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Medieval Suits of Armor


"QUANTUM SHOT" #534
Link - article by M. Christian and A. Abrams



Metal Body Suits vs. Weapons of Medieval Destruction

Back in the good old days -- which everyone pretty much agrees were pretty damned rotten -- what you wore was a matter of life and death: simple rotting cloth was common, leather was rare, but for the gentleman of standing, it was armor or nothing.



Armet of Henry VIII known as the Horned helmet. Innsbruck, Austria, 1511–14, via

The first appearance of armor is a matter of much debate. Some say forged metal is key, in which case the toga-wearing crowd would be the first. Others insist that even wood worn as protection could count, in which case you'd have to go as far back as the sticks and stones brigade. But most everyone agrees that back in those rotten times, when men were knights and women were damsels in distress, armor was at its height.



Another weird helmet mask armor, from Augsburg, Germany, 1515, via

The variety of shapes and styles of medieval helmets is worth an article in its own right:





(images via 1, 2)

Armor or Nothing

The first armors were life-and-death simple: crudely formed metal plates designed to keep spears and swords out and the knight inside them safe. But as weapons got more sophisticated during this Middle Ages arms race, smiths had to keep up, making their suits stronger, lighter, and more flexible until they'd reached the pinnacle of defense as well as offense. (Check out William Hurt's Age of Armor site, where you can order some hand-made armor suit replicas)




(images via)

One of their brilliant innovations was perfecting mail ... and, no, I'm not talking about the 'rain nor sleet' variety. Rumored to have been first created by the Celts many centuries before, it was a process that worked its way up through the ages until it reached armorers who took the basic idea to new heights. The idea is astoundingly counter-intuitive: instead of making your armor out of slabs of sturdy and very protective metal, why not make it out of thousands and thousands and thousands of carefully connected rings? It worked remarkably well: light as well as strong, it gave the wearer flexibility -- often the key factor between leaving a battle on horseback or on a stretcher. When plate armor was added to mail the result was the classic -- and devastating -- armor of the Middle Ages.


(images via)

The Middle Ages Arms Race

It's hard to imagine now, but for a long time a knight on horseback was the terror weapon of the age: galloping into battle on monstrous war horses, often also well-armored, they were as terrifying as they were indestructible. Nothing could touch them but they, with sword and lance, could pretty much take on anything and anyone -- except for maybe another knight.




(image via)

This is a fantasy knight (drawn by a wonderful Tolkien-illustrator John Howe), evoking heroic and victorious times:


(art courtesy John Howe)

Learn the terminology: Bevor? Cuisse? -


(image via)

The Fancy Behemoths

As battle became more and more ritualized -- leading up to jousting, which we all know and love from the movies -- these metallic behemoths became less utilitarian tanks and more statements of rank and wealth. Only the rich or the nobility could afford armor, but only a really rich man or very wealthy Baron, Duke, Prince, or King could afford a fancy set.



And, Lordy, did they get fancy. After a point, armors began to look more like dinner services than battle gear: immaculate metal work, precious metals, often comically flamboyant crests and standards, useless -- though striking -- flairs and sculpted forms, and the gleaming reflections of meticulously polished metals.





(images via)

Just take a look at the armor belonging to that spokesman for restraint and modesty, Henry the 8th: not only was it state-of-the-art for its day, but it was designed and built -- as was most armor of the day -- to the wearer's dimensions. In the case of Henry, though, his personal suit looked like it was more portly battleship than streamlined destroyer. And who can forget the Royal ... um, 'staff' shall we say? Looking at a set of his armor, the question becomes was it designed to protect or brag? But, to be honest, we can't fault Henry for his choice: his armor was never really designed for war -- mainly because the time of armor's suit had passed.




(images via 1, 2)


England makes a point

Absolutely, the suit of armor was the terror weapon of its day. But every day ends, and in the case of the classic suit of armor, its end was just about as bad as it can get.

1415, Northern France: on that side, the French; on the other side, the English. Although the numbers are a matter of much debate, it's commonly believed that the French outnumbered the English something like 10 to 1. For the English, under Henry (the 5th, forefather of the afore-mentioned 8th), it wasn't looking at all well. The likelihood was that they were going to be, to use a military term, 'slaughtered.' But then something happened that didn't just determine the outcome of the war but also changed Europe forever, as well as doomed the standing of the suit of armor as the ultimate weapon.



The French didn't know what hit them. Well, actually they did, which made their defeat so much more hideous: there they were, the cream of French soldiery, marching to seemingly certain victory, their mail and plate glistening in the sun, their monstrous metal weapons and protection the best of the best of the best.

Then the arrows started to fall, shot by Henry's secret weapon: the English (technically Welsh) longbow. In one horrifying volley after another, the French were cut down by an enemy they couldn't even reach, their precious armor pin-cushioned, their army pinned to the muddy ground.



Clothes make the man, yes. And for a very long time armor was the end-all, be-all, go-getter power suit of the time. But times change -- and all it took was some people with a few bows and arrows to point that out.


Body Armor During World War I

Brewster Body Armor, 1917-1918:


(images via)

Experimental machine-gunner helmet, 1918:


(images via)

If helmet's level of protection seemed not enough, one could get inside a mobile shield, complete with four wheels (truly a mobile coffin) -


(images via)

Considering how weird some of the World War I equipment looked (check out these aircraft listening apparatus, for example), we are not at all surprised:


(image via)

Some British "facial defense systems" looked downright creepy, while Belgian ones resembled "Death Star" personnel helmet shapes:


(image via)

Speaking of the "Star Wars" Imperial TIE pilot outfits, the original protective pilot suit (with face armor) from 1917 looks familiar:


(image via)

Other image sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

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YOUR COMMENTS::

29 Comments:

Anonymous Marilyn Terrell said...

Don't forget Jeff de Boer's amazing armor for cats and mice:
http://www.darkroastedblend.com/2006/12/animal-armor-new-art-form.html?showComment=1167414420000

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Anonymous Jason Voorhees said...

I need a new mask...

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

For the history minded, the longbow didn't do much against the French except goad them into a fight. The armor clad infantry were killed the old fashioned way: spears and clubs.

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Blogger raul said...

true. it wasn't the longbows that killed them. the terrain played a huge part in that conflict. First, there was a bottleneck in the terrain, so the French knights weren't able to gain from their advantage in numbers. Second, the area became very muddy, thus, the armor not only slowed the knights down, but the sheer weight prevented those that went down/slipped from standing up. In contrast, the lightly armored Englishmen had better mobility and were able to cut down the (horribly) advancing French knights.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

"T'is but a flesh wound!"

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Blogger Steve said...

Henry VIII, eat your heart out.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

chain mail did not make a difference, they did not carry you off they battlefield on a stretcher in the middle agess. what a muppet.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

@anonymoous:
>chain mail did not make a difference, they did not carry you off they battlefield on a stretcher in the middle agess. what a muppet.

Of course. They just left their friends and brothers to die in the mud and the cold. Friendship and comraderie hadn't been invented yet, you know, in those days.
/irony //just to be sure

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Blogger Uri said...

Excellent as always, Avi!

For the next Funky Armours installment, don't forget Ned Kelly's infamous DIY plate armour...

here's a link, complete with "inside the armour" video

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Anonymous sari said...

Just wanted to say wow, what a great article! I am a medieval buff but never looked at the history of armor.
Can not wait to share this with my friends.


Sari
theviewfromsarisworld.blogspot.com

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Blogger Elden said...

There's nothing medieval at all about the first one with the face and eye-grills, and there are a large number of copies/fakes/fantasy in there but you've got lots of great originals too.

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Blogger Sigivald said...

But as weapons got more sophisticated during this Middle Ages arms race, smiths had to keep up, making their suits stronger, lighter, and more flexible until they'd reached the pinnacle of defense as well as offense

Well, not so much. Suits got heavier as firearms came into popularity, until they were too heavy to be useful and still stop a bullet.

(Thus "bullet proof", from being tested (proofed) by being shot, and successfully stopping the bullet.)

Lighter armor is great against a thrusting weapon, assuming it can still stop it - but against a mass weapon or heavy impacts, heavier armor is more protective, as the mass of the armor will absorb impact.

(This is observed by modern re-enactors; one can use titanium armor to reduce weight, but it doesn't absorb impact force very well.)

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Anonymous Gabriel Gadfly said...

Several photos here I've never seen before. I wasn't aware that Europeans ever created helmets made to emulate an actual face, but it seems they did. Interesting.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

If anyone is ever in NYC go to the metropolitan museum of art. they have an amazing collection of armor including full suits of armor for horses

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Blogger Jesper said...

Early in the Hundred Year's War, longbows could easily take out a knight - provided he was within penetration range. At the beginning, this was anywhere from 50 to 200 yards, but towards the end of the war some armour became so heavy and strong that it was almost impossible to penetrate (aside from some weak sections such as the thin armour near the eye holes).

The French knights got scrooged over mostly because they were riding horses which had nowhere near enough armour to protect them from an arrow, especially not the incredibly damaging broadhead arrows which longbowmen carried especially for killing horses.

The horses would get hit, fall over. The knights, if they were lucky, would land safely and get on with the moving - but more often the knight would be hurt by the fall (he is in heavy, restrictive armour, after all).

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Anonymous Nasuhorn said...

The longbow, it gets so much love that it seems many people have forgotten that the English actually LOST the 100 years war and that means the French WON the war. Unbelievable? believe it ;)

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Blogger Britgeekgrrl said...

What a great reference page, thanks for posting it!

Meanwhile, Jesper is right - a longbowman could really mess up an armor'd knight's (er) day, regardless of terrain and weather.

When folks such as Anon & raul talk about terrain acting as an advantage for longbowmen, they're usually thinking of Agincourt. True, the terrain at Agincourt was an undeniable advantage in that encounter, but it was by no means the only battle decided by longbows. Ask Harold of England in 1066... :)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

William the Conquerer did not use longbows and except for an arrow in Harolds Eye did not decide the outcome (he was wounded by the arrow but killed by Norman knights). The first major use of massed longbow fire was at the battle of Flakirk, which so impressed the English King with the slaughter of the lightly armoured scottish clansmen that they became a large section of every English Army ever since.

There were nearly 10,000 English archers at Agincourt, if they each fired off 25 which is 1 quiver each thats a quarter of a million arrows.

Around 10,000 French were killed. I group which is dedicated to the study and reenactment of this battle told me that more french drowned in the mud after wounds than were killed by arrows and that the English Infantry slaughtered the majority of the rest.

Direct fire from Longbows is nasty but most english armies used showers of arrows which are much less effective against armor except against cavalry as it is almost impossible to give a horse the same protection as a man.

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Blogger Avi Abrams said...

Thank you for insightful comments, read with interest

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Am I the only on e who noticed that someone has written an article on ARMOUR and can't spell it.

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Blogger Avi Abrams said...

"Armor" is the Americal spelling. "Armour" is the British spelling.

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Anonymous Bolsa de Trabajo said...

The French knights got scrooged over mostly because they were riding horses which had nowhere near enough armour to protect them from an arrow, especially not the incredibly damaging broadhead arrows which longbowmen carried especially for killing horses.

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Anonymous Candidato a Gobernador de Veracruz said...

Just take a look at the armor belonging to that spokesman for restraint and modesty, Henry the 8th: not only was it state-of-the-art for its day, but it was designed and built -- as was most armor of the day -- to the wearer's dimensions.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Proper medieval armour cant be pierced by a bow in mortal areas (helmet or breastplate) maybe a lucky shot or a corssbow at CLOSE range would be able to pierce some weak spots of the armour. But thats it.

Longbows and crossbows aren't half as strong as its said to be.

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Anonymous Noticias said...

samurai armor was very minimal compared to the armor of other cultures.

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Anonymous Thunderations said...

Pause, don't hyperventilate: One of their brilliant innovations was perfecting mail ... and, no, I'm not talking about the 'rain nor sleet' variety. Rumored to have been first created by the Celts many centuries before...."

Mail was around long before the Celts discovered blue paint. In the ancient Roman Army it was called "lorica hamata," and was worn during some periods in preference to the more-publicized "lorica segmentata."

Mail originated in (pick one): 1.Middle East. 2. India. 3. China. There are many exampkles from all three.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe not such a rotten period of time. Slavery died out after the fall of the Roman Empire. No large standing armies. Maybe "high" culture is over-rated.

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Blogger Avi Abrams said...

You might have a point there. Times were rough, but maybe more sublime.

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Blogger Kateastrophic said...

That "mobile shield" kinda looks like a Jawa sandcrawler...

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