Heraldry in Medieval Literature

Largely through the readings of my interdisciplinary course on medieval chivalry, which I am teaching again this semester, I have husbanded a number of passages dealing with a favorite subject of mine: heraldry. Like Melville’s librarian, I reprint them here.

• Gerald of Wales, De principis instructione (English, 12th cent.). It’s difficult to see how exactly this would work (interior of the shield, maybe…).

When King Arthur went out to fight, he had a full-length portrait of the Blessed Virgin painted on the front of his shield, so that in the heat of battle he could always gaze upon Her; and whenever he was about to make contact with the enemy he would kiss Her feet with great devoutness.

• Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain (English, 12th cent.). This one’s a little better – and the shield has a name, to boot.

Arthur himself put on a leather jerkin worthy of so great a king. On his head he placed a golden helmet, with a crest carved in the shape of a dragon; and across his shoulders a circular shield called Pridwen, on which there was painted a likeness of the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, which forced him to be thinking perpetually of her.

• The Poem of the Cid (Spanish, 12th cent.). Don Jerome talks to the Cid, in terms not exactly in accord with his status as a cleric.

Wishing to honour myself and my order, I demand of you the privilege of striking the first blows. I carry a banner and a shield with emblem of roe deer emblazoned on them. I wish to essay my arms, as it may please God, to bring me joy and give you greater satisfaction.

• Chretien de Troyes, Lancelot (French, 13th cent.). The first herald to appear in literature does not seem to be a very competent one.

On this bed Lancelot was reclining, completely disarmed. As he lay there so uncomfortably, suddenly there appeared a fellow in his shirt-sleeves, a herald-at-arms, who had left his coat and shoes as a pledge at the tavern and came rushing in, barefoot and in a general state of undress. He found the shield in front of the door and inspected it, but was quite unable to recognize it or tell who owned it or was to bear it.

• Later in Lancelot. If you can’t impress the ladies with feats of arms, you can always do so with your knowledge of heraldry!

The queen was back in the stand with the ladies and maidens; and with them too were numerous knights without their arms who had been captured or who had taken the cross, and who interpreted for them the armorial bearings of their favourite knights. They say among themselves: “Do you see the one now with the golden band across the red shield? That’s Governal of Roberdic. And you can see that next one with an eagle and a dragon painted side by side on his shield? That’s the son of the King of Aragon, who has come to this country to win honour and renown. And can you se the one beside him who is spurring so hard and jousting so well, the one with part of his shield green with a leopard painted on it and the other half azure? That’s the much-loved Ignaures, the popular lover. That one bearing the shield with the pheasants painted beak to beak is Coguillant of Mautirec. And do you see, to his side, those two on dappled horses and with sable lions on their golden shields? One is called Semiramis and the other is his companion, which is why their shields have the same decoration. Do you see too the one whose shield is painted with a gate from which a stag seems to be emerging? I swear that’s King Yder.” Such were the explanations given in the stands.

• Chretien de Troyes, Perceval. You’ve got to get those measurements right.

While they were getting ready and arming in the hall, through the door enters Guigambresil bearing a golden shield, on which was an azure band. The band covered precisely a third of the shield, accurately measured. Guigambresil recognized the king and duly greeted him; but instead of greeting Gawain, he accused him of felony.

• Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, fit 27 (English, 14th cent.). Gawain gets his shield, and we get a different explanation for the symbolism of the pentangle than the neo-pagan one in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.

Then they showed him the shield of shining gules,
With the Pentangle in pure gold depicted thereon.
He brandished it by the baldric, and about his neck
He slung it in a seemly way, and it suited him well.
And I intend to tell you, though I tarry therefore,
Why the Pentangle is proper to this prince of knights,
It is a symbol of Solomon conceived once
To betoken holy truth, by its intrinsic right,
For it is a figure which had five points,
And each line overlaps and is locked with another;
And it is endless everywhere, and the English call it,
In all the land, I hear, the Endless Knot.
Therefore it goes with Sir Gawain and his gleaming armour,
For, ever faithful in five things, each in fivefold manner,
Gawain was reported good and, like gold well refined,
He was devoid of all villainy, every virtue displaying…

• Jean Froissart, Chronicles (Netherlandish, 14th cent.). A dispute over an emblem during the Hundred Years War.

Just as Sir John Chandos had ridden round observing part of the French dispositions, so one of the French Marshals, Sir Jean de Clermont, had gone out reconnoitering the English. In doing this, it so happened that their paths crossed and that some strong words were exchanged. These knights, who were young and in love, were both wearing on their left arms the same emblem of a lady embroidered in a sunbeam. Sir Jean de Clermont was by no means pleased to see his emblem on Sir John Chandos and he pulled up in front of him and said: “I have been wanting to meet you, Chandos. Since when have you taken to wearing my emblem?” “And you mine?” said Sir John. It is as much mine as yours.” “I deny that,” said Sir Jean de Clermont, “and if there were not a truce between us, I would show you that you have no right to wear it.” “Ha,” replied Sir John, “tomorrow you will find me more than ready to prove by force that it belongs to me as much as to you.” With these words, they each turned away, but Sir Jean de Clermont shouted, as a further provocation: “That’s just the sort of boast you English make. You can never think of anything new yourselves, but whenever you see something good you just take it!”