Dispelling Medieval Armor Myths

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What come to mind when someone says Medieval armor? This?

This is a really awful modern reproduction, this is why people think medieval armor was awkward, restrictive and clumsy. But below is an actual armor from the 16th century.

Beautifully acid etched 16th century (so post-medieval) armor, but it doesn’t exactly look scary, it looks just as clunky and awkward as the first one, this is because armor was made to be worn. It needs to have someone inside it, the person that the armor was made to fit exactly. Like this one…

This is Doctor Tobias Capwell in his custom made armor, based on an effigy from about the 1450s. It is a beautifully tailored second skin designed to protect him while jousting or (with a different helmet) in foot combat. I think this really shows how scary plate armor could be, even unarmed he looks like he could take on an army.

Properly made armor does not restrict movement, armor like this actually has a greater range of movement than the human inside it. I don’t know the weight of this actual harness but much more than 30 kg would be very unusual for battlefield armor. You can see the sheer ingenuity used in creating this, and although it is a modern piece it is based exactly on armor from over 500 years ago.

There is a history of Western martial arts every bit as rich and sophisticated as that found in the East. This image is from a 15th century manual by Hans Talhoffer, demonstrating the Mordschlag or murderstroke and the counter to it. A sword isn’t particularly effective against full plate. the Mordschlag basically used the sword as a hammer, delivering the impact with either the pommel or crossguard.

This picture above shows both the devastating attacks possible and the strength of the armor; without it there wouldn’t be much left of the knight’s skull. As it was the man in armor (who was prepared for this attack) almost passed out from the concussive force and couldn’t keep fighting. Knights were trained in wrestling, single and two-handed sword, dagger and pole-arms and had elaborate grapples, locks, counters and counters to counters.

This is armor made for King Henry VIII for fighting in foot combat at tournaments. It might seem a bit silly with its steel butt, but take a good look, this is the first time a man could be fully encased in steel plates, even the inside of the elbow is tiny overlapping plates. This is so sophisticated that it was studied by NASA when they were trying to design the first space suits.

This is a 11th Century Norman Knight (Not exactly a knight in shining armor is it?), This is the kind of knight that fought at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. His shield evolved from the round shield to better cover his legs & the flank of the horse. He is wearing a mail hauberk (basically a long coat). Mail is brilliant for resisting cuts & slashes, but less good with thrusts or projectiles. He has a simple nasal helm offering good protection to the top of his head & the nasal piece helps stop cuts without blocking his vision or breathing The horse is probably bigger than a genuine medieval breed, but they are hard to get now…

This is a 12th Century Knight. This is about 100 years later, how the Anglo-Norman knights looked when they arrived in Ireland in 1169. The nasal helm is gone, replaced with a flat topped helm with a face plate, this offered far better protection against arrows, he also has a mail coif (hood) under the helmet as a second layer of defense. He has padding under the mail to protect him from the concussive force of blows. The shield is bigger & has a flat top, this means it can better cover the person behind it, whether on foot or horseback That lighthouse in the background is from the 12th century, although they have updated it a little.

A Mid 13th Century sad looking Goliath. A surcoat has been added over his mail, which helped to keep the elements off & the stout linen probably added some additional protection. Later the surcoat was used to identify people on the field. He is wearing a kettlehelm or war-hat, an extremely popular helmet for most of the medieval period, especially for infantry. It gave decent protection without restricting the senses or breathing. He also has the first bits of plate armour covering his shins, with padding covering his legs underneath.

Another hundred years or there about, This is about a generation or two from the earliest full-plate. He wears a coat-of-plates over mail, which is then over padding. This multi-layered armour was extremely effective against almost any form of attack. The coat-of-plates is made from multiple plates riveted onto a fabric covering making it strong yet flexible. You can also see the increase in plate protection elsewhere, particularly at vulnerable joints. The chains were a popular fashion in the mid 14th century and ensured that weapons couldn’t be lost in the heat of battle.

This is what a coat-of-plates looked like under the fabric. This is one of 25 finds of coats-of-plate from mass graves in Visby, Sweden, dating to a battle in 1361.

Here we see a man in splinted armour, like the coat-of-plates it is bands of steel riveted to a flexible fabric base. Normally he would also wear a skirt of mail to protect his gentleman’s area, but despite that he is basically head to toe in steel. His helmet is a variation of the Bascinet with beautiful fluting which makes it very difficult to land a solid blow while also adding structural strength.