|A Call to Arms
copyright © 2007
in The Guardian
22 December 2007
Many a parent must have spent a Saturday or
two looking at arms and armour, after exhausting the dinosaurs.
But there are other reasons for taking an interest in armets
and arquebuses, basinets, brandistocks, brigandines, burgonets,
gardbraces, glaives and so forth. A pleasure in words alone
might be one. I see, for instance, that to describe correctly
the elements of the hilt of a rapier, from the blade to the
button (the end point of the pommel), you must know and identify
the side ring, the ricasso, the quillon block, the forward and
the rear quillon, the grip and the knuckle guard.
To take such pleasure in an exact technical
description may not be to everybody's taste. To take a pleasure
in ancient metalwork is not eccentric. Metalwork is a fundamental
category of material culture, like cloth or ceramics. And these
arms could not have a more powerful message for us. I kill,
they say, and I protect: I am designed for death, and I am designed
This aspect of them, their design, is most
crucial. One way in which many fake or replica items of armour
have been distinguished from the genuine has been through their
design: the helmet that does not permit the wearer to see is
not an object destined either for the battlefield or for the
parade-ground. But it may have been fine to hang high on a wall,
in some romantic castle's Gothic revival banqueting hall.
Form was following function in armour long
before people started saying that form follows function. The
angular, faceted armour of the medieval knight, with its sharp
ridges and curved surfaces, was inspired first and foremost
by the need to deflect arrows, swords and spears. The Japanese
warrior with his lobster-tail helmet was not dressing up as
a crustacean on some absurd whim. Of course, in both cases a
potential for beauty was perceived and pursued, and what was
suggested by function took on an aesthetic impetus of its own.
One cannot distinguish at a glance between
what was designed for fighting and what was intended for display.
It might have seemed right and highly desirable to appear magnificent
on the battlefield, just as it seemed right, in the chivalric
tradition, to identify oneself, as a proud aristocrat, to ally
and enemy alike. Conversely, some of the jousting armour, designed
for a kind of mock battle in which one would have expected magnificence
to be a priority, seems rather plain.
It is highly unlikely that the coveted showpiece
of any museum's collection - a complete set of armour with a
complete set of horse armour to match - will be entirely genuine.
The odds are heavily weighted against such a survival. And,
indeed, one might well wonder how many warriors went out with
such a complete matching set in the first place (the kind of
people, perhaps, who travel with complete sets of matching luggage
The word composite is used to cover sets of
armour made up of pieces from disparate sources. Where a museum
has a striking composite set that makes historical sense, it
would seem a misplaced purism to break up the set and display
only its oldest pieces. On the other hand, with this subject
as with so many others, only what is true is truly interesting.
A museum may set out to inspire the imagination of a child,
but must never forget that what it is promulgating should be
genuine. And besides, armour was mostly for adults, and armour
as a subject of inquiry should be an adult subject, too. But
this has not always been the case: the stately home with its
ghost and its suits of armour has been a byword for bogusness.
To show an interest in armour has been a sign of a certain infantility.
It is estimated that 95 per cent of existing
armour post-dates the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Most of it
is later than we think. The expression "a knight in shining
armour" refers to a system of body protection that was
developed only after 1350 (to replace chain mail). There is
very little Roman armour because it was not buried with the
dead. It was taken back to the depot, repaired and reissued.
Armour would always have had a scrap value, whatever metal it
was made of.
There are indeed two countervailing tendencies
- to destroy armour as scrap or to preserve it as a trophy,
whether as a memorial to the dead knight or as part of the triumph
of his enemies. The importance attached to a man's armour is
very ancient. We see it both in the figures carved on medieval
tombs and in the practice of hanging real armour above the sculpted
figure of the dead.
When the Trojan Sarpedon, the son of Zeus,
is killed by Patroclus in the Iliad, his last wish is that the
Achaeans should not be allowed to strip him of his armour. This
happens, however - it cannot be prevented. So Zeus gives order
for the twins Sleep and Death to carry Sarpedon away from the
battlefield, and for his body to be anointed with ambrosia.
And in an Etruscan bronze at the Cleveland Museum of Art, we
see the winged figures of Sleep and Death having taken the naked
Sarpedon, to prevent his body being mutilated by the Myrmidons.
Sleep and Death themselves wear armour. They have crested helmets
in the Greek style, on which we see that the cheek pieces (which
would have been folded down for combat) are now in the upright
position. From this technical detail alone, we may conclude
that the twins are no longer in the thick of the conflict -
they are preparing to set the body down "in the rich land
of wide Lycia. And there," says Zeus, "will his brothers
and his kinspeople give him burial with mound and pillar; for
this is the privilege of the dead."
Meanwhile, Patroclus himself has only a few
lines left to live.