Share this page

Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Ceremonial ‘Partizan’ or Pike-Blade

Object 78 - The latest in our series of blogs looking at the world as Shakespeare would have known it. Today we take a look at a ceremonial pike-blade.

Peter Hewitt

Today’s 100 Objects blog is by Peter Hewitt, AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Researcher in the History Department at the University of Birmingham. Peter takes a look at a beautiful pike-blade from the collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

SBT 1999-26 Pike head
SBT 1999-26 Ornamental Staff top of spear head

This week’s object is a ceremonial ‘partizan’ or pike blade, dated 1589, and made in London.  It would have sat upon a long wooden shaft to represent one of the various types of ‘pole-arms’ used by armies in the sixteenth century.

It is a little over 18cm in length and 9cm wide.  A small mark on the base reveals that it was crafted by a member of the Worshipful Company of Pewterers, who regulated the production of the metal from the fifteenth century onwards.  It is made from ‘lay metal’, a variation of pewter which allowed for incised decoration; this can be seen on the figure of the pike-man, and the elaborate flukes and finials emerging from the base.

In early modern Europe leaf-shaped blades like this were called ‘partizans’, but this item also incorporates elements from the halberd, pike-blade and spontoon (variations of late-medieval weapons).  In addition, the metal is fragile and thin – it would have snapped and buckled if struck against armour or an opponents’ body.  So how was this item used? And how did contemporaries understand its form and decoration?

Pike-men were part of late sixteenth-century standing armies, but their presence was less of a tactical necessity and rather a self-conscious imitation of classical Roman military traditions.  As such, pikes or pole-arms were often carried by ensigns or standard-bearers, and used both as a rallying point and a means of proclaiming the identity of the troops.  But pikes also filtered into other forms of use, especially in the larger towns across England.  In 1565, John Stow reported the use of pikes in riotous ‘skimmington’ rituals, where communities meted out rough justice to enfeebled men and their scolding wives who had failed to live up to their expected gender roles.(1)  Ceremonial pikes were also used for some Elizabethan funerals:  Sir Philip Sidney’s funeral procession (1586) saw halberds and pikes pointed sorrowfully downwards in imitation of Roman military ceremony.(2)  It could be said that both the ‘skimmington’ and funeral customs were in fact a way of regulating and performing masculinity – on the one hand, the corrupted and emasculated male is punished and humiliated, whilst the soldier is idealized and honoured.

It is interesting therefore that the figure displayed on this object was, for early modern viewers, a paragon of male virility and bravery.  The man with his enlarged belly, achieved by a padded ‘peascod’ doublet, cuts a stalwart and seemingly immovable figure – a visual archetype replicated time and again in images of civic militias across Europe.  The peascod hangs below the waistline, which, together with the billowing breeches, drew attention to the wearer’s sexual organs whilst also elongating the legs and emphasising his athleticism.  In addition, the man’s facial hair, clipped in a style known to contemporaries as the ‘Roman T’ beard, drew parallels not only with classical models of military valour, but with virile manhood itself – ‘He that hath a beard is more than a youth’ quips Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing, ‘and he that hath no beard is less than a man’ (2. I. 30-3).

Swathed in billowing flags and streamers, and born above the heads of excited men and women on the top of a pole, this object was a highly potent visual image fabricated from the material culture of warfare.  We should imagine it paraded through the streets on a day of civic celebration or military victory, and thereby both constructing and articulating expectations of male identity.

1) J. Gardiner (ed.) John Stow: Three fifteenth-century chronicles: with historical memoranda by John Stowe, the antiquary, and contemporary notes of occurrences written by him in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, (Camden Society, London: 1880), p. 132

2) Paulina Kewes, Ian. W. Archer & Felicity Heal (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Holinshed’s Chronicles (Oxford: 2013), p. 333