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Things That Have Interested Me

A Call to Arms

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published 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 for life.

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 today).

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.

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