A brief description of early heraldry with a view to providing a working introduction to the study of the first stages in development of heraldic design and choice of colors and motifs, with particular attention to shields of the imperial aristocracy.


Source records for European heraldry do not begin to become extensive until the later thirteenth century. By that time heraldry is relatively well systematized, and henceforth basic shields seldom change, except for the orderly modifications that allowed shields of the paternal and maternal families to be merged (a), or that modified the arms borne by a younger son (b), as in the following examples.

(a)     (b)

The beginnings of systematic heraldry, however, date to the late eleventh or early twelfth century. This means that almost two hundred years of seminal development occur with precious little documentation. Moreover, it can be ascertained that arbitrary changes of shield were much more frequent during this period. The irony is that heraldry becomes virtually a perfect document of lineage at the point where its documentation becomes impeccable, whereas for the period of its extraordinary nascence it is an unreliable resource, despite the contributions it might have made to our understanding of constitutional evolution.

The secrets of early heraldry might partially unlock themselves if trends or tendencies could be clarified. Here, one especially striking trend may have particular value. The lion device was accepted on the shields of many aristocrats of Lower Lorraine. It is especially noteworthy as the device accepted by the dukes of Brabant and Limburg and by the counts palatine of the Rhine. It was also accepted at some point by the counts of Geldern and Nassau: both these houses functioned as hereditary bearers of the battle standard of Cologne, an office in which Nassau probably succeeded Geldern. Various other important families of this region, including the counts of Flanders and Holland, eventually accepted a lion.

It can also be suggested that the lion was a symbol of very long standing in Lotharingia. We read in Widukind of Corvey, a tenth-century chronicler, about a confrontation in 953 between Duke Konrad Rufus of Lotharingia and his vassals: ‘baring his leonine spirit’, the duke gave his command for the standards to advance (leoninum exerens animum, signa signis contraria invexit). The heraldic counterpart to the lion was the eagle, whose associations with empire went back to ancient Rome. These emblems found their way onto the shields of the German emperors and the dukes of Lower Lorraine, apparently in association with each other, perhaps because Lower Lorraine represented the homeland of Emperor Lothar I, eldest son of Louis the Pious and consequently a source of particular legitimacy.

The eagle was borne by a small number of Lotharingian families, notably Are. Count Lothar of Are was a contemporary, namesake and presumably relative of Emperor Lothar III (reigned 1125-37). That Saxon emperor is reputed to have descended in some manner from the family of the Ezzonen, who were very powerful under the Ottonian and early Salian emperors and must surely have been forebears of the counts of Are. Since the eagle was borne by separate Are branches that divided from each other around the middle of the twelfth century, it is reasonable to associate the eagle of Are with Emperor Lothar.

Apparently that emperor gave impetus to the systematization of heraldry in Germany. The eagle, the device of the imperial shield, was assigned to his close relatives of Are (c), while the lion appears both in the holders of higher office in Lower Lorraine and in certain of Lothar’s relatives. Most notably, it became the symbol of his grandson Henry the Lion and survived as such on the shield of Henry’s descendants the Saxon dukes of Lüneburg (d).

(c)     (d)

Of course, it cannot be stated unequivocally that certain shields were handed out in Lothar’s reign if the documentation is from a much later time. Lions or eagles may in some instances have been chosen anachronistically. Authenticity is a vital concern. The most important issue, however, is whether the choice of arms reflects relationship in Emperor Lothar’s consanguinity, and whether a coherent argument for such relationship can be made. For the reader who wishes to be informed on this subject, a basic description of the rules of early heraldry may be helpful.