Thursday, November 1, 2012

Update on My Southern Family

In response to my previous blog entry, Corey Meyer left a comment: "So did you find the french nobility?" 

He apparently didn't read past the first sentence. My statement easily makes clear that I found refugees, not nobility. In France, in the late 1600s, Pierre Chastain and his family were Huguenots (Protestants). French Catholics at the time didn't like Protestants, and persecuted them. So Pierre, his wife and five kids escaped from France to Switzerland, eventually made it to England, and sailed from there to Virginia.

 I have never found any reliable historical data indicting that the Chastains in France were nobility. There have been claims of nobility by some folks -- even kinship with royalty -- but in-depth Chastain genealogical research in France and Switzerland by Cameron Allen in 1985, found nary a trace of nobility.

Corey continues, "The 'coat of arms' you posted looks like one of those you can buy for $19.99."

Perhaps it does look like that -- to people whose only knowledge of heraldry comes from the $19.99 websites.

Actually, I painted that coat of arms myself. And I made a slight error. The coronet should be gold.

I found a rendering of this coat of arms (in black and white) in 1970 or so, in a book titled, "A Brief History of the Huguenots and Three Family Trees: Chastain, Lockridge, and Stockton" written by James Garvin Chastain in 1932. I found the book in the Georgia Archives in Atlanta and I photocopied the image of the coat of arms. I still have that photocopy.

(Incidently, that book is the source of some of the spurious claims about Chastain genealogy. But I've never heard any indicators that the coat of arms is suspect.)

Though in black and white, the drawing used heraldic symbols to indicate tinctures (colors) -- for example, items filled in with horizontal lines were to be azure (blue). In addition, there was a blazon below the image. A blazon, Corey, is a description in the language of heraldry that informed heraldic artists how a coat of arms should be drawn and colored. Yep, heralds had their own language.

The blazon for the Chastain coat of arms reads, "Azure. On a bend, argent, three tuberoses, gules, barbed verde and seed or. In chief and base, a tower. Of the second, ensigned with a helmet befitting his degree."

 Back home after my visit to the Georgia archives, I borrowed a book from the library on the language of heraldry and translated the blazon. The first element describes the color of the shield, in this case, azure. A "bend" is a diagonal band across the shield. A "bend sinister" goes from upper right to lower left. A "bend dexter" goes from upper left to lower right. If "sinister" or "dexter" are not referenced, it is assumed to be dexter. A bend sinister typically indicated a bastard line.

Argent means silver so the band was to be painted silver. The three tuberoses were red (gules), their barbs green (verde) and their seeds gold (or). "In chief and base" means on the shield above and below the bend. The depiction of many elements was up to the descretion of the heraldic artist -- things like the shape of the shield, types of towers, the degree of shredding of the mantle -- unless specifics were supplied. In the Chastain arms, the tower are depicted differently by different heralds.

An ensign, in heraldry, symbolizes an office. How the helmet (the ensign) was depicted -- full-faced, three quarters, or in profile -- indicated rank: "The helmets of nobles (dukes, marquises, earls, viscounts, and barons), were to be composed of silver or polished steel, with five gold bars, and lined with crimson. According to some authorities they should be placed neither affronty nor in profile, but between those positions; but there seem to be conflicting directions, and the practice varied." 

In my photocopy, additional text advises, "The coronet is that of a marquis."

Which brings up an interesting point. If the Chastains were not nobility in France, why these symbols of nobility on the coat of arms? Clues might be found here:

In France, coats of arms are unregulated by the authorities: anyone is free to assume arms, and there is no mechanism by which arms can be officially granted or registered. However, coats of arms are considered part of the family name, and enjoy the same legal protection against usurpation."

By contrast, "In England, the use of Coats of Arms is very strictly regulated, and there is no such thing as a 'coat of arms for a surname'. Many people of the same surname will often be entitled to completely different coats of arms, and many of that surname will be entitled to no coat of arms. Coats of arms belong to individuals. For any person to have a right to a coat of arms they must either have had it granted to them or be descended in the legitimate male line from a person to whom arms were granted or confirmed in the past. 
 Perhaps this further explains why France doesn't hold coats of arms to such a position of awe and respect as the UK.

Pursuant to the edict of 1696, in France, many people were forced to acquire coats of arms whether they wanted them or not, so the king could collect the registration fee. As a result, the heralds allowed themselves to inflict punning arms on many of their hapless victims, especially members of the legal profession. The notary Pierre Pépin in the Nivernais was given Argent three stones of grape sable (= pépin in French). Philippe de La Folie, notary in Burgundy, was given a Harlequin proper. An apothicary in Brittany was given Azure a clyster between three chamber-pots argent. A parish priest near Nevers was named Joseph Bonnamour, and he received Azure a Cupid argent holding in his hand a heart inflamed gules. In Normandy, a fellow named Alexandre Le Marié was given Gules a stag's attires or (horns being the traditional attribute of the cuckold husband!). (These, and other examples, from Rémi Mathieu: Le Système héraldique français, 1946). 
 Would LOVE to see that harlequin, i.e., clown, in the de La Folie coat of arms!

Same info with a little extra info added: 
The only exception to the freedom of assuming arms occurred from 1696 to 1709. An Edict of 1696 declared that, for a coat of arms to be valid, it had to be registered with the King of Arms, for a fee naturally (this was the middle of a European war, and the French government was short of cash). As a consequence, 110 000 coats of arms were registered (80,000 by non-nobles) by d'Hozier, the King of Arms. The registers are still in the National Library. (Click here to see an example of grant of arms under the edict of 1696; see also the confirmation of arms granted to the Royal School of Saint-Cyr in 1697). A number of people who bore arms never registered; conversely, many people were forced to take arms (so they would pay the tax) against their will. The pursuivants often played cruel jokes: unflattering puns, or allusions to the person's trade: a pharmacist was granted "Azure, a syringe and 3 chamber-pots Argent"... By 1709 registration of arms ceased altogether, and the Edict was ignored from then on. France then returned to its traditional regime of free assumption. 
 Nobility was abolished in France in 1790. Napoleon reinstated noble titles, but "marquis" was not among them. Several sites in French heraldry indicate these elements of nobility were often added to a coat of arms simply for aesthetic purposes. Here are various renderings of the Chastain arms: 

Rather interesting modernistic version:  I kinda like it. Looks computer-rendered.


  1. I have found a $19.95 coat of arms for the Tatum family, I also have one hand drawn by JC Tatum.
    They share the same componets but have different layouts.

    I'm gonna go with the one JC drew.

    I got the right to make up my mind don't I ?

  2. Absolutely, David. Corey was just being his usual gnat-like self... Nothing useful to say, so just nitpick.


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