Hit Them in the Gaps
This will continue our crash-course series about European medieval fighting with “armor.” You can find part one is here. If you have not read that first post, I highly suggest you do, otherwise you may find yourself lost. The armors your fighters wear is just as important as the weapons they use.
Armor is the difference between life and death, coming out unscathed and suffering a lifetime of disfigurement. Even the poorest peasants would at least buy a helmet. Any kind of helmet is better than nothing! We even wear helmets in modern sports, over all other pads! Just like with weapons, there is a wealth of variations and unique productions, but I will try to keep things to simple terms here.
This post is broken up into sections, so if you’re not interested in a section, feel free to skip over it.
What are the primary attributes of armor?
Armor has two many attributes that everyone is concerned about. These attributes are the mobility and the protection that a particular armor provides. There are some trade-offs, but armorers have made advances in both.
Protection is provided by distributing and redirecting forces from weapons, and absorbing energy from impacts. This is true of modern armor, too. Most of modern armors, like kevlar, capitalizes on the absorbing energy strategy.
Mobility is provided by different armors in a few different ways. Mobility is achieved by articulation around joints and/or flexibility of the protective material itself. The kind of armor determines how mobility is maintained.
What are the basic kinds of armor?
All armor can be categorized as padded, chain, or plated armor. Some armors combine these, such as the Moghul plated chain. Some sets of armor transition from type to the next, and styles change from culture to culture and from time period to time period. In any case, this framework here is presented to understanding them.
Padded armors simply attempt to dull impacts and blunt blades. They’re made of thick, tough fabric, often canvas or “duck” fabric. The act of cutting fabric takes some energy out of the cut, and is actually considered the standard type of armor for HEMA tournaments and sport fencing. Generally, padding was worn under other kinds of armor, as a kind of cushioning layer between the protective material (usually metal) and the skin. From personal experience with this kind of armor, I can say that it does an okay job. It protects just fine against blunted weapons, but I have seen them tear against blunt blades. These types of armor are often called “gambesons” or “aketons” or “padded jackets” or what-have-you for various other languages.
The next kind of armor is chainmail. It acts like padded armor, but has the benefit of being made of metal. It is great at turning arrow blades and dulling blade edges. There are historical accounts of crusaders looking like pincushions, having been hit with many arrows, but not being harmed because the arrowhead merely got stuck in their chainmail. It is also very flexible, with all those interlocking rings acting like little joints. There are still some finer points to this armor, like what size the rings are, how it is tailored, if it is 4-in-1 or 6-in-1, and so forth. In many cases, chainmail went over padded clothes. The idea is that the chainmail would blunt any blades or turn any points away from the user, and the pads underneath would absorb any impact.
There are some other important notes about chainmail: joints can be armored without sacrificing any movement, and it can be comfortably worn under clothes. Important figures (such as bishops, kings, etc.) would even wear chainmail under their clothes for extra protection, like Frodo does in Lord of the Rings. This style of armor was not unique to Europe, and was quite popular for a while. Also, butted and riveted mail both existed, with riveted being stronger, and both types of mail took a lot of time to make.
The final kind of armor is plate armor, to which even modern kevlar belongs. Plate armor provides protection by distributing or redirecting the force of any impact, and provides mobility by articulating joints. Many times, the padding underneath joints was covered in chainmail, as most masters instruct their students to aim for the gaps when fighting an armored foe. Yes, insides of joints could be plated as well, but it requires some planning, and it was generally more important to cover the outside of the joints.
Let’s talk about weight and maneuverability
Armor that is so heavy that you cannot effectively move in it is not useful at all! Warriors would train in armor and develop the muscles needed to effectively move in combat, giving them both protection and mobility. In general, people who are warriors will be in the correct condition to wear it without compromising their battle effectiveness.
Typical late medieval plate armor weight anywhere from 15–27 kg (25–60 lbs). While that does sound heavy, consider that most of that weight is supported by your legs and hips. The Fitness Institute of Texas of the University of Texas at Austin reports that even the least fit individuals they tested on a leg press can do at least one rep of 1.79 times their body weight for women and 2.49 times their body weight for men. (At the other end- the really fit people got 3.71 times their body weight for women and 4.84 their body weight for men.) One should also consider that hikers travel quite long distances with packs and the “general rule” is no more than 33% of your body weight for multi-day trips. A battle, which often lasts much less than one day, will allow that limit to increase. An extra 10% — 30% of your body weight will not stop you from moving, and certainly not prevent you from performing well in combat. One should not think that it was effortless, because some effort did go into moving about, but proper armor does not restrict movement or stop the warrior from being effective.
Still not convinced plate armor allows you to move? Look at the video below, which does a great job of demonstrating mobility in armor. It is a little longer than 19 minutes, but it is a good one. It even shows how it stacks up against some Japanese armor from the sengoku jidai, so there is a maximum of ~200 years between the two.
These armor sets came from very different backgrounds, but the similarities are striking, even for people who study this sort of thing.
It is true that armor for foot-fighting is more mobile than armor meant for riding. Tournament jousting armor sometimes makes arms immobile or has projections to help support the weight of the lance. (Close examination of the first photograph in this post reveals some of these projections, which is a clear indicator that it is meant for tournament jousting only.) Most of tournament jousting armor has increased front protection, greatly vision-impairing visors, and less armor in the back. After all, they were meant for a joust, not melee fighting, and the strike was coming from the front.
Are armors meant for specific weapons or styles?
The answer here is mostly no. Armorers do respond to the kinds of weapons being used against warriors, but it takes far too long in combat to switch from one type of armor to another, so whatever people put on had to serve them through the whole battle. There are specialized armors for specific kinds of fighting, but most were meant to provide general all-around protection. An example may be most helpful here.
Shown here is a drawing of a man-at-arms, a man who fights on foot. (Those who fight on horseback are called knights, but sometimes “knight” can apply to both kinds of warrior.) How do I know this armor is meant for fighting on foot, not for jousting in a tournament, or even for a mounted knight? There is no label, yet I know for several reasons.
First, look at the face, and note: you can see it! Vision is one of the most important senses for a normal human in a fight. It was common practice of the 14th century to have a removable visor for melee combat, allowing the bearer of that armor more awareness of his surroundings. If this armor was meant for, say, lances, he would want something protecting his face, and he would only require a very narrow field of vision. (Once again, go back to the first picture and look at the helmet.)
Second, notice how well-articulated the legs and arms are. This man is set to run, jump, fence, grapple, and wrestle and generally be a one-man tank. (Remember, “Panzer” is the german word for both their tanks and their breastplates.) Knights really were the tank of their era: you can send them in to break up infantry formations, hold and seize ground, or provide cover for more lightly armored or otherwise vulnerable troops.
To review: this man is wearing armor particularly for foot-fighting because his visor is off, and he has well-articulated joints. This particular set of armor could also be used for mounted combat, but jousting would be a fairly risky activity without that visor! As I have said before, armors were meant to be fairly versatile, and therefore most could be used in many situations.
I have as yet to encounter a European fighting tradition that does not cover armored and unarmored combat, except for English pugilism. Many treatises even go so far as to have a whole section dedicated to armored combat. Most treatises have their other sections identify techniques or stances are “better in armor than without armor.” Many techniques from wrestling, dagger, and sword translate very well into armored fighting, so those sections about armored combat generally review what extra things armor lets you do, and the impact of half-swording. There are some techniques are terrible ideas to do against an opponent in armor (such as hitting their hands with your blade), and sometimes the masters are kind enough to point those out.
How did armor look? How can it be maintained?
Medieval armor can look anywhere from a normal steel grey to this beautiful blued armor. Painted armor was also not out of the question, because paint could be used to identify individual knights and also help prevent rust. There are some ceremonial or “parade” armors, where the armor would be covered in velvet or in other cloth, but the protection would not be as complete as it otherwise would be. Whatever a knight chooses to do to maintain their armor must also survive the rigors of combat.
Additionally, oil was often used to provide a layer of protection for the armor against the environment. Taking good care of armor was very important, as it cost about as much as a house and saved their owners from turning into mangled corpses. Such an important item deserves maintenance.
This particular breastplate is from the early days of the Renaissance, so the large dent could be from a musket or a hammer. There is a smaller dent up and to the left of it, and some small scratches on the piece as well. One should note the wear on the helmet. This indicated that most people decided to attempt to hit around the armor, which is in line with what various historic sources tell us to do. The scene etched onto the armor is supposed to show an ancient battle, and drawing such connections between (then) modern and ancient warriors was quite popular during the renaissance.
What about Shields?
The truth is, with the advent of plate armor and the rise of the two handed and hand-and-a-half swords, shields fell out of use with the knightly class. After all, if you were already a tank without a shield, you can forgo the shield and gain a free hand to open doors, grapple, and make rude gestures at your enemy. The ability to manipulate the world with hands is a big perk, so loosing the shield seems like an advantage. Lesser armored units, such as archers who would almost never wear full plate, would still use shields in the high medieval period, and that shield was often a buckler!
The real problem here is that very little detailed literature exists concerning shield-bearing knights, so recreating those techniques often rely on non-warrior accounts and extrapolate from sword and buckler systems which we do have. We can see from tapestries that knights used shields while mounted, such as in the Bayeaux Tapestry (below) showing the Norman invasion of England. These warriors look very different from what most people think of when their told to think of a “medieval knight.”
There are some sources showing the use of shields, but often with a long knife (“Langes Messer” in German). Shields change the way you fight. Grappling and wrestling becomes much harder, but you can get away with many more long plays. It was therefore common for shield-users to wear lighter armor, because the shield gives them the protection they would otherwise have with heavier armor.
If you want to find techniques for even earlier use of weapon and shield combos, you are out of luck. We simply have no combat manuals from the Romans, Gauls, Celts, Germani, or Greeks, and their ways of fighting are subject to speculation and, perhaps, the occasional reference from a writer. There is some evidence from art, but artists are known to take liberties with their work throughout all of time.