Survey of Medieval Armorials

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Medieval armorials are the oldest evidence of the colours used in coats of arms.  A few manuscripts are contemporary, but most are later copies. Even for the contemporary manuscripts, the reader will, on closer examination, find that they must also be copies of an original collation, often including additional material.

Traditionally, armorials have been grouped into overlapping categories: e.g. ordinaries, general, universal, illustrative, occational, local or institutional. Some are easily classified according to form or content, but many are difficult to place, and classification varies according to the whims of the editor.

Without going into details - at present - a few traits might be noted: most shorter armorials (i.e. less than 500 items) compiled before 1400 tend to present actual people, while later and larger armorials (more than 1500 items) tend to be interested in families only.  Not only that, but by 1380 most armorials appear to be mainly editions of whatever old or contemporary materials at hand. One may visualaize the herald-editor or wealthy commissioner of the work standing behind the scribe-artisan and selecting the books, manuscripts and chapters to be copied.

The copying approach is widely used in late continental armorials to the extent that we might speak of groups of armorials drawing on a common set of sources. With some differences between them, four groups are obvious:

  • Toison d'or group: armorials using armorial Gelre (GEL), armorial equestre de la Toison d'or & de l'Europe (TOE), armorial Lyncenich (LYN, al. Gymnich) and Wijnberghen (WIN) as sources;
  • Urfé group: armorials using armorial Urfé (URF) as main source, but also drawing on the Toison d'or group;
  • Navarre group: armorials using armorial Navarre (NAV) as a major source;
  • Miltenberg group: several south german armorials, incorporating a large number of imaginary arms (first seen in the Richental Constanzer Chronicle, KCR), quaternionen and organized in chapters of tournament societies (largely the same families, but contemporary collations);

For the above reasons and when used for the later and larger armorials, the classifications mentioned above ought to be revised and used not for the armorial as a whole, but for its component segments. Such armorials might better be classified a composite, with segments noted as illustrative, imaginary, occational, general, local, institutional or even ordinary. Some, mainly older, are apparently without major segmentation, and could be termed universal.

The files below are taken from Steen Clemmensen: Ordinary of Medieval Armorials, 2006.


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