I have several essays from my college years sitting around gathering dust. Instead of trashing them, I am editing them and putting them online. The following is one such essay. I wrote this one for a History of Technology class.
For this essay, I looked at paintings for primary source information. Period paintings showed what armor warriors wore during the Middle Ages. However, using pictures to study history does have risks. Unlike photographs, paintings are subject to the painter’s interpretations, which are not always accurate. In a significant number of old works the artist never intends to be accurate. Such inaccuracies are especially evident in fifteenth-century portrayals of ancient times. One painting showed Alexander the Great with chain mail and plate armor that did not exist at the time.
I also researched books in the library. There is a problem with studying books that are not primary sources. The authors often infer much of the information. Often, the information is later found to be false.
One example is Richard Barber’s The Knight and Chivalry. Barber restates many beliefs about medieval armor that are now contested by modern historians. His technological determinist views proclaim how certain technologies caused the armor to appear. At other times, he states how the appearance of new armor led to new technologies. Barber’s argument about armor is that medieval armor was ineffective in combat. The use of armor failed because it restricted mobility without enough gain in protection.
Contrast that with the views of Gerhard Jaritz. He contends that fighters in full suits of armor can do cartwheels, jump, and even sprint. Furthermore, he argues that medieval armor was effective and rendered armored warriors almost invincible.
The contradicting views of these two authors present another problem. There is no way to tell how effective armor was in battle unless we can test it in a real battle situation. All we can do is examine the evidence we have and make informed speculations based on our findings.
The remaining three sources I looked at were less extreme in their arguments. Stephen Turnbull’s Book of the Medieval Knight discusses the consequences of advances in armor. Turnbull describes the development of armor with actor/network theory. He outlines specific events and problems that forced changes in existing armor designs. Change might not have come as fast as Turnbull suggests, but his argument is convincing.
The Shield and the Sword by Ernle Bradford is not that interesting, but one comment did stand out. Bradford acknowledges that it took tremendous amounts of training and endurance for a medieval knight to wear heavy armor and use weapons in combat. Modern men cannot perceive how medieval arms could ever have been used effectively. He quotes, “It is one of the mysteries in the history of armour how the crusaders can have fought under the scorching sun of the East in thick quilted garments covered with excessively heavy chain mail.” (Bradford 40) What was effective in the middle ages may not be effective in modern times. One cannot argue that medieval arms were ineffective and failed. Any technology that endured several hundred years of use must have been useful. Medieval armor had lived up to its primary purpose of saving lives.
The final source that I looked at was The Medieval Machine by Jean Gimpel. The focus of the book is not on medieval knights and warfare, but on medieval invention. Because of this, it offers a different perspective on the development of armor. There was only a quick mention of armor, but Gimpel described medieval iron production in detail. According to Gimpel, armor production during the middle ages was much higher than I had anticipated. It facilitated the ability to equip entire armies with metal armor. Though only the wealthy used heavy armor, some rulers were rich enough to amass large armies of heavy cavalry.
The main trend that I noticed among all sources was that older books argued that armor was slow and ineffective. Modern sources tended towards the theory that armor was crafted well enough that it was relatively light, easy to maneuver in, and highly effective. I believe that it was more of the latter. Otherwise, plate armor would never have evolved into the great heavy suits that we all know from legend.
Description of Medieval Full Plate Armor
Medieval full plate armor at its height was a complex piece of technology. There was a protective plate for just about every part of the body, and each of these plates had its own name. Through its development over several hundred years, several pieces have appeared only to go out of style because of new advances in arms-making. During the Middle Ages, there were two main types of metal armor. These were chain mail armor and plate armor. Often both of these types were used in conjunction to achieve the best features of each.
Warriors used chain mail armor extensively throughout the medieval times. It consisted of thousands of riveted iron rings to form a mesh. The chain mesh was then crafted into relatively light protective garments such as shirts or leggings. A chain mail shirt was called a hauberk or byrnie. Mail leggings for the lower legs and feet were called the chausses. Hauberks and chausses were made at varying lengths depending on how much weight the warrior was willing to carry. Usually, heavy padding was worn underneath chain mail armor to prevent painful chafing and absorb the shock of blows taken in battle. This padding was called the gambeson or aketon. Gambesons were tunics packed with wool and were used early in the Middle Ages. The aketons worn later on were padded garments that were lighter than gambesons.
Later developments in chain mail armor were the coif, aventail, and gauntlets. The coif and aventail are almost the same things except for one difference. A coif is a chain mail hood that protected the head and neck. The aventail was an improvement on the coif where chain mail was attached to a helmet and allowed to drape over the shoulders to protect the upper head area. Gauntlets for chain mail were iron mesh mittens to protect the hands.
The primary use of chain mail was to protect warriors from sword wounds in battle. The sword had been the primary weapon for thousands of years. Armorers designed chain mail to counter its effects. All but the most direct strikes by edged weapons glanced off of chain mail armor. It was only later when piercing and bludgeoning weapons came into fashion that plate armor became essential.
Plate armor was a much more complicated type of armor because it was not as flexible as chain mail. I described chain mail in detail earlier because most plate armor is based on chain mail. For most of the Middle Ages, plate armor simply meant chain mail with iron plates covering vulnerable areas. At the height medieval armor, plate armor had little or no chain mail parts.
Full plate armor was a complex piece of equipment. There are too many distinct individual plates to describe here. Each plate was fitted to the dimensions of the warrior who would wear the suit. A full suit of plate armor in the sixteenth century covered every square inch of a soldier’s body with iron plate. The iron plates were grooved for more strength.
Some important parts of plate armor were the helmet, breastplate, gauntlets, couter, and the greave. The helmet was protective iron headgear that came in many forms. The style of helmet that was worn with full plate armor in its full glory was the armet and bevor. They covered the entire head, neck, and face while still allowing the wearer to turn his head. The breastplate protected the entire chest and stomach area of the warrior with a large plate of metal. Plate gauntlets, unlike the chain mail ones, were complex works of metalworking. They covered the hands with iron plates while allowing free movement of the fingers. The couter was a metal joint that protected the elbows. Finally, the greave was an iron shin guard.
German full plate armor in the sixteenth century represented the height of personal body armor in all human history. This armor was called Maximilian armor, and it was almost impenetrable by all hand-powered weapons at the time. Even arrows and crossbow bolts often bounced off of such armor. Furthermore, Maximilian armor distributed weight throughout the body allowing freedom of movement and jogging.
The Development of Full Plate Armor
Full plate armor in Europe developed in parallel with weapons technology. Armor has always been most effective when used in melee combat. The Middle Ages marked a time when hand-to-hand combat was the dominant tactic in warfare. The weaponry created a desire for increased body protection. Advancements in armor created a need for more effective weapons.
The development of full plate armor began with the bronze plate piece armor used by great ancient civilizations such as the Greeks and the Romans. According to Bradford, “after the barbarian invasions of the western empire, it had practically disappeared.” (Bradford 39) Metal body armor once again came into widespread use when “new methods of shock combat [was] introduced by the Franks in the eighth century.” (Gimpel 64) “Shock combat” is a term used for the primary war tactic used during the Middle Ages. Battles in the medieval times involved the two sides gathering their soldiers at a battlefield. They then charged into each other for brutal hand-to-hand combat. Armor became popular in this kind of fighting because it reduced the number of war casualties inflicted during battle.
Chain mail was invented around the turn of the first millennium. It came into wide use because of its deflective properties against swords. Most military combat of that time was of the hand-to-hand type using swords or other edged weapons. Wearing a chain mail shirt to battle reduced the risk of getting killed by a sword cut to the body. The main problem with this was that chain mail shirts were expensive and didn’t offer enough protection to be worth the price. Warriors began to wear gambesons underneath their mail shirts for extra protection.
Chain mail was the primary type of armor used during the Crusades because iron production had advanced to the point where excellent iron products could be mass-produced. As proof that mass production of iron goods existed in the Middle Ages, Gimpel states that “Richard I ordered fifty thousand [horseshoes] from the sixty or so forges set up in the Forest of Dean.” (64) Chain mail was ideal for the traveling foot soldier. It was effective in combat but yet light and flexible. By the end of the thirteenth century, full body chain mail, as well as mail armor for horses, came into common use by the wealthy elite. Some blacksmiths even began to combine iron plates with chain mail for increased protection.
In the fourteenth century, there was growing evidence that mail armor was inadequate against modern weaponry. Bows and crossbows had come into wide use because of their success against armored men in several large battles. The crossbow was a deadly new weapon that could even penetrate armored knights. In fact, “it was so deadly that its use came under discussion in the twelfth century at one of history’s first disarmament conferences.” (Gimpel 64) Turnbull recounts a slaughter of mail-clad Swedish peasants at Wisby in 1361 as the primary proof of this. Most of the Swedes were killed by arrows and crossbow bolts penetrating their mail armor. “at least 125 men had suffered fatal headwounds from arrows and crossbow bolts which had struck their mail hoods. In many cases the arrowheads were found inside the skulls.” (Turnbull 43) Events such as this underscored the need for heavy plate armor capable of withstanding piercing blows by ranged weapons.
The ‘plate revolution’ was already well underway in the 14th century. Breastplates, full helmets, and even iron plate gauntlets came into common use by knights. For the first time in the Middle Ages, iron armor was common among all soldiers. Fewer than five percent of soldiers during this period had a full suit of armor. Most had some form of piece armor such as helmets, shields, or breastplates.
Metal armor reached the height of its usefulness sometime during the fifteenth century. Alwhite armor had come into fashion. It was characterized by smoothly polished steel plates overlapping at the joints. The last remnants of chain mail was still in use in the form of mail skirts and aventail, but was going out of style. Later advances in head protection soon produced full plate armor in its full glory.
The aventail style of head protection featured a helmet called a bascinet. It had a mail cape attached to it to protect the neck and shoulder areas. Later on, in the fifteenth century, the great bascinet replaced the aventail. The great bascinet replaced the mail neck protection with solid iron. It made it impossible for a knight to move his head independent of his body. The great bascinet eliminated the need for any chain mail at all in suits of armor. Towards the end of the fifteenth century, the armet and bevor replaced the great bascinet. They provided complete head protection but also allowed some free movement of the head.
The other significant advance in full plate armor during the fifteenth century was the process of strengthening iron by putting grooves in it. The grooves produced a spiky look in the armor that some like to call “Gothic plate.” Grooved armor was also fashionable at the time. With the added reinforcement in the armor, late fifteenth-century armor became almost impenetrable.
Throughout the long history of armor, there have been periodic hints that ranged weapons would spell the end of personal body armor. Battles such as the massacre at Wisby or the battle of Poitiers pointed out the vulnerabilities of many types of armor to arrows and crossbow bolts. With each such demonstration, armorers responded by adding more plates or more deflective properties to the armor. By the sixteenth century, guns came into extensive use, and heavy armor lost any effectiveness it once had. In fact, armor only made for a larger and slower target in the face of gunfire. With guns becoming more powerful and accurate, heavy body armor became useless. There was some effort to produce thicker armor to block bullets, but the armor just became too cumbersome to be effective. By the sixteenth century, guns had killed chivalry and brought Europe out of the Middle Ages. Today the only legacy of medieval iron armor that remains is the helmet. Helmets protected our soldiers in the trenches of World War I. Some would even say that modern army tanks are the descendants of full plate armor because they represent man’s drive to create an entirely impenetrable weapon of war.
Barber, Richard. The Knight & Chivalry. London: Longman, 1970.
Bradford, Ernle. The Shield and the Sword. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1973.
Gimpel, Jean. The Medieval Machine. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.
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Nofi, Albert A. and Dunnigan, James F. 27 November 2000. Evolution of Medieval Warfare. Available [Online]: <http://www.hyw.com/Books/History/Evolutio.htm> [27 November 2000] [broken link].
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Turnbull, Stephen. The Book of the Medieval Knight. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1985.
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