Friday, 7 October 2011

Armour and Shields -Overview

Typical Early Germanic Warrior
Personal protective equipment of some kind would've been crucial to the survival of any warrior or soldier on a battlefield before the introduction of firearms, such as those fighting in Anglo-Saxon, Viking or Norman battles.

Faced primarily by stabbing and slashing weapons, the armour of the Middle Ages was descended from earlier technology and was by no means primitive. Indeed, on modern battlefields where firearms are banished; urban riots, the equipment used by police closely resembles and is descended from technology from the Roman period and Middle Ages.

London Met Police Riot Gear

 It's believed that the principle protection for any Anglo-Saxon, Viking or Norman warrior would be a shield. Many bosses have been recovered from the migration period, often from grave-goods.  Sufficiently many of these have been found that it's reasonable to assume these were commonplace items. Normally requiring a modest quantity of lime, willow or poplar (or in Scandinavian contexts, pine), and a small quantity of valuable iron, such shields were relatively cheap to produce and would've been within the scope of many warriors, but the conventional view regarding the value of iron in this period indicates that an iron shield-boss would still be quite a valuable item. For the poorer warrior, it's not unreasonable to assume that they may have substituted an iron boss for one made from cheaper (but perishable and therefore not preserved) materials such as wood, horn or hide, though, as would be expected, no remains of such components exist in the archaeological record. By the 11th century the "kite" shield had developed, larger and more cumbersome but providing protection of the user's leg, both on foot and on horseback, as seen on the Bayeux Tapestry being used extensively (particularly by the Normans) at Hastings. By the 13th century these had atrophied to a smaller lighter design preserving the roughly kite-shape; the "heater" shield.

In strong contrast to iron shield bosses, finds of armour from the sub-Roman and Migration period through to the dawn of the high Medieval age (ie. from those we call the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings or Normans) are quite rare, particularly in Britain.
Circular and kite shields, and widespread mail-use
Though, for safety, re-enactment groups tend to insist their participants all wear helmets and occasionally armour, archaeological evidence would seem to indicate that these items were extremely rare, and by extension valuable, probably restricted to only the very wealthy.

Body Armour
For the most part, the armour which does survive from Migration-era / early Medieval Europe is of the same family as that which was, for the most part, the dominant form of armour within the Roman army; mail. Flexible, comfortable and effective against slashing and stabbing blows (up to a point), we can only assume that this would've been the preferred choice for the richest of Anglo-Saxon or Viking warriors. 

Coppergate Helm; mail
Only two examples of the material have been uncovered from Anglo-Saxon England; the mail-shirt/byrnie of Sutton-Hoo, and the mail neck-guard of the Coppergate Helm. In both cases, the mail was found in association with an ornate helm (indeed, the two most ornate ever found in England) and so it is generally assumed that (particularly in the early period) protective mail was a kingly possession. These examples are both of very tight weave with small riveted links, heavier and more difficult to construct, and requiring more metal, but much more protective than byrnies constructed of larger rings. It might be supposed that looser-weave mail might be less costly and therefore more commonplace, but no examples in England have been found.  The Bayeux Tapestry shows almost all combatants clad in stylised mail at the Battle of Hastings, but it is not clear how reliable this depiction is regarding such details; certainly it is hard to believe that the non-professional component of Harold's army would've been clad in such elaborate and costly armour.

Besides the small quantities recovered from Anglo-Saxon England, more examples have been found in Europe. The contemporary necropoles of the pre-Viking Vendel Culture in Sweeden have yielded numerous examples of mail, mostly forming the neck-guards of helmets. Ring-size varies among the Vendel cases but construction is broadly similar.
The Valsgarde-burial also contained a number of iron bars, much longer than those that make up the neckguards of a number of other helmets, with evidence of being fastened to leather straps. Archaeologists decided that these would've formed a protective corset, as shown, but this was proven to be incorrect; such armour simply can't be worn. These bars are, however, evidence of protective arm-guards and shin-guards. No evidence of such equipment has been found in England, but it might be reasonable to suppose that some high-status Anglo-Saxon warriors may have worn such equipment, either of similar design or perhaps constructed from organic materials.

It might seem difficult to believe that poorer warriors would've entered battle in nothing but cloth, especially when leather, rawhide, or mould-able horn were widely and cheaply available. No convincing evidence of armour constructed from these materials has been found, either because these materials rot, this equipment was not normally included in the burial rite, or perhaps because our ancestors saw such equipment as having little real value on the battlefield. Skilful use of a sturdy shield certainly provides much better protection from spear-thrusts and sword-hits than any body armour, and it is not clear whether feasible organic armours would really make much difference to, for example, a killing spear-thrust. 

In contrast to most modern depictions of Saxon, Viking or Norman armies in the Middle-Ages, the rarity of helmet-finds indicates that in the early period, helmets were rare items and the preserve of rich warriors or kings. There have been only 4* helmets from the Anglo-Saxon period found in England, with a further 2 only partially relevant;
  • Sutton Hoo; 6th-7th Century. Ornate, highly decorative, similar structurally to a Roman cavalry helm. Pagan imagery. Ridge-helm with deep cheek-pieces. The helm of a king. 
  • Benty Grange; mid 7th Century. Nasal helm. Boar crested. Iron framework filled by organic (leather or horn) pieces indicates wearer was not especially wealthy. Silver hammer-shaped rivets, and gilded silver, bronze and garnet boar-crest suggests otherwise. Both Christian and Pagan imagery.
  • Coppergate; 8th Century. Ornate but functional. Ridge helm with deep cheek-pieces and mail aventail. Mostly Christian decoration.
  • Pioneer; 7th Century. Also known as the Wollaston or Northamptonshire Helmet.  Sparsely decorated. Design similar to the Coppergate but boar-crested like Benty-Grange. Pagan. 
  • Burgh Castle; very poorly preserved sub-Roman / early Migration Period helm. Many attempts at reconstructions bear resemblances to early Anglo-Saxon helmets. 
  • Staffordshire Hoard; Probably 7th-8th century. Only fragments of decorative silver-foils, and possibly a horse-head crest have been found; nothing of the helmet's structure was found, so we can only speculate as to what it might have looked like. 
*EDIT:   Since initial publication of this article, a further confirmed case of an Anglo-Saxon helmet has surfaced. The Shorwell Helm, dated to the 6th Century, was uncovered from a warrior grave on the Isle of Wight and initially thought to be a cooking pot. This highly fragmented example is of spangenhelm construction similar to Frankish finds.       A number of other further examples of 'Viking' and 'Anglo-Saxon' helms allegedly dating to between the 9th and 12th centuries surface from time to time, although these are often of dubious quality and provenance, and consequently are not recognised as authentic. As such, the above list remains, at the time of this edit (Jan2014), comprehensive.
The Sutton-Hoo, Coppergate and Pioneer all show "northern ridge-helm" construction, as does the Burgh Castle. Each of these have deep cheek-pieces, and all English (Anglo-Saxon) helms recovered (with the exception of Sutton-Hoo) have a nasal rather than eyepieces (as seen on many Scandinavian examples).
Pre-Viking Helm (Vendel-1, Sweden)
Most comparable to the predominantly ridge-helm examples found in England are the many helmets of the pre-Viking Vendel Culture in Sweden. These show many stylistic similarities to the Sutton Hoo helm in particular, though in general show much less Roman influence in their design, often foregoing cheek-pieces in favour of curtains of mail. These pre-Viking helms tend to have spectacle eyepieces, a feature which carried through into the only true example of a western Viking helm; Gjermundbu, which is in many ways a less elaborate and decorative version of those from the Vendel period.

Meanwhile, across Europe, the "Spangenhelm" (constructed of numerous steel shapes riveted together forming a ridgeless cap) was dominant as far east as Russia, with examples excavated attributable to the Varangians or Rus people, and these often had cheek-pieces like those of English helmets, showing significant Roman influence.

Once again, it's reasonable to assume that poorer warriors would've worn some sort of head-protection made from cheaper materials such as horn, rawhide or hardened leather, but, as these materials decay, no evidence of such equipment survives.

If any general rule can be suggested from the few steel helmets we have available for study, it's that over time they became, more generic, and less decorative. This transition is illustrated by the contrast between pre-Viking Vendel period helms like the Valsgarde-8 with 10th Century Gjermundbu, or the contrast between early Anglo-Saxon helms like the Sutton-Hoo and Coppergate with the typical "conical-nasal" helms forged from a single piece of steel that, according to the Bayeux Tapestry, had become very common amongst members of both the Anglo-Saxon and Norman armies.
Nasal Helm (Olomouc, Moravia) 11th Century
This transition from elaborate to simple, decorative to functional, unique to mass-produced, is also indicative of a transition from the glorification and decoration of the lone heroic warrior, to the uniformity and discipline of a professional army of soldiers.

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