Survey of Medieval Armorials


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 or commentator.

Without going into details - at present - a few traits might be noted: most shorter armorials (i.e. less than 500 items) compiled before 1350 tend to present actual people, while later and larger armorials (more than 1000 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 was available. One may visualize a compiler or a wealthy commissioner 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 may speak of groups of armorials drawing on a common set of sources. There are overlaps between the 6-7 groups that have been identified:

  • Toison d'or group, incl. armorial equestre de la Toison d'or & de l'Europe (ETO), armorial Lyncenich (LYN, al. Gymnich) and Bergshammar (BHM);
  • Urfé group, incl. armorial Urfé (URF), Prinsault (PRT), LeBlancq (LBQ), Sicile (SIC);
  • Bel-Gel: Bellenville (BEL) and Gelre (GEL), using the same core sources;
  • Navarre group, Navarre (NAV) and Berry (BER), indirectly related to the following:
  • Rineck or Lorraine group, incl. Rineck (RYN), Coislin-Séguier (CSG), Nancy (NAN);
  • Bodensee group: 30+ 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 with contemporary collations); incl. Grünenberg (GRU), St.Gallen-Haggenberg (SGH), Ingeram (ING), Rugen (RUG), and Miltenberg (MIL);
  • Ashmole group, ordinaries based on the Ashmolean Roll (AS), incl. Cooke (CKO), Cotgrave (CG), and Thomas Jenyns (TJ).

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 should be termed general or universal, depending on whether they include imaginary arms.

The files below are taken from Steen Clemmensen: Ordinary of Medieval Armorials, 2017.

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