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Gawain's helmet.

In the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the 'scene' describing the arming of Gawain in readiness for his adventure is described by the poet in considerable detail, giving rise to substantial critical attention in terms of its symbolism. Rather less has been said about the poet's sheer practical knowledge of armour and of arming procedure. In this respect, a few words would seem to be in order concerning the style of Gawain's helmet. The thirteen-line passage describing his helmet and its decoration are worth giving here in full:

thenne henres he the helme and hastily hit kysses, that watz stapled stifly and stoffed wythinne. Hit watz hyghe on his hede, hasped bihynde, Wyth a lyghtly vrysoun ouer the auentayle, Enbrawden and bounden wyth the best gemmez On brode sylkyn borde, and bryddez on semez, As papjayez paynted peruing bitwene, Tortors and trulofez entayled so thyk As mony burde theraboute had ben seuen wynter In toune. the cercle watz more o prys that vmbeclypped hys croun, Of diamauntcz a deuys that boise were bryght and broun.

(SGGK 605-18)

In their excellent edition of the poem, Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron note line 606 thus: 'stapled: i.e. at the joints.'(1) But this is not what the term stapled means here.

At the time at which the poem was written c. 1350 - the only type of helmet which would have had joints, and which would have formed a regular component of knightly equipment, would have been the great helm or heaume.(2) This was made in two clamshell halves, riveted or bolted together with a crown, and with breaths piercing the lower left of the face in most cases. But this would have been worn with a lighter helmet beneath - a cervellier or a basinet. The poet does not mention two helmets. Moreover, he goes on to describe the hourson, which kept the aventail attached to the helmet, in great detail, beginning this description only two lines after telling us that the helmet was 'stapled'.

There is only one possible candidate as a design for Gawain's helmet: the war basinet. This was not made in pieces, and therefore jointed, but raised from a single sheet of steel.(3) That Gawain's helmet was 'stapled stifly' means that the basinet was equipped with secure staples for the attachment of the aventail. Such staples were known as vervelies, and consisted of rolls or rings of steel attached at the lower neck and either side of the basinet's face-opening. The hourson was passed through these and through the top-most rings of the aventail, securing the latter in position. The famous Luttrell Psalter has a miniature which shows Sir Geoffrey Luttrell wearing a helmet of this type; the vervelies are clearly visible. They are also shown on surviving tomb effigies of the period where a basinet is worn.(4) And, of course, they remain in many cases on surviving basinets. The basinet was stuffed or lined with wool, tow, or sometimes straw; its pointed crown ('hyze on his hede') provided space for this, as well as a more effective surface for deflecting blows. Surviving basinets sometimes have a rondel or some other attachment at the nape of the neck ('hasped behynde') - these were to become more common and more prominent on the great basinets and armlets of the next century. Their purpose is not always clear, but they seem to have been for the positioning and fastening of jupons and other cloth over-garments of the period. No visor, or any attachment for such an item, is mentioned in the text of the poem; the klapvisier (hinged at the top) and the side-hinged pointed visor would not arrive in England until a bit later, producing the well-known 'hundskull' or 'pig-face' basinet. Both visors were, in any case, optional items, as was the hourson and vervelle attachment to the aventail itself - a fact which becomes abundantly clear from Gawain's subsequent treatment of his helmet.

When Gawain finally meets the Green Knight for the final showdown, the latter tells the hero 'Haf thy helme of thy hede and haf here thy pay' (line 2247). With the hourson in place, this would not have been an easy undertaking for Gawain. But he does and shows 'that schyre al bare' (line 2257). Either the aventail has come off with the helmet or it was never fastened to the helmet in the first place. When Gawain dons the helmet again ('Hent heterly his helme and on his hed cast', line 2317), the rapidity of his action confirms that the aventail is not, at this point, attached to it.

This should not surprise us unduly. When he is first armed, Gawain has assistance - 'thenne set thay pe sabatounz vpon the segge fotez' (line 574); on the second occasion, he arms himself - 'Fyrst he clad hym in his clothes . . . ' (line 2015). We are told that 'al watz fresch as vpon fyrst, and he watz fayn thenne/To thonk'. But all could not have been in place, as at the first arming; the hourson could not be threaded through the top rings of the aventail and the vervelies without the help of an assistant. The hourson -that item which the poet spends seven delicate lines describing in Fitt II (lines 608-14) - must be missing, together with the complex heraldic symbols embroidered upon it. The need to keep the green girdle secret is doubtless behind Gawain's decision to arm himself - and it must have been his decision, for the chamberlain who brings him his armour at such an early hour must still be on hand.

Thus, there are two intimate points of contact which Gawain's helmet has with the meaning of the poem. These points relate to the design of Gawain's helmet and how he treats it.

Firstly, Gawain's helmet is not jointed because it is not a great helm - not, that is, essentially an item of jousting equipment. It is a war basinet, and Gawain is effectively equipped as for war. Gawain's armourers, at least, seem to be taking the Green Knight seriously, and not as a matter of 'gamen'. The great helm was in fact passing out of use as an item used in war at this time. In the Luttrell Psalter, Sir Geoffrey's wife is shown handing the mounted knight his great helm. But whilst this action tells us much about the status of the great helm as an item of knightly equipment, it does not tell us that the helm was greatly prized as war-gear. A great helm forms part of Henry V's funeral achievement, but he would certainly not have used it in war. The very design of such helms argues against their regular use in war.(5) The great helm was too heavy, and the mobility penalty it imposed upon the wearer too great, for it to be much used in battle in the mid-fourteenth century, and after. It was of little use to the mounted French knight, let alone to the knight who - like Gawain - undertakes his confrontations with an opponent on foot, in 'the English manner'. The joust may still have been dangerous, but every effort was made to minimize risk with heavy equipment - hence the retirement of the great helm from the battle to the lists: and hence, too, the self-breaking lances and over-large pauldrons of the next century. It might be going far to describe the joust as a sport; too many symbols of aristocratic power had accrued to it. But certainly, the great helm was no longer in the forefront of battle equipment. Gawain is not equipped for the tournament.

Yet the nature of the confrontation which occurs at the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has a flavour of the tournament about it. This is where the matter of the missing hourson comes to the fore. For in secretly donning and taking with him the green girdle at the beginning of Fitt IV, what does Gawain leave behind with the hourson? In his description of this minute item, the poet shows us his superb eye for visual detail - as he does at many other points in the Cotton Nero AX MS. At least part of the reason for the intricacy of the poet's visual description is that we are here dealing with two languages; two means of lending voice to 'trawthe'; the language of the poem itself and the pictographic symbolism of heraldry.

The meaning and function of heraldry have altered with the passage of time; it is not now easy for us to recover its original purpose. Hence I use the term heraldry deliberately loosely here - not just as an aristocratic and familial code of symbols, but something much wider.(6) Thus, were we to blazon the shield of Gawain, it would be something like 'Gules a pentangle or'. But this tells us nothing of the symbol's meaning. For all the contention over the issue of what the pentangle means, the poet does endeavour to lay this out for us. He would need to do so for the readers and listeners of his poem in his own day, let alone ours; the pentangle makes no appearance in the ordinaries of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. That the poet makes no explanation for the symbolism of the poem elsewhere - including for the design of the symbolism embroidered on the hourson - does not make such emblems any less a part of this pictography. Thus parrots and periwinkles, true-loves and turtle-doves are a commonplace manuscript border decoration, and appear described in those manuscripts sometimes, in various combinations.(7) There may be an association of the 'Tortors and trulofez' with constancy; it may be that the periwinkle's five-petalled flowers supply some unity with the central heraldic symbol of the poem. Certainly - whether its meaning is precisely recoverable or not - a lexicon of pictograms is being deployed by the poet as a means of shedding light on poetic purpose. Nothing new here. The point is that in being compelled to abandon the hourson, Gawain abandons something of the fidelity which its embroidered images represent, in favour of a private token he does not declare. The loss of the hourson - that tiny and intimate strip of knightly equipment - seems to signify one of the poem's central tenets, if not the central tenet: that whatever is privately wrong can never be publicly right. If the Gawain-poet leaves us with a moral conundrum, he takes much care not to leave us with inconsistencies or errors of continuity, marshalling even the smallest item of knightly accoutrements in his own quest to make the point felt.

PAUL SOUTHWOOD Wadham College, Oxford

1 Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron (eds), The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript (Exeter University Press, 1987), 230.

2 The 'kettle hat' was also jointed, and though it was a helmet worn by common soldiers it was often worn by knights; it was cooler, more comfortable to wear and supplied better vision than other types - though, arguably, at the expense of protection. The kettle hat was used from the turn of the twelfth to thirteenth centuries right through to the sixteenth, when it was generally replaced by the pot helmet and morion. The illustrations to Froissart's Chronicle show them being worn in abundance. One, converted into a cooking pot, is exhibited in the British Museum. They were often used as tropical gear, and the Gawain poet may be making reference to them at CI. 1209 ('Hard hattes . . . ').

3 There are some fine photographs of such helmets, clearly showing their one-piece construction, in Henri de Wailly, Crecy 1346: Anatomy of a Battle (Poole: Blandford, 1987), 69 - though his notes are bizarre as regards their dating of the pieces shown.

4 The best known example is, of course. the funeral effigy of Edward the Black Prince at Canterbury.

5 Breaths were as much an aid to vision as a means of ventilation. Their position on great helms makes little sense, unless we imagine the wearer facing an opponent who is coming at him from his front-left - which in tilting would regularly be the case.

6 John M. Robinson and Thomas Woodcock (eds), The Oxford Guide to Heraldry (Oxford University Press, 1988), ch. 1, draw attention to the similarity to each other of the arms depicted in early ordinaries, thus undermining the argument that heraldry began as a means of battle identification. The origin and growth of heraldry is a complex subject; its growth during an age in which literacy itself was burgeoning seems not without significance.

7 On birds in manuscripts, see Brunsdon Yap, Birds in Medieval Manuscripts (New York: Shocken Books, 1982); on parrots, see p. 43; on doves, see pp. 44-6.
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Author:Southwood, Paul
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Jun 1, 1997
Words:2113
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