Monday, 21 January 2013

Anglo-Saxon and "Viking" Helmets and Helmet Words

Helmets, and Helmet Words
Replica of the Sutton-Hoo Mound-1 Helm

The magnificent Sutton-Hoo helmet remains one of the most memorable and evocative symbols of the Anglo-Saxon Age; an age when many still worshipped the Old Gods of battle and death. Along with the splendid helms of pre-Viking Vendel Sweden, the Anglo-Saxon war-helms provide a unique insight into the mindset of our ancestors, and it is interesting to examine the terms our ancestors used for helmets and their components. 
In this article, the form and function of Migration and Viking-Age Helmets are discussed, with reference to the most notable finds, alongside an examination of the Old English and Old Norse words used to describe them.

Even in the early 20th Century, when body armour had been consigned to the history book, most combat troops wore a steel helmet of some type. As the repository of the body’s computer, the head is uniquely vulnerable to even minor blows, which incapacitate the victim. From antiquity, therefore, some type of head protection has been worn, ranging from simple padded leather affairs to heavy one piece bronze or iron helms. A helm needs to be tough enough to protect the head but light enough to not strain the neck muscles. It needs to protect the back of the neck and the vital blood-vessels in the neck while allowing the wearer to see his enemy, hear commands and be able to move his neck. It thus becomes clear that, as with any armour, that design is a matter of compromise and priorities; covering the head, face and neck in metal gives good all-round protection but compromises vision, hearing and is quite heavy. A simple metal cap allows freedom of movement and does not compromise the senses but leaves the wearer’s neck and face exposed.

In the Early Middle Ages in Northern Europe, the helm had a secondary function for the hero-warrior; it was a showcase for his prowess and wealth. Any metal helmet would have been expensive but these Northern warriors had their protective head-gear covered in shining silver or tinned bronze decorative foils and decorated with the golden images of apotropaic animal heads, notably boars, dragons and horses. Perhaps carrying the image of a god’s totemic animal placed the wearer under that god’s protection. All this decoration would have added a little weight and would have rendered the helm a little less efficient in its primary purpose but the gain would have been considerable as all but the best warriors would seek to avoid the wearer, who had to be formidable in order to have been able to afford such a helm.
11th Century Nasalhelm, from Moravia
Later in the period, from the 9th Century onwards, helmets, like swords, shield and saxes, became plainer and more functional. Instead of being constructed from small strips of iron, riveted together and then covered in decoration, helmets started to be hammered out from a single piece of wrought-iron. They lost their cheek-pieces and neck-guards and mostly only retained a simple nasal to protect the face. This came about not merely from improvements in metallurgy but also in an inexorable move from heroic warrior combat to less-individual battle. Later, in the High Middle Ages, wealthy knights would decorate their armour, shields and helmets with heraldic images in order to identify themselves to others on the battlefield but never again would helmets be so complex and so beautiful as in the distant Vendeltide.



The modern word ‘helmet’ derives from the Middle French helme, influenced by the Old Italian elmetto - ‘a little helm’. This derives from the Frankish *helm which itself comes from the Proto-Germanic *(k)helmaz which meant ‘protective covering.  Ultimately the term  derives from the Proto-Indo-European word *kel meaning to hide or cover.
The generic Old English term was helm which, in addition to meaning helmet was also used to mean ‘protection’, ‘covering’ and ‘crown’. The equivalent Old Norse term is hjálmr.
Labelled Diagram of Anglo-Saxon / Old English Helmet Words (click to expand)
Labelled Diagram of Old-Norse / West "Viking" Helmet Words

The term ‘helm’ forms a number of compounds notably :
  • Guðhelm - Battle-Helmet.
  • Leðerhelm - presumably a helm made from hardened leather.
  • Isenhelm - Iron Helmet.
  • Banhelm* - literally ‘bone helmet’ or ‘bone protector’. Ban can also mean ‘tusk’.
  • Barhelm* - Boar-Helm - presumably a helm with the image of a boar on top.
*(This word is found once only in Anglo-Saxon literature; in the Finnesburg Fragment. Experts are undecided as to whether this word should be banhelm or barhelm.)

Early iron helmets would have been fabricated from flattened iron strips and joined by riveting. Analysis of the iron of the ‘Coppergate Helm’ shows it to have been made from fairly low-carbon iron, with some phosphorus content, having a hardness equivalent to modern-day mild steel. The iron would have been produced in bars called fyrbendas. These would then have been hot-worked to produce the desired thickness (around 2mm) of plate band. Such a heat-forged band was called a fyrclomm in Old English. these would have been annealed as necessary, then cut and shaped to size. The various bands would then have been punched or drilled to take the many rivets and then joined using soft, low carbon, iron rivets, which would have been closed cold.

In such helms as the Coppergate and Pioneer, a nose-to-nape band was connected to the oval brow-band. A second ear-to-ear band was fitted and the gaps filled by rounded triangular plates possibly called cluts (patches) completing the helmet bowl. In some Vendel helms, the helmet-bowl was finished as an open interwoven mesh of iron strips. 
The crown of the helm was often reinforced by a ridge or comb. This would have been called the wala / walu in Old English - a word which more usually means ridge or bank. In Old Norse, this was called the kambr or comb. The English also used this term as the term cambiht (crested) recalls. 
(Beowulf; lines 1,030-1,034)
ymb þæs helmes hróf héafod-beorge
wírum bewunden walu útan héold
þæt him féla láf frécne ne meahton
scúr-heard sceþðan þonne scyld-freca
ongéan gramum gangan scolde.

Around the helm’s roof the head-protector (my translation)
(was) wound about with wires (the) reinforced crest guarded from without
that the file-survivor could not savagely
injure the quench-hardened (helm) when the shield-hero
against grim enemies had to go.
The walu or ridge would have protected the join between the two halves of the helmet-bowl, which had earlier been hammered from single pieces of iron over a former. The phrase ‘wirum bewunden’ is a good poetic paraphrase of the silver-wire inlay on the ridge of the Sutton-Hoo helm. Alternative explanations include that the walu was strengthened and decorated by wire (possibly of alternating low and high phosphorus content) being wound around it. This may then have been heated to welding heat and hammered to form a cohesive whole. On the other hand, the ridge might have been shaped from a billet of ‘twist-welded’ iron, probably utilising the snake-like chevron pattern.

Replica 'grimhelm' loosely based on the Valsgärde-5 Helm
A distinctive feature of these early helmets is the fixed visor or face-plate seen in its fullest extent in the Sutton-Hoo helmet but also in many of the Vendel helms. This is described poetically in Beowulf as the gríma, thought to mean mask but also meaning ghost, related to grimm meaning "fierce", and relating to the nickname of the God Woden / Oðinn seen in place-names such as ‘Grim’s Dyke’. Grimhelm is glossed as ‘helmet with visor’ in Clarke-Hall’s Old English Dictionary.
 Interestingly, in Old Norse, gríma means ‘mask of helmet’ and in Old Icelandic it means ‘covering for the face / head, mask, cowl.’ The silvery war-visor of a helm could also be described as a blik  in Old Norse, relating to its gleaming appearance. Blik, meaning "gleam" is cognate with the Old English blícan - to glitter / gleam.
These helms give the wearers an unearthly, inhuman appearance. To simple peasants the wearers of such terrifying heregrimas (war-masks) must have appeared like gods!

Replica inspired by Valsgärde-6 Helm
 The Benty Grange, and the somewhat later Coppergate and Pioneer helms do not have such full-face protection. It is not clear to what extent grimhelms were favoured in Anglo-Saxon England, nor is it clear when they went out of fashion. The few helmet finds from England represent such a small sample that it is difficult to say, with any degree of certainty, that any particular style was favoured at any given time. Grimhelms may have disappeared due to changing burial practices (increasing the rarity of warrior finds in general), made unpopular post-Christianisation by their association with Woden, or for functional reasons. Like wearing a High Medieval Great Helm, wearing the Sutton-Hoo helm or similar Vendel-style head protection can critically reduce peripheral vision. As one experienced reenactor once said; 
“It (the Sutton-Hoo helm) actually increases the chance of being hit but reduces the damage if you are !”
Spectacle-type visors also seem to channel spear-thrusts into the eyes. They would seem to have been the lineal descendants of the Roman Cavalry Sports Helms, and it is most likely that they were of most use for mounted warriors where peripheral vision would be less important, and maximum benefit could be gained from their pronounced psychological terror effect.
Later helmets have a ‘nasal’ - a stout strip of iron, usually integral to the nose to nape band, extending down to protect the nose and, to some extent, ward off lateral blows to the face. The term ‘nasal’ dates only to the 15th Century. It derives from the late Middle English nasel, which itself derives from Medieval Latin násále.
There is no recorded Old English term for this structure but the Old Norse term was nef-björg or nas-björg, thus, by inference, the Englisc term may have been the *nos-beorg.

Quite typical of English, rather than Vendel, helmets is the use of hinged cheek-pieces which, when laced together, protect the vulnerable neck vessels. 
Eoforlic scionon      (Beowulf  304)                    
ofer hléor-ber(g)an         gehroden golde,
fáh ond fýr-heard;         ferhwearde héold
gúþmod grummon.     

“Boar-shapes shone
over the cheek-guards adorned with gold,
gleaming and fire-hard; keeping guard of life,
raging with warlike spirit.”
Hleorberg is formed from the Old English hleor meaning cheek and berg - the Mercian form of beorg meaning protection. We also find the term cinberg glossed as ‘defence of chin / cheek, cheek-guard’. This is cognate with the Old Norse kinn-björg. The Old English word cinn means "chin" or "jaw" but kinn in Old Norse means "cheek". 
We also find the word búc glossed in the Old English dictionary as ‘cheek-piece’. This is an obvious borrowing from the Latin term for cheek-piece - buccula from bucca - cheek. 

In the well-constructed Coppergate and much more utilitarian Pioneer helmets, the hleorbergs are attached to the helmet bowl by iron hinges. The Old Norse for hinge is hjarri. Interestingly, there is no recorded word in Old English for what would have been a common piece of iron-work. However, we can confidently predict that the word would have been *henge.
On the Sutton-Hoo helm, the large cheek-pieces were attached only by leather. 

Old Norse has the term barmr, which denotes the brim or rim of a helmet. It also has the more interesting term barð which has been glossed as meaning, among other things, the brim of a helmet. As the basic meaning of barð is beard, it is tempting to wonder if this refers to the fixed lower face plate of such helmets as the Vendel XIV and Valsgärde V.
(Beowulf  1448-54)

"ac se hwita-helm hafelan werede
se þe meregrundas mengan scolde
secan sundgebland since geweorðad
befongen frea-wrasnum, swa hine fyrn-dagam
worhte wæpna smið, wundrum teode
besette swin-licum, þæt hine syðþan no
brond ne beado-mecas bitan ne meahton
“but the shining helmet guarded his head, (my translation)
(the helmet) whose duty it was to stir up the mere depths,
to seek the surging water. (It was) adorned with treasure
hung about with lordly chains, just as in days of yore
it was wrought by the weapon-smith, wonderfully shaped
adorned with boar-images, so that afterwards no
brand nor battle-sword might bite through it.”


Neck Protection


Coppergate (York) Helm
The Sutton-Hoo helm alone has a deep angled neck-plate attached by leather hinges to the helmet bowl. This reflects its Roman ancestry. Several of the Vendeltide helms have curtain of metal strips attached flexibly to the back of the helm. Many of these helms are constructed from riveted strips of iron and it may have been beyond the ability of these early Swedish smiths to make larger sections of armour plate. Certainly it is a less than ideal form of neck protection, limiting the ability of the wearer to rotate the head efficiently.

Of the English helmets, there is no evidence that the Benty Grange helm had a separate neck-guard. The Anglian helmet from York, by far the best preserved, has a wonderfully intact riveted mail-curtain which  extends around the neck and is attached to the cheek-pieces. This is an excellent design. Tragically, the posterior aspect of the Pioneer Helm is missing. However, it is very clearly a much more basic version of the Coppergate, so Pioneer reconstructions often include a a mail curtain.

Some of the Vendeltide helms and the Viking-period (10th Century) Germundbu helmet also had mail neck protection. The Valsgärde VIII has a full-face mail curtain providing good neck protection and mobility at the cost of reduced vision.
The Late Medieval name for mail neck protection attached directly to a helmet is the aventail or camail.
As might be expected, the Middle English aventayle derives from Old French esventail “air-hole”, from esventer from the Latin ex (out), and ventus (wind). The etymology of camail is unclear.
It is much better, though, when referring to Early Medieval neck-protection to use the West Saxon term healsberg, its Mercian equivalent halsberg or its Old Norse counterpart hálsbjörg. This generic term translates simply as “neck protector”. Mysteriously, post Conquest, the term changes its meaning to include the whole mail-coat becoming ‘hauberk’ (c.1300, from the Old French hauberc).

A helm needs to be secured beneath the chin as otherwise it has a disconcerting tendency to fall off, or worse, slip down and block one’s vision. Old Norse has two interesting terms; firstly hjálmbönd which can be translated as ‘helmet-bands or strings. This suggests that the helm was secured by lacing. The second, hjálmgjörd (glossed in Zöega as ‘rim of helmet’) actually easily translates as ‘helmet-girth’, which suggests a neck strap such is found on most modern helmets. The Pioneer helmet has a fixation rivet for such a chin-strap on the cheek-piece. The equivalent Old English term may have been *helm-wriða.

The Pressblech Foils 


Both the Sutton-Hoo helm and many of the Vendel-Period helms have their surfaces covered with decorated bronze foils, tinned to give silvery appearance. Similar foils have been recovered from the Staffordshire Hoard, although these are of silver. All these have similar motifs presumably from Northern Mythology as well as more stylised interwoven decoration. These foil panels were held in place using corrugated copper alloy strips, riveted into place. The 'Pressblech' method involves placing a thin sheet of silver or copper alloy onto a die, covering it with a leather pad or possibly a sheet of soft lead, and striking the top of the pad to produce an impression. The foils would have been quite fragile but fairly easy to repair. The effect of these white-metal foils would be to give the helmet a brilliant shining appearance, which is alluded to in the term hwita-helm used in the Beowulf poem. 

Symbolic and Magical Protection


Our warrior ancestors did not rely entirely on cold iron to keep them safe in battle. 
The overtly Christian Coppergate Helm, coming from devout Northumbria carries a Latin prayer on its crest. This reads :

In the name of our Lord Jesus, the Holy Spirit, God and all, we pray, Amen. Oshere. Christ.
Presumably Oshere was the owner of the helmet. Óshere means ‘warrior of God’; a suitable name for a Northumbrian æþeling (royal). Oshere’s helm also carried many of the old apotropaic totemic symbols of the Old Gods, such as dragon and snarling beast-headed terminals but these are relatively muted.

Pioneer (left) and Benty-Grange (right) Helmets
 The Benty Grange helm once more shows a peculiar syncretism, for although the nasal unrepentantly carries the symbol of the cross, the most prominent feature of the helmet is the beautifully executed iron figure of a boar, studded with gold, fierce garnet and copper-alloy eyes, gilded silver hips, and having a bristling animal-hair comb, riveted to the top of the helmet. The Pioneer Helm carries a more basic version in the same position. Undoubtedly, this is the ‘swinlic / eoforlic’ (swine-likeness, boar-image) mentioned in the Beowulf poem and shown, in exaggerated cartoon-style on the decorative helmet-foils from the Vendel-Culture helms. 

What deity's protection was the boar supposed to bring? Most authorities favour Frea Ing, known to the Vikings as Freyr. Ing was a fertility-god but one of his totems was the boar. The Old Norse described him as riding a boar called Gullinbursti (Golden Bristles).
Possibly more credible, as there is only minimal evidence for the worship of Ing in England, is that the boar-image called on the superior protective abilities of the Earth Mother-Goddess Frea herself. Tacitus notes the devotion of the Anglii tribe for their goddess. The myths recorded in Iceland many hundreds of years later speak of Frejya, sister of Freyr. She too was known for riding a boar and had the nickname of Syr meaning ‘sow’.
The fragments of helm-fittings in the Staffordshire Hoard include a horse’s head crest terminal and a hollow ridge into which a horse-hair crest may have fitted. Mercia was renowned for its horsemen or rádcnihts, which is why none other than J.R.R. Tolkien based his Riders of Rohan on this kingdom. The horse was sacred to Ing but also to the æþeling-god Wóden /Óðinn.
Woden would seem to have been worshipped by the Mercians as evidenced by place names from the heart of Mercia such as Wednesbury (Wednesburg) and Wednesfield (Wednesfeld) -now in the West Midlands but once part of Staffordshire. The use of totemic imagery of horses on helmets, though unprecedented, might therefore make some sense in a Mercian context. 

The god-like helms of the Early Medieval Period certainly de-humanise their wearers in the eyes of an observer. The heaðostéapa helm (battle-steep helm) made the wearer appear much taller and thus more imposing. His face hidden by iron, he would look like an emotionless dealer of death. As the tell-tale cues which usually telegraph intent to an opponent are masked, the Grimhelm wearer would be difficult to fight successfully. If you can intimidate your foe by threat display, you do not need to fight them and risk injury. 
For the modern reenactor, however, these helms have the disadvantage of scaring small children and dogs. Perhaps unfortunately, though, no members of the public have ever confused us for Gods!

The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial’, Angela Care Evans.
Anglo-Saxon Weapons and Warfare’, Dr Richard Underwood.
Barbarian Warriors’, Dan and Susanna Shadrake.
Dominic Tweddle's "The Anglian Helmet from Coppergate".
J.R. Clark Hall’s Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary;
Bosworth and Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary;
Geir T. Zoëg’s Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic;
Steve Pollington’s invaluable ‘Wordcraft’ and ‘The English Warrior’.
Viking Weapons and Warfare’ by J. Kim Siddorn.


Richard C. Lambert said...
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needthistool said...

Fantastic post. Couldn't find anywhere else on the internet giving terminology for the different parts of old helms like this. Cheers.