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Rietstap, Johannes Baptista (1828-1891)

Johannes Baptista Rietstap Rietstap, Johannes Baptista, herald and genealogist (Rotterdam, 05/12/1828 - The Hague, 12/24/1891). Son of Willem Hendrik Rietstap, accountant and insurance agent, and Elizabetha Hermina Remmert. Married 09/16/1857 with Johanna Maria de Haas. There were no children from this marriage.

After working for a while in a book store, Rietstap was assigned the position of editor and corrector with the newspaper Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant. Here, it quickly became obvious what his real interests were. From an early age on Rietstap collected laque prints of seal stamps, a hobby that brought him to an intense study of the history and theory of heraldry. Whenever he could find some time inbetween his editorial duties, he would spend it on heraldry. It is said that he always carried heraldic literature or drawings of crests with him. In addition, Rietstap had a remarkable interest in foreign languages. At age 25 he learned Latin, and when the commisioners of the newspaper told him that they wanted one of the editors to know Spanish, he mastered this language, too -- and at such a speed, that he could read Spanish news papers in only a few months.

With his shy and introvert nature, and a life-long struggle with weak health, Rietstap did not last long in the noisy editorial offices. Especially the night shifts got to him. In November of 1850 he therefore accepted a position with the Stenographical Department of both Chambers of the Staten-Generaal (government), which had been formed the year before. At the end of February 1852 his position there became full-time. Rietstap combined the rather inconspicuous environment with broad and impressive publishing efforts: "He considered a day lost, if he hadn't written at least one page." (De Nederlandsche Spectator, 1892)

Rietstap's first publications were mostly translations of non-fictional, historical and romantic literature and travel journals in French, German and English. He worked as a translator until the early 1870s. In this capacity he also contributed to De Tijdstroom, a magazine dedicated to literature, science and art, which was established in 1858 and of which he was the editor for two years. Furthermore, he published for educational institutions the Beknopte geschiedenis van Nederland (A short history of the Netherlands) and Leerboek der Stenographie (Handbook of Stenography) in 1861 and 1869 respectively.

His greatest contributions, however, are those related to heraldry -- specifically family heraldry. Civil heraldry took a much lower rank. In 1856 he published the Handboek der Wapenkunde (Manual of Heraldry), which contained a short histroy of heraldry, several armories, and an introduction to the practice of heraldry. Especially this introduction makes this work stand out as an important addition to the world of heraldry. Rietstap's goal was "de heraldische taal van den wanstaltigen, smakelozen tooi der bastaardwoorden te ontdoen" (to rid heraldic language of its ugly and tasteless crown of bastard-words). The vocabulary he created for emblazoning was "of almost purest purity." (Pama, 99) It replaced the many bastardised French words found in heraldry. Rietstap's manual was later on extended and edited by C. Pama, and still stands as a standard work in heraldry.

In 1861 Rietstap published the first run of what would also become a standard work of heraldry: the Armorial général, contenant la description des armoiries des familles nobles et patriciennes de l'Europe, précédé d'un dictionnaire des termes du blason. It contained the blazons of about 46,000 arms of European noble and patriarchal families, ordered alphabetically by name. When compiling his work, Rietstap took advantage of a growing number of heraldic source materials, and regional and national armories. For the second run of the Armorial, by now two volumes, which appeared in 1884 and 1887, he also used the international contacts he had collected through his heraldic publications.

In 1871, with the growing interest for heraldry, Rietstap found that the time had come to publish a heraldry magazine. He wanted to specifically emphasize to the Dutch readers the development that was taking place outside of the Netherlands. Although he was disappointed with the reactions to the first announcements, he still published the first edition of the Heraldieke Bibliotheek (Heraldic Library) in 1872. From the sub-title, "Magazine for Heraldry, Genealogy, Seals and Medals," it was clear that in the meantime he had opted for a more all-encompassing formula. This first Dutch heraldry and genealogy magazine, which would last until 1882, was mostly filled up with articles by Rietstap himself.

In the 1880s Rietstap also published two studies of the genealogy and coats of arms of the Dutch nobility, the Wapenboek der Nederlandschen Adel (Armory of the Dutch Nobility), which became available between 1880 and 1887 as two folio volumes. In 1890 he published De wapens van den tegenwoordigen en den vroegeren Nederlandschen adel met genealogische en heraldische aanteekeningen (The Arms of Present and Past Dutch Nobility with Genealogical and Heraldic Annotations). In the prologue of this work, Rietstap shows his critique in regards to the development of spelling in the Dutch langue. Especially the "mutilation" of names of families and places bothered him. From his interest in geographical names comes Rietstap's last publication, the Beknopt aardrijkskundig woordenboek van Nederland en zijne koloniŽn (Summary Geographic Dictionary of the Netherlands and its Colonies), which was published posthumously at the beginning of 1892.

Throughout his years with the Stenographical Department, Rietstap had made a career for himself. Since January of 1887 he held the position of First Stenographer. Three and a half years later he resigned. The joy of his pension lasted only a year. On christmas eve 1891, at age 63, Rietstap passed away.

Rietstap can be considered as the founder of modern heraldry in the Netherlands. He established a theoretical foundation for heraldry, especially by creating an understanding for Dutch terms. He brought the development of European heraldry within reach of the Dutch language through translations and editorials. Needless to say that his Armorial has brought his fame to all heraldic corners of the planet.


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