Bloodied Banners: Martial Display on the Medieval Battlefield

Anne Curry looks at a fascinating study of medieval heraldic display

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Reviewed by: Anne Curry
Author: Robert W Jones
Publisher: The Boydell Press
Price (RRP): £50

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Medieval warfare is to modern eyes a colourful affair. Banners, armour, horse trappings and many other objects bore heraldic symbols.

To be effective at all, heraldry relied on differences in colour and pattern. As Jones observes, today’s soldier dresses in a way to hide himself from the enemy. He therefore poses the question: why did medieval warriors dress themselves in such a colourful, even flamboyant, manner?

The standard interpretation is that heraldic display was a means of identification, so that warriors could differentiate between friend and foe. Jones doubts this explanation, suggesting that it was more a means of distinguishing a military elite “based upon a concept of individual martial prowess”.

It was an incentive to honourable and valorous conduct since the doers of such deeds could be identified through their arms, thereby bringing glory (or shame) to the family and to the lord as well as the individual.

Banners, on the other hand, were “functional tools of command, being used to convey instructions to the men”. Furthermore, as time went on, other forms of identification were used, both for individuals, in the form of badges, and for collectives, in the form of national or religious insignia, such as the use of the white cross by William Marshal’s men in 1217 to demonstrate their service to the pope and his legate in the wake of King John’s conceding of the realm to Innocent III four years earlier.

Jones goes on to consider other visual aspects of medieval conflict, such as the psychological effect of wearing armour both on the wearer and the observer. The change in outline and proportion of the wearer is demonstrated neatly by photographs of the author across the various stages of donning armour (though, ironically, without any heraldic display).

He also elucidates more fully the importance of the horse and the sword as marks of status and shows how common religious symbols were in martial display. He adds a short discussion of audible display – the use of trumpets, war cries, marching in time – for the sake not only of military efficiency but also to boost the courage of one side while undermining that of the enemy.

These are all fascinating topics, expounded in a very accessible writing style and replete with examples.

Jones covers a huge chronological span – virtually the whole medieval period. Inevitably this limits opportunity for extended scholarly discussion and for explorations beyond published materials concerning England and France.

The author admits that “it is often difficult to ascertain which aspects of display reflect military culture and which civilian ones”. Furthermore, since there was continuity in what he calls “the basic culture” it is not easy to see the supposed military revolution of the 14th century reflected in display. Indeed, he points to continuities with later centuries, where the remnant of medieval armour, the gorget, remained a distinguishing feature of the officer class.

These observations, and the thought-provoking style, make this book a stimulating read for anyone interested in military history. 

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Anne Curry is professor of history at the University of Southampton