The Norman Birds of Prey (Dennis Aubrey)


“Then the wolves of slaughter rushed forward, they cared nothing for the water,
the host of vikings, west across the Blackwater,
across the shining stream they carried their shields, …
The roar of battle was lifted up there, ravens circled,
the bird of prey eager for carrion; there was bedlam in the land….
The onslaught of battle was terrible, warriors fell
on either side, young men lay dead.”

The Battle of Maldon, lines 96-98, 106-107, 111-112.

This post was inspired by a series of comments with Carrol Krause of the Housesandbooks blog on WordPress. She commented on the “Griffins” capital in the article Survival in the War Zone, identifying the hat as a Phrygian cap.

Romanesque griffins, Église Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Romanesque griffins, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But I began wondering what 11th century Norman sculptors would know about ancient Phrygian caps and started to do some research. What came to light was the Phrygian style Norman nasal helmet of that time. From being uniformly conical in shape, the skull of the nasal helmet became more varied during the 11th and 12th century. For much of that time nasal helmets with a forward deflected apex, often called the ‘Phrygian cap’ shape, were in widespread use.

Norman nasal helmet, Phrygian style (11th and 12th century)

Norman nasal helmet, Phrygian style (11th and 12th century)

At this point I began to suspect that this “Griffin” capital might have been a commentary on the Norse grant to the lands of Normandy after the 911 treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, between Charles the Simple (King Charles III of France) and Rollo, the leader of the Vikings. By the terms of the treaty, Rollo received the grant of lands of Upper Normandy with Rouen – at the mouth of the Seine – as their capital; Nottmannis Sequanensibus videlicet Rolloni suisque commitibus pro tutelar regni – to the Northmen of the Seine, namely Rollo and his followers, for defense of the Kingdom.

In return, the Viking duke would convert to Christianity, acknowledge the French king as his overlord and, protect France against wilder Vikings.

Established in their home at the mouth of the Seine, the raids on the nearby Celtic populations of Lower Normandy and Brittany increased in ferocity. Especially targeted were the churches and monasteries. Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu, Quimper, Dol, Saint-Meén, Vannes, and Bayeux were all devastated. In both Brittany and Lower Normandy, the church, the nobles, and the general population suffered severely.

Lower Normandy really only became part of the permanent ducal realm of Normandy in the reign of William the Conqueror. That means that at the time of the construction of the nave of Sainte Marie-des-Monts (and the carving of the capitals), the region was hotly disputed and the invaders certainly had earned the enmity of the church. It is therefore very conceivable that the capitals would depict the marauding Normans as rapacious and ferocious birds of prey

Detail, centaur capital, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Detail, centaur capital, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There may be another piece of internal evidence. The capital immediately to the right of the “Griffin” depicts a helmeted centaur hunting a deer. In closeup, we can see that this particular helmet features what appears to be the nose guard shown in the picture of the Phrygian helmet. And on closer examination of the “Griffin” capital, it may be that the nose guards on those helmets are actually present. While it appears that the left-hand figure has been disfigured around the face, we can see the nose guard clearly in the figure on the right.

Romanesque griffins detail, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Romanesque griffins detail, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

And finally, might not the pattern on the chests of the creatures represent chain mail, just as it is in the image of the Phrygian helmet?

This post is, of course, sheer speculation, but it was an enjoyable exercise. I would love to hear from someone who has more or better information, whether it supports the arguments in this article or not. The mystery of the helmeted griffins deserves the attention.

Location: 49.378645° -1.225462°

17 responses to “The Norman Birds of Prey (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. We received a commentary from Claude Vieillespierres on Facebook. Claude is quite active in commentary on Romanesque art and architecture and is from Normandy: His comment is: Je les connais ceux-là. On les trouve dans je pense quatre églises de la Manche. Leur bonnet a souvent intrigé les spécialistes qui y voient un bonnet phrygien et des restes du culte de Mithra. je pense que c’est le “pileum”, le bonnet des esclavec affranchis !

    Ce n’est pas un casque normand. On retrouve ce bonnet des esclaves affranchis sur d’autres monuments ailleurs qu’en Normandie. Mais ce n’est que mon avis.

    This translate approximately as “I know these. I think we find them in four churches in the Manche. The cap often intrigutes specialists who see the phrygian cap and the remnants of a cult of Mithra. I think it is the ‘pileum’, the cap of the freed slaves.

    “It is not a Norman helmet. We find this cap on freed slaves elsewhere in Normandy. But this is just my opinion.”

    • This is always such fun for me, Kalli. We get great feedback from people all over the world. I’ve been watching Claude’s work for some time now on various sites on Facebook.

    • Viv, Claude Viellespierres identified three other village churches with these creatures similarly capped – Boutteville, Foucarville, and Savigny further south.

  2. I used to sail out of Maldon when a student and as we missed the tides, buoys or anything else possible to miss one of our number would always quote

    Thought shall be the harder, heart the keener,
    Courage the greater, as our might lessens.

    I must look for M. Viellespierre’s site on Facebook – he sounds a very interesting man.
    Isn’t the internet a super place….you are now translated into French and Italian, and people rise up from all over to take part in a discussion.
    A far cry from a research library – necessary and delightful though that is.

    • Helen, the internet is amazing, we could never have conceived of the Via Lucis world when we started the project. I love that you know the Maldon story, one of my favorite when I was a kid.

  3. Claude might not have the picture of your norman soldiers. I love your investigation. I am always fascinated by strong invading tribes who in a matter of two generations have entirely adopted the local culture. France has many examples such as the Francs and the Normans who pillaged and killed but who started speaking french (the roman language) and converted to christianity within 2 or 3 generations. Usually because the rich invaders settled down and sent their children to be educated in christian monasteries…

    • Thanks, Joel. I just can’t understand what the conventional explanation would be for the griffin figures. As far as the strong invading tribes, there is a reason it is called la douce France:) I do know that the Vikings were 80% young single men who were settled in Normandy after the Treaty, so it is clear that the rate of intermarriage was very high. I don’t think it was the same with the Franks and some of the other land-based tribes because they traveled with their families. More mysteries to explore!

  4. Your blog is so witty… I hope one day you will elaborate on two French historical characters who have the misfortune of having their English names intertwined: I am thinking of Charles The Bold and Charles The Bald…

    • Thanks, Joel. I don’t know much about Charles le Temaire but have always loved Paul Murray Kendall’s description of his at his death at the Battle of Nancy; “The furious devotee of Mars, who had shown all the qualities of a great general except generalship and all the trappings of a conqueror except victories, lay face down on a frozen pond, stripped naked. His head had been cloven from top to chin by a Swiss halberd; his body was pierced through by Swiss pikes; the bloody ruin of his face was unrecognizable. Captured servants of his made positive identification by the long nails, the missing upper tooth and several scars on the body.”

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