Economic and Social Aspects of the Trade of Luxury Goods between Africa and Europe: Ostrich Feather
From Firenze University Press Book: Maritime Networks as a Factor in European Integration
Helmut Rizzolli, University of Innsbruck
Federico Pigozzo, Deputazione di Storia Patria per le Venezie
In Europe, from the mid-thirteenth century, iconographic sources testify to the use of ostrich feathers for the decoration of military headgear as a representation of the high lineage and military virtues of the possessor. At that time, it was customary for armoured knights, to place a crest of various types at the top of their metal helmet, some of these were created from the wings of birds of prey adorned with feathers from peacocks or other local birds, or with the more exotic ostrich feathers.
A fine example of a crest of this type can be admired in the manuscript of the Annali genovevesi by Caffaro which is preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France: a knight wears a “Topfhelm” on his head which is decorated with a small stuffed bird whose tail is made of white feathers which are longer that the helmet itself and which probably came from an ostrich. This identification seems more certain in the illustrations of knights in the Chansonnier from the second half of the thirteenth century which is preserved in the same library or in the French manuscript Li livre des ansienes estroires dated around 1285, preserved in the British Library. Finally, it is most certainly an ostrich feather that adorns the helmet of a knight in the Roman de Tristan written in Arras at the end of the thirteenth Century.
There is multiple evidence of the use of ostrich feathers in the fourteenth century. Between 1307 and 1342, Charles Robert of Anjou, king of Hungary, commissioned the making of a silver coin bearing on one side, a helmet topped with an ostrich head with two long feathers on either side. Edward the English Plantagenet Prince, the Black Prince, was customary to use three ostrich feathers in his coat of arms and during the period when he was Duke of Aquitaine (1362–1372) he commissioned the making of a gold coin (pavillion) which portrayed him standing, surrounded by four long feathers placed on typical cartouches bearing the German motto “Ich dien” (I serve).
In 1368, the Duke of Savoy, Amadeus VI purchased eight ostrich feathers for his own helmet in view of his participation in a tournament organized by the Viscount of Milan5 and in May 1386, Lord of Verona, Antonio della Scala, carried 200 ostrich feathers with him which were to donate to the best fighters of the huge army that was about to attack the enemy city of Padua. The raw material for the decoration of military headgear was made available thanks to Mediterranean commercial networks. During the Middle Ages large regions of North Africa, Syria and the Euphrate valley were populated by a subspecies of the ostrich, the Struthio camelus syriacus, characterized by its smaller dimensions in comparison with its Central African relatives and which became extinct in the mid-twentieth century.
This variety still appeared to be widely spread in Egypt and in the Arabian Peninsula during the fourteenth century and its presence is recorded by Christian travellers, such as the Italian pilgrim Leonardo Frescobaldi or by Muslims, such as the Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta.
The larger subspecies Struthio camelus camelus, more appreciated for the length of the feathers, was widespread in vast areas of the regions south of the Sahara desert, from the Atlantic to the Indian oceans. This species still exists today despite having suffered a progressive and severe reduction of its population.