Sunday, November 22, 2015

HERALDRY: Sinister Questions

I brought a copy of the Michaelmas Oxford Today with my article on the Oxford colleges' arms to the Harvard Club of New York library and to the November meeting of the Poets and Writers group (led by Paula Brancato), where it was passed around. I received an email afterwards with a few heraldic questions from Hugo Saurny (Harvard '69), which I answer below.

Saurny: I read your article on the coats of arms of Oxford's new colleges, and would like to ask: Why are the designations for left and right sides seemingly reversed? Things on the right side are sinister, the left side dexter. Why is this?

Marlin: The directions are like those for actors on a stage – from the point of view of the poor guy inside the coat of arms or behind the shield, who is doing all the work. Think of poor young Patroclus in Achilles' armor. He fooled Apollo, who stunned him; then Euphorbos, who wounded him; and finally Hector, who killed him. How were they to know? From this story, by the way, we know that armor back when the Greeks were fighting the Trojans had distinctive marks of differentiation so that one knew whose armor it was. Personal and family marks such as animals are found preserved on ancient  pottery.
From Iain Moncrieffe and Don Pottinger, Simple Heraldry, Nelson, 1953, p. 51.
Saurny: What is the origin of the old-French sounding color terms (or, argent, vert, sable, azure, gules, etc)?

Coat of arms of Pope Francis. Below the IHS
(first three Greek capitals for Jesus) on a sun,
representing the Jesuit order, are symbols
for Mary (should be an eight-point star) and
Joseph (spikenard).
Marlin. Or and argent are metals, gold and silver, shown in print as yellow and white. They are fused to the armor. The others are called tinctures – i.e., colors of paints. Rarely do you have metal-on-metal or tincture-on-tincture. One exception is the papal coat of arms, which has gold on silver in the miter and elsewhere.  

Saurny: What is the origin of 'gules'? I imagine 'rouge' is from 'ruber' (Latin), but is gules from Frankish or Gaullish? 

Marlin: It's a second-millennium word that is derived from the Latin gula meaning throat. It continues in English as "gullet" and in French as gueule (as in Fermes ta gueule, meaning "Shut your trap."). Throats are commonly red but some marine animals have blue, clear and green blood so they wouldn't probably have red throats. The word "gargoyle" comes from the verb gar, to swallow, plus gueule.

Check out other heraldry posts.

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