Friday, March 28, 2014

Toward a Theory of American Heraldry

Readers of this blog will know that I am a strong proponent of heraldry, having proposed heraldic arms for the City of Charlottesville (see left) and Albemarle County, to complement or replace the current seals of questionable aesthetic merit.  But does heraldry have a place in America at all?  Are not heraldic arms associated with monarchy and therefore fundamentally at odds with the American republic?

First, the legal question: Can an American assume arms?  In many countries, such as Britain, arms are legally protected.  They may only be used by a grant deriving its authority from the sovereign.  In other countries, such as South Africa, the governing authority registers arms, but, provided they conform to certain standards, cannot reject an application because it does not grant the arms; everyone in South Africa has a legal right to bear them.  In the United States, no heraldic authority of either flavor exists (the claims of various online organizations notwithstanding).  Thus, the only legal limits on arms are those on any logo: you cannot use for commercial purposes a design that someone else has registered.  You can use your own design without registering it, provided you are not concerned about someone else stealing your design and have no intention of taking legal action against them for doing so.

Second, the historical angle: Do American have a tradition of using arms?  Here the answer is clear: yes.  While American heraldry is less standardized than that of Britain or other countries with heraldic authorities, it is widely used.  George Washington's arms are fairly well known (see left), having been adopted for a variety of uses such as the flag of the District of Columbia and the Purple Heart medal.  Thomas Jefferson, one of the more anti-traditional of America's Founding Fathers also bore arms.  John and John Quincy Adams utilized heraldic arms, as did most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.  But, you ask, is there still a vibrant tradition of heraldry, or was it only a brief carry-over from the colonial period?  One could likely write a dissertation on such a question, though it seems to me the US military provides a strong answer in the affirmative.  Heraldry may not be used in every aspect of everyday life, but for certain purposes we certainly retain it.  (I highly encourage the perusing of the US Institute of Heraldry's website if you have any interest in military heraldry.)

Third, the ideological angle.  Just because Americans have used heraldry does not mean they should?  Is is truly consonant with America's republican constitution?  Here I think we have to step back from Britain and its heraldic world, much though I love it.  When one does so, one discovers that in much of Europe heraldry had little to do with the sovereign.  In Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, burgher arms were assumed by various members of what we would call the middle class: merchants, artisans, clergy, and the like.  Similar practices can be found in Scandinavia, were farmer have also traditionally borne arms.  Thus, heraldry has no fundamental connection to a monarchy and why should it?  Heraldry is simply a method of visual representation of individuals or organizations.  That non-noble heraldry has a long tradition in the German-speaking world is no minor point for the United States; German-Americans constitute the largest single ancestry group in the country and the Declaration was translated into German even before it was passed.

Thus, there is no reason that any American, so inclined, should not assume arms.

But what are the proper sources for such arms?  In one sense, the same answers given elsewhere apply in the US: symbols associated with one's place of origin or residence, profession or interests, or visual puns (canting).  I might add that one should draw on such associations as one deems appropriate.  If you care deeply about genealogy, use the traditional heraldic colors of your country of origin.  But if you couldn't care less about your umpteen greats grandfather, find something else to depict.

But there is a more tricky matter: how does one indicate familial connections?  British heraldry, and most other systems, has methods for handing down arms from parents to children (usually fathers to sons).  But in America, status is - in republican principle, at least - held by virtue of one's innate human nature and one's role as a citizen, not by birth.  So should, for example, a son use his father's arms, differenced with the appropriate mark of cadency?  Certainly, if one wanted to strongly stress a familial connection, one could do so, though I would certainly not want to require it.  Moreover, I think it runs contrary to our republican spirit - not to mention basic creativity - to forgo modifying inherited arms.  Nevertheless, experience shows that we all owe a great deal to our parents, for both good and ill, so if they bear arms, one would do well to incorporate elements from those arms into one's own.

A related matter concerns marshalling, that is, the combining of arms.  Typically a married couple will place their arms side by side (no objections here) and their eldest son will quarter his parents' arms.  I have two objections with quartering.  First, it tends to become very cluttered very quickly, rarely working beyond a single generation, and often not even then.  Aesthetically it is often a failure.  (See, for example, the unnecessarily cluttered arms of Mary and Philip, above left, or William and Mary, right.)  And what is the point of heraldry if it is not clearly identifiable?  Second, quartering again presumes the inheritance of arms.  I think it far more interesting and American for each individual to design his or her own.

Some final considerations:  While Americans are not bound by the laws of other countries, they would do well to respect them.  Thus, I would strongly discourage any American from copying outright arms which are registered not only here, but also abroad.  This is bad taste and runs contrary to the fundamental heraldic notion of unique identification.  Moreover, I would encourage Americans to avoid those symbols which are typically reserved elsewhere (e.g. the use of royal crowns) and use cautiously those elements of heraldry - such as supporters and standards - which are sometimes associated with special privileges.  Perhaps the most common error in this regard concerns the heraldry of Scottish clans.  Americans often assume that, having a certain surname, they belong to the corresponding clan and therefore have a right to use its arms.  Not so.  Under Scottish law, arms belong to the chief of a clan; members of the clan, that is, the chief's supporters, use a crest badge.  So don't go plagiarizing any Scottish chiefs.  It's rude.

While I cannot make promises on the timing, several more posts regarding heraldry are in the pipes, and I hope to expound on these ideas further in the context of some examples.

Monday, March 17, 2014

St. Patrick's Day

This year in honor of St. Patrick's Day, a few polkas.

Most people would be surprised to learn that the Irish dance polkas, but it's true. In the middle of the 19th century, a polka craze swept through Europe, starting in central Europe and going all over the world--for instance, German settlers brought the style to Texas, where Mexicans adapted it until it became Norteno/Tejano music. Polkas were brought to Ireland at the same time, but until recently the polka craze was generally confined to two small regions within Ireland. The first region was Sliabh Luachra, the hill country along the River Blackwater on the border of Cork and Kerry. In Sliabh Luachra, the style of polka played there is very fast and very syncopated and obviously meant for crossroads dancing. There the fiddle and button accordion were the primary instruments for dance music and still are today. The first clip features two well-known Sliabh Luachra musicians playing a set of polkas: Jackie Daly on accordion and Seamus Creagh on fiddle. Notice how on the first tune Jackie Daly plays an octave lower the second time through.


Here is a link to another set of polkas (the video could not be embedded), played by another fine fiddle-accordion duet from Sliabh Luachra: Matt Cranitch and Donal Murphy.

The other region where polkas were played was in the northwest around Sligo. There the style is slower and less syncopated and a bit more graceful. There the fiddle is also popular, but the flute is more common than the accordion. The following video features Matt Molloy, from Ballaghadereen on the Roscommon-Mayo border, playing flute and on fiddle John Carty, who was born in London but whose family hails from Sligo. The second tune they play is called "The Killavil Postman"; Killavil is the village in Sligo where the famous fiddler Michael Coleman was born. The set of polka begins at about 3:30, with "The Killavil Postman"
 starting at about 4:38.


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian

There is something terrifying about waking up and finding that one's watch or phone or glasses are not where one left them the night before.  Who moved them?  Was someone in the house?  The sudden feeling of uncertainty and vulnerability can be quite powerful, at least until some simple explanation is discovered.

Elizabeth Kostova's first novel, The Historian (2005) is a story about Vlad Ţepeş, better known as Count Dracula.  You could call it a vampire novel, and so it is, though scenes of gushing blood or visceral horror are few.  Rather, the suspense comes from often small incongruities: something, or someone, is not where, or when, or how they should be.  Kostova deftly manipulates such occurrences, building a novel which is strikingly well-paced, always pressing forward, but never hurtling along.

The story is told in four time periods: the present, from which a historian looks back on her own life and that of her father; the 1970s, in which the narrator is a teenage student living with her father, a kind of diplomat, in Europe; the 1950s, in which her father was a graduate student in history, spending some of his time conducting research abroad; and the 1930s, in which the narrator's father's academic adviser was a new historian.  This may sound dreadfully confusing, and in less capable hands it would be.  But Kostova manages to keep all these various periods, and the letters or stories by which we learn about them, surprisingly clear.  The basic problem faced by our protagonists is simple: there is a supernatural evil on the loose, something vampiric, something related to the historical figure of Vlad Ţepeş.  Beyond that they, initially, know virtually nothing.  The clues must be pieced together.

Kostova's mother was a librarian and her father an academic.  Clearly she has a historian's heart.  Much of the novel is spent in archives, digging up shreds of evidence, then trying to make sense of what they mean.  Kostova understands and - at least by this historian's judgement - manages to convey the small triumphs and defeats of sifting through convoluted scholarship, incomplete copies of old documents, and frustratingly elusive bibliographies.  Her protagonists' efforts to find the truth and use it for the good of humanity, while never overwrought, may be seen as an ideal to which every historian, in some small measure, aspires.

I doubt Kostova was inspired by Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (2003) - though certainly literary agents hoped her debut novel would have similar success - but whether intended or not, I see The Historian as a kind of answer to Brown.  It is everything he attempted to be: a historical/scholarly detective novel weaving together foreign cultures, ancient secrets, and a hint of spirituality.  But Kostova's work may also be read as a rebuke of all that is wrong with The Da Vinci Code.

To read The Da Vinci Code is to feel like a crack addict, constantly turning pages because one cliff hanger follows upon another.  It is tactically adept at setting up such suspense, but the strategic effect is less satisfying.  There is no strong undercurrent to The Da Vinci Code, no constant tug beyond the immediate.  If Brown's work could be described as a page-turner, Kostova's is a chapter-turner.  That it sustains interest over 642 pages is a testament to the careful pacing.

I found Kostova's exposition likewise adept.  In The Da Vinci Code, the history and significance of buildings or works of art are typically explained in dialogue that, at best, sounds like a lecture from art history class, at worst a badly written encyclopedia entry.  These are made all the more gouache by the fact that any semi-educated person will have a passing knowledge of who people such as Leonardo Da Vinci are.  Why Brown's characters stand in need of explanations is often unclear.  In contrast, the historical background of The Historian is mostly the medieval Balkans, caught between Christendom and Islam.  It is a region and period with which many Americans - even educated ones such as Kostova's characters - have little knowledge.  Moreover, Kostova neatly integrates much of her exposition into excerpts of articles or other materials which are more plausible than wooden conversations.

Finally, Brown's work is riddled with historical errors; I recall googling particularly interesting names or locations as I read it, only to discover that Brown had manipulated key details.  In contrast, Kostova nails the historical and geographic context in which her story takes place, while inventing all of the major characters - with the exception of Vlad Ţepeş - out of whole cloth, lest there be any confusion of fact and fiction.

Throughout the novel, Kostova displays restraint.  The pacing is strong, but not rushed.  The secrets are alluring, but not over the top.  There is violence, but it is rare and often occurs "off stage," described in selective detail.  Although there are romantic interests between several of Kostova's characters, their intimacies are neither superabundant nor described in lurid detail.  Kostova does not rely on cheap tricks.

The Historian is not flawless.  The climax and ending, for example, though good, lack the brilliance of other sections of the novel.  Nevertheless, this is one of the finest works of fiction I have read in a long time and I strongly recommend it.