“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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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