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Heraldry and Harleys

By Erin Erickson | HUMANITIES, November/December 1998 | Volume 19, Number 6

"Road Warriors: Knight Riders," a new exhibition at the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts, challenges popular stereotypes of the medieval horseman and modern motorcyclist. “There are definite similarities between the knight of the Middle Ages and the biker of the mid- and late twentieth century,” contends medievalist Linda Honan, curator of the exhibition.

A knight of the Middle Ages would often roam the countryside as a free lance, travelling from castle to castle, lord to lord, and giving us the modern word for working independently. “It was a way for culture to be spread and ideas to be spread,” continues Honan. “It was an interesting social phenomenon, but it was also regarded then, as now, with some misgivings by people who stay put.”

“The loner -- the individual knight and the individual biker -- can also be encountered in a group,” Honan explains. “King Lear’s daughters hated his band of knights ‘debauched and bold.’ Similarly, a lot of people dislike and are frightened by the sight of a group of bikers coming towards them. In both cases, the people are coming at high speed. They move faster than the rest of us. They are capable of travelling, of moving on, of leaving we’re not sure what in their wake.”

Some of the most striking similarities can be seen in the protective gear worn by both groups. “In the case of the knight,” says Honan, “he wanted his armor to be deflective, so he made it with no chinks. . . and with rounded surfaces.” The biker’s gear protects him from the ground should his elbows and knees drag. “He also needs to be resistant to the wind,” Honan says. “There is great similarity in form and function between the iron and steel gear of the knights and the leather and steel gear of the biker.”

The exhibition also compares heraldry of the Middle Ages to tattooing. “Heraldry was a way for knights in armor to identify themselves,” explains Honan. “We’re looking from that to tattoos and colors -- the way modern bikers identify themselves.” The exhibition displays examples of heraldry, including coats of arms, and photographs of tattooed people by a local photographer, Patrick O’Connor.

The whole Higgins Armory collection spans four thousand years. “We’re always thinking about the material we have and we’re always trying to put it into context that will bring it to life and make it relevant to people, interesting, and exciting,” says Honan, who hopes the exhibition will attract a broad audience. The hands-on gallery boasts a junior off-road racing bike and a quintain -- a post with a target used in medieval sports.

The formal gallery displays sporting and combat armor next to a 1940s German BMW army bike with a sidecar. Honan draws parallels between the knight with his squire and the motorbike rider with his sidekick.

Several events are planned in conjunction with the exhibition, including literary evenings, poetry readings, discussions, and conferences on conflict avoidance and identity, and popular culture.