Bracers and Arm Protection
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Medieval arm protection, like all forms of armour, varied a lot over the medieval period, depending on the wearer’s status, role and wealth. We see everything from simple leather archers’ bracers, to splint mail vambraces, to elaborate articulated integrated plate bracers incorporating sliding rivets and overlapping steel lames. Bear in mind the character that you wish to portray with your roleplay outfit or historical re-enactment. Are they of low-status, and would they only have access to only scavenged or cheap fragments of plate armour? Are they a marginal forest-dweller who would have made their own bracers from tanned leather? Or are they a noble with deep pockets able to commission their armoursmith to make them their heart’s desire? Hopefully we can give you some historical inspiration and guidance to help you make your choice from the medieval wrist bracers and arm protection we have below.
Types of Medieval Bracers and Arm Protection
We’ll roll through the types of medieval arm protection in rough chronological order: from old forms of the archer’s bracer, to leather cuir bouilli vambraces, to late-medieval plate armour.
If you’ve ever done archery at a theme park or funfair, you’ll know the sting of the bowstring whipping your inner arm, and thought ‘They really should do something about that!’ Now, imagine you’d done that with a yew longbow that has takes the kind of force to pull it back equivalent to lifting a teenager in one hand. Ow! Not doing something about that wasn’t an option.
The archer’s bracer was the earliest armour made specifically for the forearm, and its earliest form was the Neolithic stone wrist-guard, This was a square of stone, usually polished slate, about eight inches long by one inch wide that was strapped to the inner forearm at Neolithic theme parks and funfairs (I might have gotten that last bit wrong) to prevent the twang from catching your bowstring on your arm. Possibly the finest surviving examples of these is are the pair which were found buried with the ‘Amesbury Archer’, who was buried about 4,300 years ago not far from Stonehenge. The finery discovered in this grave, including the earliest gold jewellery yet found in Europe, led the press to dub him ‘the King of Stonehenge’, although it is clear that his archery wrist-guards were integral to his identity since he was buried wearing one with another close at hand.
The problem that we have for medieval European archery and associated medieval bracers is a serious lack of sources. The earliest source we have which deals specifically with archery is Roger Ascham’s Toxophilus: The Schole of Shooting, which was published at the very tail-end of the medieval period in 1545 during the reign of Henry VIII (side note: Ascham’s book title ‘Toxophilus’ means ‘a lover of the bow’, and we get the Greek word for bow ‘toxon’ from the same root as ‘toxic’ and ‘toxin’, because ancient archers used to regularly poison their arrows. The more you know!) Thus much of what we known of medieval leather arm bracers is constructed retrospectively. The few sources we have seem to imply that shooting with and without the bracer were equally common; for example, Chaucer’s Yeoman in the Canterbury Tales (written in the late 1300s) has one: “Upon his arm he baar a gay bracer”. By the end of the medieval period, Ascham says that the best way to shoot is such that you won’t need one to protect the arm anyway, and that “I know many good archers which occupy none”. Ascham advises that your bracer
“have no nails in it, that it have no buckles, that it be fast on with laces without agglets. For the nails will sheer in sunder a man's string before he be ware, and so put his bow in jeopardy: buckles and agglets at unwares shall raze his bow, a thing both evil for the sight and perilous for fretting”
Clearly the use of the bracer was very much a functional choice for the individual archer, as it is today.
What these bracers would have looked like is largely a matter of conjecture. Boiled leather or cuir bouilli, the primary material for medieval wrist bracers, is notoriously hard to maintain, and they were likely mostly functional objects, made, used and disposed of – extremely few survive today. Medieval art, whilst sumptuous and evocative, is often concerned with figurative matters and not with the fine depiction of objects, as would become commonplace in increasingly materialistic Early Modern Europe. This, as LARP outfitters and re-enactors, give us a rare and delicious degree of license!
There are a few examples that we can call upon for inspiration, however. A beautiful octagonal tooled leather bracer has been found on the Newport Ship, a 15th-century trading vessel which sank in Newport Harbour in 1469 – this fine piece still poses a mystery to historians, being inscribed with the word ‘AMILLA’… Could you crack it? The Mary Rose, which sank in 1545 (just as Ascham was wondering what to call his book – I like something proper Greek sounding), has given up to us two-dozen fine leather bracers. Most of these are finely decorated, and have incredible levels of preservation, allowing us to divine the symbols tooled into them. Tudor roses abound, implying military service or feudal connections, several have been tooled with sheaves of arrows, the symbol of the Fletchers’ Company; some are even based upon the covers of contemporary books! It should also be noted that none of them have taken Ascham’s advice: they are all closed with a variety of buckles, straps and agletted thongs, a nightmare for snagging your bowstrings! These medieval leather arm bracers have proved extremely fertile for modern reproductions, either faithful leatherworking duplication, or as inspiration for original designs – although modern tanning techniques have made leather much more resilient and easy to care for.
Leather Arm Protection
No fantasy outfit is complete without a pair of leather vambraces, tubular coverings for the forearms usually secured with laces or buckles. But historically, vambraces never really made an appearance in the medieval period. Ancient Greeks are often portrayed in film and TV wearing metal forearm-guards – despite there being no evidence that any of the well-documented panoplies of Ancient Greek personal armour that appear in the archaeological or textual record ever included arm protection. By and large, the shield made arm protection pretty much unnecessary, and well below the threshold of necessity for painstakingly producing specific armour for the arms: for example, a Viking warrior with a round shield of typical size (80-90cm / 32-26in diameter) would have her entire shield arm, centre-mass and sword arm protected when at the ready. With a small movement, she could also have handily covered her legs. There is some evidence in the medieval record that leather armour was used by poorer soldiers, but whether that consisted of leather vambraces is unknown – as we have seen above, cuir bouilli was probably a low-status, cheap, disposable material, and so exists below the radar of the medieval historical record. Again, this gives both historical re-enactors and LARP constumes a significant degree of license to experiment with medieval bracers.
The leather medieval arm protection that we definitely know existed was leather tournament armour. We can see, in the extremely heavy, impractical suits of tournament amour with enormous frog-mouth helms riveted to the gorget and the like, that personal protection during medieval tournaments was paramount. Leather armour appears in the tournament context as a sort of back-formation from plate armour: often mimicking the appearance of plate. These suits were obviously of high-status: having a leatherworker measure, make and fit you a suit of tournament armour just for when you and your mates met up to bash seven bells out of each other once a year is not a luxury available to your common muck-raker. One of their more interesting appearances is the tournament book Le Livre des tournois (known in English by the children’s-book-like title ‘King René’s Tournament Book’), written in the 1460s. This has a wonderful illustration of some cuir bouilli vambraces and rerebraces, which are presented as part of a very atypical book. Whilst most tournament manuals present a highly ritualised form of combat involving duals and jousts, the anonymous writer of the Livre wants a back-to-basics approach, drawing on ‘ancient’ tournament forms to create an enormous two-sided free-for-all melee with very few rules. Think of it as a sort of medieval UFC. A particular highlight is the victorious knight sprawled in the King’s chair, battered and bruised and barely able to select from the heraldry presented to him. Plus ça change. Leather tourney armour can be a fantastic statement to add to one’s historical re-enactment, or one’s LARP outfit: think about what it says about your person, as we’ve seen it would generally be the province of the wealthy, but evidences a certain eagerness to get into a scrap.
Plate Vambraces and Rerebraces
The real widespread use of vambraces and rerebraces was spurred by the increasing paucity of chainmail in the face of the powerful piercing and bludgeoning weapons of the High Middle Ages, like heavy polearms and the longbow. Armour went through a hurried ‘transitional phase’ between chainmail and plate, in which armour makers adapted what methods they had at their disposal – in torso armour, this can be seen in the ‘coat of plates’, where soldiers sewed simple steel plates into the lining of their surcoats. In the realm of medieval arm protection, a similar principle was applied in ‘splint mail’, where splints (thin strips of steel) were sewed or riveted onto the forearms and upper arms of the cloth gambeson. Check out King Günther von Schwartzburg with his swanky splints. As platemail improved by leaps and bounds in the 14th- and 15th-centuries CE, and as increasingly pointless shields were discarded in favour of larger weapons, plate vambraces and rerebraces (or, as they were more often called, upper and lower cannons) began to become more widely worn. Initially, these were comparatively simple, and would have been a matter of mix-and-match worn over your other armour, especially for poorer soldiers: it was likely that even a wealthy commoner only be able to afford a couple of plate armour pieces, aside from an essential helmet. It seems intuitively likely that most metal medieval bracers would have been acquired by scavenging. These early medieval bracers were better than nothing, but soon, weapons such as the roundel dagger and increasingly needle-like arming swords developed in order to exploit vulnerabilities in the arm protection, such as elbows, wrists and armpits. Armoursmiths could partially ameliorate this with a couter, a triangular plate flaring out over the elbow-joint, but it was never an ideal solution. But as armour production developed, armoursmiths began to conceive of armour as a system of interdependent parts. Rerebraces became attached to the pauldron to close up the vulnerable armpit, and the pauldron was itself attached to an oversized gorget worn over the breastplate. Particularly with the development of the sliding Almain rivet toward the end of the medieval period, articulated elbows were now possible: medieval arm protection could take another quantum leap, frustrating the sneaky roundel-dagger and estoc-wielders. Armoured knights were now encased in a lobster-shell of steel from wrist to armpit. Just in time for firearms to come along and ruin everyone’s day.
Armoured vambraces and rerebraces can make a fantastic addition to any re-enactment or fantasy outfit. By the high-medieval period, they were widely available to most soldiers, and nobles and royalty would have had their own armoursmiths create their own luxuriant versions. Go for it!
Contrary to what Hollywood may have you believe, the use of medieval arm bracers as a usual part of dress, or even the wearing of them off the battlefield, is entirely unsupported by historical evidence. Just about every big-budget movie seems to have a blushing aversion to showing wrists – partly because wrists are weird, but mainly because bracers are just extremely cool. If you are portraying a faithful historical re-enactment impression of someone who wasn’t literally an archer, then medieval wrist bracers, whilst extremely cool, are likely stretching the historical evidence thin. But the lack of historical evidence also gives us an open field to imagine and interpret what might have been. If you don’t mind bending the record a little, or if you are portraying a fantasy character, then they’re practically required costume (as well as badass).