By Lani Visaisouk
Master’s Thesis, Utrecht University, 2006
Introduction: In 1136, King Arthur makes his first appearance in the English literary tradition: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain contains a lengthy section on Arthur. As in other early sources on Arthur, he is both a warrior and a king. As the centuries progress, the Arthur stories undergo a shift from the chronicle to the romance; the king himself transforms from warrior king to roi faineant, a “benevolent and passive king of Fairyland.” Despite this charge in Arthur’s own character, knights remain central to Arthurian legends and Arthurian traditions everywhere. As such, it should not come as a surprise that Arthurian legends contain all the trappings of knighthood: tournaments, jousts, horses, lances, spears, swords and shields.
Following the trail of shields can lead one to the topic of heraldry, namely the study of “pictured signs and emblems appertaining to shield, helmet, or banner.” If, then, one decides to follow up on heraldry in Arthurian literature and looks up the term in The Arthurian Encyclopedia, one is confronted with the following statement: “Surprisingly, Sir Thomas Malory’s monumental work [Le Morte d’Arthur] contains only a handful of heraldic descriptions.” Perhaps the author of this entry, in the interest of brevity and clarity, opted for an oversimplification, since an initial reading of Le Morte d’Arthur suggests that it certainly contains more than a handful of heraldic descriptions and that they occur frequently enough to warrant further investigation. This thesis is thus concerned with the heraldry of Le Morte d’Arthur.