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Kingdom of France: The Oriflamme (Middle Ages)

Last modified: 2002-10-12 by ivan sache
Keywords: oriflamme | charlemagne | gonfanon |
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The Oriflamme

The oriflamme was a sacred banner used by the kings of France in the Middle Ages in times of great danger. It was distinct from the heraldic banner of the French kings (semis of fleur-de-lys on azure, as expected). Its history is fairly continuous from 1124 onward, when it was first mentioned. It was first described in 1225. It consists of two parts: a gilded lance, to which is attached a silk banner, red with green fringes. The floating end of the banner splits into two or more trailing strips. The name, aurea flamma, conflates the banner (flamma) and the colour of the lance. The banner is sometimes represented as attached vertically to the lance, and sometimes (especially in the 19th century) as attached to a horizontal bar, itself suspended from the lance.

It was deposited in the abbey of Saint-Denis, north of Paris, where kings of France were buried, next to the relics of Denis who evangelised the area. When going to war, the French king would come to Saint-Denis to 'raise the banner'. The last time it was raised was in the late 15th century. It was destroyed during the Revolution.

What was its origin? The 1124 text mentions an old tradition of the counts of Vexin, who were protectors of the abbey; the kings of France had become counts of Vexin in 1077. But the text also alludes to a tradition specific to the kings of France. Also, a late 11th-century text, the Gesta of Roland, calls Charlemagne's emblem or banner orie flambe, but does not describe it. A description of the siege of Paris by the Normans in 885 mentions a large saffron-coloured banner with large indentations carried by a double lance. One author tries to link the oriflamme to Charlemagne's lance and through it all the way back to Constantine's labarum, which was taken from a pagan sanctuary located near modern Saint-Denis. (Constantine's lance was part of the regalia of the German emperors, and is now in Vienna). The idea is that the sacred object was the lance itself, decorated with a silk fanion, but later the meaning of the lance was lost and the silk fanion itself came to be seen as the important object.

François Velde, 30 June 1995

A rendition of Charlemagne's Oriflamme

[Charlemagne's Oriflamme]by Blas Delgado Ortiz

According to several historical flag books, the Oriflamme of Charlemagne, an elongated gonfanon, was bright orange-red, with the orange-red flowers bordered in blue and the center yellow. The image shown above was drawn after Inglefield's Flags [ing 79].

Blas Delgado Ortiz, 5 July 2001

This Oriflamme was allegedly presented by Pope Leo III to Charlemagne, and I think the only visual evidence is a IXth century mosaic in Rome (of which I have still not seen a good image). The real banner was probably a much more elongated gonfalon style. I suspect the number and design of the flower motifs is conjectural, but seme would be more probable.

Todd Mills, 5 July 2001


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