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Japanese Bonnet Snail (Phalium/Semicassis bisulcata)

Japanese Bonnet Snail (Phalium/Semicassis bisulcata)

The helmet and bonnet snails (Cassidae) are slow moving hunters which live along sandy coasts in the tropics and subtropics.  Depending on the species (of which tere are approximately 60), these sea snails live anywhere from the intertidal zone to a depth of 100 meters.  During the day they bury themselves in the sand and at night they emerge to hunt their favorite prey—echinoderms (particularly sea urchins).

A Horned Helmet (Cassis cornuta) from the Hawaii coast

A Horned Helmet (Cassis cornuta) from the Hawaii coast

Most of the Cassidae are large snails with big mantles and heavy, muscular foot. They see by means of two eyes located at the base of a single pair of head tentacles and they use an extensible tube for smelling.

A helmet snail closes in on a sea urchin (image from wannadivekona.com)

A helmet snail closes in on a sea urchin (image from wannadivekona.com)

When a helmet snail catches a tasty echinoderm, the snail immobilizes its prey by holding the smaller animal within its mighty foot and releasing a paralytic enzyme from its salivary gland (which prevents urchins from using their spikes in self-defense).  The snail has a sharpened radula (an organ which consists of a chitinous tongue-like strip covered with razor sharp teeth) and two proboscis glands which produce a secretion rich in sulfuric acid.  Using the combination of radula and acid, the helmet snail bores a hole in the echinoderm’s armored body and devours the creature from within!

Shells from the Cassidae family (from OuterBanksShells.com)

Shells from the Cassidae family (from OuterBanksShells.com)

The shells of helmet snails are frequently large and beautiful.  Shaped like a heavy helmet, these shells consist of dextral (right sided) coils which whorl outward from a tight spiral spire.  The snails are divided into males and females (unlike many mollusks which are hermaphrodites or swap genders) and the females lay large masses of hundreds of eggs which can either hatch into planktonic free swimmers or into miniature crawling snails—depending on the species.  Some Cassidae are prized by shell-hunters and artisans such as Cypraecassis rufa, a snail from the coast of Southeast Africa which is favored by cameo carvers.

Bullmouth Helmet Shell (Cypraecassis rufa) from the store "Evolution"

Bullmouth Helmet Shell (Cypraecassis rufa) from the store “Evolution”

Heroic Statue of Skanderbeg

Skanderbeg (1405 – 1468) is the great national hero of Albania.  He allied the Albanians together and defended the region from Ottoman expansion for more than two decades (until his death from malaria—a rare end for Baltic war leaders who opposed the Ottoman Empire).   It is unclear whether Skanderbeg was precisely a king—he never styled himself as anything other than “Lord of Albania”—which makes it fitting that the so-called crown of Skanderbeg is only ambiguously a crown.  Some historians refer to the headdress instead as the helmet of Skanderbeg.  The item in question is certainly a helmet, but it is an uncommonly magnificent and ridiculous helmet which could certainly merit status as a crown.  Manufactured of white metal, the helmet features elaborate gold roses, a gold band, and is surmounted by a horned goat’s head made of bronze.

The Crown/Helmet of Skanderbeg

The crown was carried into Italy by Skanderbeg’s heir after Albania fell to the Ottomans after his death (ironically Skanderbeg’s son married one of the last descendants of the Palaiologos family—the last royal house of Byzantium) and it eventually made its way into the collection of an unrelated lord and finally into the Hapsburg royal collection. Periodically Albanian kings and aspirants have petitioned the Austrians for return of the helmet/crown (most recently King Zog unsuccessfully attempted to repatriate it in 1931). It still remains a possession of the Austrian state and is currently housed at the Neue Berg Collection of Arms and Armour in Vienna.

A Frontal View of the Crown

Armor has played a major role in Chinese society from the depths of prehistory to the modern era. The topic of Chinese armor is so very large that it is hard to choose one aspect of the subject. Should I show the Chinese god of war Guan Yu, resplendent in his plate mail or the gorgeous silk portraits of warrior emperors from yesteryear?  Should I write about the Red Army’s mechanized armor program–which began by producing feeble copies of Soviet tanks and has haltingly evolved in its own direction by adding watered-down copies of NATO tank technologies to Russian designs?  I could write about how China’s medieval military leadership adopted and modified the armored mounted archery tactics of the Mongols or about early pre-dynastic armor suits made from turtle shells.

Perhaps the best way to present this topic as a sweeping overview is through pictures. Therefore, here is a series of photos of Chinese helmets from different eras.  I have tried to arrange them chronologically, but, due to the eccentricity and exiguousness of internet sources, I may not have fully succeeded.  Likewise some of these are priceless museum pieces and others are worthless forgeries (I have my eye on you, peacock helmet).

Chinese Shang Dynasty bronze helmet dating from about 1500 BC found at Anyang.

Chou Dynasty helmet from Emperor Wu Wang tomb complex (circa 1020 BC)

A Bronze Helmet from the Yan Kingdom in the Warring States period (ca. 475-221 BC)

A second bronze helm and an iron helm from the Warring States period (476 -221 BC)

A Qin Helmet (circa 221 to 207 BC.)

I'm afraid this picture was the best I could find for Tang Dynasty Helmets (618 AD - 907 AD). It's a pretty remarkable picture though!

Alleged Song Dynasty style helmet/headdress

A Gold and Iron Helmet from the late Yuan (1271 AD–1368 AD)

Late Ming Helmet (end of the17th century)

Emperor's helmet: Qianlong period (1736 AD-1795 AD)

Mass Produced Chinese Helmet from Late Quing Dynasty (circa 18th Century AD)

British Mark II Helmet Used by Chinese troops in World War II

Chinese Cold War Crash Helmet Based on Soviet Design (1950's)

Contemporary Chinese Combat helmet

Kevlar Combat Helmet (ca. present)

One thing that is striking (other than the loveliness of the helmets) is the liberal borrowing from other military traditions from the Mongol era onwards: the Yuan cavalry helmet is a literal Mongol cavalry helmet; the 1940’s era helmet is a British doughboy helmet with a Chinese symbol, and the cold war crash helmet is a Russian knock-off.  The most recent helmet seems to be quite similar to the Kevlar helmets used by United States forces (which probably owe their shape to “Fritz” Helmets from Germany). It will be interesting to see what comes next on this list as material science meet military necessity in the future…

Gothic Armor (available for sale at http://www.armae.com!)

Welcome back to armor week at Ferrebeekeeper! Yesterday I introduced an ancient order of armored mollusks, the chitons, with an allegorical story about a knight of the Holy Roman Empire.  This reminded me of gothic armor, one of the most beautiful and functional styles of plate armor ever devised. Gothic armor was, in fact, used by knights of the Holy Roman Empire (and lands beyond) throughout the 15th century. The style was characterized by a full plate armor which covered the entire body.  This plate was designed with intricate structural flutings, ridges, and curves influenced by the ornamentation of Gothic art and architecture.  However the ridges and crenellations of gothic armor served a double purpose: such features strengthened the armor and deflected arrows (which had become more prevalent in the warfare of the day). Additionally the major joints and breaks of gothic armor (armpits, crotch, and knees) were protected with chain mail underneath. A warrior in gothic armor was well protected (particularly considering he was most likely an insane German nobleman carrying a great sword).

A Fine German Sallet with associated Bevor, circa 1475

In the 1480s, gothic armor from Germany was considered the finest in Europe. Protective headgear had changed as well: although some knights still wore bascinets from the previous era, the most prevalent helmet of the day was the gothic sallet, a close fitting helmet with a long sharpened tail to protect the neck.  The sallet was complimented by a bevor which protected the knight’s chin.

Ludwig III wearing gothic armor with prominent poleyns, from a fifteenth century manuscript

Illustration of a knight in Gothic armor (from Concilium zu Constanz, 1483, woodcut)

Gothic armor influenced English and Italian suits of armor.  By the sixteenth century, Italian innovations in turn caused the style of German armor making to change.  Gothic armor was left behind as armor suits became even more rounded and covered in grooves (a style known as Maximilian armor after the Holy Roman Emperor). However the great German printers, painters, and illuminators of the 15th century had already immortalized gothic armor–which is forever associated with knights to anyone familiar with such art.

Knight (Albrecht Durer, 1498))

In an ongoing overview of the many different concepts of the word “gothic” we come to gothic horror fiction.  This school of writing burst into popularity in 1764, with the publication of The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpool and, since that time, gothic fiction has only tightened its grip on the public imagination.  The influence of the style is immense.  Scroll across a smattering of the prominent examples from the Wikipedia page to contemplate the debt we owe the eighteenth century authors who originated the gothic story.  From the foremost figures of literature like Edgar Allen Poe, Victor Hugo, and William Faulkner to sensationalist hacks like Bram Stoker, Anne Rice, Stephen King, and William Faulkner, authors have slavishly returned to Walpool’s template.   

The elements of Walpool’s work will be instantly familiar to anyone who reads for pleasure (or indeed has access to moving pictures or a television set).  The characters are larger-than-life stereotypes who roam through gloomy castles filled with magical portents, apparitions, frightful medieval torture devices, and monsters (both human and inhuman).   

As an early Halloween treat here is a ghastly and baffling passage from Walpool’s The Castle of Otranto.  By quoting only from the first paragraphs of the first chapter, I have tied not to give anything away [if you want to read the entire book on your own, however, consider this a spoiler alert].  The main character of the book, Prince Manfred, an imperious and impatient nobleman has been interrupted on the day his weakling son Conrad is to wed the lovely Isabella. This interruption takes the form of an immense helmet which has mysteriously fallen from heaven and crushed Conrad to a pulp! The terrible event is made all the more ominous (if such a thing is possible) by a prophecy that the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from Manfred’s line, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it.  The passage begins as Manfred rushes outside to find out where his son is and why his servants are behaving strangely:   

The first thing that struck Manfred’s eyes was a group of his servants endeavouring to raise something that appeared to him a mountain of sable plumes.  He gazed without believing his sight.

“What are ye doing?” cried Manfred, wrathfully; “where is my son?”

A volley of voices replied, “Oh! my Lord! the Prince! the Prince! the helmet! the helmet!”

Shocked with these lamentable sounds, and dreading he knew not what, he advanced hastily, – but what a sight for a father’s eyes! – he beheld his child dashed to pieces, and almost buried under an enormous helmet, an hundred times more large than any casque ever made for human being, and shaded with a proportionable quantity of black feathers.

The horror of the spectacle, the ignorance of all around how this misfortune had happened, and above all, the tremendous phenomenon before him, took away the Prince’s speech.  Yet his silence lasted longer than even grief could occasion.  He fixed his eyes on what he wished in vain to believe a vision; and seemed less attentive to his loss, than buried in meditation on the stupendous object that had occasioned it.  He touched, he examined the fatal casque; nor could even the bleeding mangled remains of the young Prince divert the eyes of Manfred from the portent before him.

Walpool’s over-the top melodrama edges toward dreadful parody (a hallmark of gothic fiction ever since).  Even the saturnine and glowering prince is overshadowed by random supernatural forces. 

Horace Walpool drew his writing inspiration from his dilettante’s interest in antiquities and from gothic architecture, which he loved.  He took particular inspiration from the picturesque ruins of the great abbeys of England (dissolved by Henry VIII) and from Westminster Abbey. In addition to inventing gothic fiction, he repopularized gothic architecture by building a new country house for himself on the outskirts of London which he named “Strawberry Hill”.  The strange confabulation of turrets, towers, and hallways was instantly famous.  It defined a style unto itself  “rococo gothic” which left its indelible mark on the gothic revival craze which was to sweep Great Britain and the United States a generation later.

Strawberry Hill, the "Rococo Gothic" home which Walpool commissioned

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