Heraldry, Heritage, and Houses

For most people heraldry is associated with the medieval knighthood of films and reenactments, a romantic vision of a chivalric past, with jousting knights nobly displaying coats of arms inherited from their ancestors. Yet in many ways heraldry is integral to the University of Chicago’s identity and the lives of its students. In 1910 Pierre de Chaignon la Rose, a heraldic specialist, designed the University Coat of Arms, a shield displaying the phoenix below an open book with the University motto, Crescat scientia; vita excolatur. The coat of arms and University Seal, which also incorporates phoenix and book, are proud emblems of the University, adorning diplomas and t-shirts like medieval shields: public proclamations of pedigree and allegiance.

Within the University, the House System takes on its own form of heraldic heritage. In April 1893 the College opened its first undergraduate residence, Snell Hall, and officially began to refer to residence halls as “Houses.” Today there are thirty-five houses with approximately eighty residents in each that pass along a set of unique traditions to its members. Some houses have mottos, such as Hitchcock’s deformis sed utilis (deformed but useful), while some keep portraits of their namesakes in common spaces, and others have adopted symbolic mascots, such as the Large Rooster, mascot of Vincent House. Houses compete against one another in the Scavenger Hunt and intermural sports, with past champions listed on the walls of Bartlett Commons. For many houses, membership is life long, and students take a great deal of pride in their lineage and affiliation.

Book of Hours

France, ca. 1400
MS 349, 23v-24r

In this Book of Hours, one sees the important role of small personal prayerbooks as a tool for family record-keeping. This book includes the records of the Villlume family from 1573 to 1723 at the beginning of the book and in the margins of the text. Here the last month of the liturgical Calendar is on the left-hand page with the important liturgical feasts and saint days written in Gothic script. In the margin below, a seventeenth-century owner has recorded the birth, baptism, and death of the fourth son of Nicolas and Jeanne Dubuisson. The start of the Gospel of John is on the facing page, which is accompanied by a portrait of Saint John writing as the Trinity appears above him. The many-headed creature in the margins of this page is a reference to the text of the Book of Revelation, of which Saint John was also believed to be the author.

Trionfi, Sonetti, e Canzoniere
Italy, 1450

MS 706, f. 1r

This manuscript from Italy contains several works by the humanist poet Francesco Petrarca. In the Trionfi, the poet traces the progress of the human soul from its earthly passion to eventual fulfillment in God, while the canzoni are love poems to a woman named Laura. On this first page, a large purple initial ‘L’ decorated with flowers and vines begins the first word of Petrarch’s text. A coat of arms displaying red and blue stripes with gold above and encircled by a wreath has been painted in the lower margin. It is likely that this is the heraldic shield of a former owner of the book, assertively placed on the first page, but today the coat of arms remains unidentified.

Book of Hours (Use of Rome)
Rouen, France, ca. 1500-1510

MS 348, 23v-24r

On this opening, St. John is depicted on Patmos writing his Gospel, inspired by the Trinity towards which he directs his gaze. On the facing page, we encounter an entirely different type of marginalia: a blue, white, and red frame created in 1809 contains text in a later script, recording that this book was given in 1809 to M. Saintemarie by Madame de la Chasseigne. This prefatory note is significant in that it not only relays the ownership history of the manuscript, but it also raises the question of why a nineteenth-century owner would have created such a record in this place—and on medieval parchment.

Wigmore Abbey Chronicle
England (Herefordshire), 14th century, with additions from the 15th and 16th centuries

MS 224, ff. 55v-56r

This manuscript contains several different texts produced between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries in England, including a chronicle of the founding of Wigmore Abbey, the Brut chronicle, genealogical diagrams of the kings of England, a list of the Normans who came to England with William the Conqueror in the eleventh century, and genealogical diagrams of the Mortimer family. This opening with illuminated coats of arms is from part of the manuscript dealing with the genealogy of the Mortimer barons. Both the text and the diagrams trace the history of the Mortimers and, most importantly, establish in pictorial form the Mortimer family’s claim to the throne. A large winged dragon with ivy embellished with gold leaf cuts diagonally across the page on the left, giving the opening a dynamic energy.

Don't Step on the Seal

Johnny Hung, Class of 2013

Superstition has it that if a student steps on the University Seal, located in the main entrance to the Reynolds Club, he or she will not graduate in four years.

Ye Olde Socke 'Em Bopper Joust

Beth Rooney
Courtesy of the University of Chicago News Office

‘Wombat the Rapid’ of the Max Palevsky team won the joust competition of the 2006 Scavenger Hunt.