I am a brand new, baby herald in the SCA and am just beginning to explore the corpus of historical heraldic art. While I was participating in the recent Virtual Herald’s Point as an artist, I came across the Harley Manuscript 6149 at the British Library.
The Harley MS 6149 consists of a number of heraldry-related treatises that were written and/or compiled and bound into a single book around 1494 by one Adam Loutfut, “…a Scottish scribe who was in the service of Sir William Cummyn of Inverellochy, Marchemond Herald and (after 1512) Lyon King of Arms” (cite). Much of the book was actually written by Adam himself and in my opinion, he has lovely handwriting.
The section I was really studying was folii 5r-42r, “The Deidis of Armorie; a Scots heraldic treatise”. It contains illustrated heraldic elements, including a bestiary. Not only does Adam describe each creature’s habits & environment, but he also notes the significance of what it means to bear such a creature on one’s arms. And better yet dear reader, let me tell you, Adam made sure that some of these critters were absolutely adorable. Behold:
“The hare is a beast light and nimble of foot, as Ysodore says, and is fearful in battle, and Aesop says in his moralities that the hares once assembled together, saying they would flee no more against their enemies, and they would pass river who wished it not, thus they came and descended a mountain and beside the river they found the stream, which was frightened to look on them and began to flee, whereupon the hares had so great a joy once they broke the snare above, and they still bury that token, and they have weak sight and close not their eyes, and hear right clear, and have long generous ears, that is a necessary thing to them to keep their eyes from fleas, as says Auicennis. And signifies he that first bear them in arms is a runner and scout of land and does not wait for his enemies, and of hearing clear at night when the light fails him, and thereto was more disposed not to fight the enemy at close range.”
My take on the heraldic significance: Messengers and scouts, particularly people of keen hearing who work well in the dark, and personnel who do not usually engage the foe in direct combat.
“The bat is both beast and fowl, and with good will hides herself in old houses and in dark places as the heron, which is the fowl in the world she fears and doubts most. It is supposed that he goes by day seeking his prey as other fowls do, and that makes her to go on the night whereupon she is deceived. And signifies that he that bears them first in arms went at night, and made his undertakings to keep himself and discomfit his enemies, which he did more until his detriment was not to his advantage, and was often dissatisfied.”
My take on the heraldic significance: Night fighters, especially those who operate stealthily and/or irregularly, at high personal risk. Commandos.
“The raynard is a right subtle beast to know and get his prey and keep him from peril, for it is his proper nature to hide near woods and caverns. And signifies he that bears him first in arms can well get his prey among princes and lords, and can well keep him from peril, and finds his fortune in retreat, and finds refuge in woods and in caverns after the nature of the reynard.”
My take on the heraldic significance: Sneaky fighters who go after high-value targets. Hit-and-run types who operate from camouflage and/or make extensive use of cover.
“The lobster, as says Aristotle, is a right great fish, and has the jaw strength therewith he fractures the stones and with good will bites them, and hides himself in reefs more than other places, and is right fair of the shell, which is right hard and must be oftimes plunged in water or otherwise it will become so hard that he may not ply it, and therefore willfully he hides himself in the most deep water and in the shelter of the rocks from the heat of the sun. And signifies that he that first bears him in arms was strong in the mouth, that is to say, of virtuous language and of great force, whereby he compels and masters greater and harder folks than himself, and that his nation and refuge was in the land of reefs, and oft-times refreshes himself therefore to keep him from hardness of things that were adverse to him.”
My take on the heraldic significance: People with exceptional oratory skills, who are capable of crushing the foe through superior logic and rhetoric. I take this not to mean so much people of quick or biting wit (who win because of a “zinger”), but rather those who are able to win an argument through compelling, rational, and inspirational speech. I should also note that I feel this interpretation completely belies the derpy and sweet expression on the lobster’s face.
The text is my own interpretation of the transcription of Adam’s writing by Louk Houwen in his two-volume series published by the Scottish Text Society, “The Deides of Armorie: A Heraldic Treatise and Bestiary, Volumes 1 & II”. I made heavy use of the Dictionaries of the Scots Language, but I am no 15th-Century Scots scholar, so please take my version of the writing with a huge grain of salt!
I’ve traced all four of these and they’re currently available in .png, .jpg, or .svg format over on heraldicart.org if you’re in the SCA and would like to use them as part of a device or badge:
- The Hare – http://heraldicart.org/rabbit/#rabbit-statant
- The Bat – http://heraldicart.org/bat/#bat-sejant
- The Fox – http://heraldicart.org/fox/#fox-statant-3
- The Lobster – http://heraldicart.org/lobster/#lobster-passant