The bascinet – also bassinet, basinet, or bazineto – was a Medieval European open-faced military helmet. It evolved from a type of iron or steel skullcap, but had a more pointed apex to the skull, and it extended downwards at the rear and sides to afford protection for the neck. A mail curtain (“camail” or aventail) was usually attached to the lower edge of the helmet to protect the throat, neck and shoulders. A visor (face guard) was often employed from ca. 1330 to protect the exposed face. Early in the fifteenth century, the camail began to be replaced by a plate metal gorget, giving rise to the so-called “great bascinet”.
It is believed that the bascinet evolved from a simple iron skullcap, known as the cervelliere, which was worn with a mail coif, as either the sole form of head protection or beneath a great helm. The bascinet is differentiated from the cervelliere by having a higher, pointed skull. By about 1330 the bascinet had been extended lower down the sides and back of the head. Within the next 20 years it had extended to the base of the neck and covered the cheeks. The bascinet appeared quite suddenly in the later 13th century and some authorities see it as being influenced by Byzantine or Middle-Eastern Muslim helmets. The bascinet, without a visor, continued to be worn underneath larger “great helms” (also termed heaumes).
The illustration shows a bascinet with a type of detachable nasal (nose protector) called the bretache or bretèche made of sheet metal. The bretache was attached to the aventail at the chin, and it fastened to a hook or clamp on the brow of the helmet.
The bretache was also used in Italy; one of the first representations of it is on the equestrian statue of Cangrande I della Scala, who died in 1329. It is also shown on the tomb of Bernardino dei Barbanzoni in the Museo Lapidario Estense in Modena, executed c. 1345–50. An advantage of the bretache was that it could be worn under a great helm, but afforded some facial protection when the great helm was taken off. Use of the bretache preceded and overlapped with that of a new type of visor used with the bascinet, the “klappvisor” or “klappvisier”.
The “klappvisor” or klappvisier was a type of visor employed on bascinets from around 1330–1340; this type of visor was hinged at a single point in the centre of the brow of the helmet skull. It was particularly favoured in Germany, but was also used in northern Italy where it is shown in a Crucifixion painted in the chapter hall of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, c. 1367. Its use in Italy seems to have ceased around 1380, but continued in Germany into the 15th century. The klappvisor has been characterised as being intermediate between the bretache nasal and the side pivoting visor.
The side-pivot mount, which used two pivots – one on each side of the helmet, is shown in funerary monuments and other pictorial or sculptural sources of the 1340s. One of the early depictions of a doubly pivoted visor on a bascinet is the funerary monument of Sir Hugh Hastings (d. 1347) in St. Mary’s Church, Elsing, Norfolk, England. The pivots were connected to the visor by means of hinges to compensate for any lack of parallelism between the pivots. The hinges usually had a removable pin holding them together, this allowed the visor to be completely detached from the helmet, if desired. The side-pivot system was commonly seen in Italian armours.
A bascinet with a rounded visor.
From about 1410 the visor attached to bascinets lost its pointed hounskull shape, and became progressively more rounded. By 1435 it gave an “ape-like” profile to the helmet; by 1450 it formed a sector in the, by then, almost globular bascinet. Ventilation holes in the visor tended to become larger and more numerous.
Early gorgets were wide, copying the shape of the earlier aventail, however, with the narrowing of the neck opening the gorget plates had to be hinged to allow the helmet to be put on. Early great bascinets had the skull of the helmet riveted to the rear gorget plate, however, some later great bascinets had the skull forged in a single piece with the rear gorget plate. The gorget was often strapped to both the breast and backplate of the cuirass. In this late form the head was relieved of the entire weight of the helmet, which rested on the shoulders; however, the helmet was rendered totally immobile and the head of the wearer had only limited abilities to move inside it. Though very strongly constructed, this type of helmet imposed limitations on the wearer’s vision and agility.
By the middle of the 14th century, most knights had discarded the great helm altogether in favor of a fully visored bascinet. The bascinet, both with and without a visor, was the most common helmet worn in Europe during most of the 14th century and the first half of the 15th century, including during the Hundred Years’ War. Contemporary illustrations show a majority of knights and men-at-arms wearing one of a few variants of the bascinet helmet. Indeed, so ubiquitous was the use of the helmet that “bascinet” became an alternative term for a man-at-arms.
Though primarily associated with use by the “knightly” classes and other men-at-arms some infantry also made use of the lighter versions of this helmet. Regions where rich citizens were fielded as infantry, such as Italy, and other lands producing specialised professional infantry such as the English and Welsh longbowman probably saw the greatest use of bascinets by infantrymen.
The basic design of the earlier, conical version of the helmet was intended to direct blows from weapons downward and away from the skull and face of the wearer. Later versions of the bascinet, especially the great bascinet, were designed to maximise coverage and therefore protection. In achieving this they sacrificed the mobility and comfort of the wearer; thus, ironically, returning to the situation that the wearers of the cumbersome great helm experienced and that the early bascinets were designed to overcome. It is thought that poorer men-at-arms continued to employ lighter bascinets with mail camails long after the richest had adopted plate gorgets.
Decline in use
Soon after 1450 the “great bascinet” was rapidly discarded for field use, being replaced by the armet and sallet, which were lighter helmets allowing greater freedom of movement for the wearer. However, a version of the great bascinet, usually with a cage-like visor, remained in use for foot combat in tournaments into the 16th century.