Dressed to Kill- Medieval Armour
Here is a short guide to medieval armour so that you can impress your friends at the Abbey Medieval Joust Spectacular with your extensive knowledge on the subject.
You will see lots of this stuff as it was one of the most common forms of armour in the medieval and ancient world. Incorrectly called chain-mail or worse chain armour it is a mesh or fabric formed from thousands of small interlinked, riveted steel rings. Its flexibility and ability to protect against sharp and pointy things ensured its survival as a secondary defence to protect the gaps in plate armour. The modern age has seen mail go back into production to be used for butcher’s gloves and shark mesh for divers!
A garment made from small plates of tough material; leather, horn or metal attached in overlapping rows to a cloth or leather foundation resulting in the wearer looking somewhat like a large angry fish. It was in use from the Bronze Age through to the Baroque.
Similar to scale except that the plates or lames are laced or wired to each other rather than attached to a foundation garment. Often worn over mail it was very popular in the Middle East and in Central Asia.
Like scale but inside out! Brigandine is constructed with the plates on the inside which are attached to an outer foundation garment. Easy to maintain it became popular with late medieval mercenaries thus earning them the name brigands!
Brigandine can usually be identified by rows of visible rivet heads on a garment, the rivets anchoring the internal steel plates. This has been often misinterpreted by movie costumers as studded leather armour something which, would offer about as much protection in a fight as an umbrella in a cyclone.
Known as whyte harness ,medieval plate armour starts to appear in the 1300’s. Skilfully crafted with overlapping plates and hinged and strapped to allow a full range of movement plate armour gave the wearer an amazing degree of protection. The armour relied on its shape and curvature rather than its thickness to protect; many parts of the armour would be little more than 1mm thick.
Stories of knights being unable to rise when knocked over or having to be winched into the saddle are the products of later fiction. A knight had to be able to move, fight and ride and any harness that did not allow that was a hindrance.
In full harness it is possible to do rolls handstands and cartwheels, though if you can’t do them normally I would suggest not trying them in plate armour. A fully armoured knight probably wore between 30-40 kg depending on the armour and the size of then individual which compares favourably with what a modern soldier carries.
Beneath all of the armour, padded garments were worn as a secondary protection and also to reduce the discomfort of the armour. This does however contribute to one of the greatest problems in wearing armour; overheating. We have all burnt ourselves at some time when we have touched something metal that has been heated in the sun, well try wearing it as a suit and hat!
Shakespeare did not exaggerate when he wrote the line, “Like rich armour worn in heat of day, that scalds with safety.” Polishing the armour does reflect away some of the heat and it really does look cool! In fact dirty and ill maintained armour was viewed with scorn as being unprofessional, and not as Hollywood would have us believe as being tough!
Written by Damien Fegan, Education Officer, Abbey Museum of Art and Archaeology