Throughout history helmets have remained one of the most important pieces of defensive equipment. Their designs have to take in several different considerations: ease of sight, protection, weight and effectiveness in combating the main weapons of a particular enemy.
Consequently, as enemies changed and technology developed, innovations and improvements to helmet designs occurred throughout antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. This continued into the 11th and 12th centuries.
Here are 5 designs employed in the Middle Ages to keep people protected.
The spangenhelm (literally spangen helm or ‘braces helmet’) has its origins back in ancient times. One of the first attestations for this helmet design dates to the reign of the Emperor Trajan (98 -117). On his famous column, that he had erected to commemorate his victories against the Dacians, the sculptors depicted Sarmatian cavalry protected by spangenhelms.
The spangenhelm design appears to have originated with the Sarmatians and their neighbouring Scythians – two ferocious nomadic peoples who inhabited the steppes of modern day Ukraine and southern Russia. But the helmet was soon adopted by peoples throughout Europe, including the Roman Empire.
Armourers constructed these helmets by creating a frame of thick metal strips that connected 4 to 6 steel plates. Metal cheek flaps and face masks were sometimes also included in the design, though this was not always the case. The top of the helmet was either conical or round.
Spangenhelms continued to be used down into the 11th and 12th centuries, although as time went on they were gradually replaced by more effective headgear. The Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo helmet has many similarities with the Spangenhelm design.
2. Conical / nasal helmet
Although the Spangenhelm continued to be used by soldiers down into the 11th and 12th centuries, by the time of the Norman Conquest, it had been largely-replaced by the nasal helmet.
Also known as a conical helmet, this metal headgear was cone-shaped and, unlike its spangenhelm predecessor, armourers could craft it from a single sheet of iron.
The nasal helmet’s most defining characteristic however was its nose-guard – a single strip of metal that protected the soldier’s nose in combat. On the 68 metre-long Bayeux tapestry for instance – that was created in the late 11th century and depicts major events of the Norman Conquest – both Norman and Anglo-Saxon soldiers are depicted wearing nasal helmets, universal in their conical design.
Nasal helmets did start to become more varied in their design during the 12th century and were created in several different shapes. Some were created with a frontal curve which resembled the phrygian helmet style used by the soldiers of Alexander the Great and his Successors. Others abandoned the conical style completely, adopting a more rounded top.
3. Flat-topped helmet
The flat-topped helmet was another type of nasal helmet that developed during the 12th century. Unlike its predecessor – and as the name suggests – this headgear was not cone-shaped in its design, but had a flat top and square profile.
This helmet design served as an intermediary between the conical helmet and the enclosed-style helmets that ultimately superseded it.
4. Enclosed helmet
Medieval European armourers developed the enclosed helmet at the close of the 12th century. Its most notable improvement – compared to its flat-topped predecessor – was the pierced metal plate that protected the soldier’s face.
This design appears to have superseded the conical design among the elite of European society between 1190 and 1200. King Richard I’s first Great Seal for instance – that dates to 1189 – depicts ‘the Lionheart’ wearing a conical helmet. His second Great Seal however – that dates to 1198 – shows Richard wearing an enclosed helmet.
The enclosed helmet was later superseded by perhaps the medieval period’s most iconic helmet – the great helm – during the mid-13th century.
5. Kettle Hat
The kettle hat started to appear in the last decades of the 12th century and quickly became very popular, particularly among heavy infantrymen. Made of a single piece of either iron or steel, it resembled a brimmed hat, perhaps inspired by the brimmed Boeotian helmet design of antiquity. In some designs, separate metal pieces could be attached to either side of the helmet to serve as cheek pieces.
Its design also resembled a metal cooking pot (the original meaning of kettle), which provided its name. Archaeological discoveries reveal that some kettle hats were later converted into cooking pots.
Various forms of the kettle hat were created, especially during the 13th century when this helmet design became the dominant heavy infantry headgear throughout medieval Europe.