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France: Traditional provinces - Heraldic and vexillological perspective

Last modified: 2010-11-12 by ivan sache
Keywords: province | meurgey (jacques) | louis (robert) |
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Historical provincial arms

The French provincial arms are an heraldist's headache. The provincial arms were "officialized" by Hozier's Armorial Général, but some of these arms were imposed, for instance for Franche-Comté, as Écartelé, au premier et quatrième, de sable à la fasce d'or; au second et au troisième, d'or à un pal de sable ("Quarterly, 1. and 4. Sable a fess or, 2. and 3. Or a pale sable"). It is established that the provinces never had flags during the Ancient Regime.
Suppressed after the French Revolution, the provincial arms reemerged at the end of the 19th century, especially in Lorraine in the 1850s. More research is required to know exactly when the provincial arms reappeared in the different provinces. It is clear that such arms were used on postcards, posters, cards offered with food products etc. in the beginning of the 20th century, but without a general pattern of use.

Pascal Vagnat, 1 May 2003


Modern provincial banner of arms

The heraldists Robert Louis and Jacques Meurgey de Tupigny attempted to clarify the situation in the years 1940-1950. They published in 1952 a book entitled Les Armoiries des provinces françaises : historique de chaque province. Compositions graphiques enluminées modernes d'après les documents anciens (Girard, Barrère et Thomas). The arms showed in that book have been used to design the modern provincial banners of arms.
The reference for the modern provincial arms is Louis and Meurgey's preferences, at least when no standard arms were widely recognized. Louis and his daughter Mireille were very good lobbyists who pushed their creations very efficiently via heraldic maps, illustrations in dictionaries (for instance four plates of "genuine provincial arms" in the Quillet encyclopaedia), reviews, posters etc.

Pascal Vagnat, 1 May 2003

Jacques Meurgey published in 1941 his Notice historique sur les blasons des anciennes provinces de France (Historical note on the coats of arms of the ancient French provinces). Presented (p. 4) as the companion of the Recueil des planches en couleurs des blasons des provinces de France (Compendium of the colour plates of the coat of arms of the French provinces), the book is introduced by a short text (pp. 5-8) on heraldry. Each province has its own section, including a black-and-white drawing of the coat of arms (without Pietra Sancta hatchings), the matching blazon, and a description, mostly historic. Few heraldic details are indeed provided, and, most problematic, the rationale for the choice of the coat of arms ascribed to the province, when not straightforward, is not given. However, Meurgey's choice does not come from nowhere, since he published in 1929 a big (213 p.) Bibliographie des travaux relatifs aux armoiries des provinces et villes de France et de quelques pays étrangers (Bibliography on the arms of French provinces and towns and of some foreign countries).

Some of the coats of arms ascribed to the provinces significantly differ from those widely used subsequently . It would be interesting to see if the changes were implemented in the book published in 1952 by Jacques Meurgey and Robert Louis. It is probable that Louis imposed some changes for the sake of aesthetics. The main differences between Meurgey's arms and the actual banner of arms are:
- Alsace: Meurgey gives the coat of arms of Upper-Alsace, while the flag commonly used in Alsace is "Per pale Lower Alsace and Upper Alsace".
- Anjou: Meurgey shows the arms of Anjou ancient (semy with fleurs-de-lis) while the flag commonly used in Anjou is a banner of the Anjou modern (three fleurs-de-lis) arms.
- Berry: as for Anjou, Meurgey shows the arms of Berry ancient while the flag commonly used in Berry is a banner of the Berry modern arms.
- County of Nice: Meurgey shows the ancient arms of the county, without the sea represented on the flag commonly used in Nice.
- Gascony: Meurgey shows the first and fourth quarter "Argent a lion gules", while the flag used in Gascony shows "Azure a lion argent".
- Maine: Meurgey shows the arms with the lion argent in the canton of the main field while it is shown in the border in the flag commonly used in Maine.
- Touraine: Meurgey shows the arms shown on the flag commonly used in the province as a "variant".

Biographical details on Jacques Meurgey are given by Michel Pastoureau in the obituary he published in Bibliothèque de l'École des chartes in 1975 (133, 434-438).
Jacques Meurgey de Tupigny (1891-1973) initially studied Law, but the First World War, during which he earned the Cross of War and the Cross of the Legion of Honour, prevented him to graduate. Afterwards, he attended classes in Heraldry and Sigillography given by Pr. Max Prinet at the École pratique des hautes études (EPHE). Rather than dubbing him his disciple, Prinet advised Meurgey to resume his studies at the École nationale des chartes, founded in the 19th century to train archivists and paleographers. Meurgey graduated from the École des chartes in 1924 after the defense of his thesis entitles Histoire de la paroisse de Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie des origines à 1600; published in 1926, the thesis was prefaced by Camille Jullian, then one of the most famous French historians.
In 1929, Meurgey published his masterpiece, Armoiries des provinces et villes de France. Collection de 372 bois gravés pour le roi Louis XIV et conservés au Musée Condé à Chantilly (Arms of the French provinces and towns. A collection of 372 woodcuts engraved for King Louis XIV and kept in the Condé Museum, Chantilly). Appointed at the National Archives the next year, Meurgey became in 1934 the Curator of the Seal Collection; in 1944, he was appointed Head Curator of the Ancient Section, a position he kept until his retirement in 1961.
Meurgey was involved in the management of several scientific societies, He founded in 1937 the Société française d'héraldique et de sigillographie, which he presided from 1953 to his death; in parallel, he set up and edited the Revue française d'héraldique et de sigillographie and organized the 8th International Congress of the Genealogic and Heraldic Sciences, held in Paris in June 1966.

Meurgey was mostly interested in genealogy and heraldry. His publications in heraldry deal either with church (Armorial de l'Église de France, 1937, still a reference book) or municipal and provincial heraldry. Together with the artist Robert Louis, he attempted to revive the municipal and provincial heraldry, acting as a member of the Urban Heraldic Committee of the National Archives.
Pastoureau credits Meurgey with a very open-minded approach of heraldry, which he considered as a scientia non finita (endless science); Meurgey was the only heraldist of his time to show the same interest for medieval and modern arms.

When reading between the lines, it is clear that Pastoureau wants to highlight the less-known action of Meurgey as the "catalyst" of French heraldic science and as the successor of Prinet (adding that he was himself encouraged by Meurgey). He labels Robert Louis as an "artist" and not as an heraldist, and insists on the scientific skills of Meurgey. It is quite clear that most of the background work used by Robert Louis to popularize his blazons has to be credited to Meurgey. Brian Timms also labels Robert Louis "an heraldic artist" and not as a scholar in heraldry.

Ivan Sache, 14 June 2009


List of the traditional provinces

Each page listed below includes links towards the Region(s) and department(s) whose territory(ies) overlap(s) the former provincial territory, the history of the province and the background of its banner of arms.

| Alsace | Angoumois | Anjou | Artois | Aunis | Auvergne | Lower Navarre (Basse-Navarre) | Béarn | Berry | Bourbonnais | Burgundy (Bourgogne) | Brittany (Bretagne) | Champagne | Comtat Venaissin | County of Foix (Comté de Foix) | County of Nice (Comté de Nice) | Corsica (Corse) | Dauphiné | Flanders (Flandre) | Franche-Comté | Guyenne and Gascony (Guyenne-et-Gascogne) | Île-de-France | Languedoc | Limousin | Lorraine | Lyonnais | Maine | Marche | Nivernais | Normandy (Normandie) | Orléanais | Picardy (Picardie) | Poitou | Provence | Roussillon | Saintonge | Savoy (Savoie) | Touraine |

Ivan Sache, 8 October 2002