THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

21 January 2020

Animals on coats of arms

We invite you to explore some of the wildlife that can be found in our heraldic manuscripts. Medieval and early modern coats of arms — visual designs symbolising the heritage and achievements of individuals and families — are teeming with animal life. These animals are depicted according to heraldic conventions, but sometimes they also display fabulous features originating from medieval illustrated ‘books of beasts’, known as bestiaries.

It can sometimes be difficult to understand what these borrowings from the bestiary tradition represent. Luckily, we have a guide book at our disposal, namely the 15th-century Middle Scots Deidis of Armorie (found in Harley MS 6149). This ‘heraldic bestiary’ explains what the behaviours and appearances of animals on coats of arms indicate about the origins of specific families. The manuscript containing the Deidis of Armorie has recently been digitised and can be found on our Digitised Manuscripts site. In this blogpost we'll study some extraordinary heraldic animals up close.

An opening from The Deidis of Armorie, showing coats of arms with animals on them in the margins

The Deidis of Armorie (Scotland, c. 1494): Harley MS 6149, ff. 16v–17r

We start with the heraldic ostrich, happily chomping on its staple food: horseshoes and keys. This imagery originates from the bestiary tradition, which supposed that the animal had remarkable digestive abilities, enabling it to consume and process iron. What does the ostrich's presence on a coat of arms mean? According to the Deidis of Armorie, it signified that the first bearer of these arms ate hard things — in other words, they were as tough as nails — and that they had a defiant nature (‘eite hard thingis and [wes] diffailland of natur’).

An ostrich with a large iron key in its beak

The ostrich as a heraldic crest (England, 17th century): Harley MS 4926, f. 8v

Tigers are often depicted on coats of arms gazing into mirrors. According to bestiaries, this imagery illustrated the method by which robbers could steal a tigress’s cub. The cub-nappers would be pursued by the tigress, but could deceive her by dropping a mirror on the ground. The tigress would stop to look into the mirror, mistake her own reflection for her stolen cub, and start nursing it, allowing the thieves to get away. The Deidis of Armorie claims that those who first bore the tiger on their coats of arms were feigning, cunning and deceitful (‘dissimilit, wyly, and double in his dedis’).

A tiger looking down into a mirror

The tiger on a coat of arms (England, 4th quarter of the 16th century-1st quarter of the 17th century): Harley MS 6106, f. 68v

The heraldic elephant typically sported a tower or castle on its back. This imagery corresponds with the bestiary tale that male elephants were used in battle, and that men built castles filled with armed soldiers upon them. The Deidis of Armorie interprets a coat of arms inhabited by such an elephant as a sign that its first bearer was large and virtuous, and carried great burdens during their life (‘gret of body and of vertu, berand gret birdingis’).

An elephant with a castle with three towers on its back

The elephant on a coat of arms (England, c. 1632): Harley MS 6060, f. 109r

The heraldic pelican is found sitting on its nest while feeding its young with its own blood. Bestiaries told that the father pelican killed his young when they struck him with their wings, and that the mother subsequently revived them with her blood. The Deidis of Armorie explains that whoever first adopted a pelican on his coat of arms took vengeance on his neighbours when they harassed him, but that they were subsequently restored through him as well (‘[þai] wald have vengeance of his nixt nychtpuris quhen þai did oppressioun [bot] nychtburis scalit his blud for till heill þaim of his vengeance’).

A pelican with outstretched wings, piercing its breast with its beak to feed its young, below in a nest, with its own blood

The pelican on a coat of arms (England, 16th century): Harley MS 709, f. 22r

The heraldic panther is another wonderful sight. In line with the bestiary descriptions, coats of arms present it as a friendly animal with multi-coloured spots, issuing ‘flames’ out of its mouth and ears. The latter represent the sweet-smelling belch that the animal was wont to issue after a meal. Although the panther is not part of the Deidis of Armorie, Rodney Dennys (The Heraldic Imagination (Fakenham: Cox & Wyman, 1975), pp. 143–44) has pointed out that heraldic manuscripts sometimes interpret the animal’s multi-coloured spots as symbols for the many virtues of the arms’ bearer.  

A panther with a white fur featuring blue, green, red, and yellow spots, and flames coming out of its mouth and ears

The panther as a heraldic supporter (England, c. 1600-1609): Harley MS 6156, f. 24r

We end our tour with the heraldic salamander. Bestiaries claimed that the salamander was a fire-resistant animal, and so we find it basking in flames of fire on coats of arms. The salamander is not covered by the Deidis of Armorie , but Dennys suggested that its presence on a coat of arms signified that its first bearer had survived great danger. James Douglas (1426–1488), 9th Earl of Douglas and 3rd Earl of Avondale, was among the first to display the animal on his coat of arms, perhaps alluding to his surviving a failed insurrection against King James II of Scotland, and subsequently escaping to England.

The head of a green salamander surrounded by flames of fire

The salamander as a heraldic crest (England, 17th century): Harley MS 5818, f. 13v

If you would you like to see more heraldic animals, and to explore the symbolism behind them, we would encourage you to look out the Deidis of Armorie on Digitised Manuscripts.

The text quoted here can be found in Luuk A. J. R. Houwen, The Deidis of Armorie: A Heraldic Treatise and Bestiary, I, The Scottish Text Society, Fourth Series, 22 (Edinburgh: The Scottish Text Society, 1994).

 

Clarck Drieshen

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