Breaking Medieval Myths: Armor

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The study of medieval armor, like the study of swordsmanship, has gained momentum in recent history. While swords arguably grab most of the glamour and public fascination, the interest in defensive gear has certainly increased as well, due to its sharing the screen alongside popular swordplay in modern films. Indeed, if we look at the military technologies of the Middle Ages, we find that armor was no less important, costly, or difficult to produce than swords were. The problem that both areas face is a widespread amount of public misinformation. For the study of armor, however, the difficulty comes not only from films, but also from more than a century of reliance on old scholarship.

The Foundation of Armor Study and Misconceptions

The first organized studies of arms and armor were done by primarily British collectors and scholars in the early 19th century. These individuals were the pioneers of the field – consequently, while their interest and enthusiasm were genuine, their methodology was also completely experimental. Despite being educated men, they were largely amateurs, rather than trained historians. While they certainly did their best to interpret and describe what they saw in the primary sources that they used, not all of the results of their work were reliable. Much of this information remained unchanged for more than a century afterwards, leaving it as the main source available when producers of popular entertainment went to examine the subject of medieval armor in the 20th century.

The first problem presented by these enthusiastic Victorian-era armor scholars was their chosen terminology – primarily, the use of the word ‘mail’ as a catch-all for any kind of metal armor. For many people, the term ‘mail’ is still synonymous with armor, despite the incorrect use of the word. The word ‘mail’ derives ultimately from the Latin macula, meaning the mesh of a net. Far from being a proper synonym for ‘metal armor’, mail itself is instead a specific type of metallic armor, what most people today would identify as ‘chainmail’.

The most common and egregious error made by most laymen is the description of various types of armor as ‘mail’, with an attached prefix meant to denote the style of armor being described – the most common terms being chainmail, scalemail, and the highly inaccurate platemail. There is no such thing as scalemail or platemail. Even the use of the popular ‘chainmail’ is technically redundant. There is mail armor, scale armor, and plate armor, among others. Each of the various types of armor is constructed uniquely, despite sharing a common function, and each type can be readily identified if one knows enough to tell the difference.

The Issue of Improper Classification

The second problem involved in relying on the old Victorian studies was their attempt to classify armor types literally. In examining the kinds of armor worn by medieval warriors, these scholars looked at period artwork, mainly in the form of tapestries and illustrations in illuminated manuscripts. Often they mistook artistic license on the part of the illustrator as a literal depiction of the type of armor worn. We must remember that there was no mass-production in the Middle Ages – everything was made one at a time by individual craftsmen. The depictions of the mail armor worn by warriors in these books could vary widely from one scribe to the next.

While the general consensus today is that these medieval illustrators were probably depicting mail, the Victorian scholars interpreted the illustrations not as a single type of armor rendered in different ways, but as actual physical variations on a single armor type. This conjecture, based on the attempt to literally define the armors depicted in illustrations, led to the creation of a number of new and likely imaginary armor types as the scholars tried to classify what they were looking at. Armor types such as ‘banded mail’, ‘trelliced mail’, ‘splintmail’, and ‘ringmail’ were some of the terms that were invented as a result of this process.

While some scholars in the later 19th century would produce research contrary to what their predecessors had erroneously established, others carried this misinformation on into the 20th century. It was this information that was seized upon and utilized by twentieth-century writers and authors, particularly screenwriters and the creators of the popular strategy and role-playing games of the 1960’s,70’s, and 80’s. Unfortunately, these sources continue to provide most of the population with their first and perhaps only information about arms and armor – a trend which perpetuates the misconceptions in spite of more accurate evidence to the contrary.

This presents a source of difficulty and frustration for serious students of arms and armor when trying to deal with newcomers to the field. Because of the prevalence of the incorrect terminology in the popular culture, a great deal of time and effort must be spent in deconstructing peoples’ established misconceptions about the subject matter.

The Results of Modern Armor Study

It can be difficult for modern armor scholars to definitively state what types of armor truly have an historical basis, and which types are solely inventions of modern minds. However, the true qualities and capabilities of effective body armor are universal and hold true even today, in the form of modern military and sports armors. To be effective, armor must provide good protection, be reasonably durable, and provide the wearer with mobility without overly burdening them with weight. Protective gear in any form is essentially useless if it prevents the wearer from performing their given task.

Is armor heavy? It depends on one’s definition of the word, but as a rule, armor is not so heavy as to inhibit a soldier’s ability to fight. While a late medieval suit of full plate armor could weigh as much as sixty or seventy pounds, we must keep in mind that this weight was evenly distributed over the knight’s entire body by straps on each individual piece of armor. (In contrast, much of the weight of a modern soldier’s gear is concentrated on his back.) Properly trained knights were able to run, kneel, climb, mount their horse, and fight while wearing armor.

The modern living history and re-enactment movements have helped to create a new community of amateur armor scholars. The most important difference between these investigators and those of the past, however, is their active use of the items that they study. Whereas the Victorian-era armor scholars were simply passive researchers, the re-enactors of today have personal, physical experience in regards to the actual weight and characteristics of replicated medieval armor.

These individuals have spent years or decades building their practical knowledge of how armor works and is put together, as well as identifying the most reliable books still available on the subject. Thanks to the growing utility and accessibility of the Internet, these modern re-enactors have been able to pool their collective knowledge and experience, creating collections of information that can be used to help dispel the inaccuracies surrounding the subject.