Wednesday, 7 September 2011


One way into a study of medieval history for some children is the aesthetic pleasure of heraldry - an imaginative delight in the visual symbolic language employed by feudal knights to distinguish themselves in battles and tournaments. The Church still has her own elaborate system of ecclesiastical heraldry, devising formal emblems for bishops and popes. Another angle would be especially appropriate for families reading Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Not only did Tolkien develop several viable languages for his "secondary world", including varieties of Elvish, but he even devised a series of mandala-like heraldic emblems for the different Elvish houses - you can find them online here or here. Some children will be fascinated with these, and they could be used in many different ways by homeschoolers (as I suggested in a previous post). For example, you could explore the symbolism of shapes and colours and how these relate to the story, or you could make black and white versions to colour in, or you could invent new ones (for example make a heraldic emblem for your own family or those of your friends). This in turn could lead you to compare Tolkien's symbology with traditional European heraldry. The subject also opens the door to possible discussions of symbolism in general, and of tradition, and of chivalry. You might like to read Chesterton on "pictorial symbols" in his book The Defendant, the chapter on Heraldry, or passages in his novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill where he talks about the "ancient sanctity of colours" and at the end of The Man Who Was Thursday where the six protagonists are clothed in symbolic vestments representing the days of creation... Then again, there is the whole subject of chivalry, that code of male ethics with which the Church tried to channel the aggression of feudal Europe in a more spiritual direction - but that calls for a separate post.

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