Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Say it with flowers (or jewels, or planets, or heavenly virtues...)

A conversation with Mr Alastair Whybrow, mostly about shops and jewelry (on which topics the gentleman is pre-eminent), led me to dig up some stuff about the blazoning of arms by jewels, and by other methods besides.  Heraldry has been an interest of mine ever since I was a wee Glorf, and I have C. W. Scott-Giles, J. P. Brooke-Little, A. C. Fox-Davis and Count Alexander von Volborth in my private library.  (Their families have offered to pay the ransom, but a set like that, you don't want to break it up.)

For the benefit of people who have lives, and are therefore ignorant of heraldry; coats of arms are described using a technical language all their own, and this jargon starts with the definitions of the colours that are used - more properly, the two metals (Or, or gold, for yellow; Argent, or silver, for white) and five colours (Gules, red; Azure, blue; Vert, green; Purpure, purple; Sable, black).  However, jargon like this is all the better for more obfuscation, and some people developed tricks of using other things to represent the colours.  Idle conversation with Mr Whybrow brought up the topic of "blazoning by jewels", or using different jewel names to stand in for the colours; a short trawl online brought me to a useful little volume called The British Herald, (published in 1830) by one Thomas Robson, which contained a useful little table of these conceits, part of which I shall reproduce here.

The various colours can be represented by Jewels, Planets, Flowers, Metals, Classical Elements, Temperaments and Heavenly Virtues, as follows:-

Or (yellow): Topaz, Sol (the sun), Heliotrope, Gold, Light, the Blithe temperament, the virtue of Fortitude.
Argent (white): Pearl, Luna (the moon), Lily, Silver, Water, the Phlegmatic temperament, the virtue of Hope
Gules (red): Ruby, Mars, Rose, Iron, Fire, the Choleric temperament, the virtue of Charity
Azure (blue): Sapphire, Jupiter, Bluebell, Tin, Air, the Sanguine temperament, the virtue of Justice
Vert (green): Emerald, Venus, The Field, Copper, Life, the Bilious temperament, the virtue of Strength
Purpure (purple): Amethyst, Mercury, Iris, Quicksilver, Thunderbolt, the Serious temperament, the virtue of Temperance
Sable (black): Diamond, Saturn, Scabieva, Lead, Earth, the Melancholy temperament, the virtue of Prudence

Some of these fall into the category of the bloomin' obvious, especially if you already know some classical symbolism stuff (like the association of iron and Mars or copper and Venus, for instance).  And some of them have clearly been stretched to fit the scheme; you may notice that Bilious, Blithe and Serious have been added to the list of the four "humours", and that the four classical elements have been padded out to seven by the addition of Light, Life and Thunderbolt.  You will also note that the virtue of Fortitude sneaks in a second time as Strength, the heavenly virtue that should be on the list (Humility) presumably being too humble to appear on a coat of arms.  And I'm honestly not sure what "Scabieva" is, unless it's the scabious, or teasel.  Presumably Robson, as a botanist, makes a very good herald, or something.

What's the point of all this?  Well, it's sometimes interesting, as Mr Whybrow and I remarked to each other, to know where some of these symbols come from, and how far back our cultural roots go... besides, to SL content creators like Mr W and (in a small way) myself, this sort of stuff can serve as inspiration.  I've seen all sorts of symbolically inspired jewelry, outfits and so on.  So, maybe somebody out there is struggling around thinking "what sort of colours would suit a serious person?", and we can all answer, now, "Purple.  With irises."  Or whatever.

My search also led me to a much more complete disquisition on the whole thing by a bloke called John Ferne, whose Blazon of Gentrie was printed in 1586, and takes the form of a discussion, mostly between the herald Paradinus and the knight Torquatus, on the symbolism involved.  So that's my bedtime reading sorted, then.  How have other people been spending Valentine's Day, anyway?

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