It bore an engraved escutcheon, a herald's wording of which may serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so sombre is it, and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow: "ON A FIELD, SABLE, THE LETTER A, GULES"

I looked them up (the words in bold) in online dictionary websites but I could not pick up the most correct meaning they have to fit into the above sentence.

Could you explain the meaning in the sentence in italic ? Thank you.

  • Could you please provide the source where you got the sentence? It might help people answer the question in case there is context they can derive
    – user10893
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 18:19
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    The last bit is heraldic language (i.e., "herald's wording"), which is impenetrable even to most native speakers of English. Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 18:20
  • Yes, thank you Professor Shor, I took it from the Scarlet Letter. Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 18:31
  • I see two completely different questions here. The first (the meaning of bore) is general reference. The second (the meaning of gules) is arguably not about English (the language of heraldic blazon is based on a strange hybrid of Middle English and Old French), but I'd be willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Please make sure to ask one question per post, because the people who can answer one might not be able to answer the other, leading to a bunch of answers, none of which is completely correct.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 18:58
  • Gules probably has to do with the French term gueule (animal's mouth). Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 21:49

2 Answers 2


Peter Shor is right, this is from heraldry.

sable means the color black

gules means the color red

The field in question is just the background.

What it means is that Hester Prynne was required, because of her adulterous ways, to wear a scarlet letter A (for adultery or adultress) with a black background (which may have been her dress, I don't remember).

  • Though if this is taken from the novel, it seems pretty incongruous that Hawthorne would use the noble language of heraldry here in discussing a Puritan colony. Certainly the Puritans would have shunned the use of such terminology. Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 19:13
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    @JohnLawler: The point of the novel was that Prynne came to wear her scarlet letter proudly, or at least without shame. That would be one reason for the elevated description. Also recall that the novel itself was a criticism of religious (and other) hypocrisy, written two centuries after the period it described.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 19:18
  • Good point. It depends, I spose, on where in the book it came from. Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 19:47
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    It's from the ending.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 19:51
  • 1
    So he elevates her to the nobility by blazoning her Letter. Cute. Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 20:13

"sable" means black and "gules" means dark red or scarlet... so the contrast between the A and the rest of the world displays that the scarlet letter will always stand out and be a part of Hester, even after she is gone.

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