Spotlight: The Burgonet
An article by Sean A. Flynt

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Burgonet, Italian,
circa 1535

We tend to think of the European Renaissance (14th-17th centuries) as a great cultural leap forward. But the great minds of the period didn't only rediscover ancient ways to elevate humanity; they also resurrected efficient ancient ways to destroy it. European armourers responded to the reintroduction of classical military values and theories by reintroducing armour forms meant to evoke the military authority of ancient Greece and Rome. A distinctive neoclassical helmet type emerged as a result and quickly supplanted the sallet, which had been ubiquitous on 15th century European battlefields.

The new helmet, introduced in the early 16th century, had many features of its ancient ancestors: a simple hemispherical bowl; a short bill or peak to defend the face without restricting vision or breathing; a collar to defend the neck; and hinged plates to protect the sides of the head and face. Although the new helmet was sometimes known as a Burgundian sallet, it bears little resemblance to the streamlined, coal-scuttle shape we most often associate with the 15th century sallet. Rather than evolving from the sallet, then, the new helmet may simply have been revived in its complete classical form.

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Left to right: Burgonet, circa 1560-70; Burgonet, Nuremberg, circa 1570; Peaked burgonet, Northern Italy, circa 1600; Etched burgonet, circa 1560; Burgonet, circa 1560, attributed to Franz Grosschedel (1520-1581); Embossed parade burgonet, Milanese, circa 1560

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Cuirassier's burgonet, German or Flemish, circa 1620

In the English-speaking world, this helmet is known as the burgonet. As with so many arms and armour terms, pronunciation of this term is tricky and perhaps linguistically indefensible as well. Burg-oh-neht is the dictionary-correct pronunciation. The name seems to be a corruption of bourguignotte, the contemporary French term for this helmet type. The common linguistic point of departure is the helmet's association with the east-central French province of Burgundy, but Italian armourers also played a key role in developing the type.

To be sure, the burgonet did not survive merely because it suited Renaissance fashion. The design's inherent benefits—offering better peripheral vision and air supply without sacrificing protection in critical areas of the head and neck—simply seem to have appealed to Renaissance warriors as much as to their ancient forebears. And so, the burgonet served at every level of Renaissance military society, from the lowest infantrymen to kings, and proved especially popular for cavalry use. But, by the mid-17th century the morion and cabasset had supplanted the burgonet for infantry use. The more protective closed burgonet continued to serve heavy cavalry, and the zischägge—the eastern European cavalry helmet remarkably similar to the traditional burgonet—was common at least through mid-century.

The burgonet is often referred to as a "light" helmet, which means little and ignores the great variety of burgonet designs. Judging from the scarce published data, the typical 16th century burgonet, with defensive plates called cheek-pieces, weighs between three-and-a-half and five pounds. Those without cheek-pieces weigh less, of course, and closed burgonets, which cover the entire face, weigh several pounds more. Some early 17th century closed burgonets weigh more than ten pounds!

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Left to right: Burgonet, French, circa 1555/60; Burgonet, south German or Italian, circa 1570; Burgonet, made in two halves joined at the center with a low crest, France, circa 1620; Burgonet, circa 1560; Burgonet with high crest, circa 1570; Etched burgonet, 1570/80

Burgonets typically were raised from a single sheet of steel, though some were made of two plates joined along a central ridge or comb. Regardless of how they are constructed, many burgonets feature one or more of these combs running from the brow to the base of the neck. They add a dramatic decorative element, but also serve the practical purpose of strengthening and defending the bowl. Conical, faceted bowls without combs are plentiful, but the single-comb style seems to have predominated well into the 17th century.

When present, cheek-pieces are attached by hinges to the sides of the burgonet's bowl. Some of these defenses extend to cover all but the central portion of the face (in the manner of ancient Roman legionary helmets). More commonly, they cover only the side of the face and head and upper neck, and are held in place by a strap-and-buckle system riveted either outside or inside the cheek-pieces near the wearer's chin.

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Left to right: Closed burgonet with falling buffe, circa 1540; Closed burgonet of "Savoyard" type, Italian, circa 1620; Burgonet with bevor, Augsburg, circa 1541; Closed Italian "Savoyard" burgonet, circa 1625; A closed burgonet, German, mid-16th century; Burgonet with barred, spiked visor, circa 1560

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Burgonet with buffe

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Burgonet, blackened with gilt mounts, Augsburg, circa 1600

In most published examples of burgonets, the peak, a piece not unlike the brim of a hat, has either been drawn out of the steel of the bowl or created as a separate plate riveted to the bowl at each end so that it can pivot vertically. A separate but fixed peak, riveted to the inside of the bowl, seems to be a less-common method of creating the peak. Whatever its length or construction, the peak is intended to defend the wearer's face from vertical attack and shield his eyes from sun and rain.

Most original burgonets feature some form of decoration. Rolled and roped edges and pierced cheek-pieces are common, and the finest burgonets were engraved, inlaid and/or selectively colored and polished. Some were covered in fine cloth in the tradition of sallets. Extensive embossing (which thins steel) actually made some early burgonets unsuitable for any purpose other than ceremonial wear.

Some higher-quality burgonets feature accessory plates that allow the wearer to have more or less protection for his face as the situation demands. The most common of these extra defenses is the buffe, a plate or series of plates to protect the throat and lower face up to the eyes. This piece typically is secured by special pins or rivets on the bowl and/or by a strap wound around the back of the burgonet. If they still exist at all, separate defenses may no longer be associated with surviving helmets, so it would be difficult to judge which burgonets were originally used in this fashion. It seems most likely that finer burgonets would be associated with buffes while munitions-quality infantry burgonets would not.

When full-face defense is permanently attached to the bowl, the helmet is known as a closed burgonet, and resembles the contemporary close helmet. One late form of closed burgonet was common among 17th century heavy cavalry, and merits special mention because its form is so striking. This grim-looking, stylistically spare form, with cutouts for eyes, nose and mouth, so resembled a human skull that Germans and Austrians referred to it as a todenkopf (death's head) helmet. It is also known by the less dramatic names of Savoyard or Savoy helmet.

A Sampling of Reproductions
Reproduction burgonets are not hard to find, but they vary greatly in both quality and price. Off-the-shelf versions present the usual one-size-fits-none problem, while custom or semi-custom versions present significant time and cost obstacles.

Museum Replicas Limited has offered at least three different burgonets—its Scottish Burgonet, Italian Burgonet, and a much-copied bright steel and brass version complete with falling buffe based on one in the Tower of London (pictured in Chad Arnow's collection)—all of which seem to be discontinued. The Scottish Burgonet can still be found new and the various knockoff versions of the last of these are ubiquitous on-line.

Several other, smaller-scale manufacturers are in this game as well, including Thaden Armory, Medieval Reproductions, Illusion Armoring, and the Czech company Best Armour, which seems to offer especially good value in terms of accurate materials and construction, custom fit, and price.

Canadian armourer Valentine Armouries offers several styles of burgonet, including a todenkopf-style burgonet.

The burgonet, like all infantry helmets, armour and edged weapons faded from use in the mid-to-late 17th century, as firearms came to dominate the battlefield. By that time the burgonet was so specialized (for sappers and heavy cavalry) and so heavy (as proof against shot) that it had lost its original advantages. As Ewart Oakeshott has pointed out, the "brutish" late burgonets such as the todenkopf type are far-removed from the elegant, extensively decorated forms of the early, "heroic" burgonets. If anything, they are anti-heroic, and the logical conclusion of an era remembered for its achievements in the fine arts and natural sciences, but which also achieved much in the grim art and science of warfare.

About the Author
Sean Flynt is a writer and editor living in Birmingham, Alabama. He is interested in Western arms and armour of all periods, but especially those of 16th through 18th century Britain and Colonial North America.

European Helmets, 1450-1650: Treasures from the Reserve Collection (Metropolitan Museum of Art Series), by Stuart Pyhrr
European Weapons and Armour: From the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution, by R. Ewart Oakeshott
Heroic Armor of the Italian Renaissance Filippo Negroli and His Contemporaries, by Stuart Pyhrr, Jose-A. Godoy, Stuart W. Pyhrr

Photographic copyright notices are included on each photo, when available, and include the following sources: Czerny's International Auction House, Deutsches Historisches Museum, Hermann Historica, Imperial Austria, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, The Wallace Collection


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