(About): A 14th-Century Helmet with Deep Roots in Crusader Culture
The medieval Holy Land was a crucible of military and civilian culture. From the establishment of the Crusader States and the seizure of Jerusalem at the conclusion of the First Crusade in 1099, through to the fall of the final toehold of Western Christian domain at Acre in 1291, an enormous span of diverse Middle Eastern and Western European societies interacted and shaped one-another within the Crusader context. The bascinet helmet is the quintessential example of this give-and-take – and its surviving historical examples form the inspirational basis for Darksword Armory’s flawless Crusader Helmet replica.
Darksword Armory are one of the finest blacksmith shops in the world. Working out of an artisan workshop in St-Laurent, Quebec, they have wowed the world with their meticulous reproductions of real historical arms and armor, as well as with their staggeringly inventive original authentic pieces. The Crusader Helmet falls into this latter category: whilst it is not based upon a single Crusader knight helmet, it is a unique design which has been painstakingly constructed by Darksword’s designers, taking the enormous range of surviving examples and contemporary depictions as inspiration.
Heavy Metal – Metalwork and Armor-Craft in 14th-Century Europe
The material selected by Darksword for the execution of the Crusader Helmet is mild steel – this is exactly the kind of material that historical medieval blacksmiths would have used in the creation of contemporary helmets. With the emergence of large-scale production of iron in large bloomeries (and the introduction of the blast furnace from the late 1200s CE) and the development of faster methods of refining steel, armorers would have had access to greater amounts of carbon steel, which gradually began to eclipse soft iron as the prime material for producing helmets and armor more generally. Mild steel is an alloy of iron and carbon, typically around 0.15% carbon by weight. In the medieval period, bloomeries and blast furnaces produced iron of varying degrees of purity and quality, which were then ‘carburised’ (infused with carbon) by various methods, such as ‘case hardening’ by firing an iron item in a charcoal-filled clay case for a prolongued period, or by ‘fining’, where the iron billets were worked and hammered in a charcoal-fired finery hearth.
Helmets such as our Crusader knight helmet would have been worked cold – that is, the iron or mild steel would have been hammered out into a flat sheet from billets into a flat sheet and allowed to cool. Then the plate would have been worked into shape on various shaping tools without being heated. This results in ‘work-hardening’, where the crystalline structure of the metal becomes incredibly rigid as it is beaten into shape. An armorer’s skill was in both the physical endurance and control required to shape work-hardened iron and steel into precise shapes, and also in not over-working the metal so that it became brittle. The rough helmet would then be ground and sanded smooth. Most medieval helmets were probably left unpolished with a dark, rough appearance because of the immense amount of time and effort it takes to get armor to shine without power tools – this is why dazzling ‘white armor’ evoked such awe amongst people in the medieval period, since it likely represented hundreds of hours of meticulous sanding and polishing.
Using mild steel to create our Crusader Helmet results in a rugged, battle-ready helmet that will take the knocks and scrapes of re-enactment, roleplay and even light combat in its stride. Whilst mild steel is not stainless and should be kept dry (especially when in storage), it is a functional piece of battle armor that would get the nod of approval from any Middle Ages smith.
Authentic Crusading Design – Resurrecting A Helmet Lost to Time
Our Crusader Helmet is a bascinet helmet in design. This was arguably the most popular helmet design of the entire Middle Ages: emerging in the 13th-century, it was used in various forms until the end of medieval warfare well into the 1500s. The base form of our Crusader Helmet is a peaked skull-cap that extends down to the jaw to protect the cheeks and nape, with a crease running from the brow to the back of the neck. These innovations represent careful design to protect the head from the heavy smashing weaponry of the High Medieval Period as it accelerated rapidly towards Late Medieval forms of warfare: the pointed skullcap was intended to deflect downward blows from hammers and polearms outward, and the front-to-back crease provided extra rigidity to the helmet in the face of powerful slashing weaponry like longswords.
Our version of the Crusader Helmet is made utterly unique by its distinctive flat-faced visor. Bascinets are seen throughout the historical and archaeological records with a huge variety of visors, but Darksword have chosen the flat-faced visor for this Crusader helmet replica. Whilst surviving historical examples of this form of bascinet are thin on the ground, Darksword Armory have worked from known armoring principles and historical manuscripts to recreate a fantastic real-life representation of these helmets would have been like. The flat-faced visor is attached to the helmet via two side-pivots at the temples, and is secured shut by a locking hook at the cheek – this means no worries about the helmet coming open during vigorous activity. There are also two pins at the pivots which permit the complete removal of the visor for an open-faced look, giving a whole additional range of aesthetic and functional flexibility. The visor’s eye-slits are carefully proportioned to give the perfect balance of protection and vision – the visor sits close to the face, so vision is surprisingly good. There is also a Crusader ‘cross Bezanty’ pierced through the right-hand side of the visor plate – this is a form of the cross that is tipped by circles inspired by the Turkish ‘bezant’ (Byzantine) coins found by Crusaders on campaign, which imagery then became imported into English heraldry upon their return. Not only is this a striking and stand-out feature, it also improves airflow and ventilation to keep you cool. If you keep reading below, you might find out why it’s only on the right-hand side…
Modern Meets Ancient – Finishing A Masterpiece
As well as straight-out-of-the-history-book authenticity, it also has some handy modern features to make it a thoroughly wearable Crusader helmet. All of the steel edges are rolled, meaning that they are not only tougher and more resilient to knocks and bumps, but also that they’re finger-safe and won’t snag on clothing or other armor. The interior of the helmet is lined with Darksword’s unique leather suspension system – this was a feature which historical medieval helmets had in order to keep the metal away from the head, otherwise blunt force would be simply transmitted straight through it. Historical suspension systems were often no more complex than stuffing the inside of the skullcap with moss or cloth, but the Darksword system is extremely comfortable and makes it wearable all day.
When taken in totality, our Crusader Helmet is an absolutely fantastic addition to your armory. Its applications are as diverse as the people who wore them: it is historically accurate enough to include in a historical impression of a Crusader knight from the later Crusades, or, the flat-faced bascinet being a widespread and popular helmet, it could be used to depict a soldier from a wide variety of contexts over the European Middle Ages from the 13th-century onward. However, it would also fit seamlessly into a fantasy context as well: its dramatic sword-and-sorcery air evokes a long-forgotten chivalric age, and so it could be the helmet of a knight roleplay costume, or it could be worn without the visor over a chainmail coif or aventail to depict a king or noble. The shape of the Crusader Helmet is so iconic that it would bring its incomparable martial style to any battlefield – and ours is far and away the highest-quality Crusader helmet for sale, outside of the historical originals!
(History): The Medieval Bascinet: The Bridge Between the Crusades and Modernity
Think of a typical chivalric knight of yore. They’re wearing a full harness of shining plate armor. They’re on foot wielding an enormous sword, or they might be mounted upon their caparisoned charger, pennants a-flying. What helmet are they wearing? Chances are, you’re picturing a bascinet – maybe even one like our Crusader Helmet! The bascinet, inspired by Middle Eastern designs encountered by Crusaders in the Holy Land, provides the link between the age of the dialectic clash between the Islamic world and the Christian West, and the proto-modern era of firearms and the push-of-pike. Its own history spans almost all of the second half of the Medieval period, and so to better understand the function of the bascinet and how we can best incorporate it into our re-enactment and roleplay with authenticity, we shall dive headlong into that history below.
The Birth of the Bascinet
The bascinet, at its most basic and throughout its useful lifespan, was a simple pointed skullcap. Its immediate ancestor was the cervelliere, a very basic domed metal helmet, which appears throughout the Crusader period – traditionally dated from the Prince’s Crusader to capture Jersalem in 1095, through to the inconclusive Ninth Crusade and the collapse of the final Crusader State strongholds in the 1290s CE. This depiction in the Morgan Bible dates from the 1240s CE. The cervelliere was worn in different ways by people of different social class. For ordinary soldiers, the cervelliere was their primary head-protection, likely worn on top of an arming cap or cloth coif and secured in place with a chinstrap. But wealthy commoners and knights would have worn it as one of many layers of head protection: during the early-to-mid Crusader period, a typical Crusader knight helmet would be an enormous barrel-like great helm, worn over a mail coif, on top of a cervelliere skullcap, and finally a cloth arming cap for padding – that’s at least four layers of protection! The lengthening of the cervelliere into an ogive (the ‘Norman arch’ shape; a pointed arch) may well have been influenced by the pointed helmets of the Muslim military forces encountered by Crusaders in their time in the Holy Land – both as military allies, when there would have been opportunities to mix and swap notes on effective armor designs, and as enemies, when looted equipment proved to have effective design elements to be copied.
The bascinet is solidly attested for the first time not in the Holy Land, but in Italy (which, like all Mediterranean kingdoms in the Crusader period, was heavily influenced by Islamic and Crusader culture). A 1281 CE manuscript from the city-state of Padua describes the city’s militia as outfitted with ‘bazineto’ helmets. Whilst it is tricky to reconstruct the precise heritage of these individual Crusader helmets, since we cannot possibly pinpoint exactly which armorer was trained in which style of manufacture and incorporated which new elements of design, these seem to have been a significant departure from the simple cervelliere. The simple skullcap was often worn under the mail coif, whereas the bazineto or bascinet seems to have had an aventail or camail: a fringe of chainmail attached directly to the cap itself, either riveted directly to the metal or suspended from a stitched-on leather fringe of vervelles, which gave additional protection to the throat, cheeks, neck and shoulders. A typical open-faced ogival bascinet, demonstrating the leather-stitched camail in astonishing detail can be seen on the funereal effigy of Robert Hitons at Swine Priory, York, England, dating from 1363. However, the record is far from clear, as some of the handful of early bascinet-type helmets that have survived have no holes for either a chinstrap or an aventail, suggesting that they were still being worn under the mail coif, sandwiched in place. Other images also suggest an ongoing association between the bascinet and the great helm, such as this relief of a sleeping German soldier at the Notre-Dame Cathedral, Strasbourg, which heavily implies it was being worn under the great helm like a cervelliere well into the middle of the 14th-century. Regardless, by the 1330s CE, the bascinet had emerged as a stand-alone piece of head armor, and remained a popular staple amongst both the noble class and ordinary footsoldiers for well over a century.
Style Ad-Visor –A Catalogue of Bascinet Visors
The Flat-Faced Visor
Reconstructing historical arms and armor is an art far more than it is a science, since there are often scant few surviving examples – the flat-faced bascinet is one of those gaps of which no surviving examples have yet been discovered. However, it is clearly attested in contemporary medieval manuscripts. The Holkham Bible, a beautifully illuminated but largely obscure text that was certainly produced before 1350, depicts nobles in battle wearing a variety of helmet types – but several of them are wearing flat-faced bascinets that could be an absolute dead ringer for our Crusader Helmet (we can hazard that these depictions are likely pretty accurate, since all of the other details of the illumination match with well-established contemporary weaponry and armor). Similarly, a mural dated 1335 CE from the Navarrese fortified village of Artajona clearly depicts a man-at-arms wearing a typical ‘sugarloaf’ bascinet with a lovely flat-faced visor.
Perhaps the closest match to our Crusader Helmet that appears in the historical records is from the Taymouth Hours, another sumptuous religious manuscript written somewhere around 1330 CE. Books of Hours were prayerbooks containing a selection of Biblical texts and psalms, commissioned by wealthy patrons as an aid to prayer. Secondarily, they’re an invaluable source in the field of historical armaments, since they almost always depict the Biblical figures in accurate contemporary dress, arms and armor. The Taymouth Hours shows Romantic hero Guy de Warwick lancing a dragon, and as part of his panoply of armor he is wearing a flat-faced visor – and, if we look closely, we can see that it even has cross-shaped vents cut into the visor. As such, these scattered but consistent pictorial references make it highly likely that items very like our Crusader Helmet would have been worn in the 14th and 15th centuries in Medieval Europe.
One of the more spectacular methods of face-protection seen on the medieval bascinet was the bretache. This was an enormous tapered steel nasal plate, more akin to a solid steel bar, riveted to the forehead of the bascinet to give protection to the whole centre of the face whilst retaining good peripheral vision. The bretache bascinet was almost always worn in conjunction with a mail coif, to which the end of the nasal plate was attached in order to keep the maille protection over the cheeks and chin. They hark back in appearance and conception to an earlier form of Crusader knight helmet, the ‘nasal helmet’ or ‘Norman helmet’, which dates from the 11th century, but which is quite distinct in lineage. It seems that the bretache might also have been attached to bascinets worn underneath a large Crusader helmet like a great helm, providing better protection than an open-faced bascinet if the great helm had to be removed.
Unlike the flat-faced visor, a handful of bretache-equipped bascinets have survived, and they can also be seem fairly frequently on funerary effigies upon the tombs of ancient knights and nobles. Almost always, the bretache is shown hinged down from the chin so that the features of the individual are clear and identifiable, sort of like an upside-down visor. This also makes it clear that the rivet at the forehead was more of a clip or fastener than a simple point of attachment. The Doge’s Palace in Venice is inscribed with a relief of a soldier wearing a bascinet with bretache – the section of the palace that it is placed upon was constructed between 1350 and 1370, and so it seems that this dating is roughly correct. Of note is the cross-shape of the forehead fastener – this was not only functional but also an attractive symbol of faith for Christian soldiers. Slightly earlier than this is the devotional artwork at the Klosterneuberg Monastery in Austria, which depicts what first glance is an egg with a goatee – but is in fact a soldier wearing a bascinet with a bretache. The enormous dome-shape of the soldier’s head is common feature of artwork in this period, and is likely an attempt to convey the layers of padding and maille inside the helmet (of curious note is also the fact that the shaft of his spear appears to have been painted out during a previous restoration, leaving him with a very awkward posture).
Perhaps the most common form of bascinet visor during its supremacy from the 1330s CE until well into the 1500s is the hounskull form. Deriving from the German ‘hundsgugel’, “hound’s hood”, this sharply pointed, conical visor was intended to give its wearer a menacing, feral appearance – but its design was also carefully shaped from a defensive point of view. The conical visor was an extremely effective method of deflecting thrusting blows away from the face, every angle affording no purchase to the tip of the sword or spear. The hounskull visor appears to have been attached to the bascinet in two different ways: the klappvisor and the side-pivot – and although historians generally posit the single-rivet ‘klappvisor’ as coming ‘before’ the two-rivet ‘side-pivot’ mount, of course there were overlaps and throwbacks and surprise early examples! The ‘klappvisor’ attachment, similar to the way the bretache is attached, is where the whole visor is riveted to a single hinge in the centre of the forehead. The Royal Armories holds several surviving examples, such as the ‘sugar-loaf’ example dating from 1370 CE. How these visors may have looked can be seen in contemporary art – for example in a devotional image of a knight in stained-glass at the English moated manor of Birtsmorton Court, dated roughly to the last quarter of the 14th-century CE. The side-pivot is much more familiar to us – it is the method of attachment used in our Crusader Helmet! Instead of a simple rivet-and-hinge, the side-pivot hounskull visors made use of sliding rivet technology to articulate the visor. German hounskull bascinets such as this later example at the Met Museum, New York, remained popular well into the Late Middle Ages, providing the template for its successor as the most popular form of head protection, the sallet.
The best preserved example of the hounskull type is without doubt the Crusader helmet descendent that resides at the Royal Armories in Leeds, known as the ‘Lyle bascinet’. The Lyle bascinet was bequested to the Armory by a Black Watch soldier called Captain Lyle, who made the donation in 1946 in memory of his two sons, whom he had lost in the Second World War. The bascinet is stunningly well-preserved, featuring the elongated ‘snout’ visor typical of the late 14th-century hounskull, edged in ‘wriggled’ brass trim. Astonishingly, and nearly uniquely, the helmet’s original mail aventail has survived wholly intact, complete with brass vervelles and leather edging. Plate armor was only just beginning to become common during the period of this helmet’s manufacture, and it is clearly related to a series of other armor pieces decorated with the same distinctive ‘wriggled’ brass edging from the Churburg armory where it originates. However, armor was not commissioned as a whole unified ‘harness’ until several decades into the next century; so it seems likely that the ‘full’ suits were accumulated over time, as their not-quite-matching designs indicate. It should also be noted that the ventilation holes are almost all on the right-hand side of the visor – this is because an opponent’s lance would strike from the left, meaning you wanted as few places it could find purchase as possible. This is also why our Crusader Helmet has its ventilation authentically punched through the right-hand side of the visor only.
(History): The Crusades: At War, At Peace
There can be little doubt that the military and political environment of the Holy Land from the end of the 11th-century CE through to the end of the 1200s was the white-hot forge which hammered medieval European warfare into its specific shape, giving it its character and form stamped with the East.
The motive power of political Islam forged much of the Levant together into a military and cultural behemoth called the Greater Seljuq Empire, much as Christianity had done the same with the Holy Roman Empire in Central Europe a century before. The failure of the Seljuk ruling dynasty resulted in successor states jockeying for power amongst themselves, and turning their ambitions outward, raiding and annexing Byzantine lands to the extent that the Byzantine Emperor appealed to the Pope for aid in 1095 CE. Seeking to exploit this circumstance for the power of the Western Christian Church, which was still reeling from its split with the Orthodox Church earlier in the century, Pope Urban II united Christian kingdoms behind the Papacy against the Islamic Seljuq successor states in the First Crusade. The Prince’s Crusade, as it was known, captured Jerusalem in 1099, and set up a series of Crusader States across the Levant, in modern Israel-Palestine, Syria and southern Turkey: kingdoms consisting of Sunni and Shi’ite Levantine Muslims, Orthodox Christians and nomadic peoples, ruled over and run by dynasties of Christian nobles from France, Germany, England and Italy. These Western Christian wearers of the Crusader helmet were known collectively simply as the Franci.
The Crusaders: ‘Islam’s Vikings’?
The Crusader States existed in the Middle East throughout the Crusader period (indeed, in many ways they define it), weathering eight further Crusades with various goals and levels of success – until their gradual collapse before the mass execution of Knights Templar, Knights Hospitaller and Teutonic Knights by the Mamluk Sultanate before the fallen walls of Acre in 1291. This event marks the grisly end to the Crusader period – but should be understood in the context of near-constant brutality in the rule of the Christian Crusader elite over their Muslim serfs and slaves. The Crusader States were politically and legally stratified, with parallel legal systems for the Syriens and the Franci, and cultural interchange was likely limited by the dispersal of indigenous settlements, the persistent linguistic and cultural barriers, and the well-attested mercenary attitude of the Crusader kings.
However, this is the view which has come down to us from the Franci’s own documents in courtly and administrative Latin, and the earlier histories of the Crusaders which were indelibly coloured by 19th-century Anglocentric attitudes. Modern Muslim scholarship presents a radically different view of the Crusades, which is an incredibly valuable counterpoint. Scholars like Suleiman A. Mourad, author of The Mosaic of Islam, which emphasises the plurality and diversity of Muslim historical experiences, emphasise cultural and scientific exchange, trade and development. The Holy Land is only a small part of the Islamic world, and the West had been interacting with Islamic Iberia and North Africa for centuries by the time of the Crusades. From the perspective of the burgeoning Islamic golden age, expanding the boundaries of human knowledge in mathematics, physiology and art through creative engagement with the Classical Greek and Roman past, the Crusades look altogether different. The military and technological innovations of the Crusader period appear as a far more equal dialectical relationship, where invaders from an impoverished, regressive Western Europe conquer and claim overlordship of an urbanised, developed and flowering civilisation in the Levant. Islamic travellers in the West were amazed by the lush and beautiful land, but they were horrified by its inhabitants. Ibrahim Ibn Ya’qub wrote in the 960s CE, “They do not bathe except once or twice a year, with cold water… They never wash their clothes, which they put on once for good until they fall into tatters.” Whether these are strictly truthful we can take with a pinch of salt: these attestations are part of a process of ‘othering’, mirrored by the same attitudes amongst the Franci.
Thus, we can flip the traditional Crusader narrative, shot through with implicit patronisation, on its head – were the Crusaders to the Islamic kingdoms of the Levant what the Vikings had been to the wealthy kingdoms of England and Frankia two centuries before? Such questions are fascinating to ask in our heads as we develop our re-enactment impressions, and form our roleplay characters. These are ultimately the fascinating layers within a Crusader helmet replica of such exquisite quality as ours.
Material: Mild steel
Secondary material: Leather