The "vane' in weathervane derives from the Greek penos, meaning cloth. Sailors fastened cloths to masts to show the wind direction. Soldiers, not wanting to charge into wind and dust, fixed coloured cloths to tall spears. Before the days of military uniform, the cloth also served as a regimental sign, sometimes emblazoned with the commander's coat of arms. Crusader tents were topped with pennants. Knights were honoured with the right to place heraldic vanes on their castles. French commoners were not granted the right to put up weathervanes until 1659.
The three classic vane designs are the arrow, the pennant and the cockerel. It is said that a ninth century papal bull required a weathercock to be fixed to every church and monastery. The cock was the emblem of St Peter and a symbolic reminder of the need for vigilance. St Mark (xiv 30) relates that:
And Jesus saith unto him, Verily
I say unto thee, That this day, even
in this night, before the cock crow
twice, thou shalt deny me thrice.
As well as being places of worship, the churches of the Middle Ages were concert halls, art galleries, museums, meeting houses, and weather stations too. Every church had a sundial and a weathervane. For farmers and gardeners, weathervanes were meteorological instruments. This is why they are often called "weather' rather than "wind' vanes. Since The Times began publishing them in 1860, weather forecasts have been freely available. Information is now passed from satellite to televisions in every home, and the vane is regarded as an obsolete decoration. But they still have a role. Even when the forecasters are correct that "a south‑westerly airflow will bring rain to most areas', it is useful for the gardener to see when the wind veers into the west. A vane makes the satellite picture of planetary airflows specific to your garden.
The oldest written description of a weathervane is that of the Tower of Winds in Athens. Vitruvius describes it as follows:
On the several sides of the octagon he [Andronicus of Cyrrhus] executed reliefs representing the several winds, each facing the point from which it blows; and on top of the tower he set a conical shaped piece of marble and on this a bronze Triton with a rod outstretched in its right hand. It was so contrived as to go round with the wind, always stopping to face the breeze and holding its rod as a pointer directly over the representation of the wind that was blowing. (Vitruvius, 1914 edn)
In the Middle Ages, weathervanes were influenced by religious and military associations. But as the world became less governed by Church and Sword, the symbolic potential of weathervanes came to be used for other purposes. Gresham had a grasshopper vane erected on London's Royal Exchange, to commemorate the grasshopper that drew an old lady's attention to his ancestor, a foundling babe. The Accountants Hall used a model of the Golden Hind in the design of a weathervane. Billingsgate Fish Market put up a fish vane. Paston School put a model of the Victory on their weathervane to commemorate their most famous pupil, Admiral Lord Nelson. Another ship was placed on the observatory in Greenwich, to mark the importance of Greenwich Meridian for world shipping. A railway company, in York, used a steam engine on the vane on its headquarters. Following these secular precedents, weathervanes took on something of the role of inn signs and trade signs during the nineteenth century. They also became domesticated. The owners of a sheep farm, a racing stable or the Dog and Fox Inn had little difficulty in thinking of emblems for their weathervanes. Countrymen used vanes to advertise their trade (Figure 3). Such emblems enriched the environment. Buildings are more interesting when you have an idea of what takes place inside them, or of the purpose for which they were originally built. Long may the tradition continue, to help us read the environment.
Athens, Tower of the Winds