Medieval Secular Order Names
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Medieval Secular Order Names

by Juliana de Luna (Julia Smith), Siren Herald

© 2008-2009 by Julia Smith. All rights reserved.
Version 1.1, updated 18 February 2009


This would never have come to fruition without assistance. David of Moffat charged me with doing this project as part of the heraldic titles project and got me started; I wish he had lived to see this to completion (though this is still far from complete). Mari ingen Briain meic Donnchada helped me to figure out how to present this data in useful ways. I was assisted with translations by Ursula Georges (Latin), Talan Gwynek (German among others), and Julie Winter (German; Julie isn't even involved with the Society, but graciously agreed to help me with translations). Thanks to the Interlibrary Loan librarians at Eastern Washington University for getting me access to obscure sources. And last, but assuredly not least, Richenda du Jardin put up with my obsession over the last few years as these projects occupied far too much of my spare time.


What we identify as knightly orders have three more or less independent origins, though medieval people as well as modern scholars clearly saw links between these types of orders. The three origins/types are military religious orders, monarchical orders, and fraternal orders. Knightly orders jointly are organizations intended to distinguish some knights from others through limited membership. They differed in their intent: some were religious organizations designed to fight for a common cause, some were formed by kings and other great feudal lords to honor their vassals and to bind them more closely, and others were groups of knights trying to meet their own needs for alliances or success in tournaments. We group them together as the same thing because, over time, these three types of organizations have tended to become more like monarchical orders, controlled by some crowned head who used them to honor vassals. These orders serve as the basis for the orders and awards that we use, even though most of our awards are not related to knighthood.

History and Types of Knightly Orders

This article will focus on the second two types, which can jointly be called the secular orders. It makes no claim to completeness, but I have been able to identify around 140 order names that modern scholars consider to clearly be documented to period. Over 80% of them have period citations showing the form the name took. The analysis focuses on the standard forms of the orders, not all of the documentary forms. Later revisions of this article are expected to analyze those forms as well.

While there are similarities in the names of these orders, each type has distinct naming patterns. The names of the earliest military religious orders largely followed the names of civilian religious orders, with long formal names and short "use" names derived from them. Later, these orders began to derive names from placenames and the names of saints. The names of monarchical orders are mostly derived from the names of charges used in badges and saint's names. The names of fraternal orders are largely identical to those of monarchical orders, but a few have more fanciful names (like "the green shield of the white lady"). These fanciful names are only found for these fraternal orders.

Patterns for Order Names

Nine orders are known by multiple names; both (in one case three) are analyzed here. Thus, there are 150 names here representing 140 orders. By far the most common pattern for order names is a single heraldic charge, representing just over half the order names. The second most common pattern is a saint's name or another name derived from a church festival (Annunciation and True Cross); over one in five orders is a saint's name.

Another 10% add something to a heraldic charge. The most common pattern is to modify it with a color. In every case, it's the everyday term for a heraldic tincture; the majority of the cases are in French (whether continental or Anglo-Norman), but there are examples of color terms in German as well. There are no examples using heraldic terms that are not the everyday color terms as well; there is a single example of a more fanciful color term, the German "Pale Horse".

Pattern All Orders Courtly Orders Fraternal
  Count Percentage Count Percentage Count Percentage
Heraldic Charge 76 51% 25 36% 51 64%
Saint's Name 33 22% 22 31% 11 14%
Color + Charge 9 6% 5 7% 4 5%
Regalia 8 5% 8 11% 0 0%
Saint + Other 5 3% 2 3% 3 4%
Other Adj. + Charge 4 3% 1 1% 3 4%
Two Charges 4 3% 1 1% 3 4%
Abstract Quality 3 2% 1 1% 2 3%
Saint + Place 3 2% 2 3% 1 1%
Person 2 1% 1 1% 1 1%
Placename 2 1% 2 3% 0 0%
Complex 1 1% 0 0% 1 1%
Total 150 100% 70 100% 80 100%

Listing of Standard Forms by Type:

Medieval and Renaissance Forms:

Some Orders Considered by Scholars Not to Have Existed Before 1600