HERALDRY AND IDENTITY
LECTURE AT THE MATICA SRPSKA
Novi Sad, June 28, 2017
Heraldry has long been a strange and unknown word among today’s Serbs. It’s not hard to understand. Heraldry is inseparable from the past, and we have long and passionately been convinced that the safest way to the future is the one that leads through the oblivion of the past. Heraldry is, of course, part of the present, but our path was genuine and it meant that our present is autochthonous and autonomous, on the path of yellow bricks starting in Kumrovec and ending in the Flower House in Dedinje! More precisely, the whole purpose of the present was to service itself. With great losses, we finally found out that neither relationship with the past nor the one with the present were mistakes, but a part of the malignant system. We had neither control nor influence over the past, even less over the present which refuses to become a past. We supposedly controlled the future! Der Morgige Tag ist Mein! We were a paradigm of a schizophrenic society, and we had adjusted to it for a long time. Schizophrenic aberration, which became a reality, has produced a cult of ignorance, contempt for ethics, mistrust of tradition and ideological dogmatism. Anomia, which is our reality, is very difficult to adapt to the instrumentalism of the heraldry, which – above all – is the system! Namely, heraldry implies the existence and functioning of an inherent taxis that is logical in composition and technology, based on a model that necessarily requires the flow of time as an argument and as proof of its merits and justifications. Even more simply, heraldry is based on identity, it is served by it, and it is powered by it.
But what is identity? How to define it? Can there be, in general, no identity? Can identity be reversed, transformed, or made? And, if it can, why?
James Ferron, one of the prominent linguists, has very lucidly noticed that we all know what the word “identity” means, and yet there is no single and unique definition of what this word implies as a constant. He quotes Hoga and Abrams (1988) who consider that “Identity is what people imagine are, how they are and how they relate to others”, then Denga (1995) for whom “identity is the way in which individuals and groups define themselves and the way they are defined by others based on race, ethnicity, religion, language and culture”, and Jenkins (1996) who believes that “identity refers to the way in which individuals and communities differ in terms of their own social relationships with other individuals and communities”. Blumov (1990) approach is based on the understanding that the term “national identitydetermines the conditions under which the mass has achieved self-identification with national symbols and appropriated national symbols”. Here we are already approaching something belonging to the privileged domain of heraldry. But, Katzenstein (1996) broadens the definition so that, in his opinion, “identity as a rule refers to mutually formed and dynamic ideas about oneself and others” and Taylor (1998) adds elements of indefinite individualism, claiming that “my identity is defined by the intentions and recognitions that make up the boundaries of the horizon, in which, on a case-by-case basis, I conclude what is good, worth, or what should be looked at, or what I support, or which I am opposed to”.
From this small selection of attitudes and judgments that over the last quarter of a century have been made by some of the important authors in the field of political and sociological science, it is not difficult to see that the common substrate is composed of the factor of tradition, which includes race, nation, religion and culture. The difference is reduced to the increased effect of the speculative understanding of personality as a product of the influence of the modest and globalist trends and the impersonal experience of a boundless term, which we call the present, which is, of course, completely true, but not even for a millimetre contributes to the precision of the definition. Because the problem of whether our identity more appropriately determines what we are or what we want to be is reduced to the question of whether we owe the dominant correction in self-knowledge to our inheritance or our own experience. Of course, from today’s theme, it is not expected to reconcile the various disagreed positions of analysts and scientists who primarily deal with sociological and political topics, but intellectual and ethical integrity instructs us to point to the potentially controversial points in the further discourse. Because heraldry, as said, cannot be separated from the concept of identity!
Can one, then, exist without and beyond identity? Perhaps, but there is no reason why!
Can identity be reversed, transformed or repaired? It can, but once you undo it, transform it or fix it, it’s no longer your identity. More specifically, identity exists, but it’s not yours. You, on the contrary, do not exist because your identity no longer exists or it belongs to the other!
From the aspect of heraldry, identity is realized and exposes to two different plans: as an internal plan, in which the foundation of identity is sought in similarity with others, and as an external plan, in which identity is based on differences from others. Internally, our identity is a consequence of genetic heritage; On the external plane, our identity defines a set of inherited traditions, beliefs and social conventions that are different from those that primarily distinguish our neighbours, and then all the other communities with which we have any permanent or reciprocal contact.
Let’s remind ourselves what the subject of heraldry is. Heraldry, as an auxiliary historical science, studies, interprets, records, registers and maintains a system of privileged symbolic compositions based on the following assumptions:
- immutability, except in circumstances that are defined and do not impair the integrity of the system,
- the content canon and the way it’s displayed.
What is inheritance? It is the basic, fundamental and essential character of the coat of arms. The coat of arms is the property of its possessor and is unlimited by time, but only and exclusively by valid legal inheritance regardless of whether it is based on a genetic, legal or charismatic basis, or on all the above grounds simultaneously. Simplified, the coat of arms is the trans-timely and transgenerational visual symbol of its owner. The right of succession is determined, on the one hand, by the genetic aspect of succession, and, on the other hand, by a valid legal system that, through sovereign power, regulates the legal norm of succession. The nature of the coat of arms is to represent a symbolic bridge connecting the generations of the same armoured ancestor and all of its armiger descendants. In that sense, it does not matter if the armiger is a physical or legal person, but it is assumed that he must be a moral person! This is a very important statement, because the coat of arms must have a moral character. This moral character is inseparable from the moral character of the coat of arms. More precisely the coat of arms is a symbolic sublimate of the owner’s moral character, hence the insult of the coat of arms is at the same time an insult to the owner, and the owner’s injuries are also the injuries of the coat of arms. The coat of arms may be the property of a morally undeserving armiger, in which case the unreservedness is transferred to the coat of arms. This phenomenon may, depending on circumstances, be explicit or implicit. As this usually happens, what is unworthy in one system can paradoxically become hyper worthy in another system! Like betrayal, if it’s for the benefit of the winning side!
What does immutability mean? In order for a symbol to fulfil its purpose of inheritance, it must be substantially or at least in a substantial part unchanged. The immutability does not imply inertness, so the coat of arms visualizes over time the new and important elements of the identity of its current owner and the additional selection of the identification signs, provided they represent a permanent qualification of the system of hereditary or genetic rights that constitute the legal and moral character of the armiger.
What is heraldic canon? In short, it is a set of rules that are defined over time in the framework of the system of heraldic expression and the established code of emblematic syntagms. These rules define the difference between the coat of arms and any other graphic vulgarization of the symbol. Heraldic canon differs from time to time and from place to place, but at the general level it must have three unchanging characteristics: 1 – the composition must be located on the military shield as the basic field, 2 – the composition must have a stable content, which is defined by the characters in the shield, their position in the shield and their mutual relationship, and 3 – composition must be expressed using four basic colours (black, red, blue and green) and / or two metals (gold and silver), although this is the shortest choice, over time extended to the permitted additional colours (purple, azure, blood-red, red, dark and grey) and fur (ermine and its variants, and variants thereof squirrel, sable and fish scales or butterfly). Heraldry, as already mentioned, is based on the graphic vulgarization of the symbol, identical to the emblem, but it differs from an emblem by a special taxis and the mentioned characteristics in relation to which the emblem is inert. However, as it was created and developed in the conditions of limited means of communication, heraldry defined a special attitude towards vocabulary and syntax to ensure maximum precision in conveying the exact contents of the coat of arms. The first assumption is that the verbal description of the content must have an absolute advantage over the artistic, because the artistic aspect depends on many factors, such as the visual means or material, the skill of the artist, the dimensions of the image and the ability to specify details, including the level of education of the one who sees and interprets the picture. However, the verbal context requires one, at the time of the heraldic creation, no less rare and an exclusive skill – literacy! Hence, the skilled arts experts were recruited among a thin layer of literate, and as their literacy was thin, special privileged schools provided the necessary level for mutual communication. Hence, heralds, people literate in the language of heraldry, became important and relatively well-paid servants of the powerful, whose heritage they were obliged to preserve, interpret and – as specialized translators, convey to those circles and levels of state, judicial or ecclesiastical authority that were recognized by the authorities for interpretation, recognition and enforcement of proprietary rights, or identity recognition. These heralds are the first authors of heraldic registers, notebooks and codes that transformed their knowledge into public archives for establishment of ownership and heritage. Only on the basis of their written and graphic notes there is opened space for artists who will create from the heraldry an important part of the environment that today, justified or not, we associate with the Middle Ages, especially with its booming period from the 13th to the beginning of the 16th century, the period of knightly culture, troubadour poetry and creation of great political, economic and ideological empires, and in practice we inherited as a permanent cultural heritage of European civilization that enables us to identify and legitimize the identity of the emblematic language for our history and our contemporaries.
Simultaneously with the creation and development of heraldic speech, the model of the accompanying elements of the coat of arms is developed, which expands the information basis of heraldic identification.
All this brings us back to the question of what defines the identity of a physical or legal person, and what is specifically expressed or ignored through the heraldry?
Formally, the identity is denoted by five markers:
Name and surname: The basic markers of the physical and legal person – the surname as a family or tribe affiliation, the name as a personal identifier within the family or tribe, a parent or other legally prescribed number, a stamp, a code or a visual identifier amongst the particularities.
Position in society: The following, acquired or recognized status within a particular community (clan, nation, professional circle, hyper- or hypo-elite, academic title, intellectual or physical recognition, status by appearance, status by designation or call, charisma status …).
Function: Possession of exalted status based on birth, choice, gift, convention, force or charisma
Location: territorial provenance, location of performance of functions, possession, residence or place of celebration (cult, birth, heroic work, safekeeping or burial)
Religious and cultural heritage: belonging to a confessional union (broad or narrow, for example, Christianity, Orthodox confessions, Serbian churches, bishops’ dioceses, parish of St. Sava…) and / or cultural circle (Europeans, Balkanians, Serbs, North-of-Danube-Serbs, Novosadjani…)
All of these elements are only part of a wider corpus of identification markers that define the identity of the legal or natural person more closely. Depending on the purpose, this corpus is expanding or narrowing to include indicatively relevant content. There may be an even wider or narrower selection of the motifs in the coat of arms, which represent a striking symbolic summary of the identity of its owner. The main difference is that the choice of motives is not a simple result of utilitarian use, but the utilitarian domain is usually derived from the content of the coat of arms. In other words, the coat of arms is not only an identifier, it is a public manifestation of the personality of the owner and his heritage. This manifestation does not adjust to the current moment, but the current moment adapts to it! Because the current moment is transient, and the coat of arms is a permanent phenomenon! It is not the owner that obliges the coat of arms, it is the coat of arms that obliges the owner! If not, then it is not a coat of arms but a brand or a logo! In this sense, the name and surname as identification markers exist for the heraldry only as the element of determining the legal succession of the coat of arms’ owner.
It is exactly here that the reason for the problem that we in Serbia, and even a little broader, have with heraldry! We are a post-revolutionary society that is still suffering from the trauma of the revolutionary time in which the practice of induced violence far exceeded any definition of social revolution. Two decades ago, I tried to explain that revolutions usually culminate in violence over the past, and that “damnatio memoriae” is not an invention of Yugoslav and Serbian Communists, because a basic example of radical confrontation with their own heritage was given by the French Revolution. Regarding the attitude towards heraldry, Bolshevik expansion in Europe of the 20th century literally followed the attitude of the French revolutionaries. Demolition and forcible removal of state emblems from all public buildings and all public places was usually accompanied by public desecration: Exhumation of French kings from the Basilica of Saint Denis, throwing their mortal remains in septic tanks, converting temples into stables and public toilets, grinding embalmed hearts of rulers into vermillion pigment for the work of revolutionary artists, painting over the portraits, all of that were the rituals of revolutionary exorcism, which removed memory and introduced a new beginning. The more shameful the treatment of the predecessors was, it was believed, the more glorious the latter work would look! On the castles from which they were removed from the former owners, and from which they removed their coats of arms, the new owners put their stamp, their tamgha, declaring the previous law not only abolished but invalid from inception. That this was not just utilitarian ownership is testified by the application of the same practices on the monuments without utilitarian value (on the monuments to fallen warriors the double-headed eagles were beheaded, tombstone crosses were replaced by “pyramids”, symbols of the new era were implanted on the memorials of those who did not know and did not even want to know about it). The presence of the coat of arms of the predecessor unpleasantly reminds the usurper that he was not introduced into possession by inheritance but by violence! The usurper, who tries to domesticate in his new role and to eradicate the usurper’s complex of lower values, usually fulfilled the heraldic emptiness with his own symbols. If not, and if the sovereign spirit and character, created a new heraldry (example – Napoleon), and if he was an epigone, he imitated the original on the model of the forces which brought him into power, and with that he hoped he would stay In power (e.g. Tito).
So, the basic question could be why the obliteration of history was so radical when it came to heraldic symbols, and why the new state and social system did not have the need to express itself with the same means, except when it bastardized the original templates. In order to approach the likely answer, one should first determine the significance, place and role of the state heraldry in public life and the consciousness of the people. First of all, each coat of arms by its nature and function is the formal representative of its owner, just like the name or the signature. Regardless of the aesthetic component, the content and the default unrepeatability of the coat of arms are intimately linked to a particular personality, regardless of whether the personality is legal or physical. On the other hand, its artistic determination, unchanged content and strictly defined hierarchical relationship of the components make it an iconic representation of a complete concept, which at the level of the territorial heraldry of the highest rank almost always has the context of a national program. Hence, the attitude towards the state coat of arms often has a deeply emotional charge and represents a powerful motivational and unifying factor for the people, beyond the requirements of the law. In such a context, the coat of arms is not a neutral emblem, but a sign of the existence of a certain policy and a certain right! While the sign of someone’s right stands, this right has not been forgotten or disputed. This sign indicates that someone or that something had existed before the owner changed, that the current owner is not the initiator of the law ab ovo or ab urbe condita, that the current right is based on the previous law and that the current owner is its inheritor, not its source.
The state’s attitude towards the coat of arms and its owner reflects the transience of the moment and is subject to political manipulation in accordance with the triviality of the objective or the obsessiveness of the idea of a political program promoter that creates and implements the state policy on any ground. The state is a privileged depository of identification elements of the identity of its subjects. The state, as a rule of every owner of the coat of arms, sees itself as a potential competitor in terms of ownership of something, whether it be some history, function, property, knowledge or initiative. The object of ownership as the source of the problem changes from case to case, and from time to time, and the state’s attitude does not emerge from the awareness of responsibility for the protection of rights in itself, but from understanding the protection of rights in terms of its own absolute authority over every right, everywhere and always. However, despite the phenomenon of resistance to the competition of the authority and property of any kind, various states or state authorities, they are very different in relation to the concept and institution of the coat of arms. In Europe, armorial law is implemented consistently and in accordance with the tradition in England, Scotland and Ireland, something more liberal in Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, and quite liberal in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Portugal and Italy. Austria, Greece and Bulgaria do not have any relation to the heraldic, except in the context of copyright, trademark or brand rights and local self-government rights to protect their adopted signs. France is also a special case where, with the revolution of over 200 years ago, the culture pattern that France created has been challenged today. Some countries have official heraldic registers and legally protect the coats of arms and heraldic–vexillar signs that have been officially registered (Russia, Moldova, Poland, Slovakia, Romania …). The essence of the existence of such registers is the restriction of the executive power to intervene arbitrarily in the domain of the identity of a legal or natural person, as well as the freedom of any legal or natural person to arbitrarily take over a person’s other historical, legal or identification marks.
Societies in the state of anomia, regardless of whether its source is revolution, transition or the political chaos of some other provenance, treat heraldry as everything else – as an instrument of force, as the practice of brutal arbitrariness, and as a polygon for demonstrating the limitlessness of one’s own ignorance and primitivism. In such societies, heraldry is a slogan, marketing action, naked illustration of obscure wishes and evil intentions. As in all other areas of public life, heraldry as a peripheral topic in which a quick flow of money and the direct abuse of power cannot be realized, is left to the most incompetent members of a political or cultural clan with consequences that are willingly and unwillingly left to future generations.
In relation to the problem of identity, there are four basic categories that the state or community, consciously or unconsciously, apply in a time they dominate politically, economically or culturally:
Past as the source and justification of the present:
Heraldic identity is fully inspired and derives from the historical continuity of the owner of the coat of arms. The longer the continuity is, the less the need to have any logical, aesthetic or narrative justification in the symbolic sense. The shorter it becomes, its narrative context becomes more and more important. As a result, the old coats of arms are, as a rule, very simple and have no other explanation or interpretation other than their own age. On the contrary, the new coats of arms, as a rule, must establish a reasoned and logical picture of the historical continuity to which they are called, and this entails the complexity of the heraldic composition and the multilayer nature of the symbolic syntagm. In current European practice, this is the case in Great Britain, Russia, Germany, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Serbia, Poland, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria …
Present as justification and source of the past:
Heraldic identity projects the current concept of identity of the coat of arms in the past. In the absence of ancestors that could be called as a source of their own authenticity, the owner projects a fictitious genealogy and heraldically interprets it in one of two ways: either appropriates the historical heraldic heritage of others who, for whatever reason, are unable to protect their heritage, or Invents non-existent heraldic heritage, proclaiming for heresies any other opinion or claim. A typical case is Bosnia and Herzegovina in the work before and outside the intervention of Karlos Westendorp, and partly the “historical signs” of Vojvodina.
Future as the denial of the past:
The heraldic identity is violently formed and explained by the conception of natural law, ideological or confessional exclusivity, visionary gift or charisma. The past is abolished as a source of continuity and legitimacy, because in it the actual demiurge does not exist and there is no foundation, so the present is taken as a kind of cosmic or local big bang from which a new reality and a new world are formed. It is a feature of revolutionary times. The state of affairs, after the demolition of the old, is taken as an absolute dictation and a new legitimacy and identity is established on the basis of an arbitrary interpretation of the unchanging future based on the privileged knowledge of inevitability which has no alternative. Such a situation exists in environments and times based on fervent demagogy and the absence of any public political, historical, or ethical responsibility. In the recent history of Europe, this is the situation in the post-revolutionary France, the Spanish Republic, Italy after the Second World War, or in the countries under the command of communists and similar totalitarian structures (USSR, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia…). An important element of denying the past is denial of identity, and part of the identity is certainly a name. Hence, the violent change of name, or the obliteration of the essential characteristics of the name, as is the case with Vojvodina or Herzegovina, or Sanjak, where the tendentious hierarchical status of the territory or its administrative order is used instead of the name (the duchy of what? Which sanjak from many sanjaks in the Ottoman administration system?).
Stupidity and ignorance as the instruments of power:
Stupidity is a universal phenomenon, limited only by the natural disappearance of the actors, but not in terms of the consequences that remain as a lasting legacy. The stupidity in the domain of heraldry does not have its source in itself, but uses heraldry as a playground. It appears as an accompanying phenomenon in all mentioned manifestations of the source, but at least where the past is the source and justification of the present, because there is an inertia of tradition. However, in the other two dominant forms, nonsense, as a rule, comes to the fore at a lower level of decision-making hierarchy. In practice, this means that if the anonymity of the past is proclaimed as a position at the top, at all lower levels, this same attitude takes on caricature features. The milder form of the phenomenon is ignorance, because ignorance possesses the ability to be educated and replaced by knowledge; No foolishness of this alternative!
Heraldry, we can conclude at the end of this story, is not the Serbian problem! Identity is! From anonymity in which we were pushed, and where we dig in with our hands and feet to stay, we will not be pulled out by any integration, no European or non-European paths and enthusiasm of self-denial. Establishing one’s own identity was, and still is the main problem of the Serbs. I am obliged to say that here, in the Serbian Matica.
Where else, if not here!