Precious Peers and Planetary Princes
Today, we use a form of blazon almost unchanged from the reign of Edward I of England. However, this system of blazoning arms, so familiar to moderns and ancients alike, was by no means the only system, nor, under some circumstances, even the preferred system.
This webpage will discuss the origins and use of two secondary systems of blazonry, the gemstone system and the planetary system. I hope that it will be of interest in several ways. First and foremost, I hope that it will make the scholarly side of heraldry more accessible to heralds who might feel a bit intimidated by the huge body of scholarship on heraldry. Second, I think that it will tie heraldry into the world around it, and provide a glimpse into our predecessors' universe. Would you have associated Sable with the diamond, instead of obsidian or jet? Thirdly, I hope that it will also provide other heralds with a bibliography of mediaeval and Renaissance heraldic manuals that are not too difficult to gain access to, especially with the help of a librarian or a quick trip to the Library of Congress.
The relationship between lapidary and planetary lore and certain colors is ancient. Pliny the Elder, one of Rome's premier philosophers, wrote extensively on the powers of gems and their planetary sources, sympathies, and antipathies. His works, in summarized form, were very popular throughout the Middle Ages in encyclopaedias and collections of gem lore called lapidaries. Several centuries later, at the very birth of the Middle Ages, Isidore of Seville wrote an encyclopaedia called the Etymologies, which, in addition to being a collection of his linguistic researches, were also a collection of knowledge about whatever he knew about the words. Among other things, he listed the elements, gemstones, and planets to which a color was linked.
Taking the next step from merely the colors to the tinctures of heraldry took a bit longer. One might well be surprised at this, given heraldry's nature. For one thing, as there are seven planets in the Ptolemaic system (the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn), so there are two metals and five colors. For another, heraldry was seen as a visible representation of one's noble nature, and one's nature was seen in one's horoscope. This is probably because astrology was something taught to university men, and heralds, originally, were minstrels with little formal education.
Once heraldry did become a subject of concern to learned men, after the dissemination of Bartolo of Sasso Ferrato's De Insigniis et Armis in the 1350's, the process of linking heraldry completely to the learned lore around it still took about two generations. Bartolo had shown the way earlier, by linking Or to the Sun, Azure to the element of Air, and Gules to the element of Fire. Even though his book was copied, translated, and summarized several times all over Europe, the process had gone no further until the herald to Alphonse V, the king of the Two Sicilies, who was called Sicily Herald, wrote his Blason des Couleurs, in 1414.
Blason des Couleurs was, in many ways, the result of both the growth in lay literacy in the learned and ritual languages of Latin and Greek and the triumph of the vernacular, all in one. Although, as one can see from the title, it was written in French, Sicily Herald was familiar with the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, as well as the Greek language, for he gives the names of the tinctures in Greek. However, his real tour de force was the development of gemstone and planetary blazon. His work is summarized in the table below:
Tincture Gemstone Planet
Or Topaz Sun Argent Pearl Moon Gules Ruby Mars Sable Diamond Saturn Azure Sapphire Jupiter Vert Emerald Venus Purpure Amethyst Mercury Tenne Jacinth Dragon's Head Sanguine/Murrey Sardonyx Dragon's Tail
Blason des Couleurs was very popular for its age. It appeared frequently in manuscript form, and it was also among the first books to be printed in French. Sicily Herald's work was soon taken to England as well, as the Hundred Years War reopened soon after he wrote Blason de Couleurs. Heralds formed a sort of international fraternity, and they shared their rolls of arms and books freely.
Sicily Herald and his fellow heralds set up certain guidelines for when one blazoned arms by their gemstones and their planets. In general, it was said that the great magnates-the dukes, earls, and barons-were to have their arms blazoned by gemstones, and that princes, kings and emperors were to have their arms blazoned by planets.
But no matter how creative a system may be, it is no good if it is not used. Sicily Herald's gemstone system was used in a single visitation of the North of England in the reign of Edward IV. It was, however, known to English heralds during the Tudor and Stuart dynasties, as it appeared in the manuals of heraldry that were written at that time. In the eighteenth century, Aaron Crossly used the gemstone and planetary systems in his Irish peerage. This is perhaps the last usage known before the revival of heraldic scholarship in the nineteenth century, which was very hostile towards the heraldic scholarship of the York, Tudor, and Stuart dynasties.
Although neither system was used extensively in the real Middle Ages, this is probably because their needs for blazoning the arms of great nobles and kings in scrolls were much less than ours. Mediaeval and Renaissance grants of arms were, obviously, not to the great of the land, but to the new gentleman, at the very bottom of the aristocratic scale, who got his arms blazoned in the tinctures we normally use. Visitations were performed only in England and Ireland, and, despite their own suggestions, heralds found it much more convenient to use the colors and metals that we use now for everyone's coats of arms.
The Current Middle Ages, however, could see a powerful rebirth of both the planetary and gemstone systems. Why? Because of our very different system of awards, which gives grants and patents of arms to the great folk of the land, we must needs blazon the arms of great magnates (barons, members of grant-level orders, knights, and members of the orders of the Pelican and the Laurel) and monarchs (earls, dukes, princes, and kings) at almost every kingdom- level event, and at other great events. Also at Crown Tourney, it is the custom to orally blazon the arms of each fighter, and on some occasions, his lady. Therefore, we have more opportunities to give Sicily Herald's systems wider use than he ever could have imagined.
As a graduate student in a big city, I often have to be reminded that not everybody has the level of access (whether of simply getting one's hands on the books themselves, or understanding them) that I do. However, if you are just starting your journey in the big wilderness of heraldry, hope is not lost. The secondary works I used were Rodney Denny's The Heraldic Imagination and Woodcock's Oxford Guide to Heraldry. The Glossary of Terms Used in Heraldry by Gough and Parker also has an extremely brief discussion of gemstone and planetary blazon. Leigh's Accedence of Armory, Ferne's Blazon of Gentry and Guillim's Display of Heraldry are just a few of the Tudor/Stuart books on the subject. Guillim's book was immensely popular, and was reprinted into the eighteenth century, so it's not impossible to find. Naturally, all of these works are in English, as are the Visitations of the North, published by the Surtees Society, and the Peerage of Ireland of Aaron Crossly. Bartolo of Sasso Ferrato's De Insigniis et Armis has recently been translated into English. Even if you can't find it, his ideas were summarized in Honore Bonet's Tree of Battles and Christine de Pisan's Book of Fayttes of Armes and of Chyualrye, which have been translated into English. Also, Juliana Berner's Boke of Saint Albans has been reproduced in this century, and is available in university libraries, and possibly some public libraries as well. As a miscellany of "noble pursuits," not only is it useful for the herald, but also for anyone who is curious about late mediaeval upper class life. Blason des Couleurs has not been translated, though it was reprinted in 1869. At least one copy exists in the Library of Congress, and others may be available via interlibrary loan. Its French is very close to modern French, so if you've ever taken courses in that language, you should be all set. Some of Sicily Herald's color/planet/gem symbolism got into the Boke of Saint Albans, so if you can find that, you won't be too bad off. The basis for the Boke, aside from Blason des Couleurs, were the Tractatus de Armis by Iohannes de Bado Aureo and De Officio Militari by Nicholas Upton. Tractatus de Armis was translated into English by Evan Jones in his Medieval Heraldry. Nicholas Upton's De Officio Militari has been translated in a mutilated form by F. P. Barnard, which renders it useless-as a manual of heraldry, anyway. The complete text has not been published in any language since the seventeenth century, when Bysshe published it in Latin. The Library of Congress has a lovely copy of Bysshe's edition.