The first of many questions: whither gilding?

A little administrative announcement first: I’ve added pages to the top navigation area collecting my appearances elsewhere around the internet, one for video and audio recordings like podcasts, the other for writing and other stuff. Give a look at Writing and other projects and Lectures and recordings when you get a chance!

Second, a humble admission: in the name of getting this out to you sooner (or ever), I haven’t done a thorough editing pass. Please forgive any imperfections.

I was going to start with a joke about in these strange times, we can’t carry on doing what we always have but really that seems unnecessary.

Here’s a more true beginning: After being asked about it many times, I’ve finally started looking at artwork showing men’s armor in manuscripts. Strange days, indeed.

I’ve been avoiding it. There’s a huge amount to study. The ladies’ armor artwork spans at least 200 years, during which there were numerous major trends (regional and otherwise), and maybe that’s fine for a survey but it’s far too much to look into in depth.

Sometimes, the best approach is to wait and see what Lady Fortune puts into my hands. On this occasion, the key was searching the broader internet for videos of lectures at museums and universities. I cast myself upon the algorithms, and found myself watching Dr. Tobias Capwell talk about Saint Michael as painted by Bartolome Bermejo. The painting drew me in, and as I examined its details, I was reminded of something, and I realized I had my answer.

This is what the devil from the Codex Gigas would look like if he were painted in a detailed super-realistic style.

I swear all I did was adjust the color settings in the highlighted zones. That really is part of the painting. Seriously, though, look at it for real, it’s great.

Wait, no.

I had my answer: To balance and complement heavily bejeweled ballgown armor from tapestries and allegories, I could look at men’s fantasy armor– more usually called “the heroic style”– as it was depicted in the late fifteenth century.

I knew I was on the right track as soon as I started finding more questions than answers.

So, here’s the first one: In the Bermejo St. Michael lecture, Dr. Capwell talks about fire-gilded armor, where a thin layer of gold is fused into the outer surface of the steel. It was as dazzling in reality as in the painting, he says, and was expensive and rare. Few people could even dream of it, but a special few including Charles the Bold were able to indulge and realize their elaborate fantasies. (Maybe they shouldn’t have.)

But here’s the thing– ever since finding out fifteenth-century chronicles sometimes have pictures of women leading armies, I’ve made sure to get a steady diet of them. And something snagged my curiosity early in this exploration, which has grown over time with each mention of “gold armor is special and rare.”

So, the first of many questions about illustrations of men’s armor from the mid to late 15th century:

Why is there so much gold armor in manuscript art?

The Bermejo painting offers an easy answer: because putting important heroic characters in the kind of fantastic armor dukes and kings dream of makes sense.

This seems like a good place for a little sidebar about fiction. In medieval literature, the lines between fiction and nonfiction are very blurry; history and legend are often not treated differently from each other. It’s sort of like a universe in which everything anyone has ever believed seriously is true somewhere.

Some manuscripts, called chronicles, dedicate significant attention to recording events of local history based on local records and oral traditions. Sometimes they’re about specific periods within a couple hundred years of when they’re written, and other times the scope is more like “all of history up to now” (or up to some useful historical landmark, like History before Caesar) and events we now label biblical and mythological are presented as an introduction to medieval history.

The images I collected of women wearing armor were mostly from some specific source categories, predominantly manuscripts that present a series of allegories, manuscripts that present a series of biographies of famous people, manuscripts about the Trojan War, and chronicles. Chronicles, with their grounding in local history that a reader’s grandparents might have witnessed or heard witness accounts of, have a different truthiness than the others. Chronicles also often feature a lot of illustrations that are spectacular and sensational in different ways than non-chronicle manuscripts.

So, I should refine my question a bit and give up elegant brevity.

Why is there so much gold armor in 15th century chronicle manuscripts with increased signs of truthiness?

What do I mean by “so much”?

In my manuscript picture stash, I have miniatures from about a dozen chronicles. Ten of those chronicles had examples of gold armor among the miniatures I saved. This is a highly biased, non-exhaustive sample, of course, but I chose to read the manuscripts for different reasons, and they’re all pretty different from each other.

In the interest of clarity, what do I mean by “gold”?

I don’t mean artwork that uses metallic gold to highlight or color armor, either as gold leaf or in a paint mixture. I’m referring to art that uses non-metallic pigments to shade and highlight and ultimately refer visually to the appearance of shaped and worked metal, perhaps reminiscent of fire-gilded armor or perhaps another alloy or steel treatment with a gold-like color. I don’t think any of the examples in this post have any metallic gold leaf, which is often used to highlight details of text and illustration in high-end manuscripts.

Here’s a picture of a sorceress casting spells on some men while two armies, both fully equipped in gold armor, face off in the field.

BnF Fr 64 is on the fanciful end of the chronicle art spectrum, but the text is well grounded in reality. It’s in two parts, titled “The Chronicles that Orosius compiled” and “The ancient stories of the Romans.” Orosius was a student of Saint Augustine and wrote three books in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. including one now counted among the most important Hispanic books of all time. The works of Orosius were copied, anthologized, and translated as recently as the 19th century.

On the other end of the spectrum, in terms of realism in art as well as amount of gold armor, is Leiden VGG F 2. VGG F 2 is a beautiful manuscript with “miniatures” the size of half a page, instead of the usual single-column size. This illustration may show the only piece of gold armor in the whole book– a helmet right in the middle.

VGG F 2 contains the text of the Chroniques by Enguerrand de Monstrelet, made around 1495 or 1500 for Engelbert II of Nassau. This chronicle is interesting because the text was probably composed on Monstrelet’s own initiative, rather than being commissioned by a ruler or noble. Despite that, it’s not an especially neutral chronicle.

The Augsburger Chronik (SuStB Augsburg 4 Cod Aug 1) tends to show gold armor on just a few people in only some battle scenes. I think this is an Amazon army (riding in from the right). The manuscript has two pictures of Amazons; the other shows them scaling a city wall as if during a seige.

I don’t know a lot about this manuscript, but the library catalog says it was created in 1480. German Wikipedia tells me the author of the text, Sigismund Meisterlin, was a humanist and a Benedictine monk.

Meisterlin’s Augsburg chronicle, finished 1457, was “the first German humanistic historical work that wanted to be committed to the truth in order to explain the present from the past, and which included the country and its people in the presentation” (via Google Translate. Apologies.) Meisterlin also wrote an ecclesiastical chronicle, and a chronicle for Nuremberg (not the Nuremberg Chronicle) which was not published for several centuries. He composed his books in Latin and then translated them to German.

This second illustration (right) shows the distribution of gold armor we might expect for something rare and expensive: two important individuals with gold equipment seem to be fighting as champions.

BnF Fr 2678 shows some different armor decoration styles, including the ornamented heroic style and a more colorful style that probably uses textile outer layers or is built around a brigandine chest defense.

This manuscript contains the Chroniques by Enguerrand de Monstrelet; I haven’t been able to find out more about this particular witness to the tradition, or its art.

Note, however, that in these depictions, there’s too much gold armor in too many places for it to only be used by the most elite, but it’s not the totally gilded battlefield from BnF Fr 64 (above). The men you send in a horde to storm a castle are the ones I’d expect to be wearing “munitions-grade” armor– off the rack, mass produced, less expensive, less good in every way than the equipment a wealthy leader would order for themself or their top supporters.

The soldiers swarming into the tower door show more variety in their armor than the ones assailing the wall, which seems more like I’d expect for an army bringing their own gear (typical for most medieval armies).

BnF Fr 8266 is the first manuscript that made me wonder about gold armor. Battles where both armies have an apparently even mix of fully steel and fully gold suits make it seem almost common, although the evenness of the mix makes it seem more like an artistic decision than a reflection of reality.

The first example to the right is the Battle of the Thirty, in which a roving band of knights challenged the defenders of a castle, and the defenders suggested settling the matter with a 30-vs-30 field battle rather than endangering the castle and its residents with a seige of any length.

BnF Fr 8266 also shows armies with a lot of partially-gold armors, like these men entering a fortified city.

BnF Fr 8266 was created in 1480 by Pierre Le Baud for Jean de Derval. It’s the older of two known manuscripts of Compillation des cronicques et ystoires des Bretons (Compilation of the Chronicles and Histories of the Bretons). The text is a kind of legendary origin story for Brittany, describing connections from Noah’s Ark to the Trojan hero Brutus to the Montfort family, legitimizing their victory in the Breton War of Succession.

Here, it makes sense to show the Battle of the Thirty in the armor of privileged men (with gold, in suits that match from head to toe), since this was a particularly famous and legendary battle held up as an example of true chivalry. Whatever was actually worn on the field that day, they were remembered as sparkling heroes.

But the other scenes don’t show battles with the same cachet; they show soldiers of varied background, probably a similar munitions-grade rabble to the one in BnF Fr 2678.

BnF Fr 50 and 51 also show both suits of a single color and suits of mixed gold- and steel-colored components.

These manuscripts contain a French text called Le mirouer historial (The historical mirror), Jean de Vignay’s circa 1332 French translation of Vincent de Beauvais’s Speculum historiale (The historical mirror).

Speculum historiale is the third and final part of Beauvais’s Speculum maius (The great mirror), which he finished drafting in 1244. “Mirror” was a medieval genre– books that reflected reality and truth (in some way).

Like in the previous two manuscripts, these are armies and soldiers in big mixed melees, decked out in a variety of colors and configurations.

In the second image with the walled city, reinforcements are arriving in boats and each boat contains people wearing both gold- and steel-colored armor. They can’t all be heroes, or all have interesting personalities we should infer from their choices.

Finally, the Amtliche Berner Chronik, Bern Mss.h.h.I.1, offers an elegant, less-flashy approach to mixed gold-and-steel armor. In this scene where two knights are scheduled to start a duel but one of them is asleep, they each have gold helmets and shoulder defenses, and one has gold elbows. In the background, it looks like the leader of one onlooking army has more gold equipment.

Since this was a duel with official oversight, the identities and reputations and backgrounds of the men might be part of the historical records used to research the chronicle. Their exact equipment choices probably weren’t, but the artist would likely be expected to depict their relative status and privilege appropriately.

The Berner Chronik was commissioned at the end of 1474 by the mayor and city council of Bern. It’s part of a group called the Swiss illustrated chronicles and was written by Diebold Schilling the Elder, perhaps the most famous of the Swiss chroniclers. Schilling also wrote Spiezer Chronik and Zurcher Chronik (also called Great Burgundy Chronicle). Diebold Schilling’s nephew Diebold the Younger also began a chronicle for the city council of Lucerne, but presented it to them without finishing it.

So… there you have examples of gold and mixed-metal armor from seven chronicles from different parts of Western Europe. And more questions than we started with:

  • Why is there so much gold armor in this art, if gold armor was rare and reserved for the very privileged?
  • If none of these artists were representing actual realistic armies, what reasons underlay their specific choices?
  • Should we interpret an army with less colorful armor differently from one with many shades of metal, or brigandine, or surcoats?
  • What does it mean if a person has more colors in their armor? Does it indicate wealth, access to variety? Or is the mixing a sign they had to get their harness piecemeal, perhaps living paycheck to paycheck?
  • Could there have been affordable, common gold armor that has not survived or been documented in a way we can recognize?
  • Does artwork that seems more reliable or less fanciful in other ways give a stronger hint about its contemporary reality than artwork with monsters and fantastic clothing?

I have so many questions and I only kind of know how to approach any of them.

Send help.

At the risk of promising something that isn’t certain yet, tune in next time for EVEN MORE unanswerable questions about gold armor from some especially beautiful manuscripts. And maybe the time after that for unanswerable questions about mysterious legwear that’s clearly referencing armor. And…

4 thoughts on “The first of many questions: whither gilding?”

  1. This article was fascinating — primarily because it was about a subject of which I know very little, but also because it was written in a manner I could comprehend.
    Why was so much GOLD included in the chronicled artwork? When it was rare and expensive and owned by only a few individuals? You showed examples from several manuscripts depicting both men AND women in armor — most equitable!
    Your coverage had a beginning, middle and ending, all of which intrigued me and held my interest. One issue I encountered after “Meisterlin:” illustrations began to overlap underlying copy (or perhaps that just happened on my ancient iPad?).
    On a personal note: Amy gave me your business card a while ago because I had commented on the unique artwork on the backside. After reading this article, I can better appreciate how you came to choose those images. Keep up the fine work!
    — Sheila


    1. Hi, Sheila!

      Thank you for the feedback– I’ve tried to clean up and simplify the image layout, which maybe will solve the overlapping problem you mentioned.

      I think metallic gold was used because it’s pretty, and because it’s an additional level of extravagance or conspicuous consumption. An inexpensive manuscript might have only two colors, and an expensive one might have many, but if you want to show off and be fancier than the person who can only afford the expensive one, gold is an unmistakable upgrade.

      You can see how gold was applied to books in this video:
      or read about the tools and materials in more detail here:

      Finally, the images on my cards are all from the women-focused part of my project, which is most of what you’ll find in the Armor category: The cards have some of my favorite artwork, so there’s a good chance I talk about the one you have in detail!

      Thanks again for coming by, and leaving a comment and feedback :)


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