Taking Up Arms

Guest blog post by Adam Flynn, Renaissance Art postgraduate work placement student.

Heraldry is a fascinating and elaborate system by which coats of arms are devised and deciphered. My own research into the identification of coats of arms included within the catalogued incunabula of the University of Glasgow Library (the Glasgow Incunabula Project) has necessitated the studying of genealogies, timelines, colour symbolism, family mottoes, and numerous other factors which determine the design of arms. Additionally, due to the relative specialism of heraldry – generally perceived of as being an arcane science – the correct recording of the blazon of a coat of arms requires the use of an esoteric terminology, systematised and refined over a long period of time. To complicate matters, particularly for English-speakers, the language of heraldry is still generally Norman-French, the language regularly spoken at the Court of England in the High Middle Ages. Such challenges, however, make it all the more rewarding when a chronology of ownership can be finally established.

House of Rochefort (Hunterian Be.2.6)

House of Rochefort (Hunterian Be.2.6)

Since the start of my placement with Special Collections, we have successfully affirmed the provenance of a number of incunables through the successful identification of painted coats of arms contained within each.

So far, our research has attributed the ownership of a number of arms to specific individuals. For example, the Sp Coll Hunterian Be.2.6 copy of works by Blondus featured a painted coat of arms that we confirmed as belonging to the House of Rochefort – specifically, to Guillaume de Rochefort (c.1433/39 – 1492), Chancellor of France. Moreover, an unidentified Italian coat of arms featured in two Hunterian incunables (Hunterian Bg.3.10 and Hunterian Bf.3.2), while initially presumed to belong to a Florentine family was, in fact, confirmed as being linked to the patrician Donà family of Venice.

Donà family of Venice (Sp Coll Hunterian Bg.3.10)

Donà family of Venice (Sp Coll Hunterian Bg.3.10)


Donà family of Venice (Sp Coll Hunterian Bf.3.2)

Donà family of Venice (Sp Coll Hunterian Bf.3.2)

Cipher of "T.H." (Sp Coll Ferguson An-y.39)

Cipher of “T.H.” (Sp Coll Ferguson An-y.39)

After our own research yielded few results, we looked to Twitter users to assist in the decipherment of a 19th century bookplate coat of arms featured in Sp Coll Ferguson An-y.39 (Abiosus: Dialogus in astrologiae defensionem cum vaticinio a diluvio ad annos 1702). The bookplate was believed to be of Germanic provenance and included a monogram we originally considered to be ‘C.H.’ (or ‘H.C.’). The use of this online resource proved greatly rewarding, and through a helpful suggestion from one user – who suggested that, in fact, the interlaced initials stood for ‘T.H.’ – the bookplate turned out to be of British provenance (Franks 15945: T.H. Crest). However, the individual to whom the ‘T.H.’ initials belong remains unidentified.

Along with those arms that have now been positively identified, there are still a number of incunables containing arms whose decipherment continues to elude us. Some in particular have proven especially challenging to identify, not, however, due to a paucity of information, but an excess of.

Too many possibilities! (Sp Coll Hunterian Bx.2.9)

Too many possibilities! (Sp Coll Hunterian Bx.2.9)

One such example is the Sp Coll Hunterian Bx.2.9 copy of works by Lactantius, decorated with a painted coat of arms featuring a crescent moon and star – symbols which appear on a great number of European arms and flags, such as the flag of Louny, Croatia, and even of the city of Portsmouth! In addition, one Twitter user suggested a possible relation to the attributed arms of one of the three Kings of Cologne (the Three Wise Men), raising the possibility of this coat of arms as being the product of the medieval practice of designing arms for, and attributing arms to, individuals who were not necessarily armigerous themselves (especially if they lived before the introduction of heraldry), and who may or may not be fictional.

Ambiguous red symbol (Sp Coll Ferguson Am-z.41)

Ambiguous red symbol (Sp Coll Ferguson Am-z.41)


Benedictine provenance? (Sp Coll Hunterian Bx.3.26)

Another coat of arms under investigation is contained within a book printed by Nicolaus Jenson in Venice in 1471 – Nicolaus Salernitanus: Antidotarium (Sp Coll Ferguson Am-z.41). Several Twitter users offered various suggestions regarding the identification of the ambiguous red symbol, including a bear’s legs, an eagle’s feet, and a cardinal’s hat – all of which are being taken into consideration.

Additionally, a copy of Albucasis’s Liber servitoris (Sp Coll Hunterian Bx.3.26) features an as yet unidentified ink stamp depicting six hills surmounted by a patriarchal cross, a coronet and two palm leaves. The stamp is most likely Italian, and may have possible Benedictine connections as it incorporates the hills and patriarchal cross common in many Benedictine coats of arms.

Provenance research also continues on a book printed by Vindelinus de Spira in Venice in 1471 – Cicero: Epistolae ad familiaris (Sp Coll Hunterian Be.1.6). This is decorated with an unidentified painted coat of arms within a green laurel leaf. The official heraldic designation is as follows: argent, on a bend azure three bezants. One suggestion is that it might belong to an Italian family called Sperelli, whose coat of arms is similar to our own, but with a different colour scheme. Another comparable coat of arms charged with four gold bezants has been attributed to Alessandro Sperelli (1590-1671), Bishop of Gubbio, Italy.

Possibly Sperelli family (Sp Coll Hunterian Be.1.6)

Possibly Sperelli family (Sp Coll Hunterian Be.1.6)

I am currently half way through my placement, and with research still ongoing, my intention over the next few weeks is to better familiarise myself with the fairly enigmatic language of heraldry, review catalogue descriptions, and, with any luck, through continued research establish the ownership history of even more of our early printed books containing coats of arms – and return to those persistently elusive ones. By researching a book’s provenance, we see how books create their own discrete histories, which offer crucial insights into the way they were used and regarded by different owners over time.

Categories: Special Collections

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1 reply


  1. Symbols of Honour: Identifying Coats of Arms – University of Glasgow Library

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