Many wonder if King Arthur was even real. I will not answer to that question. What really matters today, on this 2020 International Heraldry Day, is that Arthurian aristocrat “fanboys” from the late 15th century actually came up with coats of arms for each and every knight of the Round Table.
If you believe that fanfictions are a by-product of contemporary literature only, you don’t know the first thing about medieval literature. Medieval literature is at its core a strong tradition of fanfiction writing. Moreover, you may believe that people have waited the rise of Marvel and DC comics to dress as their favourite superhero, but the late medieval nobility certainly knew a thing or two about cosplaying.
Medieval tournaments and jousts were often planned out as full on re-enactments of old Arthurian tales. By the end of the 15th century, an extensive set of rules was laid out on the manner to stage “Errant Knights”, a very specific type of tournament which required every participant to impersonate a knight of the Round Table.
Part of the fun was to dress in an old fashion way with an out-dated military equipment, but most importantly, to wield the coat of arm of a knight of the Round Table. Those coats of arms weren’t chosen freely by the participants but appointed by the heralds who coordinated the event.
Furthermore, every knight was to be followed by a company of servants among whom a herald. The latter also had to wear clothes displaying the Arthurian coat of arms of his master*. That way, if the participants couldn’t tell who another knight was embodying from his coat of arms, the herald could tell him. Added bonus: the participants could even be followed by a couple of ladies!**
This is all fine and dandy, you might think, wondering why I’m obsessing on such trivialities. What really fascinates me though is that Arthurian knights—if they ever existed—didn’t have coats of arms***. Best case scenario, they accomplished their heroic deeds during the first half of the 6th century. However, coats of arms only came into fashion by the 12th century. By that time, mounted knights were so heavily equipped that it was impossible to recognize them from their face as it was totally covered. Therefore, they came up with a new method to identify themselves on the battlefield and let everyone know their name (and wealth), namely, coats of arms. Soon after, bishops, guilds and other members of the medieval society created their own coats of arms. Though the fervour for heraldry (the study of coats of arms) slowly waned since then, it gave birth to commercial logos; the Porsche emblem is nothing but a coat of arms and most football/soccer jerseys also display one, for example.
Historically speaking, it is impossible that the Knights of the Round Table ever owned a coat of arm. The sole fact that they gathered around a Round Table is already a 12th century invention! Maybe they carried a seal ring like the Romans did. Who knows? Nevertheless, it means that at some point during the 15th century, someone felt the need to give a coat of arms to every single knight of the Round Table. Not only that, but whoever that person was, his work was met with a huge success and soon enough every educated herald in France knew what colours Arthur, Lancelot and Perceval were expected to display on a battlefield.
The fictitious coats of arms of the Knights of the Round Table are still preserved today in several medieval manuscripts. Many of them can be perused online. Here’s a shortlist of four of them (beware that the knight’s name is always written above his coat of arms and sometimes several pages before it, never right under it; red captions are titles, not legends):
Those four manuscripts are heraldic treatises. Such books usually displayed actual coats of arms and served as iconographic resources or lavish memorabilia for heralds. The sumptuous Armorial of the Golden Fleece, which is a fantastic specimen of the genre, not only display coat of arms but also knights and noblemen in full attire.
Another fun fact about heraldry and medieval manuscripts is that when actual mighty noble figures were depicted in miniatures, they would be shown with their coat of arms. This mostly concerned illuminated chronicles. As such, kings and queens of England, Scotland and France are easily identifiable in what must be the most broadcasted and advertised copy of Froissart’s Chronicle.
All of this brings us to Jacques d’Armagnac, duke of Nemours. To say that this man loved books would be an understatement. He personally supervised the making of several luxurious manuscripts and devoted money to the upkeep of three personal libraries. When he was tried and sentenced to death, his judges, who all belonged to the high end of the French nobility, divided his gilded manuscripts among themselves.
Jacques d’Armagnac possessed religious and encyclopaedic manuscripts—that was a given—several manuscripts containing historical narratives and chronicles, but also manuscripts recounting the epic tales of the Knights of the Round Table. And you better believe Jacques d’Armagnac had something to do with the creation of fictitious Arthurian coats of arms. The miniatures in his Arthurian manuscripts, portraying the Knights of the Round Table fighting on horseback and on foot, provide detailed heraldic characteristics as to identify them. If you were to compare the coat of arms of a knight depicted in those manuscripts, you would be able to find out his name in the aforementioned Arthurian heraldic treatises!
Just… How cool is that?!
Once I discovered that I geeked out so hard that I couldn’t help myself and wrote this very blogpost. Medieval manuscripts have yet so many secrets to uncover!
* A herald always wore the colour of his master, as seen on this frontispiece depicting Jean Lefèvre de Saint-Rémy, also known as Toison d’Or, chief herald to Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, and the Order of the Golden Fleece.
** More on the “Errant Knights” in Maurice Keen, Chivalry. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984, p. 204.
*** Neither did Alexander the Great. Nevertheless, medieval illuminators gave him one since he was depicted as a medieval knight.