Coat of arms

Older form

Aeltere Form des Familienwappens

Azure; a right arm dressed in yellow,
carrying an iron morgenstern.
Crest: Arm as on the shield.
Mantling: Yellow and azure.

More recent form

Aeltere Form des Familienwappens

Azure; a right steelclad arm in yellow (or gold),
carrying a yellow (or gold) or steel (or argent) mace,
the right hand covered by a yellow (or gold) glove..
Crest: Arm as on the shield.
Mantling: Yellow (or gold) and azure.

Source: Coat of Arms Collection I by Benedict Meyer-Kraus (National Archive Basel, Coat of Arms Collection. A 18)

Development and significance

1560 Bartlin (§ 2) seal, arm in a sleeve with morgenstern

Hans (§ 3 oder 16) Leonh. Binninger Family Book,
arm in a yellow sleeve with azure morgenstern
1596 Hans (§ 16) Götz Family Book:
arm in a yellow sleeve with a white mace in azure.

(§ 263)
Armorial plaque in the Basel Schützenhaus [Guard house]:
arm in a yellow sleeve, mace body and stud yellow, mace head white.
1630 Johannes (§ 294) Hieron. Vischer Roll of Arms:
sleeve with morgenstern.
1650 Johannes (§ 17) in 1674 renewed the joint plaque in the Margarethenkirchlein church:
arm in a yellow sleeve with a white mace.
1652 Benedict (§ 8) seal of the imperial notary:
sleeve with mace (crest: buffalo horns).
1656 Johannes (§ 17) Collective plaque in the Blacksmiths’ Guild:
yellow sleeve, white mace.
1666 Martin (§ 32) Roll of Arms of the Moneychangers’ and Goldsmiths’ Guild:
steelclad arm with mace, sleeve and mace yellow.


Martin (§ 32) Collective plaque in the Margarethenkirchlein [small St. Margeret church]:
yellow sleeve with a white mace.
1686   Roll of Arms of the Blacksmiths’ Guild:
arm with morgenstern.
1695 Martin (§ 32) Armorial plaque in the guildhall of the Moneychangers’ and Goldsmiths’ Guild (zu Hausgenossen):
yellow, steelclad arm with mace.
1918   City of Basel Roll of Arms by W. R. Stähelin (§ 232,1):
sleeve with morgenstern

The examination of our coat of arms raises the following main question: why does the sleeved arm of a Basel burgher carrying a primitive, spiky morgenstern turn into the steelclad arm of a knight holding an elaborately styled mace?

A) Name

If we begin with the name, we find that stehelin, stähelin, stahelin is the Middle High German adjective made into a noun ‘Stahel’ (= steel) and means simply steely, of steel. The ‘stahelin’, ‘stehelin’ forms are still usual in the 16th century, and still encountered even in the 17th century. Because the ‘h’ became the more guttural ‘ch’ in High German, ‘stähelin’ was pronounced ‘stächelin’. As a result, even Johann Jakob Spreng, professor of the German language in Basel, in his Idioticon Rauracum (dictionary of the Alemannic language) completed around 1760, cites the adjective ‘stächelin’ as meaning ‘stählern’, i.e. ‘steely’. The adjective ‘stähelin’ is not only used in the direct sense, describing the material from which something is made, but also in the figurative sense: then it is the same as hard, unyielding, especially strong, resistant. For example, Sebastian Franck who died in Basel (1499 to 1542) said: “The German lancquenets are devils or made of steel (stähelin).” Another saying from the same period is: “If our bodies aren’t like steel (stähelin), they will not be able to defend us.”  Incidentally, the adjective ‘stähelin’ is also used in the legal sense; it then means “zum eisernen Bestand gehörig”. “A cow must be made of steel (stählin)” does not mean that a cow must have particularly tough flesh, it is a cow that belongs to the core stock in a tenant-farmer’s lease or living and may not be sold off 1.

There is documentary evidence of Stähelin or Stehelin as a family name in various places from 1200 onwards2. It denotes a characteristic of the bearer, either because was he possessed of particular physical strength, or because he had a ‘steely’ occupation. A derivation of the name from the old Germanic first names that include ‘stahel’, such as ‘Stahalhart’ does not hold up to research, since those names disappear after the 9th century and ‘Stähelin’ only appears in the 13th century, i.e. after a gap of four hundred years.

In any case, it is more of a nickname given to blacksmiths. When a “Henricus dictus stehelin” [Henry known as ‘stehelin’, steel] is mentioned for example, it means: actually, this wasn’t the man’s name, but those around him used to call him that3.

Something quite different to the word ‘stahel’, steel, is the word ‘Stachel’ [barb or spike], used to denote anything spiky - implements for example. ‘Stachel’ is a new word and etymologically has nothing to do with ‘steel’. The word ‘Stachel’ only came into general usage at the start of the 16th century; it goes back to ‘stechen’ [to stab], Middle High German ‘steken’. At first it is only used in Middle and Low German, and then, influenced by Luther‘s translation of the Bible, in High German as well. In the Basler Bibelglossar [Basel Bible Glossary] of 1523, ‘Stachel’ still has to be explained: Stachel = eiserne Spitze an der Stange. [iron spike on a staff] Wider den Stachel lecken [kick against the pricks of the spike]4.

B) Morgenstern and mace

And now for our coat of arms. The morgenstern and the mace certainly both have the same origin in a relatively primitive club-like weapon, which would have been used mainly by peasants, but which was also in widespread use by the cavalry in the 14th century.
    As a weapon for the peasantry, the morgenstern acquired its primitive form in medieval times. It was so unwieldy that it always needed both hands to manage it; to that extent its representation on our coat of arms is unrealistic. This sort of wooden club studded with nails could be made by any peasant; later it was also fashioned in iron by country blacksmiths. The important point here is that contrary to a widespread misapprehension, the morgenstern is not an ancient Swiss weapon. In the Schweizer Bil­derchroniken [Swiss Illustrated Chronicles] it is never seen in the hands of Swiss combatants, and only occasionally in the hands of their opponents. The Confederates of old were much more effectively equipped with lances, halberds, swords etc. In Switzerland the morgenstern was first used by the rebels in the Peasant Wars of the 17th century; it was completely ineffective against well-armed fighting men.
    The primitive club used by combatants on horseback developed into the mace. This was a weapon for knights, consisting of a handle with a ring or loop so that it could be hung on the saddle, a short cylindrical handle (originally made of wood, later of iron), and the head. Originally the latter was shaped like a ball or mallet; later it was also split (as can be seen on our coat of arms) into radial flanges, which often also had prongs or heavy bosses at the tips. This made the weapon lighter and therefore increased its power. In this form the mace was a ‘smasher’. It was a back-up weapon rather than a main weapon, and its purpose was to crush the bones under the plate armour of the fighter  with its blows. It was therefore only used as long as people fought in steel armour. In the Middle Ages, this mace was readily associated with the adjective ‘stehelin’ [steely], for example in Wolfram von Eschenbach‘s Willehalm: “Die truogen kolben stehelin” [They carried steel maces] (395, 24); “mit den stehelinen Kolben” [with the steel maces] (396, 13) and elsewhere.
    In the second half of the 16th century and in the 17th century the mace was the emblem of the mounted officer, and, in a more ornate form, the insignia of the ruling class and the courts. In this form, it lasted until well into the 18th century 35.

C) Coat of arms

The first Stähelin to use the coat of arms with the morgenstern was Bartholomäus (§ 2), the founding father’s eldest son. Why in fact did he choose this coat of arms? Was the hand holding the morgenstern intended to symbolise steely strength? Or did he see the morgenstern as a typical weapon made of steel? If so, he would have done better to choose a sword or even the more heraldic mace.  We can rather suppose that Bartholomäus St. mistakenly thought that the name Stähelin, pronounced Stächelin, came from the word ‘Stachel’ [barb or spike] that was coming into widespread use at that time and therefore chose a distinctly spiky object for the charge on his coat of arms: a typical example of the “figurative” category of coats of arms.

The first Stähelin to put the mace instead of the morgenstern - but still held by the sleeved arm - on the coat of arms was, according to the findings of Professor Felix Stähelin, Hans Stähelin‑Beckel (§ 16,1555 to 1615), namely with his entry in the Jacob Götz’ Friendship Book (Student album) in 1596 (Historisches Museum). He was a spice merchant and master of the spice merchants’ Saffron Guild. He probably saw the morgenstern as too rustic and chose the more distinguished version, the mace, instead.

In the 17th century the mace appeared very frequently on the family coat of arms, but the morgenstern was still there alongside it. Both were always shown in a white or silver colour, which corresponds to the correct derivation of the name from the word ‘Stahl’ [steel]. The first person to use the steelclad arm with the mace was Senior Guild Master Martin Stähelin (§ 32), in 1666 in fact, in the Roll of Arms of the Moneychangers’ and Saddlers’ Guild (Zunft zu Hausgenossen), when he was elected member of the council (senior member of the guild).

Why did Martin Stähelin also replace the “middle-class” arm with a steelclad arm? It is more likely that external models, rather than etymological considerations, led him or the designer of the coat of arms to the decision to adopt the mace and the steelclad arm definitively for the coat of arms. An armorial widely distributed at the time was the one produced by Johann Sibmacher, which appeared on several occasions in Nuremberg. There you find coats of arms with the steelclad arm6 as well as with the mace7. Daniel Meißner’s “Thesaurus philopoliticus” was published between 1623 and 1631; this book had a large quantity of city views, which however were only the background for emblems and moral sayings. In the view of the town of Stein am Rhein, a steelclad arm with a mace is breaking out of the clouds top right, in exactly the same way as Martin Stähelin had had it drawn. He or the designer may have known Meißner‘s book and taken inspiration from it.

A further reason for the change in the coat of arms could also be heraldic considerations and rules. The coat of arms was in fact originally a knightly symbol (to identify someone unidentifiable in armour); the helmet over the coat of arms also points to its knightly origin. But the arm of an ordinary burgher with the morgenstern did not suit the knightly jousting helmet, of the kind used in heraldry from the 16th century, so well. Stylistic unity was much better maintained if beneath the knightly jousting helmet there appeared the knightly steelclad arm with the high-class mace.

Moreover an important rule in heraldry says that on a coat of arms colour cannot be put on colour or metal on metal, only metal on colour or colour on metal8 . An arm in a yellow shirt sleeve on a blue ground, such as for example can still be found in the Basel Roll of Arms, is strictly speaking unacceptable in heraldry. Yellow is not one of the original heraldic colours anyway. On the other hand, gold is permitted as the colour of metal. But because a shirt cannot be made of metal, it was natural to change the shirt-sleeved arm into a steelclad arm and thus produce the heraldically correct “metal on colour”.

Finally, the following explanation might also be valid: In the 17th century the significance and the prestige of the nobility grew tremendously everywhere. Political and economic developments, which cannot be described in detail here, led to the middle classes and the artisan classes losing importance in the imperial cities of the Holy Roman Empire. After the Thirty Years’ War, there began a period of princely absolutism, during which, following the example set by France, centralising government and a standing army became the pillars of the state. The nobility dominated government and the army. The new cultural ideal was the “chevalier”, the “honnête homme”, who had to be able to speak French, ride and fight. Instead of universities, knight academies were founded, outstanding members of the middle classes were ennobled (Leibniz, Pufendorf). This spirit of the age no doubt also manifested itself in heraldryn9.

The elite of 17th century Basel did not adopt a marked democratic-ordinary citizen attitude, rather it took an absolutist approach and tried to form a new patrician class, as is demonstrated by the citizens’ revolution of 1691. According to ancient law however, the patrician is a nobleman. Martin Stähelin may have had a lively awareness of belonging to a new elite. Hence the urge to redesign the coat of arms.

D) Which one is the right one?

So which coat of arms is the right one? Felix Stähelin believed that the sleeve with the morgenstern better matched the family’s modest beginnings than the steelclad arm with the mace. In contrast, this author wishes to express a preference for the more recent form for etymological and heraldic reasons. For the arm, even if encased in gilded steel armour, is holding a steel mace. The morgenstern in contrast was generally not made of steel, but mostly of wood with nails, or at best wrought iron. The morgenstern is also a visual reminder of the word ‘Stachel’ [barb or spike], which, as mentioned earlier, has nothing to do with our name.

Andreas Staehelin‑Wackernagel

1Jacob and Wiihelm Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch [German Dictionary] under Stahl [steel] and stählen [steely]. ‑ Schweize­risches Idiotikon. Wörterbuch der schweizer­deutschen Sprache [Swiss Idioticon. Dictionary of the Swiss German language], under Sta(c)hel [barb or spike]. ‑ G. A. Seiler, Die Basler Mundart [The Basel Dialect], Basel 1879, p. 276.
2 Urkundenbuch der Stadt Straßburg I [Register of the City of Strasbourg I] (1879), pp. 115ff. ‑ Adolf Socin, Mittelhochdeutsches Namenbuch nach oberrheinischen Quellen [Middle High German Book of Names based on Upper-Rhenish Sources] (1903), pp. 166f.
3 Alfred Götze, Alemannische Namenrätsel. [The puzzle of Alemannic surnames] In: Festschrift Friedrich Kluge, Tübingen 1926, pp. 51 ff. ‑ Adolf Bach, Deutsche Namenkunde [The Science of German Names]. Vol. l, 1, Heidelberg 1952, p. 245.
4 Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch [German Dictionary], under ‘Stachel’ [barb or spike].
5 Wendelin Boeheim, Handbuch der Waffenkunde [Weaponry Handbook], Leipzig 1890, pp. 357ff. ‑ E. A. Geßler, Swiss National Museum. Guide to the Arms Collection, Zurich/Aarau 1928, pp. 37 ff. ­Viktor Poschenburg, Die Schutz‑ and Trutzwaffen des Mittelalters [Protective and defensive weapons of the Middle Ages], Vienna 1936, p. 137.
6 1605 edition, p. 29 Oppersdorf, p. 69 von Mestich, p. 75 Pelcken.
7 P. 35 von Kirchperg, p. 66 Kitschker, p. 144 von Ebeleben, p. 149 von Kappel.
8 Cf. Eduard Freiherr von Sacken, Katechismus der Heraldik [A Catechism of Heraldry], Leipzig 1872. p. 13. -  ­Bert Herzog, Wappenschild und Helmzier, [armorial shield and crest] Berne/Leipzig 1937, p. 10.
9 We may cite as a similar example the Favre family of Wallis (blacksmiths), in whose coat of arms the arm of a burgher striking an anvil with a hammer also turned into a knightly arm, with a lion taking the place of the anvil (Wallis Roll of Arms, Zurich 1946, p. 93). – The Ballif family of Waadtland has almost the same coat of arms as we do (Vaud Canton Roll of Arms, Tome 1, Baugy 1934, p. 26).