Saturday, December 22, 2007

The naked Sarpedon

At the Guardian, James Fenton considers the allure of museum collections of arms and armor (I quite agree, by the way, paintings are all very well in their way but armor is more exciting!):
It is highly unlikely that the coveted showpiece of any museum's collection - a complete set of armour with a complete set of horse armour to match - will be entirely genuine. The odds are heavily weighted against such a survival. And, indeed, one might well wonder how many warriors went out with such a complete matching set in the first place (the kind of people, perhaps, who travel with complete sets of matching luggage today).

The word composite is used to cover sets of armour made up of pieces from disparate sources. Where a museum has a striking composite set that makes historical sense, it would seem a misplaced purism to break up the set and display only its oldest pieces. On the other hand, with this subject as with so many others, only what is true is truly interesting. A museum may set out to inspire the imagination of a child, but must never forget that what it is promulgating should be genuine. And besides, armour was mostly for adults, and armour as a subject of inquiry should be an adult subject, too. But this has not always been the case: the stately home with its ghost and its suits of armour has been a byword for bogusness. To show an interest in armour has been a sign of a certain infantility.

It is estimated that 95 per cent of existing armour post-dates the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Most of it is later than we think. The expression "a knight in shining armour" refers to a system of body protection that was developed only after 1350 (to replace chain mail). There is very little Roman armour because it was not buried with the dead. It was taken back to the depot, repaired and reissued. Armour would always have had a scrap value, whatever metal it was made of.

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