Heralds' Staves of Office

Heralds' Staves of Office

By Dom Pedro de Alcazar

© 2004, Craig Levin.
Reprinted here with gracious permission of the author.

This article is a brief study of the herald's staff of office and how its appearance changes through time. It also has some suggestions for the SCA herald who would like to have a staff of office.

The heralds of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance claimed to trace the origin of our office from the caduceator, a Roman official who, as you can guess, carried a caduceus, the emblem of Mercury, who was the herald of Olympus. His job was delivering messages declaring war and peace, calling for truces, and other duties that heralds have always performed in times of war. The caduceus of the caduceator was not the elaborate winged wand with snakes commonly associated with Mercury in art today. That representation of the caduceus emerged late in Antiquity, when the old Roman religion was fading out. Instead, the caduceator's caduceus, as well as that of Mercury, was about eighteen inches long, with a white ribbon tied near the top. The very top had a snall knob.

The caduceator seems to have disappeared as Roman culture decayed and Antiquity gave way to the Middle Ages. Even though the barbarians who took over most of the Empire admired Roman wealth and culture, they had their own customs when it came to war, which shoved Roman war customs into the dustbin of history. Also, the caduceator's clear ties to Mercury would have put the office under attack after the adoption of Christianity as Rome's official religion by Constantine the Great.

Centuries passed before anything like a caduceator would return to Europe. Heralds emerged out of the mirk of history in northern France in the twelfth century. However, the earliest depictions of heralds are much later, dating to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Since England's College of Arms is, nominally, the source of many of the SCA's heraldic customs, it seems appropriate for English examples to come first. Illuminations of Lancastrian and Tudor grants of arms depict heralds holding thin, slightly tapering, plain white staves between eighteen and twenty-four inches long.

Modern English heralds' staves' size and shape are like the early staves, but they can be either black or white. Each has a specific herald's badge of office on top, and a handle like that of a nightstick on the bottom. Modern Scots heralds carry a black rod tipped at both ends with ivory.

In France and parts of the Holy Roman Empire, the usual mediaeval herald's staff resembled the Tudor herald's staff, but was sometimes a bit longer. Heralds in the Holy Roman Empire also were known to carry staves that were striped in their employer's liveries.

However, mediaeval and Renaissance heralds' staves could also be fairly elaborate. Some heralds in the Iberian kingdoms and the Holy Roman Empire who had especially powerful employers carried staves like ceremonial maces with their employers' coats of arms on the mace-head. An English picture showing all the regalia of a king of arms has a similar staff. Also, a very late Renaissance Swedish depiction of two heralds show them holding elaborately turned staves about two feet long. Like the modern English herald's staff, these had nightstick- like handles at one end, and badges-in this case,fleurs-de- lys-at the other.

The herald's staff is often carried by the herald during processions. As a staff of office, it stands for the authority imparted to the herald by his office, as a sort of substitute for a sceptre, just like a field marshal's baton. In other situations, heralds wrap scrolls around them and use them as stabilizers. It could also be waved overhead to get the attention of a group. The caduceus' ribbons would be useful for this prupose.


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