Bill Long 5/6/05
As I was going through the lists, I started coming upon lots of words that described medieval armor, such as armet, brigandine and burgonet. When I looked up those terms, I saw that they brought a host of other terms with them. Rather than skipping them all, I thought it would be fun to try to get our armor terminology straight. If that is too ambitious for this essay, at least we can focus on helmets. I think we will be lucky if we get through helmets.
I ran across burgonet today, which the Century spells as burganet or burgonet, even thought the Collegiate confidently spells it only with "onet." It is derived from Burgundy, the region between France and Germany, and is defined as a helmet worn in the sixteenth century, in two forms: one without a vizor, like the morion, but with cheek-pieces and a movable nose-guard; the other with a vizor and similar to the armet.
So, we have to probe deeper, don't we? Well, let's start with morion. A morion, perhaps derived from a Spanish word meaning a hillock or the crown of the head, is a helmet somewhat like a hat in shape but often with a crest or comb over the top (hence a cockscomb morion) with or without a beavor or vizor, introduced into England from France or Spain at the beginning of the 16th century.
The other example, which has a vizor, is called an armet. An armet is defined as "the most complete and perfect defensive head covering of the middle-ages, introduced about 1450, and continuing until the abandonment of the closed headpiece." I suppose they were abandoned when guns became able to blow them off, along with the head inside. Well, we need to go through the parts of the armet, before we close this essay with a few words about helmets before the armet.
The Armet and a Detour
The definition goes on to introduce us to more terms. The armet was "lighter than the heaume and even the basinet, and was better protection than the sallet." The heaume (pronounced HOME) was a large helmet, dating from the 12th century, that covered the head completely, and was worn over a steel cap. It had no vizor nor aventaile (got to get to that word!), but was worn only in fight, and rested directly upon the armor of the neck. The head could move freely when covered by the heaume, but the headpiece was very heavy and unwieldy. Often the heaume was attached to the shoulder by two ailettes. An ailette, derived from the Latin for "wing" (ala), was a plate of iron worn over the shoulders to protect the upper arm before plate armor was introduced. As the Century says, these ailettes were often "charged with heraldic bearings" (which means that they often had running lions etched into them). Let's not get into heraldry now, or we will never extricate ourselves.
The basinet (or basnet) also goes back to the 13th century and is a vizorless steel cap, originally of very simple form, named for its resemblance to a little basin. It was often worn alone, but when the knight entered into battle, the heavy heaume was slipped on over it. Later, when the heaume was abandoned, the basinet was equipped with a vizor, and it became the standard headgear until the triumph of the armet in the 15th century.
Finally, the sallet was a kind of helmet introduced at the beginning of the 15th century whose distinguishing mark as a curved and fixed projection behind. The sallet is simple in form, with rounded surfaces everywhere, and is especially well-suited to repel the blows of the opponent. Shakespeare has a fine play on words in 2 Hen. VI, where one character talks about going into the garden to get a sallet (an obsolete form of salad), and then he says, "And I think this word sallet was born to do me good; for many a time, but for a sallet (helmet), my brain-pan had been cleft with a brown-bill" (2 H VI, 4.10.9).
Back to the Armet
Ok. Now, if I haven't lost you, we are ready to run through the terminology of the armet, the most sophisticated helmet, introduced about 1450. It had about six parts. The top, covering the head, was called the calotte or cap. A neck guard was riveted to it from behind. Then there was an upper vizor, or umbril, above the eyes. A lower vizor, with an opening for breathing, was below the umbril. Then there was a piece called an aventaile, which is the movable front part of the helmet, that can open sideways. Below it is what is called the rim of the gorgerin, which encircles the neck. The gorgerin is of three pieces, which move upon each other, and all are riveted to a leather band beneath.
Once you have covered the head, so to speak, you are ready to descend to the rest of the body. But time would fail me to speak of the corselet, which covers the thoracic area, and the pauldrons and plastron near the upper part of the corselet, and the pansiere at the lower end. I had better stop before I exhaust myself. I think I really need to return to the dictionary now. A fuller exposition of medieval armor, to say nothing about terms from heraldry, will have to await another time.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long