Thursday, November 30, 2006

St. Andrew and Language

A long day at work means that I am very late in posting, so this will be both short and extemporaneous (except for a GKC quote).

Today is November 30, the feast of St. Andrew, who is the patron of Scotland, and whose cross appears on the "Union Jack". In an amazing essay from 1905, in which GKC talks about teaching the magic of the alphabet and other things, he gives a hint or two at the language of heraldry:
The alphabet is one set of arbitrary symbols. The figures of heraldry are another set of arbitrary symbols. In the fourteenth century every gentleman knew one: in the twentieth century every gentleman knows the other. The first gentleman was just precisely as ignorant for not knowing that c-a-t spells "cat," as the second gentleman is for not knowing that a St. Andrew's Cross is called a cross saltire, or that vert on gules is bad heraldry.
[GKC, ILN Dec 2, 1905 CW27:70-71]
The "cross saltire" is readily seen in the capital letter "X". Yes, technically there are two separate crosses in the Union Jack: that of St. Andrew, white on blue, and that of St. Patrick, red on white; the details which explain their use on the flag I omit for brevity's sake. But regardless of color, the cross saltire is usually called "St. Andrew's Cross" because (as tradition tells us) St. Andrew was crucified on such a device.

Now, the cross saltire is an interesting thing in heraldry, because in a certain sense it is not a fundamental shape. It is composed of two simpler heraldic shapes: a diagonal stripe going from upper left to lower right, which in heraldry is called a "bend", together with another diagonal stripe going from upper right to lower left, which in heraldry is called a "bend sinister". (No, Underdog, there is NO SUCH THING as a "bar sinister", hee hee). But when the bend and the bend sinister are of the same color, they unite and form a single object called the cross saltire. (As you might infer, things like swords placed in the shape of an "X" are thus called "in saltire".)

I call your attention to this odd little bit of heraldic algebra because the "bend sinister" comes up rather often nowadays in our own modern heraldry, though it usually is seen inside a circle, and we read it as "No" - hence, the "no smoking" or "No U-turn" or other such signs. I'd talk more about what "sinister" means, but I have left it for you to discern, and besides you ought to know at least that much Latin - right?

Oh, yes: if you are wondering what "vert on gules" it means putting something green on top of something red. It's good Christmas decor, but (as GKC says) bad heraldry. Tune in another day for more on that!


  1. This is very interesting, and I appreciate the reminder to start the St. Andrew novena.

  2. "Yes, technically there are two separate crosses in the Union Jack: that of St. Andrew, white on blue, and that of St. Patrick, red on white."

    Dr. T, before Joseph Pearce or any other Englishmen come in here and see that and pledge to drink your blood in retaliation, you should know that it is the cross of St. George, the patron saint of England, not of St. Patrick. Correcting it may be in order.

    Nancy, today IS the feast of St. Andrew (and thus my younger son's name day), but it is the start of the Novena to the Immaculate Conception, which culminates with the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8. Observing this novena is an ancient custom in the Church, and one we in Opus Dei still observe.


  3. Chestertonian:
    According to this: St. Patrick's flag is, as Dr. T pointed out, red on white. In addition, Dr. T was discussing markings that worked out in the shape of an "X", which St. Andrew's flag looks like.

    St. George's flag, on the other hand, see is red on white, but in the form of a "t" or a cross, rather than the "x" form.

    So there is no correction to be made there.

    As far as novenas go, there is no correction to be made there, either, as the novena to St. Andrew begins on his feast day, see here and carries on until Christmas Eve, and is a traditional Christmas novena.

    As you can see from this web page, and from what we know about church tradition, there are many, many traditional novenas, none of which is more correct than any other to say at any time or another. Each has a purpose, and what purpose you pray is up to the individual, don't you agree?

  4. So far as I know, the Union Jack is the Cross of St. Andrew and the Cross of St. George, the patron saint of England. I cannot imagine why, for the life if me, the English would have the cross of St. Patrick on their flag. The Cross of St. George is the t cross on that flag.

    I didn't say a correction was needed for the novenas or that there can't be more than one novena at a time. I just wanted to be sure people were aware that November 30 also was the start of another novena.

  5. Ahem. Since Joseph Pearce is a Chestertonian, I would presume he knows at least a little about heraldry, especially about that of his own country! He would thank me for pointing out important details; there are others, highly technical, which often result in his country's flag being flown upside down. Ah, are you surprised? Indeed it is NOT symmetric on that axis!

    But for everyone else I will have to give you at least some of those details, and deal with the tech part later. Therefore, here is the blazon of the Union Jack, the national banner of Great Britain, "a splendid example of combined national heraldic emblems":

    Azure, the crosses saltire of St. Andrew and St. Patrick, quarterly per saltire, counterchanged argent and gules, the latter fimbriated of the second, surmounted by the Cross of St. George of the third, fimbriated as the saltire.
    [quotes from Julian Franklyn, Heraldry]

    Why? Because Great Britain, the United Kingdom, is the union of the kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. Franklyn calls it "splendid" because their order is represented very elegantly by that code and hence by the flag.

    Now, the blazon is perfectly clear if one can read this kind of code. It is a delightful, and wonderfully technical, language; I have even used it in my own work as a computer scientist.

    Hence you raise an interesting and useful idea! I will mention to Dale that I hereby volunteer to run a seminar at the next ChesterCon. Chestertonians ought to know at least a little about heraldry. (Which reminds me, we have to fix the CU arms; please remind me to speak to Dale about that too.)

    So thanks for the idea. I may also run a contemporaneous seminar on infinity, its meaning and its representation, depending on the interest. Hee hee.

  6. Well I guess I stand (or sit, as I type sitting down) corrected. I thought the Union Jack was just two crosses: those of St. Andrew and St. George. I beg thee to forgive me.

    Of course the "union" is a fiction, since the English basically conquored both Ireland and Scotland, two countries who weren't exactly happy about the idea (said Chestertonian, betraying his Scots-Irish ancestry).

    Speaking of which, imagine my chagrin to suddenly realize one day that, though I am of nearly 100 Scots-Irish descent, all my literary heroes -- Tolkien, Chesterton, and Rowling -- are English. Oh well. At least two of them are Catholic.


  7. No need to apologise; I am sorry to make you uncomfortable. And even when I know I'm right, I may have expressed it wrong, or at the wrong time, or be wrong in expressing it at all - GKC has a good bit about this in TEM. I do try to be careful when I type, to express the truth accurately - but I honestly believe I have made far more errors (hee hee) than most other people my age, even baseball players, since I can make them faster. (It's because of what I do for a living.)

    Back to heraldry: As I recall, my interest in heraldry began at college with the fraternity I joined, and connected with my work on graphics software at my first job, and it's helped several times in knowing GKC's terms.

    Since I have read some GKC, I'm aware of the many complex issues of the peoples of those islands, so I'd prefer to leave comments on the history and political issues to others, and concentrate on the flag itself. The Union Jack is a rather complex piece of code, as you can see from the blazon or from the flag itself. Obviously writers from the lands where it flies will spend extra time going into its details. It's actually rather handy as an example, since it touches a number of important points. As time permits, I will try to go into this more.

    Incidentally, Dale has notified me that (barring unforeseen complications) my proposed seminar will be on the schedule for next June; so if you want to know more, get to ChesterCon!


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