Friday, May 23, 2014

History and What It Feels Like - The Great Helm

by Scott Higginbotham

The Past
The annual fair is fast approaching.  My gut churns in anticipation, and my mind swims with wonder.  I have done well in the past year, for my trade has seen a brisk business and crops have been plentiful.  God be praised, war has not touched our humble existence in years.

In many ways I am like my young lads and lass, eagerly awaiting Christmastide and the joy of the New Year, as I save and set aside my earnings in hope of finding the perfect sword or dagger.  Perhaps a good yew bow can be found amongst the packed stalls, or a new helm.  Aye, a new helm.  Should I purchase one with a visor or the tried and true Great Helm?

Public Domain - From Wikimedia Commons

Alas, the decisions are aplenty.

Not many years past, I met a kindred spirit, a man who appreciated good sword steel as much as he enjoyed banter and good conversation.  I oftentimes wonder if he was once a soldier, trying desperately to forget.  Whilst sailing the Middle Sea, I had the wanderlust, much like this man.  It is in the eyes, the wanderlust.  But so are the memories.

This year, I had a sword in hand, ready to exchange good coin for a master’s craft. But a Great Helm, dulled with age and spots of rust, quietly beckoned with it siren song. Placing it over my head, the past returns - for who could forget the hush of the Middle Sea under a canopy of stars? Perhaps it is the soft footfalls of mail-covered boots upon the sands of Outremer or the swish of a horse’s tail that quietly echo and remind?

I once wore a padded coif to cushion its weight; five or so pounds of steel upon one’s bare head can drive even the stoutest soul mad. The coif aided in keeping the helm centered and even, especially during close combat or daring charges into a great press of screaming men and horses. Aye, the memories come as a flood.

The heat of Outremer was unbearable. No sooner would the sun start its ascent and I would begin to bake like a wild boar on a spit. From the cold of winter to the heat of high summer - and that in minutes. Who was the foolhardy? Those that slowly addled their wits or those poor souls that sought relief and risked death from a stray arrow shot into the ranks?

The sergeants got us used to sweat and heat, whilst we were swaggering lads and squires. God bless those old masters, for I never removed my Great Helm, even if the road was open and clear. And for good reason; the smith whose hand once crafted it made its shape like that of an egg. In truth, arrows would glance off it flat top or its sides with little more than a scratch.

Not all are made alike; each armorer had his own style and way. Small holes or even crosses that reminded us to protect and show mercy removed some of the stifling heat. An extra layer of steel in the shape of a cross protected the eyes and nose; the days of the open-faced Norman helms being long gone.

Photo by Scott Higginbotham

Present Day
The Great Helm replaced the old open-faced Norman helm that had the nasal bar, effectively adding on to it so that the wearer’s head was completely enclosed. It is so much more than an upturned water bucket. It was a staple during the latter part of the 12th century, knights having worn it during the Crusades and the numerous battles between England and France. Heat made it unbearable, vision was restricted to the narrow eye slits, but what it lacked in comfort it made up for in safety. Its slightly oval shape made arrows and sword blows glance off. Even its flat top was improved in such a way that the top became slightly rounded; this was called the Sugarloaf Helm.

Every year since 2009, I have faithfully visited Museum Replica's annual open house sale.  The deals are as hot as the steamy warehouse where tables piled high with period clothing, swords, daggers, armor, arrows, and a host of replica parts and pieces are begging for a home.

But each visit is a trip into the past, a past that you can purchase, feel, and experience as though you are truly stepping into history. Remember, when you look at old paintings and depictions of medieval knights, take a closer look at the helmets.

Now you know.

Public Domain - From Wikimedia Commons

A Soul’s Ransom

Scott Higginbotham writes under the name Scott Howard and is the author of A Soul’s Ransom, a novel set in the fourteenth century where William de Courtenay’s mettle is tested, weighed, and refined, and For a Thousand Generations where Edward Leaver navigates a world where his purpose is defined with an eye to the future.  His new release, A Matter of Honor, is a direct sequel to For a Thousand Generations.  It is within Edward Leaver's well-worn boots that Scott travels the muddy tracks of medieval England.


  1. Great post, Scott! It gave such a vivid sense of what wearing one of these was like. I just wondered about restricted hearing and how this might have made the wearer vulnerable in different ways. Was that an issue for someone wearing one?

  2. Thank you, Scott! I love your posts! One question, are you sure the Great Helm made its appearance in the late 12th century? Or was it not until the early 13th?

    1. E.M., it feels like being inside of a deep well or putting a large conch shell next to the ear. I have no padding, but I imagine it would dull pretty much everything. My oldest has one and it renders you deaf.
      Helena, from what I have seen it was right around the turn between the two centuries that there was some "evolution" to this style.

    2. Wow- so men were fighting almost blind and deaf. makes it even more terrifying!


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