Bring the Family

Weapons of major destruction

(Kelly Greenlee)
By Steve Greenlee
Globe Staff / February 19, 2011

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Halberds, lances, vogues, broad axes, rapiers, fauchards, maces, corsicas, glaives, pollaxes, roncones, awl-pikes — now these guys knew how to fight.

There was no limit to the number of ways a knight could impale, mutilate, bash, or otherwise maim his enemy. He’s wearing a suit of armor? So what. Hold out your roncone, grab his lance-rest with it, and yank him off his horse. Bop him over the head with the other end of your weapon, and — voila! — he’s out like a light.

Perhaps it wasn’t that easy. But it is easy to imagine what Medieval-era combat was like when you take a trip to the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester. Housed in a steel-and-glass Art Deco building erected in 1930 by local steel magnate John Woodman Higgins to contain his immense collection of suits of armor and weapons, the museum is the only one of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. Why Higgins went all over the world buying this stuff is anyone’s guess, but lucky for us he did.

The Great Hall, the museum’s centerpiece, is where the best material is kept. The room itself resembles a Gothic castle, and the pieces are presented with understated class — as though it’s no big deal to show visitors full suits of armor from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Hanging on the wall: a Bavarian saber from 1620. Over there: a suit of German field armor from 1510.

Some of the artifacts are much older: Corinthian helmets from 550-650 BC, a Greek sword from 1200 BC. (I tried to convince my daughter that the ridge on a first-century Roman helmet was a pouch for an iPod, but she just rolled her eyes at me.)

If anything, these amazing pieces are exhibited almost too matter-of-factly. The rarity of such well-preserved, 3,000-year-old artifacts seems lost on the Higgins, which, to my eyes, hasn’t been updated much in the 20 years since my previous visit. A few notes on how each piece was obtained would be enlightening (unless, of course, the museum doesn’t know where J.W. Higgins procured his finds.)

On the other hand, there’s something to be said for wondering about the stories and battles behind each object. I kept returning to the 18th-century mace hanging on the wall at one end of the Great Hall. Oh, to wield that piece of equipment the next time someone cuts me off on the Southeast Expressway.

Higgins Armory Museum, 100 Barber Ave., Worcester. 508-853-6015. Open Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday noon to 4 p.m. (Closed most Mondays, but open Feb. 21 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) Admission $10 adults, $7 children 4-16.

WHO: Globe features editor Steve Greenlee, his wife, and their three kids, ages 8-11

WHAT: Going medieval

WHERE: Higgins Armory Museum, Worcester

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