Thomas Gray had a word or two to say about the boast of heraldry. The boast of Mr von Volborth's Heraldry is that it is 'a lavishly illustrated and extensively researched study of the complex rules and customs governing the international subject of heraldry.'
For English armorists, this ambitious work is a veritable compendium of unfamiliar continental practices. The author has brought together a mass of material on numerous aspects of European heraldry, such as the different types of helm and coronet, the principal arms of royal houses, the various grades of nobility and the arms of burghers and guilds.
The emphasis is indeed on civic and noble heraldry – but Mr von Volborth's brush is too broad. He sets out to provide a comparative guide to European heraldry, but in a book of just over 200 pages it is simply not practical to depict 1,250 coats of arms, say something interesting about each of them and examine international variations in heraldic style.
In fact there is very little discussion of stylistic differences. The notes accompanying the illustrations are often too concise to give useful information, and the text is too disjointed to leave the reader with any illuminating general impressions. A rather better introduction to this subject is to be gained from Ottfried Neubecker's Heraldry: Sources, Symbols and Meanings (1976).
There is over-simplification, which is possibly unavoidable – for example, the allocation of different forms of shield to particular centuries. There are inaccuracies too; the arms of Birmingham shown are now obsolete and were re-designed after local government re-organisation, whilst Archbishop Fisher retired rather than died in 1961. Such lapses are perhaps forgivable in a work of undeniably wide range.
The illustrations themselves are neatly and consistently drawn, though the hatching of those in monochrome is rather heavy and wearying on the eyes, The 150 in colour have a matt quality which is less than attractive, and it is surely unfortunate that the colour sections have had to be printed out of sequence.
With such an embarras de richesse of illustrative material, a glossary of basic heraldic terms would have been rather more helpful than the bare nominal index which appears at the end of the book. The bibliography is astonishingly skimpy and somewhat out of date. Mr von Volborth is apparently unaware of the 1979 edition of Innes of Learney's Scots Heraldry, and Rodney Dennys' The Heraldic Imagination (1975) seems a surprising omission.
It should finally be mentioned that much of the same ground was covered in the English edition of Mr von Volborth's Heraldry of the World (1973). A slimmer volume, with a mere 600 illustrations and a coherent text, it is more easily digestible than the present offering and at £4.95 much better value.
Is it possible to place a value on Heraldry'? Tennyson wrote:
A simple maiden in her flower
Is worth a hundred coats of arms.