I’m very gratified whenever someone tells me that they regularly take a look at this blog. Sometimes they will mention that they have learned a thing or two in what they’ve read here and sometimes they also, jokingly or occasionally chidingly, tell me that they are surprised at the sharpness of my criticisms. With increasing frequency, however, I’m also hearing often in both direct contact with me or in other places on the internet where heraldic enthusiasts congregate that those of us who seem to know more about heraldry should do more to educate those who wish to learn more.
First, let me say that the “those who wish to learn more” frequently fall into two categories. There are those who, for whatever reason, have an interest in learning as much as they can about heraldry for their own enrichment. They understand that a study of heraldry means delving into a world of history, genealogy, symbolism and, lastly, art. Heraldry is a science as well as an art. It isn’t just about pretty pictures or “cool” images of dragons and basilisks. It’s not the domain of medieval fantasists (although many of them do enjoy it) or social-climbing faux nobles. It is a perfectly good hobby, so to speak; a wonderful subject to which one can devote a lifetime of study and learning. In addition, a few also become intimately involved in it as a profession or as an avocation and create new coats of arms for the deserving and the desirous. Whether someone becomes a practitioner of heraldic design and art or simply remains a great enthusiast it is a topic about which you can never stop learning more.
But then there is the other type who, again for whatever reason, have an interest in heraldry but don’t really care all that much about learning the “why and wherefore” of heraldic history or design. They have no interest whatsoever in the many ways the development of heraldry differs from country to country or during different centuries. They have, perhaps, read one or two books on heraldry (or maybe even as many as three!) and have now decided that they’ve “got this”. They are now as expert on the topic as the Garter King of Arms. Therefore, the time has come for them to hang out a shingle and begin creating coats of arms themselves…as a “herald”.
Ironically, despite being convinced of their own expertise, it is this second category who seem to complain the most and the loudest that those individuals and organizations online who offer criticism of heraldic designs owe it to everyone else to educate them more.
Well, first of all, reading someone’s criticism of a design should actually help the less educated to learn more in itself. Although, having said that, I must admit that when I come across really appalling examples I often don’t go into a detailed analytical criticism of the coat of arms but just express my great displeasure by means of some exclamation like, “Awful!”. I’ll grant you that someone is hardly likely to learn much from that other than that I didn’t like it.
My area of particular interest is, obviously, ecclesiastical heraldry. This is an interesting sub-set of heraldry that crosses over time and boundaries and has many rules, customs and traditions of its own despite the fact that there is no umbrella heraldic authority over the entire Church. In places where a heraldic authority does exist the coats of arms of clerics are just as subject to that local authority as the armorial bearings of anyone else. The Church makes no claim to having some kind of supra-national jurisdiction over the regulation of heraldry worldwide. Famously, St. John XXIII (himself a heraldic enthusiast) wanted to establish a Pontifical Office of Heraldry. His former secretary and good friend, Abp. Bruno Heim, talked him out of it. Heim said that one couldn’t legislate in matters of taste. He also had a healthy respect for the different ways heraldry developed in different countries and a real love of heraldic creativity. He knew such a Pontifical Office would tend to standardize Church heraldry and stifle creativity.
So, that’s one of the reasons there isn’t now, nor is there likely to be, an office to regulate the armorial bearings of clergy, prelates and institutions in the Church.
Throughout history the Church has primarily concerned itself with the external ornaments of heraldry. That is, those things that are placed around the shield rather than on it which indicate the rank and/or function of the armiger in question. What actually goes onto the shield is a matter of individual taste or family history or inheritance or anything else that would make for a unique mark of identification for the bearer of the coat of arms. The Church has no great desire to get into that. Those are precisely the kinds of things some heraldic authorities do get into. I know someone who had applied for a grant from the College of Arms in England and the individual wanted the shield divided per bend. He was told to modify that request because, in England, they preferred not to divide the field that way. I know of another case where a bishop wished to receive a grant from the Court of Lord Lyon. His arms were designed by a very competent expert in heraldry but they contained a field chequy and Lord Lyon didn’t allow such a field so the design had to be changed. The Holy See has neither the time, the resources to devote, or the desire to get into that kind of heraldic regulation. Rather, it tends to concern itself with things like the appropriate color of the tassels on a galero to indicate a Prothonotary Apostolic, etc.
So claiming that it is the job of the Holy See to provide guidance in this area isn’t the answer especially as they already do to some extent. Similarly, it isn’t the job of the various heraldic societies that exist to make sure everyone knows every and any rule of the heraldic science. For the most part those societies exist for people who already know and appreciate heraldry somewhat and wish to share their love of the subject with other enthusiasts. There is an educational element to that but it comes primarily from mutual enrichment rather than mere instruction. There are the many heraldic artists in the world, many of whom now have a website to display their work and solicit business. But they are not necessarily experts in heraldry. Rather, many of them are happy to provide heraldic artwork, itself a speciality that not every competent artist can undertake, but it is not necessarily their task to educate. Finally, there are the heraldic enthusiasts like myself who have a website or blog and who, sometimes a bit flippantly, offer exposure and criticism in an effort promote good heraldic practices and, perhaps, help some people to avoid bad ones. But, I put it to you that while having such a blog may help others to learn that does not make it incumbent upon me to attempt to provide an exhaustive course of study in the particulars of ecclesiastical heraldry. After all, this is something I do for fun!
No, the problem in the world today, especially since the advent of the internet and social media, is that, as usual, people want something for nothing. They want some quick and easy way to skip over the hard stuff and be provided with all the answers they need at the click of a mouse. To put it another way, they don’t want to do the work.
Occasionally, someone is kind enough to describe me as an “expert” in ecclesiastical heraldry, especially Catholic heraldry. That’s very kind. To the extent that it may be true it is so for one reason and for one reason only. It’s because I undertook to begin a serious study of heraldry when I was a young man and have stayed with it for over 35 years. I started doing this before there was an internet (or one to speak of) and it was difficult to communicate with others who shared my enthusiasm. But, I was willing to delve, to do research, to read extensively, to slowly build up a personal heraldic library, to seek the advice of experts and then eventually to come under the tutelage of a person who could critique my own ideas and help me to learn by making mistakes. I did the work!
There are a lot of resources available…if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and do some good, old-fashioned research. You can’t learn about heraldry by reading an book, or two, or even three. You definitely can’t learn about ecclesiastical heraldry by looking at pictures of other bishop’s coats of arms alone. For example, if you look in the back of a really good book on Church heraldry like Bruno Heim’s Heraldry in the Catholic Church you’ll find not only a bibliography but several appendixes quoting papal documents. How many people have undertaken to look up and obtain full texts of those documents and then have them translated into their own language if they don’t have a good command of Latin?
How many people who claim to really love Church heraldry look at the books in Heim’s bibliography and then set out to obtain as many of them as possible for your own library, or at least track copies of them down in a lending library?
How many heraldic enthusiasts who can draw reasonably well have said no to undertaking heraldic commissions because they realize they don’t really know enough about heraldry to create a coat of arms for someone else so they wait several years in order to learn more and become more competent in the field before daring to be so bold as to design a coat of arms for someone else?
To become really good at this -not the world’s greatest, but just really good- takes a lot of effort, a lot of time and a lot of work. Sadly, there are too many people involved with the creation of heraldry who simply don’t want to make the effort, put in the time or do the work. THAT’S why there is so much bad heraldry floating around the Church. It’s because too many people who have no business whatsoever creating coats of arms are doing so. For a bishop to go to a friend, or relative, or seminarian and say, “You draw well. Why don’t you do my coat of arms?” is like me going to a friend and saying, “You know how to sew on a button so why don’t you make me a chasuble?” It’s preposterous! But, it happens all the time. Ignorant dilettantes who don’t have the sense to seek out the advice of someone with greater expertise, let alone refer their “client” to someone with greater expertise, are getting involved in droves in the design and creation of coats of arms in the Church. Not only are the resulting designs really bad but then they have the audacity to say that someone else: the Holy See, a heraldic society, or even a blogger should provide more guidance and instruction to them so that they can avoid mistakes.
Well, I don’t agree. I’m living proof that the resources and material are out there and can be found with a little effort. What is required is having the humility to start out as a student and not jump immediately into attempting to do something about which you know very little as though anyone can do it. It requires the ability genuinely to learn from criticism instead of simply becoming defensive in the face of it. Most importantly, instead of expecting someone else to provide you with ready-made answers at your fingertips so that you can reap all the benefit of the years of effort someone else has made to increase their knowledge and expertise while at the same time barely lifting a finger yourself you need to…
DO. THE. WORK!