From Vexillum to Wenger Out: a brief history of banners

Spiral’s Banner Printing Android service is the future of the banner – any message you like with speedy turnaround and pin sharp quality on hard-wearing PVC banners. But what about the past?

All through history banners have been hung from buildings and displayed in gatherings and processions. They’ve always carried powerful messages and colourful images (just not as beautifully printed as ours). So here’s a quick sprint through 2000 years of banner history.

Ancient Rome

Imagine you’re walking along Watling Street in 29BC and a unit of the Roman army is heading towards you. The first thing you’ll see is their vexillum, the banner that tells you who they are and why you should be very afraid of them.

The Latin word means ‘little sail’ and vexilla (that’s the plural) were usually a sail-like piece of decorated linen hung from a horizontal cross bar and carried on a big staff. Two thousand years later, the study of flags is still  known as vexilology.

Roman Vexillum
Ancient Roman Vexillum

Heraldry

Medieval knights in battle gear wanted everyone to know who they were, especially fair damsels. But they also wanted to wear a full face mask that stopped them getting their head bashed in. That’s why banners displaying coats of arms, crests, mottos and other heraldic material began to appear in mediaeval England after the Norman conquest. Heraldry rapidly developed strict rules, and to this day it preserves the Anglo-Norman language. Although if you see a ‘lion rampant’ or ‘unicorn couchant’ now, it’s more likely to be a pub sign that a battle banner.

Medieval Coats of Arms
Medieval Coats of Arms

Sashimono

Neither a raw seafood dish nor a silky robe, a sashimono is a small banner worn by soldiers in feudal Japan. A bit like a checkout assistant’s name badge, but with added violence.

Japanese Sashimonos
Japanese Sashimonos

Trades unions and politics

In their heyday, the nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth century, trade union banners were a familiar sight, carried in processions, galas and demonstrations.  Typically painted in oils or embroidered on silk, the designs featured slogans, union insignia and idealised images of happy workers or families. Various political causes also often used banners in their marches and meetings, the Suffragettes and the Orange Order for example.

Russian Protesters
Russian Protesters

Sport

Funny and/or heartfelt banners are often seen in the stands at sporting events, especially football. In 2013 fans of Club Nacional de Football in Uruguay held up a 600 by 50 metres banner during a match. It weighed 2 tonnes, so they presumably didn’t hold it up for very long.

Huge Sports Banner
Huge Sports Banner

Towards the end of his reign as team manager at Arsenal, banners calling for Arsene Wenger to resign or be sacked became a familiar sight. In fact ‘Wenger Out’ banners briefly went viral, with sightings of witty folk holding them appearing in unlikely places – such as Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Times Square, New York.

Wenger Out
Wenger Out

Need a banner of your own? Find out more about Spiral’s Banner Printing Android.