As I’ve mentioned, my experience in swordplay is largely limited to unarmored combat. I’ve owned chainmail and some other armor pieces, but not plate armor. Therefore, my knowledge in this area relies far more on scholarship than experience.
Dive Right In
Let’s start off with a gripe of mine: “studded leather.” If you’ve played D&D, you’ve likely had a character use this type of armor at one time or another–if I remember correctly, it’s better than basic leather but not as restrictive as chain. What’s wrong with that?
There’s not really such a thing as “studded leather.” Here’s what happened: Gygax and Arneson, or whoever added this piece of equipment to their games, looked at medieval art and pieces of armor that looked to them like leather with “studs” on it. They didn’t do any more research than this and decided that what they were looking at was some form of reinforced leather armor.
What they were actually looking at was a transitional form of armor between chainmail and plate–the brigandine or “coat of plates.” This form of armor has many smaller metal plates (the size could vary greatly) riveted together and sandwiched between other layers (usually cloth, not leather). The “studs” the game designers saw were the exposed rivets.
Does this matter? Yes! A brigandine or coat of plates is a very different thing than a piece of leather. It is semi-rigid, usually form-fitting (for the coat of plates, the brigandine seems a looser, more one-size-fits-all affair), about as noisy as chainmail (and was sometimes worn in conjunction with mail) and not a great piece of kit for thieves and rangers. As I mentioned in one of the earlier Parts, it was one thing to carry a sword around, and another to wear serious armor and battle gear around. The coat of plates and brigandine advertised a person was expecting, perhaps looking for, trouble.
How much Leather?
It’s a staple of fantasy film (and Renaissance Festival or LARP costumes)–the leather-garbed hero, some of the pieces perhaps hardened into shape (cuirboulli or “boiled leather”). I’ll freely admit that it looks cool, especially considering that much medieval clothing looks comparatively goofy to the modern eye. If you’ve played the Witcher 3, you’ve certainly noticed all the people running around with braies and hose so that they appear to be wearing leggings with a cloth diaper hanging out. Yes, that was a thing.
But how much leather was historically used in armor has evaded answer despite many words spilt on the subject. Again, the problem is a largely scientific one–as an organic material, leather is highly subject to decomposition, making it difficult to analyze usage empirically based on archeological findings.
The art, as our D&D example illustrates, can be difficult to decipher, and we can’t be absolutely positive that any given painting or drawing intends to indicate leather over cloth.
Here’s what we do know:
(1) Leather was sometimes used in the manufacture of armor. The classical Greeks did it, the Romans did it, and the leather “buff coat” saw extensive use during the English Civil War.
(2) Leather has some effectiveness in protecting against cuts. This was the rationale behind the buff coat and is the reason that butchers still wear leather aprons today. You can again find videos on YouTube demonstrating this.
(3) Leather was not commonly used in clothing in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. This is not to say that it was never used, but most usages of leather seem to be for gloves, straps and the like. The commonest materials for clothing were wool and linens, with a small amount of cotton used in European clothing and many more materials–silks, velvets, ermine and other furs, etc.–available to the wealthy.
(4) Cloth armor was widely used. Cloth, you say? I do. There were many forms of cloth armor: gambesons, arming coats or jupons, loose-fitting and tight-fitting, some intended to be worn under other armor and some intended to be used alone. Linen armor was usually created by layering and laminating the fabric, sometimes 20 layers or more thick. This created relatively lightweight armor with good resistance to cutting as well as deforming to spread out the force of blunt trauma (particularly if worn under rigid armor). With leather being more expensive than wool and linens (sheep regularly produce more wool and flax can be replanted–leather requires killing an animal) and cloth being close (maybe superior) in effectiveness, it’s very likely that basic economics prevailed over the rule of cool.
If Not Leather, What?
In the early middle ages, you could have any kind of armor you wanted, as long as it was a cloth gambeson or a chainmail hauberk. I’m being overly reductionist, but neither the literature nor the art suggests that there was anything other than those items used commonly.
In the 10th and 11th centuries especially, the literature typically distinguishes between whether someone was wearing mail or not and doesn’t give us much detail beyond that.
An example: in 1066, Harold Godwinson was facing challenges to his position as king of England (which he said was given to him by Edward the Confessor on his deathbed) on two fronts. While waiting for William the Bastard (later the Conqueror, if you must know how the story ends) to finally make his crossing to invade from Normandy, Godwinson received news that Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway and a former mercenary, had landed in the north of England to go “a-viking,” perhaps to make himself king if opportunity presented. After some raids on the coastal villages and clashes with the Mercian aristocracy, Harald Hardrada expected to meet with representatives of the town of York on September 25th at Stamford Bridge to discuss the exchange of hostages and, hopefully, the terms of Harald’s control of York. Because he expected a negotiation, he and most of his men left their mail behind.
Hardrada arrived to find that Godwinson had marched his forces northward with great alacrity, and when Godwinson realized that Hardrada’s men had not brought their mail (and were outnumbered), fighting started to sound better than talking. Despite the fact that, according to the sources, Hardada had taken several levels of Barbarian and activated his Rage ability (okay, the sources say he went berserkergang, but it’s the same thing, right?) he caught an arrow in the neck and was killed, his forces devastated despite valiant resistance.
As an aside, there’s an apocryphal tale in some of the (non-saga) sources that a single huge Norseman was able to hold off the entire English army on Stamford bridge while his fellows retreated to form a shieldwall on the other side. According to the version of the story with which I am most familiar, the English actually had to send archers into the river to shoot up at him from below to kill him. And now, his rage is ended. You only get so many turns.
As metallurgy and technology advanced, there came into being a wide array of various armors. This is not to say that there were not design differences in the earlier period; “double mail” with its rings presumably doubled up for greater protection, is sometimes mentioned, and various patterns of chainmail weaving were employed, so its clear that armorers were innovating in search of incremental advantage even before revolutionary ones came along.
The true transitional period for armor is the 14th century, with many experiments with different types of rigid armor eventually giving way to the “white armor” plate. Some of these experiments included the coat of plates, splint armor, chainmail reinforced with plates in key positions, different styles and cuts of gambeson and arming wear, changes from the blockier and larger helmets of earlier centuries to helmets that deflected blows rather than simply stopping them.
Until the Renaissance and early modern period (depending upon how you define those eras), there were not really professional national armies. There were mercenaries, who were as much professional soldiers as professional brigands, but the economics of their training and equipment is quite different from the armies that develop under Maximilian I and later in the 16th century. For much of the period, a conscripted or volunteer soldier needed to provide his own weapons and equipment, and while the liveried men belonging to the private military of a noble would be provided some kit, the non-aristocracy was seldom given significant armor, it seems.
This resulted in a wide variety of armors used in the late medieval and Renaissance periods, from simple, solitary gambeson to plate armor. If you could afford plate, that’s what you wanted. If you couldn’t, you got the best you could afford.
The “jack chain” (stop snickering you in the back!) is a great example of balancing need with economics. Jack chains are strips of metal, usually attached to a circular plate at the elbow or knee, that could be tied to a soldier’s jack (gambeson). This gave some limited rigid protection to the limbs at relatively low cost.
When considering the variations of armor among non-aristocratic soldiers in this period, I’m often reminded of a saying from my days as a competition shooter–“You run what you brung.”
I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!
Along with the stereotype of twenty-pound swords is a myth about the weight of plate armor and the capabilities of its wearer. No, knights did not need cranes to be put on their horses. Yes, a knight who fell down could pick himself up.
Plate armor designed for combat typically weighed between thirty and fifty pounds, give or take, spread somewhat evenly over the body so that the weight is not especially onerous. Consider that the combat load for the average American soldier is about sixty pounds and its clear that medieval armorers understood enough about balancing armor with the other necessities of combat effectiveness to create something especially effective, not a ridiculous weight that paralyzed combatants. Remember all that movement we talked about in the last Part? Still applies when you’re wearing armor.
We know that plate armor did not significantly effect movement or agility. There are stories of knights performing somersaults and climbing up the undersides of ladders to display acrobatic prowess while armored. Again, you can find some videos on YouTube demonstrating this if you’re not convinced.
Consider also that plate armor was, for the most part and at the height of its design, an improvement in weight over chainmail. A chain hauberk tends to weigh about forty pounds on average.
So all of these mechanics in roleplaying games stating that armor should restrict your mobility and agility don’t really stand up if simulation is the goal. Like carrying any extra weight–when backpacking for instance–the load does require a little extra effort and it’s probably safe to say that it would cause you to accumulate fatigue faster. And yes, it’s fair to say that wearing plate armor makes it more difficult to sneak around. But at the end of the day, wearing plate armor is not the drudgery we tend to think of it as.
For completeness (of information’s) sake, thicker and heavier suits of plate armor were made, usually for tournament fighting, where the extra protection in a combat not intended to be lethal anyway would be welcome. My guess is that this was also viewed the way martial artists and soldiers in the modern era sometimes train–if you use equipment heavier in practice than what you’d actually use “in the field,” you’ll have a much easier time with the field equipment when it comes to it.
The Care and Feeding of Armor
Like swords, armor was not made of stainless steel (which is heavier by density than carbon steel). This means that armor rusts, as can be well attested by museum-goers. Keeping armor from rusting would have been a matter of regular maintenance (i.e. application of oils or waxes), just like it is on modern tools.
But there were some “shortcuts” or techniques used to make armor slower to oxidize (the profound lack of rust monsters also helped). Particularly in the early period, a tabard or other cloth cover was worn over the armor to protect it from the elements, though on a rainy day, this ends up keeping a lot of moisture next to the armor for longer.
There aren’t as many examples that have survived intact, but it is apparent that a fair amount of armor was painted to apply a protective coat, some in elaborate, intricate and even colorful ways.
There is evidence as well that bluing, browning or blackening (controlled oxidation processes) were also sometimes used to protect armor.
The best plate armor is custom-fitted to its wearer and intricately fashioned to be as unobtrusive to a warrior as possible, but as professional soldiers and standing armies developed (for an in-depth view of the changes over these periods, look up debates over the “medieval military revolution”), the state needed to equip more fighters. This requirement was filled by “munitions” armor, the fast and dirty version of a fitted suit.
Munitions armor was often made of iron, not steel, and was made according to a single pattern so that parts were interchangeable for replacement. This resulted in heavier, less comfortable, less effective pieces of armor. But hey, it’s better than nothing if it turns a blade, amiright?
For Writers and Roleplayers
Again, first and foremost, give some thought during worldbuilding to the types of weapons and armor that exist in your world. We talked earlier about differences in weapons (and mentioned armor) between Europe and Japan in their relative medieval periods, so bear in mind that it’s not just the available technologies alone that determines what sees common use.
Look back to the previous Part and think about what locations on the body are likeliest to be struck–experienced fighters, if they have to choose, will likely armor those locations before others (but also bearing in mind that torso strikes tend to be deadlier than (non-arterial) limb strikes given the standard medicine of the period (which may or may not coincide with the available techniques in your setting).
As mentioned before, once you become familiar with the different types and styles of armor in your setting, you can use this to subtly tell a reader (or player) a lot about a character. There’s a great comparison to be had between the young man in a suit of shining new, custom-fitted plate who doesn’t know how to properly grip his longsword standing next to the grizzled veteran, hair flecked with grey, munitions-grade breastplate hanging loosely from his torso, bowed out slightly by his paunch, sword held in one hand, flat of the blade casually resting on his shoulder.
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