Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 June 2018
‘Whoever in discussion adduces authority uses not intellect but rather memory.’(Leonardo da Vinci)
Maurice Keen has given such an accessible introduction to the business of the medieval Court of Chivalry that it is unnecessary to explain the institution to anyone who may pursue this book for the current chapter alone. It will suffice to say that material objects were variously and extensively brought to bear as evidence in just one branch of the court's work: that is, cases in which rights to bear given coats of arms were tried. Of these cases, substantial records survive for just three: Scrope v. Grosvenor, Lovell v. Morley (both initiated in 1385) and Grey v. Hastings (initiated in 1400). Currently, only the first of these is available in print. Keen called the references to objects in the surviving documents ‘iconographical evidence’, which he distinguished from ‘autobiographical evidence’ about people, their actions, situations and so on. In art history, the word ‘iconography’ has technical meanings relating to subject-matter in representational imagery and formal and symbolic paradigms in architecture, so Keen's usage, while perfectly reasonable, will be set aside here. However, his appreciation of the value of material evidence was clear-sighted, and he has written more about it than practically anyone else to date.
Notwithstanding Keen's publications, the surviving documentation from the Court of Chivalry's cases is valuable to art historians and others directly engaged with material objects, for reasons which until now have mainly been noticed only incidentally: in order to support arguments about the sociopolitical functions of heraldry. Although this value is manifold, and ultimately depends on the individual scholar's aims, it has two dominant aspects. The first is that the documents record many objects, in various media, which no longer exist. Moreover, they record them in situ in interiors and landscapes which have themselves vanished.6 For anyone not acquainted with it, this data is bound to enrich knowledge of both specific classes of object and the contexts of these objects’ use.