Coats of Arms are bullcrap. We all know this, right?

Look what I made in 3 minutes with Google translate & the internet!

Liberal and left-leaning news orgs are happily publicizing the latest evidence of the dishonesty by the Human Stain (and his family).  He has allegedly ripped off another family’s coat-of-arms and rebranded it (you guessed it) as “TRUMP.”  I have a few thoughts that may prove unpopular, but here goes:

First, this seems to be a pretty venial sin compared to the heights of grifting and inept spycraft that he and his administration have reached in just 125 days in office, but okay:  more evidence of unscrupulous douchebaggery.  We get it!

But second, and my real point here:  historians know that coats-of-arms are all bull$hit, don’t we?  We know that all titles, knighthoods, and the like are all made up at some point or another, so who cares?  Someone was knighted or ennobled because he agreed to fight with the king, or let the king screw his wife, or loaned him money, or performed some such base and ignoble service to the crown, and that’s it.  That’s all titles and coats of arms mean!  

They’re meaningless pretentions, so go ahead and steal or make up a coat of arms yourself!  (It’s really easy–I made one for La Famille Historiann in about 3 minutes with Google translate and this website.  If you’re a Latinist, you can skip the Google translate step and do yours in 2.5 minutes!)  You’re only carrying on a rich tradition of westerners making stuff up about their allegedly illustrious ancestors to compensate for their own insecurities.  Americans and Canadians have done it for centuries, and I’m assuming that Europeans have been just as snobbish and devious as their New World cousins all along.

Fun fact:  Esther Wheelwright, the subject of my latest book, perpetuated a fake family coat of arms herself!  It’s true–she was given a silver chalice and a place setting engraved with the supposed Wheelwright coat of arms by her nephew Nathaniel Wheelwright when he visited her in the convent in 1754.  This was a smart move on his part that must have thrilled her–she was among the few choir nuns who had no family connections or prestigious relations who could serve the interests of the order.  This expensive gift, complete with a coat of arms, was proof that she came from an elite family, if not an entitled one!

But wait, there’s more!  Esther Wheelwright later painted the coat of arms onto a piece of silk and sent it back to some family members in New England, along with the oil painting that now hangs in the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston.  (For all the details, please see The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, chapter 6!)  My point here is that Americans dig the “class” they think they can get from faking this kind of fake-to-begin-with pedigree, and it fools a lot of other Americans.  (Just not me, and I’m guessing not most of you, either.)

If you think I have a low opinion of people who get all upset on behalf of plagiarized coats of arms, don’t even get me started on people who fetishize blood relations and alleged genealogical connections.  As the daughter of an adopted person, I was already skeptical of this, but once I started using and learning about genealogies in the course of my research, I found out how disconnected and full of adoptions and “natural children” most family histories really are.  (Families lie about everything!  Please, reflect on your own family’s history and experiences, and then read that back a few centuries if you think I’m being too harsh.)

19 thoughts on “Coats of Arms are bullcrap. We all know this, right?

  1. Well, if you got an actual coat with the thing, it might have somewhat more of a coolness factor. But just something you can have decaled onto a ceramic fraternity stein, I don’t know… I’m all over on this one, truthfully. I’ll riff on anything at this point that styles the guy as a pretender, but it’s true, even the Vikings were probably selling these things, carved into “genuine” bone antlers, that time when they sacked Dublin. As tools of scholarly inquiry, for some fields, genealogy is a) critical, and b) impossible. Every U.S. president really IS descended from Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, and Benjamin Harrison. Or maybe not. I once got personally scolded, by name, maybe even threatened, by the salutation line on the last page of an eighteenth century letterbook. So I really do imagine the historical playing fields on which I look down from historiographical outer space as being possibly populated by kinspeople.

    The big takeaway that I got from the NYT story on this episode was former Sen. Joe Tydings (D-Md.), now an elderly lawyer, still practicing, and descended from this credential, dissuading some relatives from just suing the bastard, because even if he demonstrably did steal the thing, you would be robbing your own descendants of their monetary inheritance to finance the suit, because he would have you in court for “years and years and years.” Was this a great country, or what?

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    • Once we go back beyond living memory, what’s the point? What influence does “family” we never met really have on us? Beyond my family’s experience with adoption, the fetishization of “blood relations” always calls to mind 19th C scientific racism.

      Other biographers of Esther Wheelwright make a great deal of the fact that her great-grandfather John W. was one of the Antinomians exiled from John Winthrop’s Boston. But she never met him–he founded their little town of Wells on the Maine frontiers, and then decamped for Exeter, N.H. and eventually returned to Massachusetts, while his son Samuel & his sons mostly stayed in Maine and eventually, 60 years after the Antinomian crisis (and nearly 20 years after his death), Esther was born. But what does that have to do with anything going on with his grandchildren and great-grands at the turn of the 18th C? Nothing, in my view.

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  2. Well, in the days when you paid properly for these things there was a “College of Arms” that gave them out. Shakespeare’s father got one, but Shakespeare had to fight when they were challenged: http://www.folger.edu/shakespeare-coat-of-arms-discovery

    I had a great conversation with my mother yesterday, who was musing about the ancestors. Because she felt like an odd duck in her family — interested from a young age in social justice — she has hung on to particular ancestors to feel as if she “came by it honestly”. On the other hand, she was being snarky about my cousins who are only interested in the part of the family that sounds fanciest. It’s clear that people use family histories to do lots of things — sometimes to claim status, sometimes to explain their interests, character, etc. I’ve steadily resisted most family history, because I think it’s interesting only when you use it as a starting point to say “I wonder why that happened?” Alison Light’s Common People is a beautifully written book that uses family history to illustrate broader historical themes (mobility, geographic and social), occupations, and demography).

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    • Thanks for the tip on the Light book–I will have to check that out!

      Most people prefer to remember some ancestors more than others. A friend of mine who did a ton of her research on legal history in state and local archives met loads of genealogists when she was researching her dissertation. She would run into these folks and they would ask her if she had found this or that ancestor of hers in the course of her research. She frequently had, because they were accused of some heinous criminal offense and put on trial! HAhaha!!!

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  3. There is a whole field of scholarship on how people construct their family identities and histories, that explores the fictions of family trees, crests, and more recently genetic ancestry mapping. It’s both really fascinating and remarkably common – even those of us pretending at some honesty have to make selections about what parts of our family history to emphasise that inevitably exclude the alternative stories that form our history. Indeed it is so common to do this that I wouldn’t even count this as a venial sin but just another example of the many interesting ways that people construct their family identities. Moreover family is and has been such a crucial component of how we understand ourselves that it is not a straightforward case of asking people to try and conceive of themselves outside of the family (what would that even mean or look like? Ok, there is work on this too…). I am currently entirely fascinated by the numerous articles on people’s genetic mapping which demonstrates a remarkable lack of understanding about what those tests can and cannot tell you, and the imaginative interpretation of family history as a result.

    Slightly off topic, but responding to Susan, the remarkable value of genealogy to social history is starting to be recognised, not only by work like Light, but also Tanya Evans and others, who are thinking about the political potential of the family historians to our production of social history – the ways it invests the public in history production – and the production of complex stories that we can’t tell without this sort of mapping across generations, etc, that historians haven’t had the time to do or have only been able to do for a small number of (usually elite) families. Tanya’s giving a paper on this at the Berks this week.

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    • Thanks for this, FA. There’s some interesting work being done on genealogical work in the early U.S. now too, by Karin Wulf of the College of William & Mary/Omohundro Institute. I think her interest in this are the gendered practices of this kind of family memory & local history-making.

      My beef with genealogy is the way that some lines and stories get privileged above others. One, Christian patriarchal naming practices & coverture work like the dickens to obscure/frustrate those of us interested in women’s history and female genealogies. But even apart from the gender issue, we all have 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents, 16 great-greats, 32 great-great-greats, etc., but most families focus on only a few ancestors as though they were dominant and/or cancel out all of the other progenitors. What’s up with that, other than genealogical celebrity-hunting?

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  4. My family is an old Southern family. (think FFV, DAR, UDC on all sides). We have coats-of-arms from both my father’s side and my father’s mother’s side. I have long thought that they were as ersatz as Sanka, probably created before the Civil War when Southern planters tried to portray themselves as aristocracy. Nevertheless, I hang them on my wall.

    Many years ago, one of my roommates got a mailing promising to deliver him a copy of the [family name} coat of arms. He was not impressed. He told me that the [family name] dated from Ellis Island. “What was it before,” I asked. “Something long, unpronounceable, and Russian,” he replied.

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    • I have a feeling it’s much more of a southern than a northern thing. It all feels so much more Cavalier than Roundhead/puritan.

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  5. I first got interested in history as a teenager through genealogy, and have always found it fitting that my one clear royal descent (ballyhooed by previous generations) came through the great-grandfather who was the Randolph Maine town drunk (which no one talked about), who himself was the great-grandson of an adopted Native American girl (which the family did its best to hide).

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    • HAhaha. That’s my point! As Susan indicated above, at some point a few generations back all the lines cross, so the motley are mixed in with the supposedly great. If you go back beyond living memory, who gives a god-damn anyway, esp. in a supposed democracy?

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  6. I agree, it’s definitely a Southern things, from aforesaid yearning to be considered aristocrats by grace of God, as opposed to blood-sucking exploiters of the weak by grace of that well-regulated militia we hear so much about.

    The first member of my father’s family to arrive here did so in 1613. I’ve always sort of hoped he was fleeing from the law . . . .

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  7. In the eleventh century, there was a veritable flood of fake genealogies compiled on behalf of the new powerbrokers. They all claimed descent from Charlemagne. Ergo, when my father told me that our family genealogy showed a link to Charlemagne, i roared with laughter. (I’m a bad daughter: as a historian I’m supposed to respect this, I suppose. Honestly, I use all of these sources to get at the social history revealed in the marriages, remarriages, court cases and denunciations.)

    When I was active in the SCA (the Society for Creative Anachronism which is a medieval recreation society), I started as a herald, researching the plausibility of medieval persona names and heraldry. We had to check member submissions against every recorded coat of arms, medieval and modern, that we could find and if you copied someone’s, you were denied the use of that in the society. Trump would be so busted by the SCAdians!

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    • I knew it! Fake genealogies and coats of arms are an ancient (if not honorable) pasttime.

      The scales fell from my eyes when researching my dissertation and using one (very good, actually) genealogy of a New England colony that covered the 17th-19th Centuries. All of the “natural children” (aka those born out of wedlock)–and this was in a colony that was heavily patriarchal and actually cared about legal marriage!

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  8. I have a genealogy of my paternal grandmother’s family published by a cousin of hers in the early 1950’s. I occasionally Google some of the earliest names in it to see if anything on them has shown up recently. I was interested to find this from John Hood, a wheel in Art Pope’s NC think tank farm.
    https://www.carolinajournal.com/opinion-article/a-bold-bid-for-freedom/
    I try not to project my political beliefs back across the centuries on Abraham Michaux and Suzanne Rochet even though they are just as much my ancestors as his. John Hood may be my very distant cousin, but our most recent common ancestors were born in the seventeenth century.
    At the request of one of my teenaged grandsons, I have looked some recently at my own ancestors. I have found fourteen out of sixteen great great grandparents, perhaps the most interesting couple being the double first cousins. My direct ancestors are not particularly well known. More interesting are their cousins who range from Lilburn Lewis, Abraham Watkins Venable and A. P. Hill to the English economist Alfred Marshall.

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