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Folger Exhibitions
• Symbols of Honor: Heraldry and Family History
Curators' Insights

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Curators' Insights

A Flourishing Part of Shakespeare's World

Pedigrees of some noble families. Manuscript, ca. 1525

"Heraldry was a flourishing, live world" in Shakespeare's time, says Nigel Ramsay, co-curator of Symbols of Honor. "It mattered enormously to the Elizabethans and Jacobeans. For them, it meant status and honor. The right to a coat of arms might be litigated; some would even fight a duel." Increasingly, too, Elizabethan heraldry was for "up and coming merchants and gentry, people lower down the social scale" than in the past, further fueling its popularity.


To tell the story of that thriving, yet unfamiliar, aspect of Shakespeare's age, Ramsay and co-curator Heather Wolfe, the Folger curator of manuscripts, drew heavily on the Folger's holding of more than a hundred heraldic manuscripts, which Wolfe calls an "untapped treasure." Ramsay, who has been exploring the Folger heraldic collection for years on annual visits, says he has found "discoveries all over"—including the oldest copy in the world of the first English book of genealogies, Pedigrees of some Noble Families, from no later than 1525.


Although the manuscripts include beautiful display documents, Wolfe says that most of the Folger materials are "working papers that show the heralds as human beings. I'm excited about any manuscript that gives you a sense of the personalities," she says. "There was a lot of controversy about grants of arms, and you get a sense of how the heralds were arguing among themselves. It's very exciting to hold the manuscripts and to see what caused such consternation."


Some of the heralds were "extraordinarily tough, vicious fighters," says Ramsay of these disputes. But he also points to "one of the good guys," the herald William Smith, a scholar and gifted cartographer. An insightful observer, "Smith was able to produce this wonderfully revealing pamphlet about all that was wrong with heraldry as practiced in his day." Its image of a herald, he adds, may be a Smith self-portrait. The Folger has both of the two known copies of Smith's work.


Many of the heraldic papers are also "colorful, delightful, and playful," says Wolfe—a practical necessity since the heralds were required to make each coat of arms unique. A good example of "the creativity that went into it," she says, is an image-packed manuscript by John Guillim from about 1610, a source book of possibilities that is opened here to pages of fish, helpfully divided into soft fish and "crusted" ones (shellfish).


As the heralds dug into family records, often seeking earlier coats of arms that could legitimately be claimed, they laid the groundwork for modern genealogy, including basic tools like the family tree or pedigree. "It became easier to see the evolution of the modern family tree through these manuscripts," says Wolfe. "By the seventeenth century, they look exactly like they do now." At the same time, she adds, amateur genealogy took root, as individuals eagerly researched their own families' histories.


A number of extraordinary loan items add to the exhibition's story. Ramsay calls the pedigree scroll of Edward IV, from the Free Library of Philadelphia,"one of the most splendid pedigree rolls there is." Dated to the 1460s, it has "a late medieval form of beauty: crude, vigorous, and bright," he says. "And it belonged to a king. It's very rare to be able to say that."


The exhibition also includes an unprecedented American display of three draft manuscripts from the College of Arms, the primary organization of English heralds that remains active today. Two of the three are drafts of the original grant of arms to William Shakespeare's father John in 1596, which William inherited in 1601. The third proposes adding the Arden family arms of Shakespeare's mother, although the Shakespeares never used this revised version. Celebrating Shakespeare's personal links to heraldry in his 450th birthday year, all three have traveled from England for the first time for this display.

Guillim. A display of heraldry. Manuscript, ca. 1610

Edward IV Roll. Manuscript, 1450-1475. Detail, section 1

Edward IV Roll. Manuscript, 1450-1475. Detail, section 2

Draft Grant of Arms to John Shakespeare, 1596

Peter of Poitiers. Compendium historiae in genealogia Christi. Manuscript, ca. 1280. Detail, side A

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