Saturday, February 22, 2014

Ancient and Medieval Helmets – Utility and Beauty through the Ages

Mycenaean Boar's Tusk
Some of the very first things that interested me in history as a young boy were weapons and armour.
Boys will be boys, and so it’s no surprise that this is what drew me into the ancient and medieval worlds.

I remember getting a used book called The Art of Chivalry, which I flipped through over and over again. I was mesmerized by the images of broad swords and gothic armour, the shields, the lines, and the hack marks from various weapons.

Over time, I began to look past the shell of that armour, the cool brutality of those weapons, to the reasons behind their creation. I learned more about the warrior code over the ages, the path that lead to the ideal of chivalry that we would come to know so well in medieval romance.

Crested Corinthian helmet replica
Ancient and medieval warfare has always been a focus throughout my studies. I wanted to know why people fought. Warfare, no matter how romanticized, is awful. It’s also a part of human existence that will, sadly, not go away.

However, warfare has produced, to my mind, some of the most interesting, beautiful and utilitarian art that I have ever seen.

In a world of violence, when the threat of battle was very real, warriors needed to protect themselves. Arms and armour have evolved a great deal in design, the metals used, and the weapons they were meant to protect the wearer against.

Today, I wanted to take a look at the helmet over the ages because it, more than most other bits of armour, seems to have changed the most. After all, if you lose your head in battle, well, you’re pretty much finished.

The following helmets are a sample of my personal favourites over time. We’re going to start in the Mycenaean period and work our way into the late Middle Ages.

Marching to Troy

One of the most interesting finds from Mycenaean Greece is the boar’s tusk helmet (pictured above). This isn’t quite what we imagine when reading Homer, but this helmet was what would have been used. And don’t kid yourself, boar’s tusk is hard and could have deflected a glancing bronze blade. It would have taken a lot of dead boar to make these helmets!

Golden Age Head Gear 

Conrinthian Helmet
When it comes to ancient Greece, the helmet that most people imagine is the Corinthian helmet. To me, this is a supremely beautiful helmet, my favourite for looks. It was used for several centuries, sometimes with a crest, sometimes without. These were made of bronze and would have been great at deflecting, spear thrusts, sword swings, and whizzing arrows.

I’ve tried on this helmet at re-enactor fairs and I must say that this is a comfortable helmet that does indeed rest easily on the top of the head. Hey, if it’s good enough for the goddess Athena, it’s good enough for me! The one downside of the Corinthian helmet is that it would have been difficult to hear everything that was going on because there were no holes for the ears. Also, in the Mediterranean heat during the summer campaign season, it would have been hot!

Hellenistic Heroes 

When you get to the time of Alexander the Great and the successors, they begin to add a bit more pizazz to their headgear. Alexander would have had special helmets outfitted just for him, made to look like a lion head which you can see on the coins.

But the regular infantry had a much simpler helmet that had better vision and hearing than the previous age’s Corinthian favourite. There were a few types of helmet from this period, but this one would be my pick for something more utilitarian.

Men of the Roman War Machine

Imperial Gallic with crest
The Romans knew their warfare and their weapons. They also knew how to adapt, and how to adopt when they saw a good thing.

By far, my favourite Roman helmet has to be the Imperial Gallic helmet. If you look closely at the design, it makes perfect sense. They thought of everything – good vision and hearing for the legionary, protection for the back of the neck from downward slashes by those Celts, a visor in the front for the same thing, and massive cheek pieces that protected the side of the face without hindering vision.

This was a warrior’s helmet, and it was worn by tribunes, centurions, optios, and regular troops. A crest could also be attached depending on the rank of the person wearing it. But regular legionaries wore it without decoration and just went at it with the enemy in front of them. This is my pick for most utilitarian!
Centurion's helmet with
transverse crest

Imperial Gallic legionary issue helmet

Gladiator Games

The Romans didn’t just like violence on the battlefield. They also enjoyed it on a Saturday afternoon, just for fun!

Some of the most enduring images of ancient Rome that we have are of gladiatorial combat in the amphitheatre. Gladiators were slaves, but they were also showman, and some reached unprecedented heights of popularity, almost as high as the charioteers of Rome.

Thraex helmet
Because it was a show, the gladiators played the roles of mythological beasts or ferocious, long-defeated enemies from past campaigns. But they didn’t wear masks, they wore elaborate helmets. Two of my favourite gladiatorial helmets are the murmillo (a sort of sea creature) and the thraex (or Thracian). Both helmets are big and could be very elaborate with scenes embossed on them. During the early Empire, these two were the most common pairing in combat. When they clashed, you can bet the crowd was baying for blood!
Murmillo helmet

These helmets are works of art intended to dazzle, but also to protect. If the gladiators died too quickly, the crowd would not be satisfied!

Horse Warriors

Whereas the men of the Legions had solid functional helmets when they went into battle, the cavalry alae of the Empire went in for something a bit more dashing and terrifying.

There is a lot of differentiation among the auxiliary units attached to the Legions because many of them were not Roman, and brought their own cultural style to the mix.

However, my favourite cavalry helmets are those with masks attached. They're ornate on top, often with mythological scenes or beasts, and then have a mask of the same metal protecting the wearer but also striking fear into the enemies they were riding down.

There is some debate as to whether or not the actual masks were used only for demonstrations or parade, that they were perhaps removed for actual battle. But it's not entirely unlikely that they were not worn into battle. After all, some medieval helmets, as we shall see, provided much less visibility than a masked Roman cavalry helmet.

Getting Medieval 

The Sutton Hoo helmet
Now we move into the medieval period and Anglo-Saxon England. The Anglo-Saxons were fantastic artists and there is no better example of their armourers’ skill than the famous Sutton Hoo helmet.

In the late 1930s, archaeologists excavated two sixth and seventh century ship burials which contained some wonderful artefacts that have come to define the height of Anglo-Saxon artwork. The helmet that was discovered at Sutton Hoo possibly belonged to Raedwald, the ruler of the Kingdom of East Anglia.

We can see similarities with the Roman helmets in that it has cheek pieces and a neck guard at the back, as well as a face mask. But this helmet is much more ornate with various beasts displayed on it, with gold and gemstones. Whether Raedwald, or another, wore this in battle is doubtful, but it was meant to make a statement that the wearer stood out from the rest.

This was the king’s helmet!

Sutton Hoo Helmet recreation
Anglo-Saxon art at its best

Those Norman Invaders 

Bayeux Tapestry
1066 is a year that many of you will be familiar with. This is the year that William the Conqueror and his Norman army invaded England and killed the last Saxon King, Harold, at the Battle of Hastings. The Normans changed the face of England, some might say not for the best.

But they were a fighting force to be reckoned with. And their arms and armour reflect a more functional, militaristic culture that is immortalized in the Bayeux Tapestry.

When I think of the Normans, I think of kite shields, chain mail, and the conical helmet. This may not be the most dashing or even protective of warlike head gear, but its silhouette is unmistakably Norman. It was basically two bits of steel held together by a spine with a big nose guard. That’s it. There was no neck protection unless chain mail was attached to the lower rim, and the face was exposed apart from the nose. It would have had great visibility and some deflective traits because of it pointed shape. It would not be my pick for personal use, but I’ve included it because there’s just something about it.

The Cross and the Crescent 

The Crusades figured largely in my study of medieval warfare, and so it is no surprise that the one helmet from the time that should be included here is the medieval ‘Great Helm’.

This cylindrical helmet would have been worn over a chain mail headpiece, or coif, and was the standard for most knights going on Crusade to the Holy Land. Designs by way of the puncture holes for breathing varied, but they were all big with narrow eye slits and cross-like seems on the face.

I really like the look of this helmet but I can imagine that in the heat of Palestine, it would have felt like being in an oven. Furthermore, because the ears were covered, and because of the box-like structure of the Great Helm, the echo inside must have been insane in the thick of battle.

When I see this helmet, I also tend to think of Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail. ‘None shall pass!’

I’ll see you in the Lists! 

If gladiators were the entertainment of the Roman world, jousting was the equivalent of the Middle Ages.

From the time I was a boy, this is what I was drawn to. Two knights in armour careening toward each other with their lances couched. I could see their horses’ trappings fluttering as they came closer and closer and then the tremendous impact of splintered lances and shattered shields.

Fantastic! But wow, so dangerous. Tourney knights may have donned colourful ribbons and head dresses for the tilt, but there were certainly not wussies. These guys were tough as nails!

And they did this with little to no visibility! The tourney helms were thick and heavy and were intended to deflect a lance point at speed. It must have been absolutely suffocating inside one of those.

But how imposing they looked, how fantastic with the colourful tourney crests affixed on the top. I think of the knights who took the tourney circuit, and the ladies, by storm. Men such as William Marshall or Ulrich von Lichtenstein (not Heath Ledger, the real one!), made a name for themselves in the European lists and helped to shape the chivalric ideals we see in art and story.

Ulrich von Lichtenstein

Re-enactor with crested tourney helm.

Going out with a Gothic Bang 

Some of the most complete and beautiful armour ever comes from the late middle ages and was, in large part, a reaction to new weapons technology, namely firearms.

This was really the last hurrah for full armour and helmets that matched beauty with defensive intent. We know it as Gothic armour, and there are plenty of well-preserved examples in museums and castles around the world where you can get up close and personal with it.

There are many styles but they all share one thing in common: they seek to encase the wearer as much as possible against sword, mace, axe, arrow, and of course firearm shots.

Early firearms were notoriously inaccurate, but knights would have been extremely vulnerable when charging into spray from a bunch of arm cannons. The English longbows at Agincourt and Crécy destroyed the French knights, and this just took things one unfortunate step further.

The Gothic age of helmets and armour in general is a bit of a swan song.

Warfare had changed and the sight of fully armed knights tilting on battlefields such as Bosworth was soon to become a thing of the past, a thing of romance. Perhaps it is fitting that this was some of the most beautiful, functional armour all rolled into one. It was indeed the end of an age.

Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth 1485

End of an Age 

This was by no means an exhaustive list of each era in history. These were just a few of my favourite pieces, and there were likely variations on each of them.

I have always felt very strongly that the invention of gun powder was a low point in human and military history. It meant that any coward could pick up a gun and, from a distance, take down the most skilled, well-trained warrior without breaking a sweat. It meant that the scale of casualties would increase. It is something we feel painfully to this day.

A lot of people might disagree with that. They might say that guns are the great leveller.

But somehow, in an age of cold black steel and bullets, I don’t really think we’ll hear about heroes like Hector or Achilles meeting face to face. Alexander won’t be charging King Porus’ elephant on Bucephalas any time soon. The Spartan shield wall is lost to history and the lists of medieval Europe are long silent but for a few scattered bands of Renaissance Festival enthusiasts.

But the art of war does remain, and it serves of a reminder of the past and the reasons for it.

Next time you are at a replica shop, re-enactor fair, or Renaissance festival, be sure to slip an ancient or medieval helmet replica over your head. You’ll be taking one step closer to understanding and feeling the past.

Thank you for reading.

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