Byzantine Monograms: a heraldic practice

As an early-period Byzantine within the Society, I have come to grips that my arms and badges as registered with the College of Arms are perhaps not the most period for my persona, and so, this concept of trying to find a way of marking things that were mine or even blinging out things further with a mark of some kind had sent me down a rabbit hole of research – monograms.

Found on rings, clay, wax and lead seals (the lead seals called “plombs”), and coinage within the early Byzantine period, square or box monograms marked official documents in both secular and sacred contexts or as maker’s marks, and were used by rulers, magistrates, die makers, and moneyers. As far as a heraldic practice, it’s a form of identification, much like someone’s shield on the battlefield or banner in a hall is. The only difference is that within Byzantine practices, western-style pictorial heraldry was done rarely, and usually by someone with later-period western contact (check out the late period examples of Anna Notaras Palaiologina and Andronikos II Palaiologos for western-style heraldry used by eastern personages), though note that both were from the 13th and 14th centuries, about the time where heraldry was in heavy use in both on the European continent and in the British Isles, though still late to the medieval heraldry game.

As an artisan, I wanted one, too (and it’s been a while, too. I’ve been poking at this for at least a decade). And as a noble in the game that we play, I could easily justify one as well. After reading The Use of Monograms on Byzantine Seals in the Early Middle-Ages (6th to 9th Centuries) by Werner Seibt, and poking around at an article with PNGs of monograms from ancient coins at The Collaborative Numismatics Project, I started work on my own. (And half-jokingly, I suppose my southern US roots kicked in and I needed to monogram all the things, so . . .)

The first thing I did was to take my Society name (Konstantia) and change it into Greek letters. Conveniently, the Prosopography of the Byzantine World (part 1 and part 2) had a citation for a Konstantia (located here) in Greek and I ran with it. Now, sure, I have a pretty late period name (it’s good for 11th c), but in this particular case, the Greek still works for this per Seibt’s article, which noted the use of Greek letters in early period Byzantine seals, so, I’m sticking with it.

Sticky notes: almost a researcher’s best friend.

Anyhow, I now had Κωνσταντίας (or Konstantias), which I then capitalized all the letters and knocked out all duplicates. This left me with the Greek letters kappa, omega, nu, sigma, tau, alpha, and iota to play with letter-wise. You can see what I started noodling with on a sticky note, as well as the capitalization. One of the things I noted was the shape of the alpha in other monograms, which had a little sharp point in the crossbeam that I really liked, so I worked with that.

Many, but not all, of the monograms from the 6th-8th centuries also were cruciform shaped, calling to mind the state religion, and also made integrating straight lined letters like iota and tau great, as they were present in the crossbeams. The concept of a ligature, which, of course, is not new to a scribe, was used heavily. Letters were connected together with other beams, or sometimes with other straight lines. My first attempt was perhaps not my favourite, though it did have most of the letters of my name within it and the funky crossbeam on the alpha. And yet, it just didn’t sing to me, so I went and attempted again. One of the cool things is that there were multiple monograms used by the same person at the same time (and in the case of coinage, on different valued coins), so even if I didn’t like this one, I still had a monogram that was useful for something.

Anna’s trial run monogram, consisting of the letters alpha and nu.

So, I tried again, and doodled something I loved. It had the cruciform elements, the alpha with the funky crossbeam, and instead of using a capital omega, I used a lower case one (of which there is precedence with Emperors Zeno, Justinian, Heraclius, and Constantine VII), and I liked how it looked, though my Byzanbestie Anna mentioned that it looked like an anime “uwu” face and as per my usual, I may not have helped in that situation. I even made a proof of concept monogram for Anna (who has a palindrome of two different letters for a name) and I’m rather pleased with how that turned out.

At any rate, my next step is to make a signet ring featuring this design, possibly out of a not-period gold metal clay. I also may do some research in lead (or to make it safe, pewter) casting and try and make my own plombs as period-style tokens for attafolks.

Also, if at any time I get sick of the current design, I have groundwork to make a new one, following the same design rules and concepts.

Key takeaways for making your own Roman/Byzantine-style monograms:

  • If you’ve got a Christianized persona, it’s pretty safe to go with a cross-shaped or cruciform design.
  • Ligatures and connections are the way to go! There are a few examples of seals with letters that don’t connect, but on the whole most connect with other letters with a line or a cross.
  • It’s hip to be a square – most designs are blocky and compact.
  • If they look like something that could be drawn on a floor in chalk to summon a demon, you’re on the right track. (I mostly kid, but Anna and I did discuss that if one did summon a Byzantine demon, they’d probably turn all the silk to sackcloth, so don’t tell me if you actually did.)
  • If you don’t like it, draw another – there are multiple examples of seals and coins with different monograms for the same person on them.

One more thing before I go: the chances of having a monogram registered by the Society College of Arms is pretty close to nil. Part of heraldic language (or blazon) is the need to be able to identify what an item is and two, where it is on a field. Byzantine monograms, while striking, aren’t easy to blazon according to Anglo-Norman heraldic practice (what the College of Arms uses to describe heraldry), so again, the chances of doing that are pretty close to nil. Don’t anger the heraldry gods. Trust me.

3 thoughts on “Byzantine Monograms: a heraldic practice

  1. I rather want to send in a (joking! Promise!) request to Cormac Wreath on how one would do a monogram registry.

    Fortunately Ursula Palimpsest has squashed some of my more shit-stirring inclinations.


  2. Pingback: 2019 Year in Review | konstantia kaloethina

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