The Culture of Heraldry. Lineages and blazons

And the eagle became a coat of arms

Few systems of symbols stood for a nobleman as much as his coat of arms placed on mansions, graves, armours or personal things. Heraldry used to be considered like a special knowledge only known by erudite people. Since immemorial time, this science is inseparable from nobility’s life. It flawlessly brings together a wide range of meanings, symbols and messages having as a common denominator the goal to perpetuate the fame of a lineage in the collective memory in order to make it imperishable.

For centuries, heraldry has been present in noblemen’s everyday lives as an element of identification which glorified achievements, exalted families and reinforced pride. It’s impossible to understand all aspects of the noble culture if coats of arms are not considered as organizational lines of every chivalresque, ludic and pedagogic manifestation involving the war and family worship. Not only did this image imply prestige and fame, but also it showed a complete and organized knowledge with legal rules which contributed to bestow an internal logic and an intellectual fascination on heraldry.

Like witnesses of the past becoming cultural levers towards the future, all the documents presented in this exhibition pay homage to the science of blazon. Despite the passage of time and different cultural trends, this subject remains currently an undisputed reference.

Image, identity and power

Heraldry is deeply rooted in classical antiquity and relates to wars and the exhibition of shields displaying mythical creatures as a synonym of warrior’s strength. These symbols and the way they are represented on stone, wood or other materials were picked up through the Middle Ages during crusades as well as jousts and tournaments. As time goes by, blazons became emblems of the nobility and images of its power in the feudal world, being authentic cover letters of noble families’ strength.

In the Iberian Peninsula, coats of arms began to be commonly used in the 11th century, through Christians and Moslems’ fights. They were means of recognition between allies from different kingdoms, lineages or military orders. Without losing this function, blazons reached those who were not warriors, as ensigns of kings as well as craftsmen, barons and ladies, ecclesiastics and social or religious minorities. Showing first very simple compositions, blazons of the nobility evolved to reach their highest complexity from the 16th century, due to marriages and accumulated majorats. In the 17th and the 18th centuries, under French influence, coats of arms became higher elements of social distinction and an entry point to the nobility, as they conveyed familial achievements and legends, like witnesses of their owners’ power and fame. Not in vain, the upper middle class benefited from the Old Regime decline to aspire to titles and coats of arms, and demonstrate its social and economic rise. As a consequence, the new financial nobility did not hesitate to place blazons on luxury goods and business cards.

Blazons allowance

According to mythology, Jupiter was the first warrior-God who adopted an emblem when an eagle perched on his shield just before the beginning of the battle. History relates that popes and kings used to allow blazons to their subjects as a prerogative to reward them with favours. It was a good method of distinguishing a stock and making lineages loyal to the Crown. Over centuries, the most important families of each kingdom founded majorats. So, they recognized themselves with mottos which glossed their origins and heroic past, and that were inherited by their descendants.

During the late medieval era, these favours were materialized in Castile by means of privilegios rodados, where the coat of arms was designed and justified by the vassal’s auxilium and consilium, which was a part of the allowance of a title. In the modern period, licences to get blazons were granted as well as to add some elements like crowns or flags drawings. Heraldry started to spread on places charged with symbols and dedicated to memory. Emblems used to be located on buildings, graves and draperies, but they could be removed if the noble owner betrayed the king, like it happened during the Trastámara Civil War, the Communities of Castile War and the Spanish Succession War.

Since the 17th century, titles and coats of arms were secretly bought. Even though originally they were not as prestigious as those obtained thanks to personal and family merits, time made they finally were all similar in terms of quality. Blazons and flags allowance or recovery are nowadays regulated by laws. Besides, cultural associations, sport clubs and several companies have chosen coats of arms as logos.

Historiated family trees

Rooted in the Bible and based on the Isaiah’s prophecy, which linked Jesus’s birth to the family of King David, the Tree of Jesse inspired genealogy in Western Europe. This science was employed to highlight differences between social classes and justify the belonging to the privileged group, which involved tax exemption and honorific positions.

In the Iberian Peninsula kingdoms, the obsession to demonstrate the purity of blood was necessary to join several religious or civil institutions, so that genealogical documents started to be created. They used to be like trees in order to depict the nobility of lineages. Those images represented a part of someone’s forefathers, showing their genealogy in order to keep memory of each member of the lineage. Genealogical trees can display one or many offspring lines, including majorats, titles, marriages, holy orders belonging and collateral branches. Family trees are organized by upward or downward structures and can be designed like a tree, in vertical position, or like a fan.

Since the 16th century, a huge variety of colours and techniques started to be used in genealogical designs. Ornaments gained prominence thanks to the fact that trees were designed with trunks divided into different branches according to each generation. Sometimes, the trunk emerges from a warrior’s bowels. In addition, on those documents are also multiplied the coats of arms, idealized pictures of forefathers, floral motifs with mythological creatures, and the degrees of nobility with the inclusion of different crowns, cartouches, mottos and emblems.

Heraldic bindings

Heraldic bindings place a coat of arms as a decorative element in the centre of each piece and surround it with mottos, emblems and other heraldic motifs. Blazons and bibliophily were perfectly complemented at a time when books gave prestige to their owners and started to be kept in noble rooms of castles and palaces. According to the customs of each time, those property marks ennobled the most precious manuscripts. Even though copies ornated like this remained uncommon during the Renaissance, in the 16th and the 17th centuries, blazons started to appear in bindings, like stamped or embroidered superlibris and exlibris printed on the inside of the cover, which was typical of Spanish kingdoms. The Bourbons dynasty imported from France the custom of embossing the cover of their volumes with their own coats of arms. In that way, they exalted their favourite books thanks to a specific decoration.

The Historic Nobility Archive hoards different copies which evoke the pride of a lineage, the luxurious way of life and the ostentation of the aristocracy. In this way, authentic pieces of art and canting emblems embellish their shelves and allow us to delight with the skills of all the artists and craftsmen who worked on it in their workshops.

Rolls of arms

Rolls of arms (or armorial books) are catalogues of coats of arms from different lineages. They were compiled since the Middle Ages by authors called kings of arms, who had interest in the emblems of lords and knights. Apart from some early cases, the first known rolls of arms were those composed by the herald Berry, who worked for Charles VII, king of France (1422-1461), and by the herald Sicily, who stood out in Alfonso V of Aragon’s court (1416-1458). Despite the fact that heraldic representations have been standardized, different national styles emerged due to artistic trends in Europe during the late Middle Ages. In the Iberian Peninsula, representations kept their simplicity unlike the forms in Central Europe. In the 15th century, the French fashion entered Catalonia, Navarre and Castile, and rolls of arms started to be made.

Since the 16th century, emblems were less used, which led to a decrease in transmission. Consequently, artists had to be more inventive. Rolls of arms written on scrolls of parchment became written on illuminated codices. Although the Renaissance still offered evidence of medieval heraldry, at that time coats of arms fostered ornaments, including towns that alluded to a mythical sovereign, Prester John, in order to assert their ennoblement. This trend increased during the Baroque times, when abounded excessive badges and forms. Finally, medieval aesthetics came back during contemporary centuries, when armorial books recovered naturalist and more sober trends.

Kings of arms

At the end of the Middle Ages, kings of arms’ knowledge about heraldry shined out. Consequently, they played an important role in its standardization. They were chroniclers and officers in charge of maintaining the register, composing blazons and certifying them. They used to research the genealogy of a family and collect evidence in order to establish the parentage links and demonstrate its nobility. In addition, they usually advertise war and peace, they attended solemn oaths and the ceremonies of coronation, marriage and royal funerals.

Abilities and the way of reaching this trade have been established since the 16th century thanks to arrangements that aimed to remove the undue utilisation of blazons and to prevent people from getting in noble groups and falsifying certificates of coats of arms. Those officers’ functions were established by the Ministry of Justice in 1845, by pointing that they had to conserve the genealogies of noble families, certify their origins and prepare blazons for people who should use them. Since the Regulation of the Kings of Arms and Chroniclers Corporation was approved in 1915, people who aspiring to this profession must demonstrate several aptitudes in front of a court.

Kings of arms used to issue historiated, genealogical and heraldic certificates which dealt with the history of people’s names, their background and the explanation of their coats of arms according to heraldic rules. Those certificates were frequently written on stamped paper with decorative elements. They included the beneficiary’s coat of arms and developed their genealogy from the most ancient ancestors making sure that the lineage was registered in censuses of hidalgo knights censuses and paying attention to marriages and descendants keeping the main surname. Considering the importance of these pieces, they were bound with noble materials like skin, parchment and velvet.

Noble culture: chronicles, panegyrics and poems

The ethos or noble identity was created and reinforced with chansons de geste, epic novels, chivalric chronicles, lineage eulogies and a remarkable amount of compliments written on courtesy letters or laudatory poems. Best writers of the kingdom (erudite persons, university graduates, men of letters, clergymen and all those who worked for noble families) put themselves at the service of aristocrats in order to annotate their supposed heroic origins or their royal blood, to describe all of generations who served God and their sovereigns, and to emphasize virtues of men and women from noble lineages who were characterized by bravery, piety, religious devotion and generosity.

This purpose of perpetuating the memory of lineages succeeded in increasing its presence in the kingdom, kings and cities history. In order to reach this goal, several facts were carefully selected to be remembered or forgotten, even invented. Not any effort was too much to flatter powerful families and make their members take place in general history, which used to be rewarded with their protection and economic gratifications.

Mottos, empresas, slogans and emblems

Heroic sayings that reinforced discourses of fame used also to be expressed with mottos, empresas and emblems. Royal mottos were a successful way of reaffirming the king’s representation because they allowed a new configuration of political clienteles supporting his authority in a court that was traditionally dominated by noble factions. The utilisation of empresas by kings and magnates aimed to symbolize their belonging to the knightly class and to distinguish themselves into their own lineages. The empresa was composed of two elements: the motto or slogan, and the image. Slogans or life rules were short sayings and classical maxims written in Latin or vernacular languages and they used to be placed at the borders, over the crest or beneath the coat of arms.

During jousts, tournaments and bullfights, knights were identified with epigrams and particular mottos (hieroglyphs or riddles, known as empresas during the Renaissance), general emblems (symbolic figures of animals, plants or objects), maxims and inventive allegories of the achievement that they aimed to reach. In addition, servants used to wear liveries with the same blazons and ensigns that their lords had. During the 16th and the 17th centuries, the emblematic science reached such remarkable development that many monographs dealing with this topic were written by Andrea Alciati (Emblemata, Lyon, 1531), Girolamo Ruscelli (Le Imprese illustri, Venecia, 1566) or Juan de Horozco (Emblemas morales, Segovia, 1589).

Court games

Riddles and insignia frequently took place in palace masquerades, in poetic urban jousts and even they were present in exequies and on burial mounds which aimed to evoke the deceased person. Several courtly games were decks of cards destined for aristocracy. In traditional suits the blazons of the most prestigious families combined with the coats of arms of the European countries. Each suit was replaced by a group of blazons representing the emperor, kings, princes, members of the nobility and even prelates, shaped like fleur-de-lis (France), roses (Italy), lions (Spain) and eagles (Holy Roman Empire).

In France, during the reign of Louis XIV, the Jesuit Claude-François Ménestrier, historian and herald, aimed to bring in honest games into the Sun King’s licentious court. He devised Le chemin de l’honneur. Jeu d’armoires (1672), dedicated to the Duck of Bavaria, a game which was played with dice. He specified that “this game, which is an imitation of the Game of the Goose in order to learn blazons while having a good time, represents the majority of the figures displayed on coats of arms, with honour distinctions from the most prestigious members of the Church, of the Robe and of the Sword, which are the main ways to obtain nobility and blazons”.

The conflict: stone, paper, scissors

As a result of the spread of heraldic iconography and honour, identified as an authority code, our ancestors’ vanity and their desires to frequently show off led to conflicts against their countrymen, institutions or other lineages with whom they competed for prestige and power, accusing them of usurping other people’s honours.

When it was possible, some vassals removed memories of old feudal humiliations or attended to royal tribunals in order to draw blazons back from town halls and public buildings. Besides, the Church was able to forbid the exhibition of coats of arms in worship temples like it happened in different Spanish towns, such as Bilbao. Urban groups swarmed around the streets and caused disturbances ending with blazons destroyed or vilified. In other cases, heraldic draperies were contested by different members of the same lineage, and they prosecuted artists for breaching their contracts, not to mention the large number of stained glass windows and grilles with heraldic motifs removed from temples and funeral chapels, which was considered like an insult to ancestors.

The heraldic science: blazon treatises and genealogy

Throughout the 13th century, epic literature used to spread the culture of blazons, giving rise to heraldic catalogues. It led some lineages to adopt mythical coats of arms and this phenomenon was amplified with chivalry novels. This interrelation was important in the Anglo-French world and originated a rich vocabulary. Genealogy came to complete heraldic treatises, and both became erudite knowledge, almost chemical, given that they were able to turn lead (the plebeian) into gold (the noble). According to that, only the initiates could access to places like archives, libraries and crypts.

Heraldry evolved since the 14th century with Bártolo Sassoferrato and his book Tractatus de insigniis et armis (ca. 1350), the first legal text about blazons, followed by Arbre de batailles (1389), written by Honoré Bouvet. During the 15th century, Jean Courtois stood out in Aragon and codified the herald’s work in Nouvelle manière de blasonner (1425). In Castile, treatises emerged thanks to Diego Valera and his book Espejo de la verdadera nobleza (1441), Juan Rodríguez del Padrón, Ferrán Mexía and his Nobiliario (1492) and Pedro de Gratia Dei. During the Golden Century, comedies of arms and lineages, written by Lope de Vega, were successful. At the end of the Old Regime, in addition to the genealogist Luis de Salazar Castro’s works, Claude Ménestrier and Claude Le Laboureur started the first heraldic studies based on formal appearances. This rationalist point of view, represented in Spain by José Avilés, who wrote Ciencia heroica (1725), led to a break with the Middle Ages. Next to this approach, other studies during the 19th century focused on coats of arms origins and development. Nowadays, studies of heraldry deal with prospects linked to the end of the Middle Ages and the modern period.

European coats of arms

Thanks to early treatises, such as De heraudie (1341-1345), written in the Anglo-Norman language, and due to heralds, more and more present in princely courts, the vocabulary and heraldic rules spread throughout Europe. Apart from the Spanish monarchy, each kingdom followed its own aesthetics, which depended on historical and political events and mainly, on cultural movements.

In Portugal, heraldry has been influenced by English coats of arms, characterized by eye-catching crests, quartered blazons, mottos and slogans on the borders. Thanks to mutual influences during the Hundred Years’ War, French and English blazons were closely similar and famous for their cadency and varied colours. They also frequently used supporters and blazons become wider on the chief. In Italy, heraldry focuses on artistic tenants and oval shields, canting arms and emblems. In Nordic countries and Eastern Europe, figures linked to nature and abound hunting weapons, fishes and wild animals. Central Europe and Flanders, on the other hand, are proud of their oldest coats of arms, considered as a collection of angular, overelaborated and with a strong personality blazons. In addition, German coats of arms used to lean on their right side and show numerous crests and attractive mantling, which makes they finally put emphasis more on the composition than on the blazon itself.


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