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REFERENCE BOOKS

Novelists may be excused some degree of historical inaccuracy, especially when their storyline takes them towards areas where great expertise is necessary for a profound understanding. Reference books, however, cannot be excused. Their buyers have the right to find their content clearly presented and textually and graphically correct.

The most frequently received question asks for the best book on heraldry. It might be thought difficult to answer, but there is one book in a class of its own, a masterpiece of clear and elegant explanation of a complex subject very few ever understand fully. But we shall not reveal its name in this issue ~ for we hope to receive agreement to publish it online, chapter by chapter, during 1999, and will announce our success in this, we hope, in December.

What might be the worst book on heraldry? There would be a lot of contenders for this award, and it would be a difficult competition to judge. But if we could broaden the question a little, and ask for the worst book on heraldry and related subjects, then we might reach a decision fairly quickly.

Let us agree first that there is no pleasure to be had in condemning a book that looks as if it is its author's pride and joy, that it would be perhaps kinder to avert one's eyes and to pass by on the other side of the ocean, that it may perhaps be the task of book reviewers to choose only those books worthy of compliments. But this book, the worst reference book we have encountered in our combined centuries of reading, claims to be a "Writer's Guide" and insists that those who write of mediaeval times (in "The British Isles from 500 to 1500") "need this book"!!!

THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO EVERYDAY LIFE IN THE MIDDLE AGES begins with a long list of dedication and acknowledgements that could persuade a casual browser to accept a strongly academic provenance ~ until, of course, the casual browser notes that the shield at the head of the dedication, bearing two swords in saltire and three scimitars in pale plus an oak tree eradicated, is inverted.

The content of the book for the greater part consists of lists of definitions interspersed with a few paragraphs of comment. The comment is delivered much in the style of a college lecture, but is distinguished from this by misspelling and inelegant phrasing, sins that vocal delivery, of course, hides. The definitions . . . . . . . well, what can be said about the definitions? Perhaps, to give a hint of their flavour, it might be best to list a few ~

  • Carver: - Carved the meat
  • Cook: - Prepared meals
  • Crossbowman: - Attended the defense of the castle
  • Duke: - Given to the members of the royal family
  • Earl: - The highest of the nobility
  • Falconer: - Attended the mews
  • Fathom: - Five and a half yards
  • Juggler: - Juggled
  • King: - Ruler of England
  • Kitchen Maid: - Kitchen helper
  • Knight: - Horse soldier
  • Ma: - My. Used for feminine words
  • Mime: - Mimes
  • Mon: - My. Used for masculine words
  • Musician: - Played an instrument
  • Pennon: - Pointed banner used by knights
  • Penon: - Small banner used for low-ranking knights
  • Pole: - Six feet
  • Rod: - Six feet
  • Sweeper: - Swept the courtyard
  • Warner: - Created subtleties

Of course, reading that a cook prepared meals and that a kitchen maid helped in the kitchen does tend to increase one's confidence in the author, we suppose. Here is an author, one might mutter under one's breath, who really knows the way around those distant centuries ~ although, we must confess, not knowing that a crossbowman was an archer with a windlass bow that loosed bolts called quarrels, and that a falconer bred and trained hawks for the chase, does look rather like a lapse of attention, as does the suggestion that the triangular flag known as a pennon (or a penon) is a banner. Then again, a fathom has always been related to the reach of two spread arms, and measured in mediaeval times, as now, a distance of six feet, not sixteen and a half feet; and a rod (or pole or perch) was sixteen and half feet, not six feet. (Well, as Horace suggested, even Homer nodded ~ and this author, as also her editor, has confused the fathom with the rod, pole and perch.)

BUT -- The highest rank in the nobility was that held by, among many others, Duke William of Normandy, William the Conqueror. So "Earl: The highest of the nobility" (presumably meaning "the highest rank of the nobility") is misleading, and "Duke: Given to the members of the royal family" (presumably meaning "the title given to members of the royal family") is similarly misleading in that Duke William was Duke before he became royal (which he did by making himself "Ruler of England" and thus "King"). What, incidentally, were the Rulers of Scotland and France? Not Kings, then?

Now readers who remember King John in late-13th century Scotland as the "Ruler of Scotland" forced on us by Edward I of England will be surprised to learn that in the 17th century the thrones of Scotland and England "were united by John I of England (John VI of Scotland)". We never had a John VI in Scotland, and that first John we had, John Balliol, was so unpopular that the next John, rather than be known as John II, took the name of Robert and reigned as Robert III. (And, of course, the king who united the crowns of England and Scotland was James I of England, VI of Scotland, not John.)

The author's difficulty with titles, as illustrated above, is apparent almost everywhere. A Baronet, we are told, is a "Fourteenth-century title used for nobles who didn't hold land, but were members of the House of Lords" ~ yet (1) there were no baronets in the 14th century; (2) holding land was then almost a working definition of nobility; and (3) no one has ever sat in the House of Lords on the basis of a baronetcy. We find it very difficult to believe this to be a genuine mistake, a genuine triple-error, copied from elsewhere. The author must surely have invented it.

The book's cover offers some intriguing inducements to the potential buyer, among which appears

HERALDRY -- Whether you're outfitting the noblest king or the darkest knight, you'll design a suitably symbolic coat of arms.

But the chapter on heraldry, one of the worst in the book, is an extraordinary mixture of superficiality and misunderstanding. Two pictures of "banners" (which, although indistinct, are more probably gonfannons) bear rampant beasts described as statant, which they most certainly are not. The definitions given in the list of "common terms of heraldry" are, we suspect, the author's own, for some are superfluous ("Erect: Upright"), while others are bizarre ("Lioncel: More than three lions"). Most heraldic beasts may be portrayed as rampant, but the author appears to reserve rampant for two-legged lions ~

Rampant: - A lion with its right leg raised and left foot planted. The right foot was fully raised as if to claw and the left was in a partially raised position.

Lines of partition are throughout confused with ordinaries, or perhaps vice versa ~ it is difficult to be certain. Thus "Bar: A horizontal line across the shield"; and "Bend, Bendlet: A diagonal line across the shield"; and "Chevron: A line like an upsidedown V"; and "Pale: Vertical line down the center of the shield". The following diagrams illustrate the distinction the author should have understood.

FOUR OF THE ORDINARIES
TWO BARS
A PALE
A BEND
A CHEVRON
FOUR OF THE PARTITION LINES
PER FESS
PER CHEVRON
PER PALE
PER BEND
It may be noted that a bar is never shown alone; there are always two or more.
A single "bar" is 50% thicker than a bar, and is termed a fess.
The horizontal partition line is per fess, not "per bar"
.

The author has problems with colours also. Red is not "gules or purpure" ~ it is gules. Purple is purpure. "Green (vert)" was not "considered unlucky and worn by few" ~ it was worn by few because, coming from faraway Sinople on the Black Sea it was, as was purple (made from rare shellfish), very expensive. In French heraldry today, green is still sinople. And it is wrong to claim that "all were referred to by their French names" ~ azure was Arabic (and originally Persian); gules was Latin; purpure was Latin or perhaps, as some insist, Northumbrian.

The cover's promise to help writers outfit noble kings and dark knights is honoured by these

TIPS FOR DESIGNING A COAT OF ARMS

  1. Begin with the colour of the field. This is always stated first in description.
  2. Choose the principle (sic) charge.
  3. Choose any lesser charges that might trim or adorn the crest or shield.
  4. Add the marks of distinction earned by the individual or family.

Thus several centuries of history, scholarship and artistry are reduced to a few words!

(This book was sent to us by an American reader, with the suggestion that we review it.
In doing so we have skimmed the surface only.
That seemed sufficient.)

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