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The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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French: Blasons
Italian: Arme

Authorities: Estienne, Contile, Tesauro, Gracian

(What is this?)

Blason is the French for coats of arms or the art of heraldry. In English to blazon is to describe a coat of arms according to the proper heraldic rules.

     In the modern era, coats of arms were probably first adopted in England in the first half of the 12th century and their use quickly spread throughout Europe as a convenient and obvious means of identification during battle for a knight who was otherwise concealed in his armor. From the earliest times, such identifying marks for warriors are mentioned in classical literature and in the Bible. The symbols that were adopted in coats of arms were intended to reflect the history, character or prowess of the family that bore them and the complex and rigid rules of blason both of the descriptive language and the symbolic meaning of each element were rapidly codified.

     There were numerous collections of blasons des armes with the descriptions and interpretations of the arms of real people, the arms of imaginary or legendary people such as King Arthur and the imaginary arms of real people such as Christ and these collections included treatises on the their symbolic meaning. An example was the Blason des couleurs (c1450 anon.) which describes how every heraldic color has a symbolic meaning relating to precious stones, the days of the week, the seasons, or the virtues. Coats of arms bore a close relationship to the device, a later derivation of arms, but the two genres developed different rules: for example, the coat of arms belonged to a whole family and was heritable; the device was personal and not heritable.

     Derived also from blasons of arms was the poetic blason, a genre which flourished in the late 15th and the 16th century and which also purposed to describe the essence of its subject in veiled or symbolic terms. By far the most popular of the numerous subjects of the poetic blason were the physical characteristics of women. The relationship between women and arms was justified by contemporary writers since knightly feats and courtly love were the twin ideals of the perfect courtier and this relationship was typified by Guillaume Coquillart’s Blason des armes et des dames of 1484. The climax of the poetic blason came in 1536 when the French poet, Clement Marot, organized a competition for a poetic description of the various parts of the female body and this was won by Maurice Scève with his blason du sourcil, or eyebrow. Scève wrote several more blasons on the subject of women as well as Delie, a book that is described as one of the earliest books of devices. The genre eventually reached bizarre heights with poems containing blasons and counter-blasons, the latter describing the uglier characteristics of the subject.

See also: Cimiers, Devices, Insignia, Liveries