one’s ancestors is a perennial pastime.
What is new by the 12th century, then, is not the importance attached to lineage but the development of a European-wide symbolic system to patent noble identities and the concomitant need to produce credible genealogical data mapped onto family trees. This, in turn, created a whole new class of heraldic professionals—designers and artists, historians and household clerks.
The earliest heraldic devices appear connected to the aftermath of the First Crusade, in the first decades of the 12th century. The term crusade is derived from the French word croisade, which refers to the crosses (crux or croix) that warrior-pilgrims wore on their shields or surcoats, first attested in this period.
According to crusade chroniclers, this practice was originally a spontaneous invention of one warlord, Prince Bohemond of Taranto, who is said to have obeyed Pope Urban’s call for holy war by whipping off his best cloak and slashing it to pieces with his sword, to make crosses for his men to wear.
However, the cross was still a generic symbol, not a distinctive, individualized one. For example, the many depictions of shields in the Bayeux Tapestry, created after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, do not associate specific devices with specific fighters; none of the named individuals depicted with a decorated shield carries the same shield twice.
The first known example of a heraldic shield with a specific device connected to an individual knight is that depicted on the enamel panel of a tomb, dating from the 1150s. It was commissioned for Geoffrey Plantagenet, count of Anjou, who died in 1151. In this image, the count is shown with a large blue shield, bearing golden lions rampant. He also wears a steel helmet with another golden lion. Geoffrey’s son, Henry of Anjou, became the King Henry II of England in 1154, just a few years later; and it appears that, through him, this device was passed along to his surviving sons Richard Cœur-de-Lion (Lionheart) and John, both of whom used the lion as a symbol.
Common Questions about Heraldry
The two parallel, and rather paradoxical, developments—the desire for knights to advertise their nobility, and the necessity for armor that effectively disguised the identity of its wearers—gave rise to the new symbolic system that could identify and brand the individual knightly persona and tie him to a noble lineage at a glance.
The medieval art or science of heraldry was the process whereby the distinctive inherited traits of an individual or family could be condensed into pictorial motifs, often accompanied by mottoes that expressed that identity in a few bons mots. Together, these symbols and maxims became a noble family’s coat of arms.
The term crusade is derived from the French word croisade, which refers to the crosses (crux or croix) that warrior-pilgrims wore on their shields or surcoats.