Chainmail, being a flexible material made from interlocking metal rings either closed or riveted shut, spread across much of Europe with the Romans, whose light troops were usually outfitted with a shirt of 4-in-1 mail. Mail is much easier to make at a small-scale than plate armor, which requires a significantly more sophisticated production process, access to trade networks, and much higher quality of materials – hence, as the Roman Empire withdrew, the chainmail stayed behind. It was easily the best – albeit certainly not the cheapest – medieval armor available before the widespread return of plate armor in the late-medieval period. Even the word ‘chain mail’ can give us some clues as to its origin. Perhaps it is from the Latin macula, meaning a spot or opacity (as in ‘macular degeneration’), or from old French mailler, meaning to hammer. There is even a suggestion of Arabic influence on chainmail, since the words burnus (a hooded cloak) and barnaza (to bronze) appear to have influenced the Germanic name for a short mail-shirt, a byrnie.
Historical medieval armor of this type was used by virtually every single martial culture in all parts of the medieval period – however, due to the time and expense involved in its creation, it was often a marker of status and wealth. Northern European cultures such as the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings used chainmail, albeit sparingly. Since cutting-edge genetic analyses have recently confirmed that Vikingrs were certainly mixed in gender, it gives good credence to the chainmail worn by Norse peoples also being authentic female medieval armor. It formed the principal martial distinction of social class between Carolingian nobles of the 8th-century and their peasants, the latter of whom would have only been able to afford padded cloth or leather armor at best – surviving documents show us the inheritance of suits of chainmail in this period as immensely valuable objects rich in status and value handed down from senior to heir. By the 11th-century, the wealthiest nobles were able to outfit their whole retinues in chainmail: for example, Duke William of Normandy – who became William I the Conqueror of England – led a crack fighting force of mail-clad knights into battle at Hastings in 1066. We can see on the Bayeux Tapestry that these elite Norman cavalry were outfitted almost head-to-foot in mail, comprising of a mail aventail, a long hauberk, chausses and sometimes even mail sabatons as well. By the high-medieval period, the increasing quality of bladed steel weaponry and the use of powerful piercing weaponry like longbows and bodkin arrows meant that its use as a sole protective layer was less common. Chainmail therefore gradually became an under-layer beneath plate armor (again, amongst those who could afford it), the mobility and flexibility of the mail still providing vital protection to joints.
As European societies become more interconnected and high-quality metals became more readily available, plate became an increasingly common sight amongst historical medieval battle armor. Originally made from bronze and iron in the pre-medieval period, plate armor only really became fully practical (ie. not impractically heavy or unusably fragile) with the increasing availability of good quality high-carbon steel from the 12th-century onward – and it was not until the 14th-century that it became widespread amongst regular soldiers. The two most common forms of torso armor were the cuirass and the brigandine jacket.
Based on earlier single-piece Ancient Greek forms (think the fake-muscled armor of Hercules in the Disney film), the cuirass re-emerged in around the 13th-century as a core component of high-medieval knights’ armor. It consisted simply of a two-piece metal shell around the torso. The muscle-bound breastplates of earlier eras might have made you look like a beefcake, but they were badly designed for turning aside the powerful puncturing weaponry of the period – instead, the cuirass was shaped to deflect forces away from the body. This can be seen, for example, on Edward the 'Black Prince' of Wales’s effigy on his tomb from 1376: the cuirass encasing the torso is exaggeratedly round (or ‘globose’, as armor jargon has it). You will notice on similar medieval images and surviving armor from this period that the proportions are a bit off: usually the torso armor seems very small and the faulds (hip and thigh armor) are exaggeratedly large. This isn’t because everyone in the past had comically bandy legs; it’s because the cuirass was designed to sit on the hips rather than the shoulders as to better distribute its weight and free up upper-body movement. The cuirass as a mainstay of medieval armor died out suddenly with the advent of powder weapons in the 17th-century, although it was often retained in modified form by the high-status cavalry who had pioneered its use centuries before.
A parallel form of plate armor was the brigandine. It evolved from an earlier form of armor called a ‘coat of plates’ – where large flat steel plates were sewn into the interior of civilian doublets to create a sort of ad-hoc medieval flak jacket that seemed to usually have been worn under other armor. The brigandine was an advancement on this idea: it consisted of a thick jacket made of stout cloth, which then had a layer of narrow overlapping metal plates (or lames) attached to the inside with external rivets. This gave the appearance of a ‘studded’ jacket that was comparatively light and flexible, but had significant protective capacity - and it was not as complex or difficult to manufacture and maintain as a cuirass. By the 15th-century it was a mainstay of men-at-arms across Europe.
Bracers & Arm Protection
Arm-guards of various type have been discovered stretching back into the ancient past, worn to preserve the arms from damage in combat. Being on a highly-mobile part of the body, the construction, materials and design of historical medieval armor for the arms has varied enormously: from functional leather hunting bracers, to ostentatious ceremonial flared couters. Taking these varying roles and purposes can help us demystify our choice of arm armor.
Archers throughout history have usually required some inner-forearm protection on the bow hand to protect it from whipping by the bowstring, especially on weaponry powerful enough to be deadly in combat. Prehistorical examples are made from stones, often slate strapped to the inner forearm, such as that discovered with the ‘Amesbury Archer’, who died around 2600 BCE. The principle was identical three-thousand years later. The most common material amongst surviving archer’s bracers from the medieval period is hard leather, strapped to the forearm with hide thongs. They were doubtless mostly plain and functional, being used by front-line troops who needed nothing beyond durability and function. However, as archery developed into a pastime of the wealthy as well as battlefield weapon, bracers appear that are richly decorated – such as this intricately-tooled black leather bracer, which is traditionally (although not historically!) associated with Henry VI.
Hand-to-hand combat required arm-to-arm armor, and we shall pick some types out amid the diversity. Early-medieval warriors such as the Anglo-Saxons or Vikings would have likely worn little arm protection beyond a ringmail hauberk and gauntlets – depending on one’s wealth, these might have been full mail gauntlets to the elbow to meet the sleeve of your mail, simple leather gauntlets, or even merely a long-sleeved tunic under your short-sleeved byrnie. As chainmail gave way to plate armor, transitional forms of arm protection emerged, such as ‘splint-mail’. This involved reinforcing tough cloth sleeves and leggings with ‘splints’, or steel ribs sewn or riveted to the outside face of the fabric. This was better than chainmail, but not as good as plate rerebraces and vambraces (upper-arm and forearm plate respectively, sometimes called upper and lower cannon in medieval sources). The main problem faced by armorsmiths when creating plate armor for the arms was articulation: how to preserve the complex action of the elbow whilst providing the best possible defense. Early examples merely have fused elbows – these provided excellent defense, but were useless outside of tournament use or possibly for couching heavy lances. With the fining of manufacturing techniques in the 15th-century, articulated elbows began to appear, the join of which was protected by a flared elbow-piece called a couter. Remember when building your historical medieval battle armor ensemble – these later pieces especially were complex and required enormous skill to make, and would have only really been available to the wealthy, or the incredibly sticky-fingered.
Neck & Shoulder Armor
The neck is the important bit. Physiologically, you have major blood vessels, breathing organs and the spinal cord, all in one place. This seems like a serious design flaw which will probably get ironed out in People 2.0, but in the meantime, medieval armorers incorporated armor to protect in the throat in almost all cultures and traditions during the medieval period. Ancient European cultures seem to have never properly developed effective throat armor: the closest that appears in the record are Bronze Age lunulae and later Celtic torcs, but they appear to have had merely symbolic or ceremonial use.
The prime medieval innovation in throat armor was the gorget. From the Old French gorge, simply meaning ‘throat’, armored leather or steel gorgets were preceded by early-medieval cloth neck-wraps, which were often part of a chaperon (a sort of loose medieval turban). Eventually armorsmiths began incorporating a mail aventail onto the helmet to screen the face and neck, but this became increasingly inadequate as chainmail was outstripped by more and more powerful weaponry such as the longbow and the cavalry lance. For ordinary infantry, this meant a simple throat-plate worn over the mail coif. As time went on, armorsmiths experimented successfully with a two-part construction of helmet and gorget, for example a swept-back sallet that met snugly with a high-projecting bevor that riveted onto the breastplate: this afforded excellent projection to the whole throat and jaw. For the wealthiest, huge one-piece constructions known as a great bascinet incorporated the whole of the gorget into the helmet. Eventually by the end of the usefulness of plate armor, gorgets had become an integral part of fully-designed armor systems, consisting of a large plate worn under the cuirass which both protected the upper chest and neck, and also provided a platform for attaching the shoulder spaulders or pauldrons.
The shoulder-armor of the medieval period follows a similar trajectory to that of throat armor: intially leather or cloth padding worn with chainmail, followed later by increasingly complex platemail constructions, and eventually integrated, articulated metal shells. Shoulders are a significant target on the medieval battlefield: a staggering blow to the shoulder, even through armor, can leave the arm weakened or paralysed, either preventing the use of a shield or taking away offensive capability. Thus, shoulder armor was carefully designed to distribute the force of impacts, as well as to protect from slashing weaponry like a gorget. Broadly, we can divide shoulder armor into spaulders and pauldrons: the former being a shaped plate protecting the top and sides of the shoulder, usually with attached lames of plate or leather extending to protect the upper arm; and the latter being a much more rounded, enveloping plate intended to protect the armpit as well. The latter of these are what you would associate with traditional ‘jousting’ armor, and by the late-medieval period they had extended to include attached rerebraces (upper cannons). Sometimes, particularly in jousting, the armpit was given extra protection with a besagew – those little round shield-like plates.
Both gorgets and spaulders had a second life after the demise of plate armor in the face of overwhelming gunpowder weaponry: returning to their ancient ceremonial role as signifiers of rank and status in armies well into the 19th-century.
Protecting the legs fell to a number of different piece of armor in different periods – soldiers would have worn various combinations of these parts, depending on their wealth, the availability of materials and the accessible skills of manufacturers. When designing a medieval or LARP armor look, you should feel free to mix-and-match armor to some degree. From top to bottom:
The hips were usually protected by faulds: these were horizontal bands of metal plate (lames) attached to the bottom the cuirass to shape to the hips better and deflect downward blows away from the legs. Attached to the faulds were often tassets: either rigid or articulated lames that covered the upper thigh, usually strapped or buckled to the torso armor to keep weight off the legs. Next is the cuisse, literally ‘thigh’ in French, a shaped-metal or leather piece of medieval armor which fit all the way around the thigh. Whilst your faulds or a mail skirt could protect you from forward- or downward-blows, they couldn’t stop an upward blow – hence the requirement for a layer of plate. Shinguards known as greaves were worn below the knee. These were most commonly metal and of simple construction, although we have evidence that boiled leather greaves were also a popular choice in the medieval period. For example, when describing the titular character Sir Thopas, from the Canterbury Tale of the same name, Chaucer says that ‘His jambeux were of quyrboilly’ – ie. that he wore fine hardened leather greaves, in the manner of an ancient Greek hero. On the feet were worn sabatons: in the early period these were often merely tough leather overshoes or chainmail socks; by the late-medieval apogee of plate armor these had developed into articulated lamellar shoes that would flex with the foot; sometimes they even had viciously sharpened points to provide an extra threat in battle.
Gauntlets evolved from early-medieval work gloves of stout cloth or hide worn by manual workers in agriculture – and they can be excellent way to finish off an outfit of medieval armor. Whilst they began as simple mitts to offer simple protection for grabbing brambles or handling caustic materials, the development of leatherworking techniques, and particularly the improvement in tanning to create more workable materials, meant that complex gloves could be created. However, these were objects of status, and were generally reserved for either heavy use (blacksmith’s gloves) or as a symbol of status (regal leather hunting or falconry gloves). However, leather bracers and simple arm-coverings were common amongst all classes, and so make a popular addition to a fantasy LARP outfit.
Metal gauntlets originate in around the 10th-century with the mail glove, which, like its functional forebears, would have been a simple mitten in shape made from a flexible sheet of riveted or punched rings. These often hooked into the long-sleeved fitted chainmail hauberks of the period to give effective whole-arm protection. Early steel-plate gauntlets were of varying type: sometimes, they imitated a balled fist, providing excellent protection but severely limiting dexterity, and others incorporated metal plates on the back of the hand and knuckles into leather gauntlets. Late-medieval innovations in armor design such as the sliding almain rivet meant that gauntlets could begin to be properly articulated, and designs from this period are truly spectacular. The Maximilian armor style, encompassing armor either commissioned by, or closely imitating the style of, the armory of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, contains some of the most spectacular historical late-medieval battle armor. Perhaps the most amazing piece is Maximilian’s gauntlets, made around 1490. Each joint is not only articulated but also double-articulated with a protecting over-knuckle, finely engraved, and the edges cut into intricate Gothic shapes. Obviously these gauntlets are those of an Emperor, and were likely never used in combat, but it demonstrates the technological genius of late-medieval armor.
It’s obvious that our medieval forebears would have understood that skull fractures and brain injuries – whilst they wouldn’t have understood their mechanism – were vital to be avoided. It appears that medieval men in Denmark who had received a head injury would have been around six times as likely to die early as those who hadn’t. Thus, armorers were tasked with protecting the head from the worst effects of increasingly powerful weaponry as the medieval period advanced.
Early-medieval helmets were often based on styles inherited from the Romans, who had diffused production techniques and designs across Europe. Anglo-Saxon and other later Norse helmets bear this mark most strongly: for example, the Staffordshire Hoard Helmet has even been theorised to have had a centurion-style horsehair brush, as can be seen on the magnificent reproduction made by Birmingham Museums Trust and the Birmingham City University School of Jewellery. These helmets were often called ‘ridge helmets’, being made from two or four parts united by a ridge running from brow to nape. Later medieval helmets descended from a Germanic (non-Roman) production technique called the spangenhelm, which used reinforcing struts to lock together three or four separate plates. Some of these types of helmet can be seen being used as medieval armor in the Bayeux Tapestry, although the improving quality of metal and metalworking was permitting armorers increasing license to experiment with single-sheet construction. Descending from the pointy-skulled Norman type of nasal helm was the bascinet, an open-faced helmet with a pointed skullcap, which often had an aventail, or protective mail curtain, riveted directly to the helmet. By the middle of the 1300s, these had evolved to include a visor, in examples such as the iconic hounskull bascinet, whose visor was attached via a simple hinge on the forehead. These began to provide excellent protection for the head, but, as is inevitable in an arms race, even nastier crushing weaponry such as the ‘raven’s beak’ was developed to circumvent these designs. As noted above, one response was simply to get heavier: the creation of the great bascinet and the heaume were merely doing the same but moreso. The former involved thickening the steel and riveting it in place to the gorget to distribute weight to the shoulders, whilst the latter was a simple innovation: making the helmet enormous so a medieval knight’s armor could include two helmets worn at once, a heaume with a skullcap beneath.
Of course, not everyone could afford plate armor – think of it as the Yeezies of the 15th-century. The use of simple leather coifs and boiled leather helmets ran parallel throughout, especially employed by troops who required mobility: light infantry, skirmishers, archers and light cavalry. As such, taking role and wealth into account when building a medieval armor impression or LARP costume is a surefire way to authenticity.
Unlike other forms of defensive equipment, like helmets and chainmail, the Roman forms of heavy shield – most famously the huge square scutum – had comparatively little lasting impact on medieval shield design. Rather, there is much more of a direct continuum from the round shields used by Celtic and Germanic warriors (who were included in the Roman military as auxiliaries) to the early medieval shields of the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons. This was a circular shield made from wood, and reinforced with leather, a central boss, and, if you were lucky, a metal rim and staves. These shields were deployed in the front rank as a ‘shield wall’ – where each warrior would overlap their shield with that of the warrior next to them, forming an incredibly resilient and hard-to-break formation which could stand against heavy infantry and even light cavalry. This prompted the development of shield-breaking weapons like the Germanic francisca throwing axe, and the Anglo-Saxons’ worst enemy, Norman heavy cavalry.
The Norman people on the west coast of early medieval France had developed long, pointed shields resembling a kite that, though unwieldy, provided excellent protection from early-medieval weaponry. Rather than having merely a single handle and being wielded in the fist like the Viking & Anglo-Saxon round-shield, the Noman kite shield had two straps to sit it on the arm, partially compensating for its enormous size. They are most strongly associated with the heavy cavalry on the Bayeux tapestry, although they were already fairly widespread in use by mixed forces in Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, and they appear prominently in Byzantine devotional art. They formed a key component of this period’s historical medieval armor.
By the high-medieval period (1200 CE), plate armor was beginning to become more widespread in use, and hence shields did not need to be so large and ungainly since, in many senses, you were already wearing your shield all over you. The kite shield fell out of favour, replaced by the heater shield: this is the archetypical ‘shield’ shape, flat across the top and descending to a point at the bottom. Its ubiquity in military use found its way onto heraldry, forming the traditional shape for coats of arms. This trend for smaller shields reached its zenith in the late-medieval period, where sizeable shields become rare, replaced either by enormous two-handed crushing weaponry to puncture through plate armor or by small, extra-mobile shields called bucklers. When selecting a shield to complement your LARP outfit or historical re-enactment, remember that earlier shields generally tended to be larger, compared with smaller shields in the later period.