During the Middle Ages, the wild boar was admired and feared for its courage and ferocity. This blogpost calls attention to this warrior among beasts and, in particular, to its presence on various helmets from Anglo-Saxon England.
The boar as a warrior
As a symbol of courage, the boar enjoyed great popularity throughout the Middle Ages. In his biography of Alfred the Great (d. 899), for instance, the monk Asser described how Alfred led his people against the Vikings as ‘a wild boar’:
… the king [Æthelred, Alfred’s brother] still continued a long time in prayer, and the heathen, prepared for battle, had hastened to the field. Then Alfred, though only second in command, could no longer support the advance of the enemy, unless he either retreated or charged upon them without waiting for his brother. At length, with the rush of a wild boar, he courageously led the Christian troops against the hostile army. (source)
The early medieval inhabitants of England would also name their children after the courageous boar, as is revealed by such Anglo-Saxon names as Eoforheard (‘boar-hard’), Eoformund (‘boar-protector’) and Eoforwulf (‘boar-wulf’) . In the later Middle Ages and beyond, the boar remained populair and was frequently used as a heraldic symbol, most famously by Richard III of England (d. 1485):
In his encyclopaedic Proprietatibus rerum, the thirteenth-century scholar Bartholomaeus Anglicus described the boar as a courageous and ferocious warrior. The boar, he noted, “useth the tusks instead of a sword. And hath a hard shield, broad and thick in the right side, and putteth that always against his weapon that pursueth him, and useth that brawn instead of a shield to defend himself.” (source) With its tusks for a sword and its thick skin for a shield, the boar does not run away from its enemies, but rather chooses to attack. He does not fear for his life, even if he is mortally wounded:
The boar is so fierce a beast, and also so cruel, that for his fierceness and his cruelness, he despiseth and setteth nought by death, and he reseth full piteously against the point of a spear of the hunter. And though it be so that he be smitten or sticked with a spear through the body, yet for the greater ire and cruelness in heart that he hath, he reseth on his enemy, and taketh comfort and heart and strength for to wreak himself on his adversary with his tusks, and putteth himself in peril of death with a wonder fierceness against the weapon of his enemy. (source)
Interestingly, the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail wears an emblem of a boar’s head. A fitting image, indeed: his persistence, despite his wounds, ties in well with what Bartholomaeus Anglicus tells us about the boar!
Bearing a boar into battle
In the early Middle Ages, a true warrior would carry an image of a boar with him into battle. This practice among Germanic tribes was already described by the Roman historian Tacitus in chapter 45 of his Germania (98 AD.). Some Germanic tribesmen, Tacitus wrotes, would carry with them “formae aprorum” (images of boars) as a kind of talisman for protection in battle:
They worship the mother of the gods, and wear as a religious symbol the device of a wild boar. This serves as armour, and as a universal defence, rendering the votary of the goddess safe even amidst enemies. (source)
In Old English literature, we find various examples of this practice. The Old English poem Elene, for example, makes mention of an eoforcumbol ‘boar-standard’. In Beowulf, too, there is a reference to an eoforheafodsegn ‘lit. boar-head-sign’, usually interpreted as a banner with a boar’s head. In addition, various warriors in Beowulf adorn themselves with “eofor-lic […] fah ond fyr-heard” (ll. 303b-305: A boar image, coloured and fire-hardened), “swyn eal-gylden (l. 1112b: a boar entirely of gold), “eofer iren-heard” (l. 1113a: an iron-hard boar) and “swin ofer helme (l. 1286a: a swine on top of the helmet). As the last phrase, “swin ofer helme”, suggests, these boar images were typically found on helmets. The hero Beowulf himself also seems to have possessed such a boar helmet, “besette swin-licum, þæt hine syðþan ne / brond ne beadomecas bitan ne meahton” (ll. 1450-1451: Studded with boar images, so that no sword or war-knife could bite him). Like Tacitus, the Beowulf poet here ascribes an ‘apotropaic’ function to the swine images: they are a form of defensive magic.
Boars on the helmet
The boar helmet is not a figment of literary imagination. Several archaeological finds from the early Middle Ages confirm the existence of this kind of headgear. One of the seventh-century helmet plates from Torslunda (Sweden), for example, shows two heavily armed warriors, each an effigy of a wild boar on their helmet. These swine are easily recognizable by their tusks, bristles and curly tails . Actual helmets dating from much the same time and complete with boar-crowns have been found in various places in England, such as Benty Grange and Wollaston.
Even the famous seventh-century Sutton Hoo helmet features an image of a boar, although it may not be visible at first sight. Considered carefully, the facemask of the Sutton Hoo helmet, with its moustache, nose and eyebrows, is actually the body of an eagle. But if we zoom in on the eyebrows, we can see that these are not only the wings of the eagle but that they are, in fact, boars, terminating as they do in swine-ish heads with tusks.
The carriers of these helmets no doubt imagined themselves protected or inspired by the martial valour of the boar.
Cruel and deadly: The dangers of boar baiting
Aside from their courage, boars were famed for their cruelty. Bartholomaeus Anglicus writes that boars would sharpen their tusks as soon as they heard hunters approach, so as to deal more damage:
And when he spieth peril that should befall, he whetteth his tusks and frotteth them, and assayeth in that while fretting against trees, if the points of his tusks be all blunt. And if he feel that they be blunt, he seeketh a herb which is called Origanum, and gnaweth it and cheweth it, and cleanseth and comforteth the roots of his teeth therewith by vertue thereof. (source)
Its reputation for cruelty was well-deserved: the boar hunt cost the lives of many a prince and nobleman, including the West Frankish king Carloman II (d. 884), the Hungarian prince Imre (d. 1031) and Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (d. 1392). These unfortunate people had probably forgotten to bear an image of a boar with them!
This blog is a revised version of small Dutch article that will appear in a book on thirty medieval animals, to be published here.
P.S. On a not entirely unrelated note: given the boar’s reputation for courage and cruelty, Dáin Ironfoot’s choice of transportation in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies suddenly makes some sense.