Introductory Reading


There is a huge literature on heraldry, huger if you include auxiliary studies such as flags and insignia.  I have more than 2000 titles in my heraldic library, in 48 languages, and I am still avidly collecting.  Some of these works are beautifully presented, works of art in themselves, but many are quite specialized and limited in scope.  I list below a few books that can serve as user-friendly introductions to those newly interested in the field.  Most of these titles can be ordered from Bookfinder, new or used, mostly at quite moderate prices.

[The image at right is a historiated initial T from a 1556 arms patent in the College of Arms in London.  It shows an English heraldic official, Thomas Hawley, Clarenceaux King of Arms.  His tabard bears the Tudor royal arms.  That he looks a lot like me is purely coincidental.]


Books in English

  • Simple Heraldry, Cheerfully Illustrated.  By Iain Moncreiffe & Don Pottinger.  A short, entertaining and brilliantly concise introduction to heraldry, with a Scottish flavor.  It can be read and appreciated in half an hour; the images tell the story.  I buy this book in quantity to give away as the best introduction available.  
  • Heraldry: Sources, Symbols and Meaning.  By Ottfried Neubecker.  Originally written in German, it gives a superb overview of heraldic expression in many styles and many media, with examples from all over Europe rather than concentrating (as the British writers almost always do) solely on British practice.  It is the best introduction to the wider field available in English
  • Boutell’s Heraldry.  This work has gone through many editions since it was first published by the English antiquary Charles Boutell in 1863.  Many generations of English-speaking heraldists, including me, have learned the subject from this book.  Its reliance on actual objects such as seals and tomb-plates (beautifully drawn by the author), rather than on quotations from earlier writers, was representative of the then-novel application of the scientific method to heraldic studies.
  • Flags Through the Ages and Around the World.  By Whitney Smith.    The best introduction to flags, by the world’s premier scholar of the subject.  Many of the flags illustrated as current are now obsolete, which adds to the book’s charm without detracting from its value as an entry into the subject.

Books in French

  • Manuel du Blason.  By Donald L. Galbreath.  An exceptionally learned and appealing manual, based on original scholarship and beautifully illustrated.  Reprints are available.  A superbly revised and enlarged modern version has been issued, under the same title, by Léon Jequier.  
    • Galbreath’s Papal Heraldry is a lovely work of deep but accessible scholarship and cannot be overpraised.  I mention it under Galbreath’s entry, but it is in English.  Modern reprints are available. 
  • Traité d’Heraldique.  By Michel Pastoreau.  A major treatise, from a French perspective. 
  • L’Heraldique, son esprit, son langage et ses applications.   By Émile Gevaert. A very large and ambitious treatise by a Belgian scholar, beautifully illustrated.  Unfortunately now somewhat scarce and not reprinted.  
  • Les drapeaux à travers les âges et dans le monde entier.  French translation of Whitney Smith’s flag book, cited above.

Books in German

Although German is the premier language of heraldic scholarship, most German books (except for Neubecker’s) are either too detailed or too restricted to serve as good introductions to the subject.  But these should get a person started.

  • Über Deutsche Wappenkunst.  By Heinrich Hussmann.  A 1973 reprint makes this scarce 1942 classic widely available again.  Although in only two colors (red and black), the author’s learning, the directness of his approach, and the brilliance of his drawings compensate for lack of color.
  • Heraldik Wappen – Ihr Ursprung, Sinn und Wert.  The German original of Neubecker’s book, cited above.
  • Handbüchlein der Heraldik.  German version of Galbreath’s Manuel du Blason, cited above.
  • Die Zeichen der Menschen und Völker: Unsere Welt in Fahnen und Flaggen.  German translation of Smith’s flag book, cited above.

Books in Dutch

  • Wapens, vlaggen en zegels van Nederland.  By T. Van der Laars.  A fine treatise from a Dutch perspective.  Modern reprints are available. 
  • Heraldiek: Bronnen, symbolen en betekenis.  Dutch translation of Neubecker’s book, cited above.
  • Spectrum Vlaggenboek.   Dutch translation of Smith’s flag book, cited above.

Books in Italian

  • Araldica: Storia, linguaggio, simboli e significati dei blasoni e delle arme.  By Giovanni Santi-Mazzini.  A magnificent illustrated encyclopedia of heraldry, from an Italian perspective.  Unfortunately, although only published in 2003, it has become rather scarce and expensive.
  • Araldica.  By Lorenzo Caratti di Valfrei.  In the Guide Practiche Mondadori series.  A much cheaper and handier work, suitable for beginners.
  • Le Bandiere, Storia e Simboli.  Italian translation of Smith’s flag book, cited above.

Books in Spanish

  • Heraldica General y Fuentes de las Armas de España.  By Ignacio Vicente Cascante.  A very thorough treatise from a Spanish perspective, illustrated by the author.  Unfortunately now somewhat scarce and not reprinted.
  • Manual de Heraldica Española.  By Eduardo Pardo de Guevara y Valdés.  Competent introduction, beautifully illustrated in vivid color.         

Books in Portuguese

  • Heraldica: Cienca de Temas Vivos.  By R. T. de Almeida Langhans.  Two volumes, of which the first is a thorough treatise on Portuguese heraldry, and the second is about the Portuguese national arms.  It has summaries in English and French.  Unfortunately now somewhat scarce and not reprinted.
  • Manual de Heráldica Portuguesa.  By Armando de Mattos.  Not very well illustrated, but it will do for students who cannot find a copy of the previous book.

Book in Polish

  • Wielka Księga Heraldyki.  By Alfred Znamierowski.  Very thorough and beautifully illustrated.  I cannot read a word of it but I know the author to be a superb scholar and heraldic artist, and judging by that and by the scope of topics and images I am confident in recommending it.