Spotlight: The 14th Century Bascinet
An article by Alexi Goranov
Surviving visored bascinets are equally cherished by both collectors and armour students. Despite the availability of resources and the interest, the study of this helmet type is still in its infancy.
The 14th century bascinet developed from the steel cap worn under the great helm of the 13th century. These caps were also called bascinets or cervelliere, though cervelliere was sometimes used in period literature to mean the lining/padding of helmets. Claude Blair, an authority on arms and armour, tells us that the word "bascinet" came into use at the end of 13th century and was in constant use during the 14th century and into the 15th, after which its use diminished.
Initially the bascinet was worn either over or under the mail coif, in combination with a padded arming cap. When worn under the coif, the bascinet could have given the unnaturally swollen appearance of the heads of knights so often depicted in art and on effigies of the period.
Around 1330, the bascinet became attached to an aventaila mantle of mail covering the neck and shoulders1. Small staples called vervelles facilitated the attachment of the aventail to the bascinet skull. The vervelles ran along the bottom edge of the helmet and the side edges around the face, thus allowing the aventail to cover the neck, cheeks, and most of the face, exposing only the eyes, nose, and mouth2. Towards the end of the 14th century, after 1370, the vervelles were sometimes covered to add decoration, likely with cloth or leather3. After the beginning of the 15th century, some bascinets were fitted with plate "drapes" instead of the mail aventail, which was still widely popular. A marvelous example survives in the Doge's Palace in Venice. These bascinets were to give rise to the so-called "Great Bascinets" of the 15th century4.
The shape of the skull of the bascinet underwent steady development during its time of use. The back and sides of the 13th century steel cap extended down to cover just below the ears. This was done to offer better protection when the bascinet was worn by itself. Before 1350 there were three basic shapes:
Several of the surviving bascinets in the collection at Churburg Castle have their original inner linings. They were made from wool or canvas filled with cow hair and tied with a cord on the top to allow for size adjustment. The lining was most often attached to the helmet, having been sewn on using small holes drilled on the bottom of the helmet under the holes for the vervelles. The skulls of the bascinets were often adorned to show the wealth and class of the wearer. Mostly the adornment was a band around the skull10, but if the person was of high enough rank, a crown was placed atop the bascinet11. It is hard to tell what material these adornments were made from as no surviving examples exist, but one may speculate that they were made from metal, precious or otherwise. Alternatively, a form of thick padding in the shape of a ring was worn over the bascinet which functioned to support the great helm worn over it12.
The earliest forms of face protection that covered the whole face were oval metal plates with small eye slits and breathing holes. There is a famous surviving example in Sitten, Switzerland. The visor is just large enough to cover the face. It is suspended from a single vertical bar that fits over two studs on the brow of the bascinet. Bascinets with this kind of suspension method are nowadays commonly called klappvisor bascinets14.
The visor developed to completely cover the face opening and also developed the characteristic projecting nose cone. This "evolved" visor was attached either by the klappvisor method or by two hinges on either side of the helmet. The side hinges had removable pins that allowed the visor to be removed when not needed, although for a short period of time, side-pivoted visors were not removable. The klappvisor bascinets also had an easily removable visor. Both methods of attachment were contemporary, and there are examples of bascinets being fitted from one style of attachment to the other, even though there is no solid evidence that this change had been done during the working time of the bascinet15.
The characteristicly pointed visor has led current armour students to call this type of bascinet "pig-face" or "hound skull" (from "hundsgugel" meaning hound's hood), but Claude Blair tells us that in contemporary literature they were simply called visored bascinets. The tall conical bascinet fitted with the conical "pig-face" visor was the most common form of the visored bascinet, and was usually referred to as the "International style".
The visors had two eye slits (ocularium, pl. ocularia) and another slit, or slits, at the level of the mouth. There are numerous breathing holes on the right side of the visor, but (in most but not all cases) none or few on the left side. This is consistent with the idea that the opponent's lance was going to strike the left side, so that the bascinet was designed to offer the minimum number of places where the opponent's lance could catch, and likely to also minimize the risk of denting or damaging the visor and subsequently the wearer. The eye slits are usually very narrow (~8mm) to decrease the chance of a weapon getting in. However, it is worth noting that some German visors have wider eye slits16. Sometimes the slits are crossed with vertical bars to make it even less likely that a weapon could penetrate. Of course, the cost paid was diminished visibility.
Another aspect of the eye slit design is that they were often made to slant diagonally, giving a characteristic grim appearance. One argument put forth to explain this design is that the down-turned eye slits provided much needed downward vision. It is necessary to mention that the eye slits were not always slanted downward and that the degree of slanting varied. On some German examples, the eye slits are virtually horizontal.
Bascinets were widely used throughout Western Europe and were likely made primarily in production centers throughout Europe, e.g. Milan, Venice, etc. The production of klappvisor bascinets seems to have been limited to Central Europe, even though there are rare references to them in England. Many of the surviving examples of visored bascinets are attributed to either Northern Italy (Milan) or Germany.
Several bascinets have been analyzed from a metallurgical standpoint. One is the visored bascinet in Museum of Valais (MV30-83) that was made in Germany around 1350. The examination revealed heterogeneous steel with no heat-treatment. Another bascinet that was metalurgically tested is the example in The Wallace Collection (A69). This bascinet was made of low-carbon steel with no heat-treatment. The following are some measurements of this same helmet from The Wallace Collection catalogue:
Another Northern Italian visored bascinet17 was determined to have medium carbon content (0.06%). An attempt had been made to harden this bascinet as well. The weight of this bascinet with its visor and aventail is 7.12 kg (15.69lb).
The weight of a bascinet including its visor from Deutsches Historisches Museum (#35) was recorded at 2.89kg (6.37 lb), with 30cm height, and the skull of another, German one, from the same museum (#32) is recorded at 1.6kg (3.53 lb) and 27cm high.
The Churburg #13 bascinet with its visor and aventail weighs 5.7kg (12.56lb).
The weight of the German bascinet in The Royal Armouries (iv 467) is 1420g (3lb 2oz) for the skull and 455g (1 lb) for the visor. The aventail of this bascinet does not survive.
From these few reported numbers it is obvious that the bascinet varied markedly in size, weight, and manufacture. If considering the weight of only the skull and the visor, here we see a variation from 1857g (4.125 lb) to 2890g (6.37lb). It must be emphasized that we are considering a very limited sample size here and the variation of weights is most likely much greater. As outlined above, the quality of the steel and heat-treatment of the various bascinets varied as well with location and time.
Towards the end of the 14th century as the methodology of producing iron improved, the quality of steel also improved. The heat-treatment of armour pieces to add extra strength also became a usual practice, first in Italy and then in Germany. In support of this theory, Allan Williams states in Companion to Medieval Armour that most of the tested Italian armour pieces in the Churburg armoury, at least some of which date to the late 14th century, were made of steel and were also heat-treated. One of the earliest known successfully hardened bascinets dates from 1330-1340 and is currently in Milan's Museo Poldi Pezzoli (#2599).
Brian W. Rainey of the The Armour Research Society has noted that more than 40 visored bascinets survive. In addition to existing helm and visor combinations, there are also a number of individual visors and helms that display artifacts of visor attachments.
The following is a short list of surviving bascinet examples that the author has managed to trace. Most of them date to the second half of 14th or early 15th century. Inventory numbers are included where known and "?" denotes uncertainty regarding origin:
It is pleasing to find that the modern armour connoisseur has a choice when approaching the purchase of a reproduction bascinet, visored or not. There are several companies offering carefully researched and executed examples. Needles to say, most of these are rather expensive. There are less costly varieties available that are made with some concessions to allow for the lower cost. These concessions are expressed in the form and proportions of the helmets. As with most arms and armour reproductions, the higher the price, the better researched the reproduction and the closer to the originals the final product is. The following list of makers is not exhaustive but covers various price-points:
The bascinet may have reached the height of its development in the Great Bascinet of the 15th century but it also gave rise to the sallet and barbuta, forms of head protection popular in the 15th century. The 14th century bascinet was likely one of the most popular forms of head defense, largely replacing the great helm in popularity for the knightly class, and finding favor also with the common soldiers. We can hypothesize that the bascinet superseded the great helm because of its effective design (its glancing surfaces helped deflect an opponent's strikes), possible lighter weight, and lesser degree of sensory deprivation. It is also possible that it simply could have been a cheaper alternative to the great helm in an era where plate armour was increasing in use and cost.
We can suggest many reasons why the bascinet became popular but will likely never know the true cause. Whatever the reasons for their success, their design combines beauty in both function and elegance of form. These helmets are undoubtedly the creations of master armourers and much more detailed analysis is needed to fully appreciate the subtle varieties and the magnificence of their style.
About the Author
Alexi is a doctoral student in the biological sciences at MIT. He has had an outstanding interest in medieval military history and weaponry for many years, but only started collecting in late 2003. His main interests lie towards European weapons and warfare practices of the 13th and 14th centuries.
1. Wallace Collection, A69; Royal Armouries, Leeds, iv 470
2. Sir John Marmion effigy, 1386; The Black Prince effigy
3. Sir William Bagot effigy, 1407; Sir John Marmion effigy, 1386
4. Frederick I Milanese Great bascinet, 1451; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, A2
5. The effigy of Sir Hugh Despenser
6. Altar pieces from Pistoia Cathedral
7. Churburg "de la Stella" bascinet
8. Sir John de Creke, 1325-1330; Coburg, Kunstsammlung der Veste, A. I. 1
9. Brass of Sir John d'Abrenon, 1340; Effigy of Sir John de Creke, 1325-1330
10. Sir John Marmion effigy
11. The Black Prince effigy; Chartres Cathedral bascinet
12. Brass of Sir Humphrey Stafford, 1450
13. Freiburg Cathedral effigy, 1350; Schweizerisches Landesmuseum, Zurich, 1350
14. Coburg, Kunstsammlung der Veste, A. I. 1
15. Wallace Collection, A69
16. Veste Coburg Bascinet
17. Currently in The Royal Armouries, Leeds, iv 470
Illustrated History of Arms and Armour, by Charles Ashdown
European Armour, circa 1066 to circa 1700, by Claude Blair
Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight, by David Edge, John Miles Paddock
English Medieval Knight 1300-1400 (Warrior, 58), by Christopher Gravett
Wallace Collection Catalogue of European Arms and Armour, by J. G. Mann
Companion to Medieval Arms and Armour, A
Nicopolis 1396: The Last Crusade (Campaign Series, 64), by David Nicolle, David Nicolle PhD
Archaeology of Weapons: Arms and Armour from Prehistory to the Age of Chivalry, The, by R. Ewart Oakeshott
Techniques of Medieval Armour Reproduction: The 14th Century, by Brian R. Price
Head Protection in England Before the First World War, by Blackburn, T. P. D., D. A. Edge, A. R. Williams, and C. B. T. Adams
Notes form the Wallace Study Day, December 5, 1998, by Chuck Davis
I wish to thank Brian W. Rainey of The Armour Research Society and Craig Johnson of The Oakeshott Institute for reviewing this article and for their valuable comments and suggestions.
Photographic copyright notices are included on each photo, when available, and include the following sources: The British Museum, Churburg Castle, Deutsches Historisches Museum, The Higgins Armory Museum, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Royal Armouries, Leeds, The Wallace Collection