Log in

No account? Create an account
entries friends calendar profile AT: Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn Previous Previous Next Next
The Black Arms: Preliminary Observations - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
The Black Arms: Preliminary Observations

As we all know – God knows we’ve heard enough of the matter in the past few days – JKR is auctioning off a partial pedigree of the Blacks’s. Many have observed, but few have commented upon, the partial achievement of arms – an escutcheon and supporters, without more – at the head of the document, which purports to be the arms of successive heirs male of the Black line. (There are, of course – save, I am told, in Germany – no such things as ‘family’ arms; the ‘Black arms’ here are, in fact, the arms that would be borne, individually, by each successive head of that family during the period between his father’s death and his own: assuming further that the senior male line remained unbroken, so that the head was entitled to bear the arms, depicted as of 1847, undifferenced.)


Let me also say at once that there is a great, nay, an appalling, amount of rubbish talked in respect of the ‘symbolism’ of charges and ordinaries, as, say, ‘a chevron symbolises protection’.  Skite.  Havers. Blaflum.  Almost all of this associational tosh is post-facto self-aggrandisement.  Canting arms – arms that are a pun upon the armiger’s surname – are the arms most likely to ‘symbolise’ something, and what they symbolise is simply a jest, as piles or the Passion-nails that are sometimes called ‘piles’ may be granted to someone whose surname is Pyle (or, in the case of the Passion-nails, ‘Naylor’) without its indicating any great devotion to the Passion of Christ; or a bull’s head cabossed may be borne by a Mr Bullock.


Recognising, then, the limitations of the art and science of heraldry, let us find out what the Black arms may legitimately tell us about this family, however little, in the end, that may be.


We must first try to determine what, precisely, these arms are.  La Rowling may be weak in maths; she is assuredly not a herald.  The sketch of the shield component of the Black achievement of arms is unexpectedly difficult to blazon: if one imagined for a moment that she was attempting to use the Sancta Petra method of tricking the shield, the horizontal lines would suggest that it was ‘Azure, a chevron …’ and so on.  But it appears that she was attempting to convey a solid colour, and this would be an appropriate colour for the Black arms, a canting colour: Sable, that is, black, beneath the ordinary and charges (that is, so you know, as a field, which, in blazonry, always comes first).  On this theory, the arms of the main line of Black are, as of the time of the tapestry, Sable, a chevron argent between two mullets and a sword [? proper] erect in pale, point upwards, [all of the second – if the sword is argent throughout rather than proper, in which case the blade would be argent but the sword would be hilted and pommelled, or].  I am, by the bye, assuming that the charge in base is meant for a sword, although its proportions are those of a dirk or dagger: the blade is a sword’s blade, not a dirk’s.


Now, stark black and white arms are generally associated, thanks to the authority of Beryl Platt, with families that claim an origin in Flanders, in which the colours of the province of Alost are indeed black and white (in theory, silver, but argent is, all but always, simply, white); and they are peculiarly thick on the ground in Scots heraldry.  However, it is grotesquely unlikely that the Blacks are Scots in origin, the more so as the two clans with which that name is most commonly associated in Scotland are the Lamonts and the Macgregors, neither of which clans have heraldry that at all lends itself to the Black arms.


There is a Black family emanating from the West Country and later found in the Midlands that bears arms of sable and argent; and Goldstraw of Whitecairns, based upon the Herald’s Visitations of Cheshire, has demonstrated that there is an almost Scots amount of sable-and-argent armoury in that county, if primarily in the form of, Argent with sable ordinaries and charges.  (In my own fiction, a year and more before the publication of the Black arms we are now discussing, I placed the Blacks in Staffs, but only so as to make a footling jest about the Muggles’s having mistaken the reasons why the area was called ‘the Black Country’: I claim no prescience.  A Midlands origin does, I note, allow for easy connexions with the Cambridgeshire Yaxleys, but that is hardly evidence.)  The fact remains that the Black arms do not, and ought not be expected to, tell us much if anything about the family’s place of origin.


Yet the arms are not mute, there are things that we may surmise from them.


Sable, a chevron argent, between, in chief, two mullets of the second, and, in base, a sword proper erect in pale, point upwards.  This is, so far as we can tell, the shield embroidered upon the tapestry immediately above Phineas Nigellus’s name.  Now, Phineas Nigellus was born in 1847.  The Blacks claim to be a family of considerable ancientry.  It is therefore highly probable that the arms as of 1847 are the result of several successive differencings, augmentations, or other forms of heraldic evolution.  (These are not cadency issues, as the changes in the Black arms are neither Stodart cadency nor the English system of labels.)  Let us consider how these arms may have evolved, bearing in mind the methods of Alex Maxwell Findlater on differencing by tincture and/or the addition of an ordinary, and the insights of Campbell of Airds, HM Unicorn Pursuivant of Arms, following on from the work of the late Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk.


A possible first grant (or assumption) of arms by the Blacks is, simply, Sable.  A black and unadorned, canting, shield for the Blacks. 


But the purpose of heraldry is identification – and differentiation, as a part thereof: and it is quite likely that the stresses of battle (and surely there were battles, that is how anciently armigerous people came to be armigers, that is why they were granted arms), and the branching out of families, would have prompted an early differencing or elaboration of such a plain and common coat.  It is quite likely that the first differencing was either the addition of an ordinary, a fess argent or a chevron argent,



or the addition of charges, such as three mullets, two and one. 


If this is so, and it is quite probable that it is, then there was a further differencing that consisted of combining the ordinary with the charges, or the charges with the ordinary: say, Sable, a fess argent between three mullets of the second. 


There could then well have been, next, a further evolution effected by changing the ordinary from a fess to a chevron, resulting in, Sable, a chevron argent between three mullets of the second. 


The subsequent substitution of the mullet in base with a sword, either argent or proper, creating the 1847 escutcheon of Sable, a chevron argent between two mullets of the second and a sword proper erect in pale, point upwards, would then constitute the most recent differencing of the arms of the heir male of Black, as of 1847 or so.



This evolution, and the time required for it, at least suggests that some generations, enough for multiple differencings of the original escutcheon, preceded the date of the tapestry, and supports the Black boast of being a family of no little ancientry.


As the Maldens have pointed out with particular reference to the Stuarts and as Campbell of Airds has noted with respect to the heraldry of the West Highlands, coats of arms that share elements amongst families who have interacted for some time, are making statements – whether accurate or not is not the point: the point is that the assertions are made – about their relationships, either of blood or of other, often political, connexions.  Recall what Maxwell Findlater would stress, that early forms of differencing between family branches did not follow current cadency or marshalling strictures, but, rather, tended to be effected by reversing colours and metals or changing ordinaries (as from a fess to a chevron, say).  In that context, I note that there are Potters from Hants and Wilts who have borne, Sable, a fess ermine, between three cinquefoils argent,


and Potters from Cheshire who have borne, Argent, a chevron gules, between three ermine spots [sable, necessarily]. 


One may well doubt that JKR had or has the faintest inkling of these coincidences, but they are certainly there for discerning fans to play with (so long as they do so knowledgeably: I shudder at the prospect of unleashing yet more half-educated fanfiction upon the fandom, by these suggestions).


We may now turn to the most startling aspect of the Black arms as depicted by Oor Joanie.  Again, we are annoyingly not given a full achievement of the arms: we do not have the helm, any cap of maintenance or coronet, any crest, motto or slughorn, or compartment: we have merely the shield itself, and its supporters.  Its supporters, I reiterate: talbots, gorged [collared] argent.


This is startling because, as a rule, an achievement of arms includes a grant of hereditary supporters only when the armiger is a peer, a Scottish feudal baron whose barony predates the year 1587, a chief of a clan, or, in some instances, a baronet.  Non-hereditary supporters are granted to KGs, KTs, KCBs, KCMGs, and life peers (including law lords).  I realise that the Blacks considered themselves all but royal (come to that, maybe they are Macgregors), but this is a bit stiff.  It raises interesting questions: Is there a Wizarding College of Arms?  Do the Lord Lyon and the English College of Arms have Wizarding heralds (Merlin Herald, Hogwarts Pursuivant, and so on)?  If so, what in God’s name do they tell HM – the Sovereign being after all the ‘fount of honour’ – about these grants?  Or, more curious still: Are the Black arms assumed, usurped, and pretended, never the subject of a proper grant at all?  (After all, God knows ‘Lord Voldemort’ has no legitimate claim to a title.)



Once again, it seems, La Rowling has bowled an ungentlemanly ball – and, as usual, it’s probably the result of simple pig-ignorance.  On the one hand, it’s infuriating, in its way.  On the other, it creates more backstory than she ever intended, and has opened whole new areas of surmise and fanfiction to her fen.

Tags: , ,

47 comments or Leave a comment
From: tunxeh Date: February 3rd, 2006 07:47 am (UTC) (Link)
Fascinating! As you say at the end, it is likely overanalysis, but sometimes overanalysis can be fun.

Maybe the other relevant observation here is that there seems nothing wizardly about the heraldry, despite the Black's claims (e.g. in their motto) of being a long line of purebloods. And, even if there's no more significance than a rebus to the main design of the arms, mightn't there be some symbolism in the choice of a sword over any other shape for (what you hypothesize to be) the final differencing?
wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 3rd, 2006 07:58 am (UTC) (Link)

Thanks, Yes, Excellent Point.

There is nothing Wizardly about it, is there? I missed that point wholly. And I agree, the question of, Why a sword is a good one, one to which I've no answer.

I wonder what Wizarding heraldry wd be like? Hmmmm....
alliekiwi From: alliekiwi Date: February 3rd, 2006 10:24 am (UTC) (Link)
Another interesting point on the family tree is the presence of the name Potter.

Now, since we know the pure-blood families are all inter-related, this isn't too much of a surprise. The problem lies with the dates of birth and death for the Potters involved. Charlus Potter apparently married Dorea Black (by the way, have you any thoughts on the name Charlus and Proust connections?) and produced one son. Most people will immediately assume that son is James Potter. But. And a big but it is. Charlus and Dorea both die in 1977, aetat 57 or so. Yet JKR said James' parents were 'old by wizarding standards' and 'succumbed to a wizarding illness'. Fifty-seven does not seem old to me, by Muggle standards, let alone wizarding!

But we know, as you mentioned, JKR's mathematical abilities are limited in the extreme.
beyond_pale From: beyond_pale Date: February 3rd, 2006 12:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
This is tricky; while it is infinitely tempting to assume they are Harry's grandparents, and 57 is indeed "late in life" to have children by any standards, your objections to this association stand.
(Deleted comment)
(Deleted comment)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 3rd, 2006 03:34 pm (UTC) (Link)

Grandmere or no Gammer, It Does That.

Even if Dorea's only a collateral as to Harry, I'm certain, and have been since OotP and Sirius's remarks about the interrelatedness (read, iinbreeding') of purebloods, that Harry's a Black as well as a Potter.

I've similarly been persuaded since that conversation that Sirius in fact intervened - DELIBERATELY - to divert Harry's attention, with, Look, Harry! Weasleys and Prewetts and Malfoys and All That!, before Harry's gaze could travel to the part of the tapestry that showed the Black-Potter connexions (yes, plural). After all, the Blacks think themselves a cut above and fera nothing and no one, right? And yet the HEIR runs away to live with a school chum, he's underage and the Ministry itself could force his return ... and the Blacks fume silently and do nothing? I have ALWAYS said, accordingly, that the Potters are Very Senior and Important: equal to the Blacks, people the Blacks actually feared to confront over Sirius, and, though Harry still doesn't realise it, rich.

But that's a hobby-horse of a different colour, and best left to another day. Thanks for yr close reading and yr insights.
cutecoati From: cutecoati Date: February 3rd, 2006 05:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
it’s probably the result of simple pig-ignorance

You know, I've stopped wondering about this since her "burning witches at the stake in England in the 14th century" thing... I don't think she even intended to get the chronology right here; Dorea and Charlus, IMO, can't be Harry's grandparents (unless you presume that the average life-span of wizards has increased about 100 years within a generation).

Very very interesting post - I just can't go into all the details, and not only fandom-wise, it'd take me hours...

And somehow, it's good to know that the terminology used for blazoning is as weird silly complicated in English as it is in German ;DD

Btw, I don't think there's such thing as family arms in Germany/Holy Roman Empire - it'd be the head of the house, too, who bears the arm (the sons/close relatives might bear arms derivated from the "original" one). Am not sure about the 19th century, though...
cutecoati From: cutecoati Date: February 3rd, 2006 05:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
ps: Am SO VERY MUCH in love with the Alphabet icon!!!
wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 4th, 2006 07:13 am (UTC) (Link)

The State of Play: As of Saturday Morning: I

Good morning, you lot. You’ve been busy whilst honest men sleep.

I apologise in advance for not answering the interim comments to date, individually. But that would force needless repetition. Let us, then, examine the overall state of play.

We know from OotP that Harry began his close examination of the tapestry at the ‘modern’ end, the bottom, and that Sirius then jumped in and started pointing out his immediate family, thus, intentionally or not, diverting Harry’s attention from various Flints, Potters, Bulstrodes, and so on. We also know from OotP that Harry, in first looking at the pied de grue (pedigree, and also the basis for ‘Pettigrew’, which has its echoes, o Purebloods, does it not?), got the impression that it ‘went back to’ mediaeval times, and Kreacher, who I think we may provisionally trust on this issue simply because it matters so much to him, says that the tapestry has been in the family for ‘seven centuries’. There is no reason to think, and every reason not to think, that the page that is being auctioned off is meant to represent the entirety of the pedigree.

Similarly, I don’t think that Charlus and Dorea are James’s grandparents; I am certain there are numerous Potter-Black marriages. The result is that Sirius’s and James’s cousinage is distant enough that it is not generally remarked upon; in so small a society, where everyone is a cousin, only the most nearly related are thus acknowledged.

It is true that the pedigree shows that Harry has many distant kin in the Wizarding world, through James’s line. Why was he not placed with them when orphaned? The actual answer of course is, Dramatic necessity. But let us play the old Irregular’s game, and find an answer within the Potterverse. Clearly, that answer is, Because in order for Lily’s sacrifice to invoke blood-magic protections, it was necessary to place Harry with the nearest family he had on Lily’s side, not on James’s. Thus, enter the Dursleys, whinging.

We know from HBP that Hermione never thought of Regulus Black as a candidate for being ‘RAB’. Yes, Hermione is a true swot. But one imagines that she has less than no interest, at least at the moment, in Wizarding genealogy, and would as soon sit a Divination exam as read Nature’s Nobility. In the first place, she is Muggle-born. In the second, she has reason to despise and ignore everyone she has ever heard go on about the subject. In the third, she has brought with her her own natural, Muggle-formed prejudices, and Hermione can be spotted at two hundred yards’s distance as coming from a bien-pensant, Guardian-ista, LibLab family.

Yet blood is important – magically important – in the world she and Harry have come to. (I note that one huge folly within the Wizarding world is to leave Muggle-born and Muggle-raised Wizarding children in ignorance until they receive their Hogwarts letters: it creates a world in which the Purebloods and many Half-Bloods uncritically swallow all the rubbish their fathers spout, and in which the rest are too busy catching up on the basics to challenge such myths as blood status or the grandfather who died of a pox for which a cure had been found in the late 16th Century.)

wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 4th, 2006 07:14 am (UTC) (Link)

The State of Play: As of Saturday Morning: II

... Which brings us to Barty the Younger and Tommy Riddle Taradiddle. At the end of GoF, the False Moody says that he, like his master, Tom, was honoured to have the opportunity to serve the rise of the Dark through patricide. We know that Tom, after leaving Hogwarts, went and learnt from others – from elder Dark Wizards – the Dark Arts. We know that JKR has said that the DEs were formerly called the Knights of Walpurgis, with all that name’s Teutonic and Grindelwaldian overtones. We know that Lily’s maternal sacrifice created a blood shield for Harry, and we know that Riddle created a new body for himself with the ‘bone of the father’. I do not suggest that all Ks of W or all DEs engage in patricide, and certainly not that non-DEs, particularly all those, even Potters and Weasleys, who are connexions of the Blacks, do so, so long as those Black collaterals are not DEs or Ks of W. But I do conclude that there is a powerful magic, Dark magic, in patricide, one taught to Riddle in his ‘lost years’ by what may have been a pre-existing K of W organisation, perhaps Grindelwald’s old mob, and that certain DEs and Ks of W have used ritual patricide, a rite exclusive to them but not universal amongst them, as a means of ascent – or descent – into powerful Dark Wizardry. And Lucius may not care much, at bottom, for ideology, but he cares incredibly about power, which is why I suspect he did for his daddy and blandly ascribed the Unfortunate Event to dragon-pox.

As for the surprising lack of longevity amongst the post-1847 Blacks and their collaterals, I suspect that three successive wars coupled with sedition and family murders explain that. Grindelwald and two Riddle rebellions would assuredly up the death rate; one need only compare the cruelly short life-spans reflected on every village cross and parish Roll of Honour in every village in England between 1914 and 1945.
From: (Anonymous) Date: February 4th, 2006 06:38 pm (UTC) (Link)

Of Supporters and Names

You state that "...an achievement of arms include a grant of hereditary supporters only when the armiger is... in some instances, a baronet." As I recall, the title of baronet was created by James I as a way of raising funds. Is it not possible that an affluent 17th-century Black could have *bought* his supporters? Wizarding secrecy wasn't in force then and there must have been more interaction between the wizarding and Muggle worlds. I would guess that this happened prior to 1649, though I suppose it could have happened after the Restoration given the Crown's usual state of (in)solvency. True, the Black arms don't seem to follow the rules, but the farther back in time, the more fluid things get.

As for the Old Testament names that run in the Smith line, I don't recall off the top of my head where the seat of the family was. Years ago I read a very interesting book called "Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America," which held that Old Testament names (and indeed, non-conformism in religion) were characteristic of East Anglia. In any case, I would suppose that Helga Hufflepuff's descendants ran to daughters, and the cup may have been passed down in a female line.

And speaking of names, has anyone but me noticed all the Doras in the Black lineage? We have an Elladora, a Callidora (possibly the mother of Augusta [maiden name unknown] Longbottom's late husband), a Dorea, and of course Nymphadora. And Arcturus the only star-name visible!

Incidentally, count me in the camp that, on present information, does *not* believe Charlus and Dorea Black Potter are James' parents. Sirius no doubt knew that tapestry very well, and it would be extremely odd for him not to have remarked on their cousinship if indeed they were cousins. I'm sure that the Potters and Blacks are linked prior to 1847, though, and perhaps Charlus could have been James' uncle.

And an aside on Phineas Nigellus: the name Nigellus means "black" and he doesn't seem to have used Black as a surname. Perhaps he Latinized his name as a way of emphasizing his academic distinction and very old-fashioned views? (Latinized names were once used in Academia, but the 19th century is awfully late for that, at least in the Muggle world.)

It would be nice to have more information and be able to properly track wizarding onomastics!
wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 4th, 2006 06:55 pm (UTC) (Link)

Agreed on all counts.

Certainly the Blacks could have sucked up to the Stuarts. Even so, most barts who were granted supporters had other distinctions, usually military. Still, it's vy possible. And this is why it is so aggravating not to have the full achievement available.

As for Phineas Nigellus, yes, on all counts. Perhaps, though, there had been prior Black headmasters, and he was generally called 'Phineas Nigellus' to distinguish him from all the other Headmasters Black? Still, yes, one would find that sort of Latinisation more likely in Erasmus's day than in Darwin's ... or indeed in, wait for it, Erasmus Darwin's. It's like all those German humanists changing their names from 'Neumann' to 'Neander' and what not.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 5th, 2006 02:23 am (UTC) (Link)

Here from D_S


I think that probably she doesn't know a lot about heraldry, and looked through a book, but taking it and playing with it anyway because it's shiny and pretty is always fun.

My guess is that the arms predate the Statute of Secrecy (which wasn't until 1692, according the Lex), and did in fact come from the King. Remember, the wizards do have the Order of Merlin, which means that Merlin, and through him Arthur, are part of the Potterverse wizarding history. Merlin and Nimue both served the king, and other witches figure in the stories as well. It's quite conceivable that some of the older nobility in the wizarding world were magical advisors to the king as Merlin was, and the Blacks could have been among that number.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 5th, 2006 01:55 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thanks. Yes.

I don't at all foreclose the possibility. In fact, I wd imagine that if the PM is cleared to know of the existence of Wizard-dom, the entire Privy Council likely is (cleared, that is, not necessarily actually told until an emergency erupts; still, every past PM knows), and surely the Sovereign must know of it (there's a reason, after all, why the Wizarding world is governed by a Ministry, and has no Wizarding head of state).

(Why, yes, of course the Royal Family are Squibs. The Hanoverian Succession reduced them to Squib-hood. The Stuarts were touching their subjects to cure the King's Evil as late as Anne's reign, of course they were Wizards.)
ladyaelfwynn From: ladyaelfwynn Date: February 6th, 2006 09:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
Here through Hogwarts Today... (a few days late ;-) )

Wonderful essay! It's refreshing to someone with a firm grasp of the subject and obvious interest discuss heraldry in the Potterverse, rather than the usual half-informed gobbledook we usually get.

I wholeheartedly agree with your observation that heraldry is not one of Ms. Rowling's strong points. I often wonder why she just doesn't get an appointment with the Lyon King of Arms and get things sorted out ;-).

Ever since I read "The Most Noble and Ancient House of Black" or whichever chapter it was in OotP, I thought that the Blacks, with their French motto, were of Norman descent. If they came over with William the Conqueror or later is speculation.

Thanks again for a lovely, well-written, and insightful essay!
wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 7th, 2006 06:14 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank You.

Agreed on all points.

And Heaven knows the Lyon Court, and such private, supportive bodies as the Heraldry Society of Scotland, wd be delighted to help her, and spread the gospel of correct blazonry.
47 comments or Leave a comment