Nought can deform the Human Race
Like to the Armour's iron brace.
When Gold and Gems adorn the Plow
To peaceful Arts shall Envy Bow.
We are competitive creatures: a primal urge for individual display is inherent to humanity and its open expression is universal, except in those subjugated within repressive communities. Heraldry is merely a narrow species of this wider genera. As such, it is not alone in hiding implicitly assertive hostility behind an ostensibly decorative show.
Apart from their original and enduring purpose as ‘marques de reconnaissance’, heraldic arms are widely deprecated for being inherently pretentious. This is a proper accusation, but only partly so, since neither actual nobility nor honourability can be bestowed by any agency and ostentatious display is plainly alien to both virtues. However, arms do not necessarily signify privileged rank or conferred honour: many arms, including the Geal arms (Fig. 1), are those of plain commoners and have no such pretensions.
Heraldry has had unexpected supporters against this common assumption of privilege: even George Washington, a prominent republican, advanced it — perhaps in tacit recognition that one of its essential principles is individualism: “[I]t is far from my design to intimate an opinion that heraldry, coat-armour, etc. … can have any tendency unfriendly to the purest spirit of republicanism.1,2 Even so, the taint of snobbery remains and is long-standing: for the medieval Church the pomp of chivalry was an ‘Occasion of Sin’ (that is, an extrinsic circumstance which incited or enticed one to sin, in this case to Pride). Likewise, the stain of the intrinsic association of heraldry with oppression is ineradicable.
In origin heraldic arms were a development of the ancient forms of badges and seals — whose widespread and autonomous use were no more regulated and suborned to status and privilege than were personal names — adapted to meet the need for conspicuous identification in combat. An absence of hierarchic distinctions was characteristic in early heraldry and, apart from regal insignia, explicit emblems of rank were then rare in English arms. Despite this, the role of arms in the display of rank is self-evident: they were initially largely confined to members of the feudal elite, men-at-arms and prominent ecclesiastics, whereas the harsh and oppressed lives of most of humanity precluded such frivolities. The wider use of arms followed from the demise of feudalism, with the dawning of the open society and its requisite growth of trade and markets opening the way to a more extensive awareness of individuality, which had emerged in the preceding two centuries.3 A rudimentary individualism which soon found opponents in both vestigial feudal power and an emergent collectivist millenarianism4 — a conflict which, mutatis mutandis the seemingly changed nature of these adversaries of freedom, persists.
An ancient Greek hoplite (see Fig. 2) would have readily recognized the forms and primary function of medieval arms. But two crucial innovations in early heraldry distinguish these military emblems from their ancient antecedents: the emergence of systematic rules governing their design and their heritable use as familial arms.5 Although the latter lay the grounds for eventual confusion and disorder as family arms proliforated — contrary to the later casuistry supporting royal intervention — this did not entail anarchy: from the thirteenth century disputes over arms were settled by the Court of Chivalry. Nonetheless the Court confined itself to issues of ownership and usurpation, it never ruled on the assumption or grant of arms nor on any of the minutiæ of heraldic rendering. The antithetical foundation of the College of Arms by Richard III in 1484 (although Henry VII revoked the College's charter in 1485, it unaccountably persisted) ended the independent adjudication of the Court and arguably spawned the insidious growth of heraldic pretension and affectation. Prior to that, as with continental burgher arms, English arms were normally ‘self-assumed’ without recourse to any authority, although, following French custom, the assignments of arms by royal grant increased from the first reign of Henry VI (1422–61) onwards. Likewise, it was not uncommon during the Middle Ages for knighthoods and subordinate Lordships — and thereby arms — to be independently bestowed by existent knights and Lords. (See: Fount of honour.)
Later, heraldry and the granting of honours came under exclusive royal control, except for arms held “in right of an ancestor”: a process which was not confined to England nor limited to heraldry, it being an aspect of the pervasive accretion of power by European royal dynasties and the nascence of the coercive nation state from the mid-fifteenth century onwards. Yet only in the Britain and the Kingdom of Portugal was the right to bear arms wholly abrogated. While the ostensible aim of regulation was the elimination of the “disarray of arms”, in England, this was merely symptomatic of the wider curbing of baronial powers. Under the ensuing Tudor reigns, royal power now being despotic, a simple mercenary objective came to the fore:6 arms, hitherto free property, were now expropriated and became tokens of venality or servility,† henceforth to be granted only for a fee or as an inducement or reward for service.
A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquise, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's aboon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities, an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank that a' that.
Robert Burns (1795). A Man's a Man for A' That.
… [W]hile the sovereign is the ‘fount of honour’ in one sense, he is also the enemy of honour in another, since he claims to arbitrate in regard to it.
Julian Pitt-Rivers (1965). Honour and social status.‡
The intense social hierarchy implicit in feudalism endured beyond its demise and the novelty of exclusive royal approbation inevitably enhanced the prestige of these now anachronistic bearings for the newly aspirational, whilst soothing the angst of the old nobility. Thereby snobbery was augmented. Even so the restrictions themselves were widely and sometimes blatantly disregarded, as is the common fate of sumptuary laws.7 Later these shows of defiance and insouciance towards regulation offered absolute power another opportunity for arrogation and extortion: avoiders of heraldic fees, with their impudent self-assumed arms, were thereafter summarily preyed upon by sporadic heralds' visitations.8
By the end of the sixteenth century the development of effective firearms and artillery had rendered full-body armour — and hence coats of arms — obsolete and a militant aristocracy superfluous. Now that heraldic arms had ceased to be chivalric in either creation or function, their bearers became increasingly oblivious of the companionship9 formerly implied in their display. A demand for hierarchic differentiation followed the proliferation of courtiers at the Tudor Royal Courts and thus a panoply of emblems of rank was devised, each bolstered with a plethora of petty and arcane restrictions. Once severed from their original and primary purpose, arms became increasingly ornate and elaborate: a path was cleared for the decline of this once vivid and exuberant, if also brutal, visual tradition to fatuous ostentation and flummery. Still, something lingers: their old essentials were never entirely eradicated and remnants remain.
Some find heraldry provocative or even offensive, since it seems to them at odds with their ostensibly egalitarian perspective (but then, except for equality under the Rule of Law or before God, Égalité is often envy in fancy-dress). This response is too weighty for its vainglorious object: the illusory glories and proud pomp of arms are concocted of trifles — sometimes pretty but always insubstantial, they no more threatening than are engulfing clouds to the Moon on a stormy night.
Ein jeder sieht was er im Herzen trägt.
Everyone sees what he carries in his heart.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1808). Faust – Der Tragödie erster Teil (Faust: Part One).
Over the centuries the intrinsic association of heraldric arms with brute power has diminished: it is now faint and any residual prestige is quite harmless. Even if these emblems remain nebulously offensive to some, to many they seem merely frivolous and whimsical: for a few they may retain traces of a putative former nobility, but that is perhaps a still greater delusion.
* The great French economist Frédéric Bastiat evidently concurred with Blake's sentiment:
In order to produce, we must direct all our faculties toward the conquest of Nature; for it is Nature that must be fought, mastered, and subjugated. That is why iron beaten into a plowshare is the emblem of production.
In order to plunder, we must direct all our faculties toward the conquest of men; for they are the ones we must fight, kill, or enslave. That is why iron beaten into a sword is the emblem of plunder.
Frédéric Bastiat (1850). Economic Harmonies.
† On willing minions:
Ainsi la première raison de la servitude volontaire, c’est la coutume : comme des plus braves courtauds, qui au commencement mordent le frein et puis s’en jouent, et là où naguères ruaient contre la selle, ils se parent maintenant dans les harnais et tout fiers se gorgiassent sous la barde. Ils disent qu’ils ont été toujours sujets, que leurs pères ont ainsi vécu ; ils pensent qu’ils sont tenus d’endurer le mal et se font accroire par exemple, et fondent eux-mêmes sous la longueur du temps la possession de ceux qui les tyrannisent ; mais pour vrai, les ans ne donnent jamais droit de mal faire, ains agrandissent l’injure
Thus custom becomes the first reason for voluntary servitude. Men are like handsome race horses who first bite the bit and later like it, and rearing under the saddle a while soon learn to enjoy displaying their harness and prance proudly beneath their trappings. Similarly men will grow accustomed to the idea that they have always been in subjection, that their fathers lived in the same way; they will think they are obliged to suffer this evil, and will persuade themselves by example and imitation of others, finally investing those who order them around with proprietary rights, based on the idea that it has always been that way.
Étienne de La Boétie (1576). Discours de la servitude volontaire. Édition Bossard (1922). Wikisource. and The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. See also: The Politics of Obedience: Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. Introduction by Murray Rothbard (1975). Translation Harry Kurz (1942) (250KB, PDF).
Power, like a desolating pestilence,
Pollutes whate'er it touches; and obedience,
Bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth,
Makes slaves of men …
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1813). Queen Mab: a philosophical poem, with notes.
Figure 1: the arms
Figure 2: proto-heraldry
Greek proto-heraldry in a detail of the Chigi olpe (mid-seventh century BC).
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If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream, …
William Shakespeare (c. 1595).
A Midsummer Night's Dream.