12.2 Banners and Flags


This document contains some notes regarding late 15th Century European “banners”, representing the state of researches for a Grimoire chapter as at 2nd February 2002. The usual warning applies — some of the statements in these notes are pure speculation waiting confirmation or rebuttal.

Note that “banner” is a generic term that will be expand on below.

Period Banners

Even a cursory glance across period images of military campaigns, tournaments, religious festivals, buildings and important persons will show that decorative cloth banners were frequently present.

While some banners appear to have been used for co-ordination of troop movements, others may have been purely decorative. The purposes of banners could probably be divided into a handful of general (and overlapping) groups:

Heraldic display — banners frequently contain representations or simplifications of, or motifs drawn from, personal heraldic awards. This use could be seen as simple statements: I am here! I own this! These are my men!

Military co-ordination — large battles tended to involve (at least theoretically) the co-ordinated movement of groups of combatants. Easily identified banners could serve as rallying points for troops, and as identifiers of groups from a distance. Charles Tememaire’s ordinances clearly instruct commanders to use particular styles and colours, and to denote corps numbers on the banners. It is likely that this type of modern identification would have been particularly beneficial for logistic purposes while armies were encamped or on the march. Gerry Embleton translates one of the ordinances as follows:

The conducteur of each company must carry an ensign of distinctive design and colour. Each chef d’escadre must carry a cornet matching his conducteur’s ensign, but marked in golden lettering ‘c’, ‘cc’, ‘ccc’, ‘cccc’ for each squadron. Each chef de chambre is to wear a bannerole on his sallet. again matching his comapny’s ensign, bearing the number of c’s corresponding to his squadron, and designating the number of his chambre… On the march everyone must keep together and carefully follow his ensign or cornet… (Armies of Medieval Burgundy, Osprey, Nicholas Michael & G.A. Embleton)

Religious display — images of the saints were used for devotional purposes in churches and cathedrals, and it would have been important to be able to display these images outdoors. While there are records of paintings being carried about in parades, a banner is obviously a simpler (and cheaper) way of displaying the saints in a parade or festival. Patron saints often appear on banners used for other purposes as well. The military saints St George, St Michael were favoured, and St Andrew frequently appears on Burgundian banners. The St Andrew cross (a saltire, usually in red) is one of the most common motifs on Burgundian banners (and in other armourial displays).

Banner Types

The various shapes of flags were known — and are known — by a wild variety of names whose use changed over time. With the exception of the oriflamme and gonfalon, the names shown below are fairly arbitrary but correspond more or less to period usage.

A square or rectangular flag, generally decorated with heraldic arms (or a simple representation of them) or a religious image. In the case of heraldic arms, the arms are always displayed so that the dexter (left hand side as you face it) side is adjacent to the pole. Square banners appear to have been introduced in the 14th century, but examination of 15th century iconography shows the rectangular shape is more common. Almost without exception the rectangle is attached on the long side to the pole, unlike a modern flag with the short side attached. Banners frequently were fringed, and sometimes had swallow tails although the majority did not. Although later writers imply that there were hard “rules” governing the size of banners, they seem in reality to have been sized as large as necessary. (On the other hand it would have been a very good rule of thumb to make sure that the more important you were, the bigger your banner was.)
A small triangular flag used on a lance. These generally have a heraldic representation or personal badge displayed. Occasionally these have tails. Where a badge or emblem is displayed, it is usually oriented to be right way up when the lance is horizontal — presumably so that your opponent in the lists gets a good view as they tumble from their horse.
This is the shape most people think of as a banner — a long thin triangular flag, often with a swallow tail. The tail(s) may be pointed or rounded. The term also covers elongated rectangles. This type of flag seems to have been used exclusively for military purposes and festivals. Very frequently the flag is designed to have: a national or regional badge or motif next to the pole, the remainder of the flag divided per fess into the two principal colours of the owner’s arms with a personal badge or motto.

Burgundian military standards seem to almost universally have St Andrew or the Flint and Steel next to the pole, and the motto “Je L’ay Emprins” followed by a corps number or the Flint and Steel. Occasionally a personal badge appears at either end in place of the “standard” emblem [Further research into this is going on]

A well documented standard by Agnes van den Bossche is dark green, with the Maid of Ghent next to the pole, standing next to a rampant lion with a very long and ornate tail filling most of the standard, and a gothic “G” near the swallow tails. It is known that this flag was painted the city of Ghent for a festival. One interesting feature of this standard is that the bottom edge is at right angles to the pole, ie horizontal to the ground. This same shape frequently appears in period illustrations. A banner held in Switzerland at St Gall’s Historical Museum is similarly arranged. It has an image of St Jude next to the pole in a lozenge shape surrounded by small Flint and Steel emblems.

A pennoncelle is a variation on this, being extremely thin and long, often with very long tails. It seems to have only been used for ships, and possibly on towers.
The best known oriflamme was the national banner of France, although they were used generally across Europe for military display. The oriflamme is usually red, and spangled with small gold stars or emblems. It is generally a square banner or wide standard with many tails. They were intended to resemble a flame.
This is a square or rectangular banner, usually with tails, and occasionally a long triangular shape. They were suspended from a horizontal bar which was attached to a pole, and were usually for religious processions and festivals. The gonfalon frequently showed pictures of a saint or religious scene. The gonfalon does not appear to have been used for military display.

Other shapes were used, such as at least one Burgundian banner with the fusil (the "steel and flint" emblem) on an almost semicircular flag, but those above are the most common.

Relevant Motifs

For Sable Rose purposes, a range of decorative motifs are available for use. Standards and banner should tend to blue and white, divided per fess with blue on the bottom.

Steel and Flint
Charles’ fusil badge seemed to get plastered all over anything remotely connected to the court. It is frequently seen with rods or arrows thrust through in a saltire — a reference to the St Andrew’s Cross
The sable rose could be used as a badge, either as on the web page, or as a rose proper — ie with leaves and a stem.
Charles’ “Je Lay Emprins” and our own “Meliora Sequimir” could be used, and it would be feasible and sensible to put “corps” indicators on banners and standards. Note Charles’ motto is not the modern French spelling “Je L’ai Emprins”
St Andrew
The patron Saint of Burgundy. In traditional iconography he was displayed either carrying his cross (an X shaped cross), or a fishing net.
St Andrew’s Cross
When used alone, this was usually a simple red saltire, not always extending to the edges of the flag. Sometimes it was shown as two rough-cut sticks (ie a cross ragule)
Saints are frequently shown inside a square frame with round edges.

Possible Construction

The existing banners that I've been able to confirm to date are all described as being made from “canvas”, which probably indicates a square weave flax fabric. Experiments with cotton has shown that a heavy fabric does not flutter nicely in the breeze, and it absorbs a fair amount of paint. Conversely a lighter fabric will not last long. A heavy fabric would probably be good for a gonfalon, where there would be value in having a relatively stiff material. Period descriptions suggest that silk banners were used for prestigious events such as tournaments, and they probably would have been used for some religious display. Cennini discusses painting on velvet, but it is unclear what the velvet was used for.

Cennini describes in some detail the preparation of fabric for painting. The area to be painted is sized with a weak water based glue, then painted over with gesso. The design is painted over the gessoed areas. All the existing banners I've been able to track down have been painted with oil paints, rather than egg tempera, and Cennini seems to suggest using oil paints.

Of the approximately two dozen banners held in Switzerland, the majority of them are painted only, with a very small number having some appliqué. Cennini also describes methods for attaching gold leaf to fabric, and it is likely that gilding would have been used on religious banners.

It is unclear how fringes would have been made — while they could be fabricated by fraying out the edges of the fabric, equally they could have been stitched on.

The van den Bossche banner is 2.77m long by 1.04m high — this is probably the outside size for a standard for Sable Rose purposes — smaller standards between 1 and 2m would be more manageable. Similarly banners appear to generally be between 1 and 2m on the long edge. Gonfalons in period illustrations seem to be as much as 3m long.

There is no clear indication of how banners were attached to the pole. Some illustrations appear to indicate a pocket, some seem to indicate loops of fabric for the pole. It is conceivable that a banner could have ties or holes for lacing, but no illustrations I've seen yet clearly and strongly suggest that.

Ideally Sable Rose banners should be made of linen, or similar flax-based square weave fabric. This does not need to be particularly heavy, although a cheap and light fabric may not last long. Silk could be used for particularly ornate banners, particularly if they were used for religious display. Experimentation with different fabrics will be an exciting exercise in living history! Stitching should be done by hand, as all seams will be visible. Fabric loops or a pocket could be used as an alternative to lacing holes or integral ties.

Most decoration should be done using oil paint over gesso. Experimentation with acrylics in place of oil show that the acrylics wind up with a distinctly glossy finish quite unlike oils. The cost of oils is roughly equivalent to the cost of decent acrylics. “Fabric paint” is basically an acrylic, and should not be used. Some appliqué and gilding could be used with moderation, and it would be possible to appliqué a piece of fine fabric with a detailed illustration to a coarser banner. Apart from gonfalons, banners have two sides, and must be painted on both sides. This means on the reverse side, a motto will be in mirror image. If a motto is used, it should always be written so that the pole is on the left hand side of the text.

R. Hook

Draft - version 1.0 - March 16, 2003