(About) The High Water Mark
Armor from the 15th-century is legendary amongst armor-makers, representing the most exquisite combination of form and function. Darksword Armory have a deep reverence for the original forms created by the master-smiths of the late-medieval period – and their historical reproductions show this respect in the meticulousness of their reproduction. The Plate Helmet that they have designed for us is no exception.
A Rugged Chivalric Helm
Our Plate Helmet is a faithful replication of a 15th-century helmet called a close helm (sometimes spelled ‘closed helm’). If you imagine a knight in a full harness of shining plate, chances are you’ll imagine them wearing a close helm. Ours is a fully functional replica made from mild steel – this was the material of choice for armorers throughout the medieval period, and as steel became a more cheaply available and high-quality resource, armorers leaped at the chance to experiment with new ways of protecting the noble noggin.
Darksword have chosen to use 16-gauge steel in their reproduction. Generally, surviving battlefield plate helmets from the medieval period tended to use thin steel, usually around 18- or 20-gauge – mobility was evidently more of a concern than extra safety. 16-gauge steel is more commonly used in tournament armor, so our Plate Helmet can be considered an absolutely authentic piece of tournament armor. It is untempered, and so isn’t rated for full-contact combat – but its thickness and the quality of the steel mean that it is more than rugged enough to withstand the wear-and-tear of staged combat, re-enactment and LARP usage. Remember though: you should always store non-stainless steel dry, and keep it lightly oiled or waxed.
A Marvel of Medieval Making
The design of the close helm is a truly spectacular feat of late-medieval engineering. As rivet technology improved, ever-more-complex feats of articulation became possible, and armorers became capable of making exquisite multi-functional helmets – like the designs that our Plate Helmet is based upon. Our Plate Helm has a compound visor with three points of opening: at the nose, at the bevor and at the gorget. You don’t need to be concerned about any of these coming loose in the heat of the moment: the visor is attached to the pointed ventail with a secure stud, and the ventail locks in place with a handy hook at the jaw.
The top of the domed cap of the helmet has a crest designed to turn aside downward blows, a feature which would only become more pronounced on later Renaissance helmets. The gorget is made up of six curved articulated lames, meaning it is comfortable and flexible, and will sit well with any of the other armor in our collections. The Plate Helmet also has some other extremely handy design perks that make it even more comfortable: the ventail is pierced with a dozen slits for excellent ventilation, and the interior of the helmet is lined with leather. It is fitted with Darksword Armory’s unique adjustable suspension system so you can achieve an excellent comfortable fit without the layers of hot, uncomfortable padding that medieval soldiers would have required.
All in all, in our Plate Helmet you have a rare opportunity to own a slice of history. Every piece of Darksword re-enactment equipment is hand-made, and so it’s likely the closest that any of we mere mortals will come to wearing an authentic piece of historical plate armor. It would make a truly unique addition to a garniture of plate armor for a late-14th-century knightly re-enactment – and it would also make a bold centrepiece for a LARP outfit of a warrior-noble or paladin. It is fully compatible with any of the other armor on our store – this Plate Helmet is finished in a matte satin rather than a mirror-polish when matching armor.
(Curiosity) A Matter of Definition
Often you’ll find the close helm referred to as an ‘armet’ – including by contemporary sources, confusingly – but modern scholars of medieval arms and armor distinguish between these two types of helmet. The armet is put on by opening two cheek-pieces attached at the nape of the neck, whereas the close helm opens at a single pivot point with the visor and gorget.
(History) The Close Helm and the Renaissance: Classical Style, New-Age Nous
Looking at the medieval period through “the immense condescension of posterity”, as historian EP Thompson put it, it’s easy to think that artists and artisans were acting blind, merely doing what ‘came naturally’ without an awareness of their own times or the times that had gone before. But nothing could be further from the truth. Although their sources of inspiration were markedly different, and the conclusions they drew from interpretations of the past were too, medieval people constantly sought to root themselves in history, despite (and arguably because of) the privations of their often-precarious lives. This is strongly evident in the arms and armor of the Renaissance period – of which our Plate Helmet is a prime example.
An Awareness of That Which Went Before
Helmets beaten out of plates of bronze and iron have been used by warriors as far back as recorded history allows us to see – even on the inscribed stelae of ancient Mesopotamia, soldiers are depicted wearing conical copper helms. Greek Corinthian helmets, hammered from bronze in the 1st-milennium BCE, became a vital part of Classical iconography – worn perched on the back of the head when not in use, they became a visual shorthand for martial virtue in a mostly-illiterate society. The Romans, past-masters of cultural assimilation, used plate helmets that were Gallic in origin – the infantry helmet called the galea bears this even in its name. These are the forms and ideas that makers of plate helmets would call upon when they were rediscovered in the medieval period.
Suddenly, The Renaissance
The Renaissance is hard to date exactly since it represents a broad shift in understanding of the world, but we can roughly locate its genesis in the Italian peninsula in the early 14th-century, spreading outward from Florence and Northern Italy, and becoming current in the rest of Europe by about 1500.
Where the thinkers and ideologues of the High Middle Ages were theologians focused strongly on Biblical truths, Renaissance thinkers began to look to the mortal realm for physical and moral fact. Ancient Greek manuals on health and anatomy were rediscovered in the West, having been preserved by Arabic scholars. A unique set of socio-political circumstances arose in the Italian peninsula, where networks of decentralised city-states became wealthy and began to experiment with less censorious political forms (even something called ‘democracy’; it’ll never catch on). The devastation wrought by the Black Death had an enormous impact on the collective late-medieval psyche, turning people’s eyes away from lofty concerns about salvation to the realities of life on earth. All of these influences combined and swirled in amongst the ruined columns and crumbling frescoes of the ancient Roman civilisation. How could the Renaissance not happen?
The New World Made in Metal
This rediscovery of the Classical world happened simultaneously with the revolution in armor that was necessitated by the failure of chainmail in the face of dangerous new crushing and piercing weapons, like the powerful longbow and the war-hammer. With the increasingly availability of steel from new partly-mechanised methods of steel production, armor-makers were creating plate armor and plate helmets that could frustrate these new threats – and those armor-makers were forward-thinking people with their fingers on the pulse of the elite humanist Renaissance fashions that their clients were steeped in.
Some forms of armor are very obviously informed by rediscovered Classical styles. There are some styles of a plate helmet known as the barbute that appear to be a very close copy of the Corinthian Greek helmet. Although their construction and method of making was developed directly from the 13th-century sallet helm, Roman frescos and sculptures which depicted the Greek martial idea in the form of the Corinthian helmet would have been well-known to skilled artisans in the 14th-century. More fanciful and imaginative examples of importing Classical ideas into arms and armor exist in the all’antica or alla romana style. This school, beginning in the late 15th-century, made truly spectacular suits of parade armor for the gentry which, admittedly, often border on the ridiculous to our eyes today. This armor was often spectacularly decorated with writhing battle scenes from the ancient past and friezes from Classical tales like the Odyssey. The undisputed master of this form was Fillipo Negroli, whose armor was covered with repoussé, intricate raised decoration made in hard steel rather than more malleable iron. The suit of Roman-style armor made for Bartolomeo Campi in the 1550s is a jaw-dropping example, combining the Roman lorica musculata torso armor with puffy Renaissance sleeves and a fancy Classical-esque burgonet plate helmet.
Keep Your Helms Close
The close helm emerged in this world, borne partly from practical necessity, and partly for the ostentatious display of a fading past. We can see examples of the close helm with spectacular all’antica grotesquerie, such as the mid-16th-century serpentine helm at the New York Metropolitan Museum. This wild example of parade armor must have taken an enormous amount of labour to complete, featuring engraved scales all along the body of the serpent, an enormous sculptural metal head, and gold leafs edging along almost every surface.
But not all plate helms of this period were absurd display pieces – many were clearly designed to be functional battle armor. This functional close helm at the Royal Armories is clearly a practical piece of armor. It has the ‘sparrow’s beak’ – a short and practical visor which was fashionable in European courts less obsessed with the over-the-top Italo-Roman styles. The German Gothic armorers of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I’s court took a different approach: Renaissance Classicism was slower to percolate into German aristocratic style, despite the foundational Roman character of Charlemagne’s Germanic Imperial state. Emperor Maximilian styled himself as ‘The Last Knight’, and he played a significant personal role in the history of armor, patronising a whole school of armorers who bear his name, and who pioneered new techniques of armor-making. This spiky, angular close helmet at Cleveland Museum of Art is a magnificent example of the Maximilian style. The close fluting of the steel on the dome of the helmet was a method used by Gothic armors to crease the steel and give it extra strength and resilience; think of it like a corrugated tin roof for your head. The close-fitting shape of the helmet with even a recognisable jaw shape shows that this helmet would have moved with the wearer, a considerable feat of articulation and design. The compound visor of this close helmet is an inhuman, almost wasp-like aspect evoking compound eyes with multiple spikes and slits mirroring the larger sight slits at the top. When considering the amount of fine work and different skills required to make such an object, it is an incredible feat of craft, and it existed as a conscious rejection of the old styles, forging something new without reference to Roman or Classical style.
In the Renaissance period, we can see the meeting and melding together of the chivalric past, which is already becoming mythologised and commodified for an increasingly urbane noble class in a changing world, with newly rediscovered Romanesque and Classical styles to create armor that embodies all that they felt was good in the world. There is perhaps no better example of this than the cuirassier’s close helm at the Met Museum: it is both richly decorated, having been originally gun-blued to a glossy black finish, but also has bulletproof plating attached to the visor to try desperately to keep up with a world that had no place for knights and chivalry any more.
Material: 16-gauge steel
Liner Material: Leather