Monday, June 13, 2016

What Is It About Using Complex and/or Archaic Blazon?

I've been trying to make good use of my "extra" "free" time now that I have retired, and have been working away at several projects I've wanted to do for some time.

One of those projects is a database, if you will, of heraldry used by Americans from colonial times until well into the 20th Century. I'm doing it mostly for my own heraldic research purposes; I thought it would be handy to have a listing that could be sorted alphabetically by surname or searched by the colors and charges on the shield, something that would be faster than looking through most of the books of American arms that I have, many of which are not arranged alphabetically (yes, I'm looking at you, John Matthews, and your Complete American Armoury and Blue Book).

But one of the things that's starting to annoy me a bit is the inconsistent usages in the blazons of all of these coats of arms. I'm not just talking about the sometimes confusing use of "of the first," "of the second," "of the field" that we often find in blazons. (This is, of course, an annoyance, requiring one to go back and re-parse the blazon to that point to try to determine what color is being referred to, and many times that color cannot be the correct one. I'll probably never understand why someone thought that repeating a tincture was such an awful thing to do, to the point that they were willing to surrender clarity to avoid it, but fortunately in these modern times that usage has been falling by the wayside until now, even the venerable College of Arms in London, of whom one of their own (Sir Conrad Swan) once said, "The Kings of Arms tend to be rather like oil tankers sailing in a determined and serene manner through the ocean of life, and as a result they take a long time to change course," will go ahead and repeat a tincture in a blazon.)

No, I'm talking about the overuse of the comma by some of these authors, and the inclusion of archaic spellings for various terms of blazon.

As just one example of both of these, I offer the arms of Sullivan, cited in The Prominent Families of the United States of America, edited by Meredith Burke (1975):

Per pale sable, and argent, a fesse between, in chief a boar passant and in base another counterpassant, all counterchanged, armed, hoofed, and bristled or.

Really? "Fesse?"  Sure, Guillim's A Display of Heraldrie, 4th ed., 1660, calls a horizontal stripe across the shield a fesse, but by 1795 in Porney's The Elements of Heraldry that charge has become a fess with but one "e."

And what is with all of those commas? I could argue that all, or if not all then nearly all, of them are entirely unnecessary to understanding the blazon. I could and would, also argue that a fess between two charges don't need them specified as "in chief" and "in base" since that is where you would expect two charges, one of either side of a fess, to be located. That's the joy of heraldic defaults.

So blazon ought to be clear and concise, but also complete. "The fewer Words you make use of in Blazoning a Coat, the better it is Blazon’d.  Be cautious however, that whilst you endeavour to be short, you are not mysterious, and that you omit nothing which ought to be mentioned." (Samuel Kent, The Banner Display’d: or, An Abridgment of Guillim, 1726, Vol. 1, p. 7)

Let's try reblazoning the arms of Sullivan, above, and see if we can't make the blazon more concise while being just as clear:

Per pale sable and argent a fess between two boars counter-passant counterchanged armed unguled and bristled or.

We might, if further clarity is felt to be necessary, blazon the boars as passant counter-passant, but one would think that counter-passant should suffice, just as "combattant" is a shorter way of saying "rampant respectant" and indicates as surely, and with fewer words, that the two animals are facing different directions.

And yes, I know that I'm using the slightly lesser known - at least to the layman - term "unguled" for "hoofed," but unguled is the more usual heraldic term when an animals hooves are a different color than its torso. Modern blazon continues to use "langued" instead of "tongued," too, and both terms appear in every English-language heraldic dictionary I've found, so I don't see any reason to change "unguled" to "hoofed."

But does anyone who understands blazon think that my reblazon of the Sullivan arms is less understandable than the version in Prominent Families? Seventeen words versus twenty-five words, and no archaic spellings or unneeded commas. Shorter, but "not mysterious, ... omit[ting] nothing which ought to be mentioned."

Okay, I'll get off my soapbox now. But after having typed in literally hundreds of such blazons, and in a few cases, not being able to figure out what the tincture "of the third" was really supposed to be (since the "third" tincture in the blazon would have been color on color), I'm really tired of all of these extraneous, unnecessary commas and archaic spellings (e.g., "saltier," "chequy"). And no, I didn't keep them in the blazons in my database. Repeated tinctures when necessary, no commas when unnecessary, and standard spellings of all of the charges ("saltire," "checky") wherever possible is what's being typed in. But it's been a long tough row to hoe, and I'm getting tired of it.

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