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Introduction: There is a boggling array of modern reproduction medieval helmets for sale. But fear ye not! If we approach the history of the medieval battle helmet from the beginning, building from first principles and charting the differing roles and statuses of various medieval helmets, you’ll be able to quickly narrow down exactly which helmet says what you want your re-enactment or LARP impression to say.
Early Helmets to the Medieval Period
The earliest helmets that we have historical evidence for date from around the 26th-century BCE, to the Mesopotamian cities of Sumer in modern-day Iraq. Clearly, even the most ancient peoples realised that head injuries had a less-than-ideal effect on people in general, and that they should to be avoided if at all possible. Archaeological excavations at the Sumerian city of Ur have turned up simple copper and copper-alloy skullcaps, which seem to be represented pretty faithfully in Sumerian art, such as on the military mosaic known as the Standard of Ur where they are shown as being held on with a chinstrap. The electrum Helmet of Meskalamdug was found as part of a huge trove of Sumerian burial treasures, and it is likely one of the oldest surviving helmets. It is shaped as to depict the wearer’s hair, complete with centre-parting and man-bun, and has been theorised to represent the wearer’s status of the ‘King of Kish’ who ruled over both of the states of Sumer and Akkad. Clearly, from the dawn of human civilisation, helmets were already wrapped up in status and power.
The ancient Greeks had developed simple prehistorical helmet forms into a more complex construction. The Met Museum holds a gorgeous Corinthian helmet with matching greaves (leg-armor), which would have been part of an elite warrior’s panoply, his personal armory. The helmet has long cheek-guards with narrow elliptical eyeholes, providing excellent protection to the face and throat, and has a sweeping tail to protect the back of the neck. The curves of the Corinthian-type helmet were designed to turn aside slashing weapons – and this is a requirement which would be significantly addressed by the makers of medieval helmets. We know that reinforced leather helmets of similar design would have been used by less wealthy Greek citizens or levied slaves.
Roman helmet types evolved over the long sweep of Roman history: initially, the early Roman military would have used a Negau helmet – a style influenced by their neighbours the Etruscans, named after the Negau horde where more than 50 complete helms were found in modern-day Slovenia. These were helmets with a long longitudinal ridge and a rim, somewhat resembling the much later and unrelated ‘Conquistador’ morion. During the Roman conquests of Gaul, Roman helmets began to look much more ‘Roman’, ironically because they began using local Gallic armorsmiths to outfit the Roman military. The smiths made helmets with techniques and construction from their own culture, and so the ‘Imperial-Gallic’ Roman helmet – the type that we would all recognise as a ‘Roman’ helmet, with cheek flaps, brass decoration and an exaggerated tail protecting the neck – was born. This helm could be very simply decorated for ordinary legionaries, or highly adorned with fixings for a spectacular coloured horsehair brush to denote senior rank.
As the Roman Empire reached its greatest expanse, the Legions became stretched increasingly thin, and much of the work of protecting the borders of the Empire was farmed out to contractors – local chiefs, who would provide their own forces with their own equipment. This influence meant the slow spread of ‘barbarian’ styles across the pre-Medieval world via their inclusion into the Roman military, such as the Sassanian ridge helmet. Ridge helmets were likely adopted from Middle-Eastern troops, particularly cavalry, serving in Roman standing militaries. Where the Imperial-Gallic helmet was made primarily from one piece of iron or copper-alloy, painstakingly and labouriously beaten into a domed shape, the ridge helmet was constructed from either two or four iron or steel plates united by a pronounced ridge running from the brow to the nape of the neck. They often incorporated the hinged cheek-guards of earlier Roman helmets, and a neck-protecting tail but in less pronounced form. In the north and west of Europe, the spangenhelm became more common through this same diffusion of ‘barbarian’ styles into the Roman military. Like the ridge helmet, this Germanic helmet was significantly easier to produce than the older one-piece Roman helmets, requiring less skill and time, and could be made with the poorer quality metals commonly available to the Germanic armorsmiths. It was made by uniting three or four metal plates, usually iron or bronze, with a series of spangen, or ‘braces’, that gave the helmet structural integrity.
As we shall see, these disparate influences met and melded throughout the medieval period to give us the medieval helmets that we recognise today.
Some Medieval Helmet Types
Anglo Saxon Helmets: The Sutton Hoo Helmet (c. 625CE)
Probably the single-most recognisable symbol of British history is the Sutton Hoo Helmet. We’ve all seen it – the furrowed gilded brows, the proud nose, the moustache of the faceplate, and the high horse-decorated ridge. It was found in 1939 at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, in what turned out to be a burial site of unparalleled richness, along with intricately made gold brooches, a cloisonné-hilted sword, money and even silver tableware – as well as the preserved impression of a whole 40-oar boat! It is theorised that this burial hoard, and the helmet, might have belonged to King Raedwald of East Anglia himself (or at least his close kin), and rather than showing a poor, isolated island, it speaks to a kingdom thriving with European trade. The coins bear Frankish marks, the gold brooches are made in Germanic art style, and a silver platter even bears the mark of the Eastern Roman Emperor Anastasius I. The helmet is no different: its construction is most similar to those found in the Northern European Vendel culture, the peoples who immediately preceded the Vikings, who constructed high helms made from two hemispherical plates connected with a central ridge. You may well recognise this style from the late-Roman cavalry helmets adopted from Sassanian horsemen. This style of construction had indeed travelled clear across Europe: from what is now Iran and Iraq, across the Balkans, through Germania and Gaul, to the chilly North, where Angles and Jutes colonising England after the Romans brought their methods with them to their new home. The cheek-guards and wide fantail again point to this helmet’s European heritage.
Even though the helmet was richly decorated, being foiled with tinned bronze to give a silvery appearance that would have gleamed in the sun after being polished, that did not mean that it was merely ceremonial. Most scholars agree that the construction of this medieval helmet was highly practical, and may even have been worn by Raedwald or his kin into the Battle of the River Idle, which secured his dominion over all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
When choosing a medieval armor helmet inspired by early-medieval royalty, the Sutton Hoo helmet can give us some valuable pointers. The helmet itself was all about projecting the status and personhood of the king: even though it covered the wearer’s face, it gave him a new uncanny metallic visage, merging him with his armor and becoming a ruler augmented in battle. The materials used – silvery bronze and gold – show status and wealth. And the traditional construction and shape of the helmet would not have been lost on a people with a complex and detailed martial culture: this was a warrior of culture, who looked outward from his island to the continent and beyond. You can incorporate all of these into your own historical or LARP impression.
Norman Nasal Helmet: The Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1070CE)
After Duke William of Normandy had become William I the Conqueror of England, being the victor, he was the one who got to write the history. What do you do when you’ve seen off two other kings to become undisputed ruler of an empire spanning a sea? You get your half-brother Bishop Odo completely without prompting to make an enormous tapestry telling everyone what a good, kind and righteous ruler you are, actually, that’s what. The tapestry (or more accurately the woven embroidery, although ‘The Bayeux Woven Embroidery’ is a rubbish name) was likely designed somewhere in England or Scotland by Anglo-Saxon artists, and the work of constructing it was probably done by English needleworking women. It is more than 68 metres long, although we think that it is missing a final portion depicteding William’s coronation. It contains dozens of priceless clues to medieval life of the period which we have not found in any other source, including eating habits, dress and so on – but most important for us, detailed depictions of medieval helmet types.
The Norman cavalry is the most interesting for our purposes. Every horseman is subtly different in outfit, but they all are wearing full coats of mail and a classic Norman helmet, known as a conical or nasal helm. Indeed, our identification of the Norman invaders with this style of helmet is partially due to its ubiquity in this seminal source. The key feature of the nasal helm is its wide nose-guard projecting down from the brim – and the Norman type is marked out by its pointed conical shape, designed to turn away downward blows from axes or swords. In the Bayeux Tapestry, it appears that the artists would have been familiar with the differentiation of designs between Norman helms: some are shown as a single block of colour for the pointed skullcap, indicating that these nasal helms are raised from a single sheet of metal, and some are clearly of segmented construction, descending from the earlier Germanic spangenhelm. Some of the soldiers are also wearing an aventail: a curtain of mail to protect the neck attached to the medieval helmet which first appears in this period, either riveted onto the helmet directly or sewn to a leather lining. There is some differentiation between the outfits of the elite knights and those of the highest nobles: the commissioning patron of the tapestry Bishop Odo is shown wielding a club and wearing an overcoat of what appears to be quilted leather (with a Latin caption that translates rather brilliantly to ‘Here Odo the Bishop holding a club strengthens the boys’), but clearly this could get confusing in battle. One panel depicts William having to remove his nasal helm to show that he was not dead in order to prevent a rout: this strongly indicates that nose-guard of his helm was wide enough to obscure his identity.
Whilst this style was the forefront of 11th-century medieval battle helmets, depicting an elite fighting vanguard of well-equipped nobles and their households (because, if you’re making a tapestry, you want your side to look fancy as heck), the nasal helmet became a little passé as plate armor developed into the high-medieval period – a medieval helmet with visor would give much better protection. However, they became a staple for skirmishers and archers in particular, for whom field of vision was more important that full-head protection. If you’re portraying a light trooper of this type, or a noble of the earlier period, then a modern reproduction nasal helm would be an excellent choice.
The Funereal Great Helm of Albert von Pranckh (c. 1325 CE)
Imagine a Teutonic Knight: he is crashing into battle, streaming with regalia and banners flapping from his lance and his horse, with an enormous pair of wings on his helmet. Cool, right? Sadly, too cool. If they had done that, the first pikeman would have grabbed the nearest streamer, yanked Sir Percy off his horse and made him into extremely chivalric prosciutto. But – it’s almost true. There are a handful of surviving medieval knight helmets that have retained their chivalric regalia, painted papier-mâché or leather icons often taken from that knight’s coat of arms or wider medieval symbology. There are only two confirmed surviving regalia of this type: the Black Prince’s (slightly silly) Lamb of God regalia at Canterbury Cathedral, and the funereal helm of 13th-century Austrian knight Albert von Pranckh. Although it may well have accompanied Albert on crusade and been worn ceremonially, its spectacular gold-and-silver leather horns were removable for battle. The helm itself is of a typical construction for the period: a great helm made of thin mild steel, with narrow eye-slits close to the eyes which would have provided surprisingly good vision. This helmet has few of the comforts of later helmets – air holes, ear accommodation, etc – and even though it would have been worn over a heavy padded coif, it would have been hot and exhausting to wear in the Middle Eastern sun. Such is the price of keeping your brains in!When taking inspiration from these helmets, remember the purpose of these wild crests: imposing status on ceremonial occasions and maybe in ritual combat such as jousts – but never in actual battles. Nevertheless, a great helm and regalia can provide a peerless eye-popping addition to your impression of a high-medieval knight.
Helm At Last
We’ve barely scratched the surface of the huge variety of medieval helmet types – but we can immediately see how different styles and designs complement different battlefield roles, how different materials speak to different social statuses, and how they evolved over time. If you keep these questions in mind when you’re browsing the variety of medieval helmets for sale, you’ll make the best possible choice for your LARP outfit or re-enactment impression.