A Word for Wednesday

Adumbration - n,  1. The act of making a shadow or faint resemblance. 
                                       2. A faint sketch; an imperfect representation of a thing.
                                                           3. In heraldry, the shadow only of a figure, outlined, and painted of a color darker than the field.

There seems to be quite a bit of confusion over what contexts would be appropriate for the first and second definitions of this word. Most of the discussion seems to center on it being a cumbersome word for modern speech and writing. The third definition, though, is both agreed upon and appears to be the one most associated with this word. Of course, throwing heraldry into the mix caused all sorts of rabbit trails to appear on my research path. So, being the curious soul that I am (and telling myself that such diverting information would probably be relevant to the story portion), I cast a cursory glance down most of them - not enough to gather any substantial knowledge, but enough to realize that heraldry would be a fascinating topic for study.

By all accounts I was able to find, adumbration is directly tied to the art of "blazoning, assigning, and marshalling a coat of arms." It is included in A Glossary of Terms used in Heraldry (Parker & Company, 1894) with this definition:

"Adumbration, or Transparency: the shadow of a charge, apart from the charge itself, painted the same colour as the field upon which it is placed, but of a darker tint, or, perhaps, in outline only. The term belongs rather to the romance of heraldry than to its practice, and is imagined by the writers to have been adopted by families who, having lost their possessions, and consequently being unable to maintain their dignity, chose rather to bear their hereditary arms adumbrated than to relinquish them altogether."

And again in Pimbley's Dictionary of Heraldry (Arthur Pimbley, 1908).

"Adumbration - A figure on a coat of arms traced in outline only, or painted in a darker shade of the same color as the field on which it is represented. Families who had lost their estates, but not their armorial bearings, are said to have occasionally adopted this method of indicating their peculiar position."

I tried to find a visual representation. I found plenty of heraldry photos, but this was all I was able to find that was particular to adumbration. It'll give you at least some idea of what adumbration might have actually looked like.

(Personally, I like the outlined look. But then I'm not a family who's lost their estate and is trying to keep some semblance of dignity, so I'm probably not the best judge on which appearance is better.)

And now for the story clip.  

"The Frey's crest was a sorry sight to behold now. I had done my utmost to maintain the fierceness of the eagle in the adumbrated arms. I had failed in the end. Its wings were still outstretched as if to fly over an enemy's host, its beak yet open with some chilling screech. It was as empty as it was colorless beside the original coat. The former arms were a dashing display of red, gold, and green wrapped up in lively motion. The eagle seemed as if it were but a wing-beat from dropping the shield and mounting into the sky to cry forth the honor of the house of Frey. Now it was only some straggled black lines. Artful black lines, I had to seen to that, but lines nonetheless. 

Lady Frey had come to me a fortnight past, carrying their blazon of arms.  I would never have guessed that misfortune was the cause of her visit. I had been afraid that she disapproved of my work. It was a senseless fear, really. I had delivered the finished coat several months prior. The time for complaints had long since past when she graced my shop with her presence again. I remember how soft her voice had been when she told me of the peculiar position her family was now in. Soft but strong. And I had wondered if my mother would have been like her, had she lived. I still wonder and wish. But wishing cannot bring the dead back, any more than adumbrated arms can retain glory."


  1. Your writing is fun.

    AND I'm your 50th follower. That made me smile!

    that's all, keep writing :)

  2. This is fascinating. I've been writing a story set during the Norman Conquest, so heraldry is outside my time period, but I think it's so interesting that people would do this to hold onto their legacy.

  3. @Shelly - Wohoo for 50 followers! That made me smile too :) I will keep writing. I enjoy it and am so glad that it's fun for you to read.

    @Bluestocking - Isn't it? I wouldn't want to carry around a visible sign of what was essentially disgrace, which makes those who would and did all the more interesting. I only know a little about the Norman Conquest. What's your story about? Is the conquest just the backdrop or is it more essential to the storyline?


Do share your thoughts - I enjoy reading them :)