The Armorial Achievement of the Medieval Institute

The Armorial Achievement of the Medieval Institute

The following comments pertain to the elements of the achievement of the Institute alone. For a general explanation of the nature and significance both of heraldic symbols in general and of those peculiar to Notre Dame heraldry in particular, see the article The Heraldic System of the University of Notre Dame.


Shield from the Achievement, blue with a silver star and border.A. Blazon or technical description:

Azure, on a mullet of eight points Argent, a roundel of the First charged with a sun-in-splendour Or, the whole within a Bordure of Notre Dame, viz. Argent, charged at the corners with three open books of the Last, bound and edged of the First, bearing respectively the words VITA, DULCEDO, and SPES in letters Sable, and between the books three mullet of six points of the First.

B. Non-technical description:

On a shield with a plain blue background, a straight-edged star with eight rays, silver or white in colour, bearing at its centre a blue disc, itself bearing across its whole surface a stylized image of the sun with circling flames, depicted in gold or yellow. Around the whole edge of the shield is set a narrow border of silver or white, on which are placed first, at the corners, three white books with blue covers and edging, and having the texts VITA, DULCEDO, and SPES respectively; and second, set equidistant between the books, three blue straight-sided stars with six rays.

C. Explanation:

The arms of the Medieval Institute allude primarily to the patroness of the University and Institute, and to Christ and the Christian nature of both, but they also include an allusion to its academic nature and fields, and a formal symbol of its status as an Institute headed by a director and dependent directly on the University of Notre Dame as such. The colours, blue, silver or white, and gold or yellow, are the colours of the Blessed Virgin; blue and gold alone are the standard colours of the Virgin and of the University as a whole, while blue and silver are the colours of the Virgin as 'Star of the Sea' (the symbolism of all of the stars in the arms, taken directly from the arms of the University). In the bordure - whose presence and form is standard for Institutes of the University - these colours have another set of meanings, for blue is also the standard colour in the U.S. academic code for degrees in the national Faculty of Philosophy (M. Phil., Ph.D.), and white of degrees in that of Arts and Letters (B.A., M.A., D.A.), and these are the Faculties (in the traditional sense of major divisions of learning) in which the Institute grants degrees. The actual elements of the standard bordure - called the 'Bordure of Notre Dame' - are drawn from the University arms: the six-pointed star of the Virgin, and the book (a symbol of higher learning) bearing the words from the Marian hymn Salve Regina, in which she is described as 'Life, Sweetness, Hope'. To accommodate so many words on the small scale of the bordure, each of the three books is made to bear only one of the three words.

A blue disk bearing a stylized image of the sun with circling flamesThe particular form of the Star of the Sea used as the principal charge of the arms here, with the sun set at its centre, is a symbol of the Virgin as the Theotokos or 'God-bearer', for the sun is a symbol of God and of Christ, born from the Virgin. In precisely this form (with eight points rather than six) the star-and-sun device was used by the first of the royal orders of knighthood founded by a king of France, the Company of Our Lady of the Noble House (of which the designer of the arms was the most recent historian), and as this provided a happy link both to the French founders of the University and to the period and region with which the Institute is professionallv concerned, as well as a pleasing allusion to a noble society under the patronage of the Virgin, it seemed a triply suitable symbol for the fellowship of medievalists the Institute embodies. Finally, the placement of the sun-symbol at precisely the middle of the design allowed a four-fold play of words and ideas on the name of the period studied and of the Institute itself: a play that is most clearly suggested in the Institute motto (which see below).


A. Blazon:

On a HELM suitable to a non-commercial private corporation in the United States of America, over a LAMBREQUIN of the livery colours Azure doubled party of Or and Argent, and issuant of a TORSE of the academic colours Argent and Azure, a mullet of eight points as in the arms, set between a pair of arms embowed proper, the dexter male and the sinister female, both habited Azure, doubled Argent, together holding an open book of the Last, bound and edged Or, bearing the words VITA DULCEDO SPES in letters Sable.

B. Description:

The helm or helmet from teh armorial achievement.The HELM should be of a form symbolic of private corporate bodies, in colours symbolic of non-commercial status, and bearing at the base a circle of white five-pointed stars symbolic of legal residence in the USA. (This is part of a proposed code of symbolism for helms in this country, to be presented for adoption by the Committee on Heraldry of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, the principal registry body in the country, of which the designer is a member.)

Lambrequin from the armorial achievementThe LAMBREQUIN is in the three colours of the shield, the official colours of the Institute: blue on the outside, and divided into panels of yellow and white on the inside.

The torse from the armorial achievementThe TORSE is in the academic colours of Arts and Philosophy, white and blue.

Crest from the armorial achievementThe CREST is composed of the silver star-with-gold-sun of the arms, set between a pair of arms, the right (as seen from behind, the position of the bearer of the shield) male, the left female, both wearing a loose-sleeved garment of blue lined in white, and holding between them a book, white with gold cover and edging, and VITA DULCEDO SPES in black letters.

C. Explanation (of the Crest):

The crest combines the principal device of the arms (bearing all of its symbolic values) with the book from the University arms (bearing the whole text explained above), and the male and female hands-and-arms that are used as the standard supporters or 'flankers' of in the achievements of the Colleges and Schools of the University. These hands generally represent human agency in its sexual and gendered duality, and are here clad in a primitive form of academic gown in the academic colours of Philosophy and the Liberal Arts.


A. Blazon:

On a sun-in-splendour Or a roundel Azure, charged with the letters m:i of the First, ensigned by the BONNET of the Director of an Institute granting degrees in Arts and Philosophy, viz. a doctoral bonnet Sable, its brim edged with a narrow band of gold lace, curled on the upper edge, encircled by a torse in the academic colours Argent and Azure, and charged with a shield of the arms of the University, Proper.

Badge and BonnetB. Description:

The badge consists of the sun from the centre of the arms, itself bearing at its centre (like the star of the arms) a blue disc, in this case bearing the letters m and i, in gothic script. The sun is shown surmounted by the black bonnet of a director of an Institute.

C. Explanation:

The sun represents the idea of Christ and of the centrality of the Christian tradition to the interests of the Institute, and also the general idea of centrality or middleness so important to the symbolism of the arms, emphasized by the placement of the cipher or initials of the Institute at its own centre. The badge (with or without the bonnet) can be placed (either singly or multiply, as on the motto-scroll) on items owned by the Institute, or worn by Fellows, students, employees, and graduates on ties, lapel pins, and the like, as a symbol of affiliation.

The BONNET is actually a distinct symbol representing the hierarchical status of the Institute in terms of the status of its head, and also indicating the general nature of the Institute as an academic institution. It can be used to mark any of the elements of the achievement in the way shown here, and in a greater or full achievement would normally be placed directly above the shield, resting on its upper edge or corner, either below or in place of the helm with its crest and lambrequin. The Director of the Institute would also use it in place of the crested helm in his official arms, which would be further distinguished with a collar indicative of his professorial rank.


Scroll from armorial achievementA.Text:

In medio optimum querimus
('We seek the best in the middle.')

B. Explanation:

The motto alludes at once to the idea of the Medium Aevum of 'Middle Age' studied by the Fellows of the Institute; to the idea that the Fellows are seeking to discover both the most important elements of that 'middle period' and some of the best things ever created by human minds and hands; to the ancient dictum that a middle position between two extremes is always the best one; and finally to the idea that the best way of life is to be found in Christ, who should be placed at the centre of life, just as his symbol, the sun, is placed at the centre or middle of the Institute arms.

Armorial Achievement text and graphic
©1995 - D'Arcy J.D. Boulton

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