The study of Arthurian heraldry has feet in two camps. One is the familiar field of Arthurian studies, with a huge corpus of work behind it. The other is the older, more obscure, field of heraldry, which has, for the most part, receded from the interests of many scholars.
This is unfortunate, because the coats of arms of the characters from the legends are present throughout much of the stories. Coats of arms were a common form of identification during the Middle Ages, worn by the nobility at all occasions. The characters in the stories are described as wearing coats of arms, and, in many cases, they are shown in works of art in coats of arms.
The legend of Tristram and Isoud was among the most popular legends that have become part of the Arthurian cycle. Dozens of manuscripts of several different versions of the legend were in knightly libraries all over Europe, and artists' depictions of the story are common as well. In all of them, coats of arms are either described or depicted. Interestingly, different versions of the legend attributed different coats of arms to each character, and these seem to have remained somewhat consistent throughout the years. Clearly, even though styles of clothing and armor varied, the coats of arms meant something of importance over the years, something that was clear to any mediaeval person.
Because a clear knowledge of heraldry is not as common now as it was when these books were written and these works of art were created, something is lost to us that would have been obvious to our ancestors when we look at them. Luckily, manuals of heraldry exist from that time, and they explain many of the matters implicit and hidden in coats of arms. The goal of this paper is to make what is hidden now within the coats of arms of certain characters in the legend of Tristram and Isoud clear to the people of today, including the arms of Tristram, Palomides, and Marhaus. In order to keep clear of confusion over names, this paper will use, when applicable, the spellings used by the 1994 Modern Library edition of Le Morte D'Arthur.
Heraldry evolved as a science sometime during the twelfth century from a combination of symbols used for seals, banners, and other types of insignia. At first, it was used only in war and in tournaments to identify otherwise anonymous men in armor. By the end of the thirteenth century, its rules had been codified in a more or less uniform fashion all over Europe.1 This was, in part, due to its use in the tournament, which spread almost instantly across Europe in the century before.2
Heralds developed a jargon, called blazon, which is used to accurately describe a shield, much as a programming language tells a computer precisely how to operate. In principle, a coat of arm's blazon-the jargon's word for a description-is the same, no matter how it is drawn-or emblazoned. This jargon, once introduced, will be used throughout this paper.
To begin, the basic components of a coat of arms are the background, called the field, and the objects on the shield, or charges. Places on the shield are described similarly to stage directions. Dexter is stage right, while sinister is stage left. The base is the bottom of the shield, and the chief is the top of the shield. The middle is the fess point. The top and middle are named after two charges that run through those points.
There are only seven commonly accepted colors that a field or a charge can be. They are further subdivided into two categories: metals and tinctures. Metal charges are usually placed only on tinctured fields, and vice-versa. The metals are yellow and white, or and argent in blazon. The tinctures are black, red, blue, green, and purple, which in blazon are sable, gules, azure, vert, and purpure.
There are also the furs, which are special combinations of the metals and tinctures. The most common furs are vair, ermine, ermines, erminois, and pean. Vair is a combination of argent and azure that resemble bells of each color placed right side up, and then upside down. The other furs are derived from the ermine robes of the nobility and clergy, with the field charged with representations of the ermine's tail spot. Ermine has an argent field, charged with sable ermine spots, and ermines has a sable field with argent spots. Erminois has an or field, and sable spots, and pean has a sable field with or spots. Usually, they are used in the same fashion as the color of their fields. Vair and certain other special fields, like checky, bendy, and barry, which are called parted fields, are composed of a combination of metals and tinctures. They are considered neutral fields, which can take charges of either a metal or a tincture. Finally, a charge can be colored proper, or its colors in real life. Generally, a proper charge is considered to have the nature of a tincture.
The most common charges are the ordinaries and sub- ordinaries. These are purely geometric charges, formed only by straight lines and the outline of the shield itself. There are nine ordinaries, and ten subordinaries. The simplest ordinaries are the pale, the fess, the bar, the bend, the bend sinister, and the chief. The pale is a vertical band. The fess is a horizontal band running through the middle of the shield, while bars are several horizontal lines. Bends and bends sinister are diagonal bands, differing visually only by the fact that bends start in dexter chief, and run down to sinister base (\), and bends sinister start in sinister chief and run down to dexter base (/). The chief is a horizontal band running across the entire chief, or top, of the shield. The other ordinaries are composed of two bands. The cross is self-explanatory. The saltire is a cross of Saint Andrew, an X. The chevron's name is taken from the French word for rafter, and looks like this: /\. The starting points for the chevron are the sinister and dexter base points, and they meet in the fess point in some forms of emblazonry, and at the chief in other forms of emblazonry. The lines defining the ordinaries can also be used to split a field into divisions by tincture or metal, and these fields are among those called parted fields.
The subordinaries are a more motley group. The bordure is a strip around the shield's edge. The inescutcheon is a small shield within the shield, and the orle is an inescutcheon with the middle cut out, appearing almost like a shrunken bordure, and tressures are, like bars for a fess, the plural form of the orle. The quarter is literally that-a square covering a quarter of the shield, with one corner usually at the dexter chief, the canton is a smaller version, still tucked into the corner of the shield, and the gyron is the lower half triangle of the quarter, as if it were cut by a line bendwise. The canton and the quarter also have their mirror images-the canton sinister and quarter sinister. The pile is a triangle with its base on the chief, and its point nearly at the base. The flanches are the curved flanks of a shield, like so: )(, and the flasques are their diminutives, much as tressures are for orles.
There are other sorts of charges, of course. Almost everything that exists or can be conceived of can be found in at least one coat of arms. Commonly, though, they are beasts, birds, or mythological monsters. The most popular creatures are the lion and the eagle. The postures usually are specified in a blazon, but, generally, they are self-evident. Also, charges can be cotised-accompanied by thin bands parallel to the main band-and fimbriated-surrounded by a concentric band of a contrasting metal or tincture.3
Other subdivisions of the science of heraldry include cadency and marshalling, and the study of augmentations and abatements of honor. The studies of cadency and marshalling basically deal with the "familial" aspects of heraldry. Cadency is the study of how one differentiates the arms of relatives, since one of the basic principles of heraldry is that only once person at a time may have the same coat of arms in a region (usually a kingdom).4 Marshalling is the study of how one combines arms, usually as a result of the marriage of two armigers, and how their children will bear those arms.5
The study of augmentations and abatements of honor, however, is a close approach to the area of heraldry, which, for scholars of literature, is very important: the study of the symbolism behind charges and colors in coats of arms, which is called heraldic symbolism. Augmentations usually were granted to a person by his lord as a result of dedicated service. Often, this might take the shape of a change of charge, or as an additional charge atop the entire coat.6 Abatements act as the precise opposite: a person's arms would be symbolically defaced in some fashion-by turning them upside down (called reversing) or by putting distinctive charges over the original coat, as a sentence for a crime. Unfortunately, while one may find plenty of examples of augmentations of arms, and of the arms of faithless men being reversed, there is no record of whether any of the other abatements were used in a court of law.7
The study of heraldic symbolism is the final, and most interesting part of the science of heraldry for the literary scholar. Heralds were exhorted to take the symbolic qualities of colors and charges into account, so that they could design arms that fitted the nature of the person who would receive them.8 Since Arthur's knights were considered the models of chivalry, their arms would be considered symbolically important representations of the best and highest that chivalry could be.
The symbolic meanings that are used in heraldry may date as far back as heraldry itself. The earliest heraldic authors associated colors with gemstones and heavenly bodies, which were assigned virtues by lapidary books like De Gemmis, which dates from the eleventh century, and the ancient pseudoscience of astrology, which reached its mature form in Claudius Ptolemy's Tetrabiblios in the second century.9 The final form of heraldic color symbolism was in place by the end of the thirteenth century, when the first extant heraldic treatise was written.10 The symbolic meanings of the animals used as charges are of equal antiquity, as they come from the bestiaries that were part and parcel of mediaeval science.11
Finally, we come to the coats of arms themselves. Sir Tristram is interesting, heraldically speaking, because he has had several different arms attributed to him, deriving from versions of the Tristram legend in Italian, German, French, and Norwegian, and emblazoned in various ways, some perhaps erroneous, by artists throughout the Middle Ages. Other characters in the legend are given coats of arms as well, naturally, and they also vary from version to version.
Tristram's oldest arms come from the courtly verse tradition. Roger Loomis proved in the early part of this century that they were those arms attributed to him in the twelfth century by Thomas of Brittany and Brother Robert of Norway: Gules, a lion rampant or. It was thought by Loomis that Thomas and Brother Robert gave Tristram those arms as a way of honoring their patrons, for the former, the king of England, and for the latter, the king of Norway, both of whom have lions in their arms.12 Lions were the kings of the beasts, and symbolized the virtues of courage with compassion and constancy, for a lion was supposedly monogamous.13 Or upon gules symbolized that the bearer of those arms was a person filled with the desire to conquer, which certainly befits a knight.14
These arms changed somewhat over the years. Late in the fifteenth century, a French manuscript, La forme quon tenuit des tournoys et assemblees au temps du roy uterpendragon et du roy artus, which was dedicated to Gaston de Viane, the son of Gaston de Foix, who was avid in chivalric pursuits, changed these arms to: Vert, a lion rampant or.15 This device change seems to be rather odd, as or upon vert symbolize one whose life has been lived in happiness.16 No doubt, this is due to the discarding of the verse cycles, and the rise of the prose tradition, in which Tristram and Isoud spend much of their time together in Lancelot's castle of Joyous Gard, when Tristram is not out jousting or hunting. These arms may also be examples of canting arms, in which a charge calls attention to the name of the armiger. In this case, the lion might stand for Liones, Tristram's ancestral domain.17
On the other hand, in the Holy Roman Empire, Gottfried von Strassburg, the thirteenth century representative of the courtly verse tradition, attributed a completely different coat of arms to Tristram: Argent, a boar rampant sable.18 This attribution remained popular in the Holy Roman Empire until at least the fifteenth century, for Tristram is depicted with those arms in murals dated to that period painted on the walls of Castle Runkelstein.19 The boar was said to symbolize a skillful, but envious warrior, according to the heralds.20 In the bestiaries, however, a boar symbolized not just ferocity, but also crudeness.21 Sable upon argent stood for one who would yield up his earthly pleasure to attain his goals.22
Although the boar and the lion seem to have split up the heraldic territory for Tristram beyond the Alps, in Italy, another heraldic tradition was begun by the author of the Tavola Ritonda. He attributed azure, a bend argent cotised or, to Tristram.23 However, the artists who seem to have used the Tavola Ritonda for inspiration did not directly adhere to this blazon, but gave Tristram different arms. A mural painted in Palermo during the fourteenth century, attributed argent, three bendlets between two crescents azure to Tristram, and a contemporary embroidery from the Empire attributed barry azure and argent to him.24 As odd as it may seem, the combination of azure upon argent does not symbolize the same thing as argent upon azure, because the color of the field is considered the dominant force in considering the symbolic values of a shield.25 Argent upon azure symbolized one who was a diligent follower, while azure upon argent stood for a courteous and discreet man.26 Naturally, the two combinations can be combined in the same person, but these devices, while they all have azure and argent, look completely different from each other.
Most of the prose manuscripts, and the later mediaeval Arthurian tradition in general, adhered to one of the earlier attributed arms, when describing Tristram's war gear. Indeed, this was done to such an extent that in 1983, Pastoureau's armorial-a collection of blazons and emblazons-of Arthur's knights attributed vert, a lion rampant or as Tristram's most popular attributed arms, and made a brief mention of argent a boar rampant sable, and its appearance in Germany.27 However, there are several exceptions to this generalization, as one might expect in as well-liked and widespread a story as that of Tristram and Isoud.
The Italian romancer Rusticiano, best known as Marco Polo's amanuensis, is one of these exceptions. When he was writing his Arthurian romance for Edward I of England, he did not follow Thomas of Brittany in his attributions of arms, but instead gave Tristram argent, a bend gules.28 These simple arms represent the noble virtue of forthright bravery.29 A mural with the scenes from Rusticianio's stories exists in the ruins of Castle of St. Floret, in which Tristram is twice depicted in those arms, but once in their opposite: Gules, a bend argent when he and Galahad are jousting.30 This change of hue in the charge and field switches the noble virtue to an ignoble flaw: envy.31
Another notable exception to the rule is found in the Livre du Cuer d'Amours, a fantasy on love written by Rene of Anjou, the chivalrous and lettered father-in-law of Henry VI of England, and a peer of France. One would have expected so learned and knightly a man to have attributed the usual arms to Tristram, but instead, he gave Tristram these arms: Or, a bend purpure.32 Purpure upon or is said to symbolize one who is sage and rich, and since the Livre is an allegory on the travails of love, this is an apt description of Sir Tristram.33
Another notable exception to the generalization is the Guicciardini tapestry, made for that prominent family in the thirteenth century. Unfortunately, the tapestry was not colored, but had the figures of the characters outlined in dark thread. In this tapestry, Tristram was given the Guicciardini arms of three horns in pale, that is, all in a vertical row.34
Tristram is, of course, not the only male character in the legend. Meliodas, Marhaus, Palomides, and Kehydius are all belted knights, who have arms of their own. The fight scenes between Tristram and Palomides and Tristram and Marhaus were popular subjects for artists, and they created variations on the arms of the combatants, as has been seen above.
Marhaus, as a character, is as old as the legend itself. His condition in life has gone from an all but nameless savage, the brother-in-law of the king of Ireland, to a knight, even a member of the Round Table, whom the newly knighted Tristram kills in order to redeem Cornwall from a shameful human tribute. Since he has been around for a long time, he naturally has had several arms attributed to him.
The embroiderer of the Guicciardini tapestry gives Marhaus arms very reminiscent of those of the Acciaiuoli family, which had married into the Guicciardini: three fleurs-de- lis.35 A fourteenth-century embroidery of the legend, found in Wienhausen, which seems to have been based on Gottfried's version, depicts Marhaus fighting with Tristram, while carrying a shield whose field changes from gules to vert, charged with a Moor's head.36 However, Pastoureau's Arthurian armorial cites for Sir Marhaus barry argent and azure, a lion rampant gules, and a similar coat, bendy argent and azure, a lion rampant gules.37 These would symbolize a dutiful, forthright, and fierce man, which would certainly seem to suit Marhaus well, from what little we see of him. Interestingly enough, barry argent and azure, a lion rampant gules, is also the coat of arms for the duchy of Luxembourg.38
Tristram's other great adversary, at least in the prose romances, is Sir Palomides, a pagan knight who loves Isoud almost as much as Tristram himself. As such, Tristram and Palomides fight, often on the slightest of pretences, in order to settle the question of who would receive Isoud's favor. Rusticiano attributes argent a chief gules to Palomides.39 This attribution, using the same colors as Tristram's arms, implies that his virtues are the same as Tristram's, while the chief was, according to the heralds, the most honorable ordinary until the rise of Christianity, when it was replaced by the cross.40 This hints that Palomides was, perhaps, fit for Isoud's love, but it still marked him as an outsider to most of chivalry. La forme attributes checky argent and sable to Palomides.41 This would symbolize one who would give up his pleasures to attain his higher goal.42 Palomides has also had checky argent and azure attributed to him.43 This would stand for a discreet and courteous man.44
Kehydius is, like Marhaus, an old figure in the legend. However, unlike Marhaus and Palomides, who are enemies of Tristram, Kehydius is Tristram's brother in arms, and, after Tristram marries his sister, Isoud of the White hands, also his brother-in-law. This means that scenes with Kehydius in armor are practically nonexistent. He has, however, had several arms attributed to him. La forme and Pastoureau's armorial both attribute to him gules, three mascles (hollow lozenges-C. M. L.) or.45 Mascles do not apparently have any special meaning attached to them, but the color combination of or upon gules supposedly stands for a desire to conquer.46
Surprisingly enough, arms do exist for Meliodas, Tristram's father, whom we scarcely see in most of the versions of the legend, before he is killed off in the tragic prelude to the rest of the story. At one point, a copy of Rusticiano's romance made for King Louis of Naples, in the middle of the fourteenth century attributes the arms of the kingdom of Naples and the kingdom of Jerusalem to him, which are azure, semy of fleurs-de-lis or, a label (a cadency mark- C. M. L.) gules, and argent, a cross between four crosses or.47 A copy of Guiron le Curtois, written for the Duke of Berry in the early fifteenth century, has an illumination of a scene with Meliodas in it. Unfortunately, since he is a member of a group, and the members aren't labelled, it is impossible to say which coat of arms is his.48 Finally, Brault's Early Blazon credits Meliodas with an uncharged shield of vert.49 Vert, unadorned with any other color, stands for love, hope, and health, an odd combination in the case of Meliodas.50
The other characters that interact with Tristram are the two Isouds, Gouvernail, King Mark, and an assortment of Arthur's knights. Because arms were associated with war and the tournament, women were not usually depicted in arms. Gouvernail is usually a squire, and squires, while armigerous, were of a lower status than knights, and did not fight or joust with them, being nominally knights-in- training, so Gouvernail does not have arms attributed to him, either. Although Mark was a king, his deeds and general character made him unpopular as a potential character in an Arthurian tournament. Also, most depictions of Mark show him up in a tree or at ease in his court, two places where one was not likely to be seen in armor, and hence, wearing one's coat of arms. So, no arms for Mark are listed in Pastoureau's armorial or in La forme, and none can be deduced from other sources available at this point. The knights of the Round Table that Tristram meets are legion, and an examination of their coats of arms would extend this work past its stated limits.
This paper has described the terminology of heraldry, given a brief history of why and how its symbolic code came to be, and examined the arms of major and minor characters in several versions of the legend of Tristram and Isoud in the light of that symbolic code. The different versions of the legend and the different coats of arms for the knights in those versions became accepted within the area that each was native, though it is clear that the Tavola Ritonda and the works of Rusticiano had some circulation outside of their native Italy. It is interesting to note that Tristram's arms in Rusticiano's works and in the Livre du Cuer d'Amours use the same ordinary-the bend. The bend is not the most popular ordinary, though. The most popular ordinary, at least in English and French heraldry, is the chevron, which is absent from any of the arms blazoned or emblazoned in this work.51 The bend's symbolic importance was not clear in the works consulted by the author of this work, and could no doubt be a subject for deeper investigation.
The use of heraldry as a tool for literary analysis, unfortunately, still seems unclear. Much of the symbolism in mediaeval heraldic works seems reminiscent of a newspaper horoscope column. This is because of two related issues: First, the purpose of a coat of arms is to act as the representation of personal virtue, and it would not be logical to have an interpretation of a coat of arms that instead described vices. Second, it no doubt would have occurred to heralds that designing unflattering coats of arms would be impolitic, if not unhealthy. Therefore, it would have been an advantage for heralds to make a vague and complimentary-sounding symbolic code for the material of their science. This is a problem when interpreting the coats of arms of characters inimical to the protagonist, like Sir Marhaus and Sir Palomides. It will possibly be resolved as more and more research is done on mediaeval heraldry by Dr. Brault in Pennsylvania and other scholars of literature and philosophy.
Note to the Reader: The emblazons in this page were created via Blazons 1.0, a shareware program created in 1993 by Robert Billard.
1Rodney Dennys, The Heraldic Imagination (London, Barrie and Jenkins, Ltd., 1975), pp. 18-19.
2Maurice Keen, Chivalry (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1987), pg. 91.
3Most of this information is easily discoverable in a variety of references. New basic textbooks of heraldry appear on a regular basis, but the best to date is The Oxford Guide to Heraldry, which is quoted below in this work.
4Thomas Woodcock and John Martin Robinson, The Oxford Guide to Heraldry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), pg. 66.
5Henry Gough and James Parker, A Glossary of Terms Used in Heraldry (Oxford: James Parker and Co., 1894), pg. 393.
6Gough and Parker, pp. 25-26.
7Gough and Parker, pp. 1-2.
8Dennys, pp. 42, 44.
9Dennys, pg. 44-45.
11Woodcock and Robinson, pg. 64.
12Roger Sherman Loomis, "Tristram and the House of Anjou," Modern Language Review, XVII (1922), pp. 24-30.
13T. H. White (ed.), The Bestiary, A Book of Beasts, Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century (New York: Perigee Books, Inc. 1980), pp. 7, 9.
14Gerard Leigh, Accedence of Armorie (London: John Jaggard, 1612), pg. 9.
15Edouard Sandoz, "Tourneys in the Arthurian Tradition," Speculum, XIX (October, 1944), pg. 408.
16Leigh, pg. 14
17Gough and Parker, pp. 88-89.
18Gottfried von Strassburg (translated by A. T. Hatto), Tristan (New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1990), pg. 130.
19Roger Sherman Loomis and Laura Hibbard Loomis, Arthurian Legends in Medieval Art (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1938), pp. 48-49.
20Woodcock and Robinson, pg. 64.
21White, pg. 76.
22Leigh, pg. 7.
23Loomis and Loomis, pg. 62.
25Leigh, pg. 8.
26Leigh, pp. 5, 9.
27Michel Pastoureau, Armorial des Chevaliers de la Table Ronde (Paris: Leopard d'Or Press, 1983), pg. 103.
28Loomis and Loomis, pg. 59.
29Leigh, pg. 7.
30Loomis and Loomis, pg. 60.
31Leigh, pg. 9.
32Roger S. Loomis, "A Sidelight on the 'Tristan' of Thomas," Modern Language Review, X (1915), pg. 308.
33Leigh, pg. 5.
34Loomis and Loomis, pg. 63.
36Loomis and Loomis, pp. 51-52. See also Ottfried Neubecker, Heraldry: Sources, Symbols, and Meaning (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1976), pg. 32, for the color photograph.
37Pastoureau, pg. 92.
38Neubecker, pg. 228.
39Loomis and Loomis, pg. 60.
40Leigh, pg. 114. See also Woodcock and Robinson, pg. 58.
41Sandoz, pg. 420.
42Leigh, pg. 7.
43Pastoureau, pg. 93.
44Leigh, pg. 7.
45Sandoz, pg. 412.
46Leigh, pg. 9.
47Loomis and Loomis, pg. 114.
48Loomis and Loomis, pg. 108.
49Gerard Brault, Early Blazon (Oxford: Oxford Unversity Press, 1972), pg. 88.
50Neubecker, pg. 86.
51 Arthur Charles Fox-Davies, A Complete Guide to Heraldry (New York: Bonanza Press, 1978), pg. 122.
Brault, Gerard. Early Blazonry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Dennys, Rodney. The Heraldic Imagination. London: Barrie and Jenkins, Ltd., 1975.
Fox-Davies, Arthur Charles. A Complete Guide to Heraldry. New York: Bonanza Press, 1978.
Gough, Henry, and Parker, James. A Glossary of Terms Used in Heraldry. Oxford: James Parker and Co., 1894.
Keen, Maurice. Chivalry. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.
Leigh, Gerard. Accedence of Armorie. London: John Jaggard, 1612.
Loomis, Roger S. "A Sidelight on the 'Tristan' of Thomas." Modern Language Review. X (1915), pp. 305-309.
________. "Tristram and the Royal House of Anjou." Modern Language Review. XVII (1922), pp. 24-30.
Loomis, Roger Sherman, and Loomis, Laura Hibbard. Arthurian Legends in Medieval Art. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1938.
Neubecker, Ottfried. Heraldry: Sources, Symbols, and Meaning. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1976.
Pastoureau, Michel. Armorial des Chevaliers de la Table Ronde. Paris: Leopard d'Or, 1983.
Sandoz, Edouard. "Tourneys in the Arthurian Tradition." Speculum. XIX (October, 1944), pp. 389-420.
von Strassburg, Gottfried (translated by Hatto, A. T.). Tristan. New York: Penguin Books USA, Inc., 1990.
White, T. H. (ed.). The Bestiary, A Book of Beasts, Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century. New York: Perigee Books, 1980.
Woodcock, Thomas, and Robinson, John Martin. The Oxford Guide to Heraldry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
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