The importance of heraldry

People have a tendency to emphasize and celebrate things once they have ceased to be important in an urgent, primitive way, because it’s only then that these things can become socially important. For example, when the railroads were first built, nobody thought to make model railroads. It’s only when travel by train has become unusual that we look back and say, “how grand the trains were! Let’s join train clubs.” War is the same way; while it is a fight for literal survival, it isn’t glamorous. But once a war has ended, or once a weapon is outdated, it begins to seem glamorous. Wars of today always seem gritty and unfair, while battles of the past have a hazy air of nostalgia.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, tournaments were mock battles for real war training. The melee, a mass fight that could range over acres of field and woods, often left men injured or dead. Tilting, in which knights rode at each other with lances, was real practice for the state of the art attack. Knights on horses seemed invincible at first. But by the 14th century, warfare had begun to change and knights were no longer the greatest force. The Battle of Crecy had already demonstrated that farmers with longbows could mow down the most chivalrous knights, and that’s not even talking about gunpowder. As towns grew, their guild councils got tired of being pushed around by armies of knights, so they designed pikes: spears even longer than knights’ lances, equipped with a spike and a hook to swing a knight out of the saddle as he road. Knights still carried the main burden of battle, but their peak was already past when tournaments came into their own.

14th century tournaments no longer practiced peak battle techniques. They were ritualized; the melee was less central and sometimes skipped. Tilting took place in lanes, for points. By the 15th century, the weapons were often blunt and symbolic. The really grand armor you can see in museums comes from the 16th century, when tournaments had completely lost touch with reality and were just medieval equivalent of polo.

From 1300 on, tournaments were about fashion and social standing. When tournaments were somewhat real, the only ladies who looked on were those who lived at the host’s castle. But now, young ladies became tournament groupies. Like Ascot and Derby hats, their dresses and accessories made the tournament special. And not just the ladies: men, too, still preened like peacocks and flaunted their gold and pearls.

Fashion with a tournament theme meant imitating the shields that heralds used to identify war dead. Once heraldry became less of a practical art of ID’ing corpses and turned instead into the MC’ing of events, everyone wanted a coat of arms. They wanted to dress like a coat of arms, so they began the particolor look to imitate shields. Men’s hose came as separate legs so it was easy to put on a white left leg and a red right one. Surcotes were half one color, half the other, often the obverse of what the hose was doing. Sleeves, too, could pick up the theme, turning the wearer into a checkerboard. Ladies often took it one step farther, if they were tournament groupies. With a gown split into two colors, they used embroidery to recreate the rest of the coat of arms on the gown. They became walking signboards for their family partisanship and favored knights.

The particolor look allowed guilds to play up their tradesman-heraldry. Each city guild invented a color theme for a special set of clothes. The uniform was called “livery” because it was *delivered* from the guild to each honored, avowed member. Livery came to mean “uniform of one or two colors” and often included a badge that was based on a family’s coat of arms. Guilds had arms designed for them, although they did not need shields. Everyone needed livery, badges, and heraldry signs.

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