Spotlight On … Hungarian Pavises.

Written by Victoria Green.

Recently, we have been giving a lot of thought to the idea of the historical influencing the modern. How trends evolve and revive over the years, the renaissances in classical tastes, the past and its relationship with the present. Next month Bill Amberg Studio will present an exhibition at London Craft Week, showcasing items from the National Leather Collection alongside their modern counterparts. The exhibition will span all aspects of leather in life, including fashion, accessories, travel and warfare.

The area of warfare particularly interests me, as the style and culture of war varies so much from country to country. The evolution of weapons and defences too is particularly interesting, seeing the increased sophistication over time and the perceptible shift toward the utilitarian, rather than the decorative.

With all this in mind, my thoughts wandered to one of our objects. An early 15th Century shield or pavise.

© National Leather Collection
© National Leather Collection

A pavise is traditionally a large, convex shield of European origin, used to protect the whole body. This type of shield was also made as a smaller version, however, for use in hand-to-hand combat. Pavises feature a curved wooden core, and were usually covered with rawhide or leather. A pavise can be characterised by its prominent central ridge, and rectangular shape. The pavise was often painted with the coat of arms of the town where it was made. During a time when weaponry and armour were usually stored in a local arsenal, this would help an individual to identify his arms.

The concept of using a shield to cover oneself during combat dates at least to the writing of Homer’s Iliad, though it is likely far older. In the Iliad, Ajax uses his shield to cover his half-brother Teucer, an archer, while he would peer round the edge and shoot arrows.

Pavises were commonly used by archers and crossbowmen in the Middle Ages. The pavise would be carried by a pavisier, who was usually an archer. The pavise would be held in place by the pavisier, or deployed in the ground with a spike attached to the bottom. Archers and crossbowmen alike would shelter behind pavises from oncoming missile attacks.

© National Leather Collection

The pavise in the National Leather Collection is a smaller, hand-held example, measuring around 183/4” x 131/4”. It is made of wood, potentially oak, and covered with thin hide which has been embossed with ornamentation including flowers, a two-headed eagle, and the initials MƧ. This decorative work was likely embossed from a wooden mould. The back of the pavise is covered in parchment bearing traces of writing, which are is now mostly illegible. It is thought that our pavise is Hungarian, originating from the second half of the 15th Century.

The pavise in the National Leather Collection is a unique example of the shorter pavise, which would have been worn on the arm to deflect arrows and sword blows during combat at close quarters. The condition of the museum’s pavise suggests that it is unlikely to have seen the front lines of war, though it could perhaps have been made for practice. We will never know whether this pavise was used by a member of the army, nor whether it defended Hungary’s independence on the battlefield, but isn’t this intrigue the most compelling part of the story?

What first interested me about the pavise in the museum’s collection was this period of history from which it originates. During the second half of the 15th Century, Hungary was ruled by the absolutist king, Matthias Corvinus, who developed a professional, mercenary standing army. The inspiration for this most likely came from juvenile readings about Julius Caesar. Such an army was highly unusual at a time when most countries’ standing armies were conscripted from the general population during times of crisis. King Matthias’ Black Army fought as full-time, well-paid mercenaries, devoted to the craft of warfare. The Black Army was large and forceful, conquering large swathes of Austria, Vienna and Bohemia. One of their key victories was in 1479 when Hungarian forces destroyed Ottoman and Wallachian troops at the Battle of Breadfield.

The use of pavises were key to the success of the Black Army. King Matthias adapted Hussite tactics to mounted warfare, placing his infantry behind tall pavises while the cavalry constantly harassed the enemy. Perhaps due to the high price of gunpowder in the Middle Ages, the king preferred the use of bow and arrow to fusiliers.

The Ottoman-Hungarian conflict came to an end after 150 years in 1526, following years of gradual political degradation. The Hungarians were finally defeated at the Battle of Mohács; King Louis II of Hungary was killed whilst fleeing, along with 14 – 20,000 of his soldiers. The Kingdom of Hungary then became an Ottoman tributary state, constantly engaged in civil war with Habsburg-controlled Royal Hungary.

© National Leather Collection
© National Leather Collection

Yet again, a fairly innocuous museum piece has managed to take us on a journey, to an uncertain and dangerous part of history. Each blog is a learning curve for the writer too; I wasn’t an expert in 15th Century Hungary when I sat down to pen this post, but I hope now to have piqued at least one person’s curiosity. The best part is that this pavise is just one of the 10,000 objects in the National Leather Collection. And each one has its own story to tell.

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