The Cat in the Dairy-House Window

“The Cat in the Dairy-House Window” is not, as far as I am aware, an actual coat of arms representing any family or region. Instead, it is part of a very, very old satirical anecdote, though what it is satirizing depends on the teller. Sir John Ferne’s The Blazon of Gentrie, published in 1586, is the earliest written instance of this tale which I can find.

The text is written as a conversation among several travelers of different social classes, which centers on the values of the nobility and the technical points of heraldry. The herald (and Ferne’s authorial stand-in) Paradius, asks the knight, Torquatus, to blazon the coat shown above. Torquatus gives the following blazon: “Sable, a Musion passant guardant Or oppressed with a fret gules of eight parts, nails argent.” (188) The farmer, Collumell, surprised that “Arms should not have been of such trifling things,” breaks in to offer his own blazon: “the Cat in the milk house window.” Paradius takes the opportunity to mock Torquatus by telling him that he and Collumell are equally correct, since Torquatus had confused a lattice for a fret. However, Paradius goes on to mock Collumell’s understanding of the arms as undignified, attributing them to a vassal of King Childebert of France who captured King Gundemarus of Burgundy in battle. (The cat was the symbol of Burgundy).

However, in subsequent tellings, the tale seems to have evolved into a parody of the elevated language of blazon. In Quentin Durwald (1830), Sir Walter Scott sarcastically attributes Paradius’ account to the Burgundian herald Toison d’Or, who is “too learned to be intelligible.” (ch. 33) In this version, the jester’s blazon of “the cat looking out at the dairy window” is received as a good joke, and the pompous herald ends up being chased by the royal hounds. This revised version is much more popular than the original; Fox-Davies quotes Scott’s account in A Complete Guide to Heraldry in 1909, and John Vinycomb’s Fictious and Symbolic Creatures in Art, published the same year, refers to Scott’s interpretation as well. (258; “The Heraldic Muison”)

17th-Century Heraldry

I wondered if you had any examples of heraldry specifically from the 17th century, I’m really interested to see how things develop from the sort of height of heraldry, i.e it actually being used for its intended purpose, to later years. From what I’ve seen the 17th century crests get a little more decorative and baroque looking, I was wondering if you had anymore information on that.
(Sorry for the long post; I got a little carried away.)

You’re generally right. I do just want to point out that heraldic artists technically don’t have much license when it comes to the coats of arms themselves; they’re confined to what is specified by the herald in the blazon. (The same goes for crests and supporters.) Grants of arms in the seventeenth century were still relatively conventional; most heralds had yet to incorporate things like perspective, industrial machinery as charges, and colors beyond the traditional tinctures. On the other hand, though, the longer heraldry was around, the more complex coats could get, since they were often quartered, dimidiated, or differenced.


(Montague achievement from Sylvanus Morgan’s The Language of Arms, published 1666 in London)

There absolutely was a shift towards more elaborate art and decoration in the 17th century, and heraldry was no exception. It’s easiest to see this in things that are, in a sense, external to the blazon; mantling, compartments (when the supporters are drawn standing on some kind of base), the shape of shields, and so forth. 

Check out this table of shields from A. C. Fox-Davies’ The Art of Heraldry:


Going left to right, top to bottom, the first shield is what was common in the 12th and 13th centuries. The second is from the 14th century; numbers 3 through 6 and 8 are from the mid-15th century, while the 7th is from the very end of the 15th century. (The nock in shield #8 is a spear-rest; handy for spearing enemies while keeping yourself defended.) The rest are from the sixteenth century, and the trend continued into the 17th. Heraldry generally is a pretty good reflection of contemporary styles, for better or worse. Fox-Davies quotes Eve as saying “With the Restoration, heraldry naturally became again conspicuous, with the worst form of the Renaissance character in full sway, the last vestiges of the Gothic having disappeared.” (41)* The shield shape below was common, as was the mantling and scrolling at the bottom: 


(A. C. Fox-Davies, The Art of Heraldry, p41)

But I think I’ve rambled on long enough. Here are some more examples of 17th-century heraldry; note the elaborate mantling and decorative shield shapes, as well as the detailed depictions of beasts.


(Achievement of Sir Robert Spenser, Baron Spenser from Display of Heraldry by John Guillim, p273, published 1610)


(Achievement of Britain from An Essay to Heraldry in Two Parts by Richard Blome, p227, published 1684)


(Achievement of Scotland from The Science of Heraldry by Sir George Mackenzie, p98, published 1680)

*Don’t mind Fox-Davies. He has very strong opinions on heraldic design, and they inevitably color his writing. Better or worse is, of course, a matter of taste.

Why Heraldry?

In a way, it’s the most natural thing in the world that I should be interested in heraldry and coats of arms. When I was young, I spent all my time reading sword-and-sorcery fantasy, which leads quite easily to a fascination with the medieval period. When I got to late high school, early undergrad, and started developing my own academic interests, I was very quickly drawn to Shakespeare. It wasn’t long before I followed the histories back to (real) early English history and rediscovered the beauties of coats of arms.

I am an extremely visual person. I work best when I can translate abstract concepts into something I can picture. Heraldry is probably the best way possible for me to grasp the complexities of historical and political situations. One of my favorite things about heraldry is the stories that it can tell about history in only a few symbols. Think of the famous French quarters in the arms of England, which Edward III assumed when he first put forward his claim to the throne of France and which were then removed for about a decade- between the signing of the Treaty of Bretigny and Edward changing his mind and declaring war on France again. In my opinion, the batons that litter the arms of many of the dukedoms established in the Stuart period say more about the infidelity and nepotism of Charles II than any history text could.

Besides, I love being able to “read” coats of arms. I loved walking into Westminster Abbey and seeing the Tudor rose emblazoned on King Henry VII’s tomb- his way of claiming victory in the Wars of the Roses. During my first weeks on campus, I loved analyzing the grave rubbings framed on our classroom walls- someone who claims descent from King Edward III, one very worrying one that seemed to indicate an incestuous marriage. (It took me a month and a half to position myself close enough to see the very, very faint lioncels on the dexter half of the coat. Possibly related; definitely not incest.) I love having that other dimension available to me.

So, tl;dr: why heraldry? Because it’s beautiful; because it works well with my brain; because it gives me information I wouldn’t have otherwise. And, well, because it’s fun.

Alerions: What they Are, Aren’t, and Might Be

Snipped from a post I saw on Tumblr about the mythology of birds:


Also known as alerion or the king of the birds

The avalerion is a mythological bird from Indian mythology. At any given time, only two of these birds exist. They lay a pair of eggs every sixty years, which take sixty days to hatch. After they hatch, the parents drown themselves. Other birds care for the newly hatched birds until they can fly.

In European heraldry, the avalerion is a heraldic eagle known as the king of the bird. Avalerions are depicted as having no beak and no legs, or sometimes feathery stumps.

It is said to resemble an eagle, but is larger, has sharp razor-like wings, and is the color of fire.

The rest of the information is interesting, but this part is… well, confused. There may very well be a mythical bird called the avalerion, that is larger than an eagle, the king of birds, colored like fire, etc. but the part about heraldry is pretty inaccurate. And I just can’t resist debunking heraldic inaccuracies. Let’s go step-by-step.

In European heraldry, the avalerion is a heraldic eagle known as the king of the bird.

Well… not really. First, I’ve never seen it referred to as an “avalerion”. That doesn’t make it impossible, of course, but I’m a bit suspicious. Also, the eagle is the undisputed heraldic king of the birds. You could make a case for the phoenix, but that would be more dependent upon mythology rather than its use in heraldry. Kind of like lions and lioncels, the eagle is considered so noble that there can only properly be one in a field; two or more are called eaglets. (With exceptions, of course; there are always exceptions.) Alerions are not eaglets. Or eagles, for that matter.

Avalerions are depicted as having no beak and no legs, or sometimes feathery stumps.

True! Alerions look much like eaglets displayed (spread out), but without the beak or legs. Don’t confuse them with martlets, though- martlets also have no beak or legs, but look more like a dove or sparrow close (wings closed and sitting). Besides, martlets are a much more common charge, at least in English heraldry, due to their use as a mark of cadency. I’ve only ever encountered alerions in arms from a specific region of France.

The traditional (i.e., unsubstantiated but entertaining-to-heraldic-writers) story about the alerion has to do with the coat of arms where it was originally found: that of the Duchy of Lorraine.

The story goes that one of the old Dukes of Lorraine shot and killed three eaglets with one arrow- or said he did, anyway- and he was so proud of the feat that he displayed it on his arms. The story doesn’t explain why they have no beaks or feet, though. No one quite seems to know that.

There is another theory that says that ancient heralds really needed to come up with a way to describe these peculiar birds in the arms of Lorraine, so they anagrammatized the name of the duchy (roughly): LORAINE became ALERION. Some writers who follow this theory use it to classify Lorraine as a kind of canting arms, but I’m not sure. Firstly, it’s just a theory, and secondly, I don’t know if it counts as canting arms if you name the charge after the family rather than using the charge to allude to the family’s name. It’s an interesting, even plausible, theory, but I doubt it’ll ever be  proved one way or the other. It’s just another one of those almost-but-not-quite historical tales that seem to proliferate around heraldry.