As always, dear readers, welcome.
When I first read Tolkien’s poem “Errantry” (originally published in The Oxford Magazine, 9 November, 1933), as an undergraduate, I loved the slipperiness of it, the way it danced from rhyme to rhyme (something JRRT later confessed that he couldn’t do twice—see the letter to Rayner Unwin of 22 June, 1952 in Letters, 162-3).
Some of the words took looking up, but, as someone who had some Latin and who read a lot of medieval literature, I thought I knew, from these lines:
“So long he studied wizardry
And sigaldry and smithying”
that “sigaldry” had to do with sigils, that is, with little seals, or maybe with the bigger idea of standards (the word is a diminutive of Latin signum, among the meanings of which is both “seal” and “military standard”—as in the common military expression signum ferre “to advance”—literally “to carry the standard”) and so I thought that it probably had to do with heraldry.
But it turns out that I was completely misled. In fact, it is listed in the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) as “obs. rare” with the meaning “Enchantment, sorcery” and is certainly rare as it has a bare minimum of sources cited, including a circa-1300 poem about Alexander the Great (Kyng Alisaunder) and the 14th-century (?) mystery play, Crucifixion, from the Chester Cycle of Mysteries. (Appropriately, I looked the word up in the 1933 edition, which is available for free on-line at the wonderful Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/the-oxford-english-dictionary-1933-all-volumes/The%20Oxford%20English%20Dictionary%20Volume%209%20-%20Variant/page/26/mode/2up )
This meaning of the word certainly fits better with the plot at this point in the poem—the protagonist is attempting to woo a butterfly (for the whole poem see: https://genius.com/J-r-r-tolkien-errantry-lyrics ) and perhaps sorcery might help—but I think that I assumed that it was related to heraldry not only by the “medieval” quality of the poem’s plot, but also because heraldry turns up so often in The Lord of the Rings.
Heraldry comes from the medieval military world, from a time when, fully covered in chain mail, it would be impossible to identify one warrior from another.
(by Gerry Embleton)
In fact, at the Battle of Hastings, in October, 1066, the Norman leader, Duke William, when there was a rumor that he had been killed, was forced to ride across his forces lifting his helmet so that his men could see that he was still with them.
A system was gradually devised by which combinations of patterns and colors could be put upon armor and clothing and even horses to indicate who was inside that armor.
This is from the early 14th century psaltery—psalm book–of Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, one of my favorite medieval manuscripts. (For more on this particular marvelous example of a manuscript, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luttrell_Psalter If you would like to see the manuscript itself, see: https://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=add_ms_42130_fs001ar )
Depicted is Sir Geoffrey Luttrell (1276-1345) himself, with his wife, Agnes de Sutton, and his daughter-in-law, Beatrice le Scrope. His arms—that is, the pattern you see on his horse’s trapper (that big drape of cloth which covers the horse) are “azure, a bend between six martlets argent”, which means “on a blue field, six martlets in silver divided by a band”—like this
Marlets were supposed, at this time, to be tireless birds who are born in flight and never stopped till they died, suggesting to the knowing who saw Sir Geoffrey that he was just as tireless as this imaginary creature. He might also have wanted to avoid the meaning of his own name, which appears to be a diminutive of the French loutre, “otter”, suggesting that the founder of his family was a pelt-hunter.
Patterns could be taken from current mythology—as in the case of Sir Geoffrey—or could even be rather like visual puns—here’s Sir Roger de Trumpington (died 1289)—
where you can see that his emblem is a trumpet—or Robert de Septvans (c.1250-1306)
whose emblem was 7 winnowing baskets (“van” being related to “fan”, as such baskets were used in dividing the grain from its covering, called “chaff”).
In time, there was so much of this that specialists began to appear, called heralds.
As with many old words, there is discussion over where the word comes from, but, in the later medieval military world, he was an important figure, whose jobs included things like identifying noble dead on battlefields, determining captives for ransom, and acting as messengers, because they were held to be neutrals. You may remember the French herald, Montjoy, in Shakespeare’s Henry V.
If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, you’ll certainly have heard “sigils” being mentioned here and there—emblems like the Stark family wolf
or the ghastly flayed man of the Bolton family.
In The Lord of the Rings, we see a number of these emblems—
the running white horse of the Rohirrim–
which reminds me of the emblem of the old Electorate/Kingdom of Hannover—
the silver swan-ship of the Prince of Dol Amroth–
and, of course, the White Hand of Saruman—
and the Red Eye of Sauron–
and, triumphant over all, the seven stars and white tree of Gondor.
All of the above came from a misunderstanding of an obscure word in a dancy little poem by JRRT—perhaps sometimes “creative misreading” can lead in interesting directions. In which case, if someone proposed a sigil for me, it would be something “azure, mark of interrogation argent”—
As ever, thanks for reading.
And remember that there’s always
In 1967, “Errantry” was set to music by the English composer, Donald Swan (1923-1994), and you can hear it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6jVR6pF_0E Swan actually set a small series of Tolkien’s poems—with Tolkien’s permission and help—in a volume—and LP– called The Road Goes Ever On.
You can hear the whole LP at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6jVR6pF_0E The series begins at 27:15—but the previous 26 minutes are JRRT himself reading/reciting. I grew up hearing and singing these settings–see if they stick in your memory as well.