Beauty in Blazon
In many text-books on heraldry, the student will find rules of blazon setting forth in precise terms the order in which the charges on a shield are to be named, the position of tinctures and descriptive words, the phrases to be used to avoid repetition, and so on. These so-called rules are really no more than conventions. They are generally observed in official blazoning, but there is nothing sacrosanct about them. Even in armory you may, if you wish, call a spade a spade, and not necessarily a pelle embrued. In fact, there is much to be said for disregarding some of the text-book rules.
Not for a moment do I suggest that we should abandon the traditional language of heraldry. It has many words and phrases which are beautiful in themselves and rich in their associations, while its Norman-French basis is a constant reminder of the antiquity and origin of heraldry. Unfortunately, the language which the mediaeval heralds evolved has become cluttered with clumsy and unnecessary artifices invented by armorists of the worst period. The text-books, slavishly following the sixteenth and seventeenth century heralds, tell us that we must avoid repeating a tincture, number or charge. When a tincture occurs a second time in a blazon, we must refer to it by the phrases " of the field," " of the first," " of the second," etc.
Away with such conventions! They are not only an unnecessary complication they are a positive danger to accuracy, because in searching back through a long blazon for the second, third or fourth-named tincture, you may easily pick the wrong one.
Away ,too, with the use of " as many" to avoid repeating a number. (If you really think that repetition of a number is inelegant, read again Chapter XXI of the Book of the Revelation).
And then we come to the " on -between " construction, designed to prevent the repetition of an ordinary: " on a cross between four crescents, five cinquefoils." This is concise and unmistakable ; but the emphasis rests on the minor charges -the cinquefoils (which were probably added as a difference to the original coat) ; while the principal charge, the cross, is mentioned, as it were, in passing. " A cross and four crescents, and on the cross four cinquefoils," though three words longer, gives each component of the arms its proper Value.
Take as an actual example a differenced coat of Stafford blazoned in Foster's " Feudal Coats of Arms " as, " Or, on a chevron between three martlets gules as many bezants." In my view, it is worth lengthening the blazon, and repeating a tincture, in order to preserve in the first four words the basic coat of Stafford which is here doubly differenced : " Or, a chevron gules, with three martlets gules, and on the chevron three bezants."
These are niceties of blazon which every student must think out for himself, and I have no space to enlarge on them. The purpose of these few notes is firstly to point out that, within the limits of accuracy and reasonable brevity, the herald should be the master and not the slave of his language ; and secondly, that blazon should be regarded not as a mere technical jargon, but as a branch of literature, A blazon ought to be as beautiful in its wording as the painted arms in their line and colour. It should, if possible, have rhythm, and if a touch of poetry creeps in it will not be amiss. The sun-in-splendour, the peacock in his pride, and the pelican in her piety, are instances of poetry in blazon.
We should not hesitate to vary the " common form " of heraldic expression in the interests of beautiful blazon. It is, of course, a matter of taste, but in describing the lions of England I prefer " their claws and tongues azure " to the usual " armed and langued azure." I would rather have the Scottish unicorn with " its horn, mane and hooves of gold " than " armed, crined and unguled or." And as for the harp of Ireland, officially " stringed argent," what could be finer than " Azure, a gold harp with silver strings " ?
Not that I want to translate all the old heraldic terms ; many of them convey a picture to the mind more readily than their modern English equivalents. I claim the liberty to pick and choose, without necessarily being consistent. My griffins are " rampant" and not " segreant" ; on the other hand I apply the expressive word " trippant" to deer, and do not seek to make them " passant."
It is perhaps too late in the day to dispense with plates and hurts, and to revert to the bezants d'argent and torteaux azure which you find in the old rolls of arms ; but in other directions some simplification might be permitted. For example, those who (like myself) can never remember the difference between ermines, erminois and pean might well use " sable ermined silver," " gold ermined sable," and so on, as Oswald Barron recommended.
We may disagree in matters of detail, but can we not concur in trying to make the language of heraldry something that will delight the reader with its beauty instead of merely amusing him with its quaintness.