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  Pauldrons are a mainstay of medieval fantasy (and fantasy fiction more generally): what soldier or mercenary would be incomplete without spectacular shoulder-armor that shows off their insignia of rank? But in real history, medieval pauldrons were a vital part of medieval armor, evolving from simple wooden ailette boards into armored spaulders, and then into complex articulated pauldrons in the era of armored knights. Here at Medieval Ware, we provide our customers with an excellent range of medieval pauldrons that range from simple shoulder cops, to authentic medieval plate spaulders, to ornate fantasy pauldrons and medieval leather pauldrons. We have curated our selection carefully so that you can mix-and-match them with our fantastic torso armors (dependent on the method of fixing), or wear them as standalone augments to your outfit.  

(History): Shoulder Armor from Antiquity to the Age of Gunpowder

Shoulder armor appears pretty sporadically before the High Medieval Era, and rarely as independent pieces specifically designed to defend the joint at the upper arm. Greek Classical plate armor seems to have been devoid of any specific shoulder protection, and the Roman lorica segmentata – the traditional ‘Legionary armor’ - included shoulder lames that were attached to the top of the cuirass, but they were not independent pieces of armor. In the European Iron Age, Celtic warriors often fought in stout clothing, with elite forms of armor that were primarily based around chainmail – no specific forms of pauldron have yet been discovered. This dominance of chainmail armors existed throughout the Early Medieval period, with even heavily armored soldiers like the Carolingian noble cavalry wearing only long chainmail hauberks, never developing a specific shoulder defense. The reason for this is obvious: for most of the early medieval era, the primary form of defense was the shield. These would have been made from butted wooden boards, and the best ones would have been made from two or three layers of plied wood (laid with the grain of each layer at right-angles to the last), bound around the edge with rawhide. A Viking round-shield would have provided a warrior with a reasonable defense against spears, axes and projectiles from shoulder to hip – and a long Norman kite-shield would have been even more encompassing than that. There was simply no reason for independent shoulder armors to evolve.  

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

In the High Medieval Era (c. 1000-1250 CE), that began to change. New innovations in medieval warfare began to threaten the supremacy of the shield-and-chainmail combination hitherto worn by elite knights – the spread of powerful mechanically-loaded crossbows in particular were a horrifying threat, since they required none of the lifetime of physical training required for effective archery with a bow-and-arrow, and hence became common on medieval battlefields by the 12th century CE. This meant that soldiers and armorers began experimenting with augmenting simple chainmail with additional pieces of armor, like splinted mail, armor plates sewn into surcotes – and shoulder armor.  

Sword and Board: The Ailette

The earliest form of medieval pauldron was the ailette. These were simple rectangular boards made from wood, or sometimes a form of basic medieval leather pauldron – they can be seen as the square boards on the shoulders in this modern illustration of a 13th century knight. Historical opinion is split over the function of the ailette. It emerged in a period when heraldry and heraldic identification was becoming very widespread, so historians like Claude Blair argue that the purpose of the ailette was not defensive, but only for a combination of heraldic display and for aesthetic decoration. Surviving historical images of ailettes do indeed display heraldic devices – it’s likely from this that we have inherited modern fantasy notions of medieval pauldrons as signifiers of rank. However, plain versions of the ailette appear on medieval effigies and carvings, and historical replicas can be made to fit sturdily on the shoulder. As well, if they were purely decorative, one might expect them to survive longer than the short period of early transitional armor (1290-1320) – but they were rapidly replaced with a more effective defensive design: the spaulder.  

Shrug Your Spaulders

Spaulders were a logical next step in protecting the shoulder. Instead of a simple flat board on the top or side of the shoulder, they consisted instead of a shaped metal plate that fits snugly to the shape of the shoulder, with several metal lames or bands attached by leather straps that extend down to defend the top of the outer arm. Like the ailette, they were attached over maille as part of the fragmentary attempts to defend each part of the body. Rather than being ubiquitous, they were almost exclusively an English development, emerging in the first quarter of the 14th century, and remaining a popular form of shoulder defense for the rest of the medieval period. They were frequently paired with a rondel, a small round metal plate attached to the spaulder that was worn to cover the armpit, often highly decorated in the shape of a flower. As the century progressed, they were worn with arm armor, in the form of a rerebrace, elbow cops and vambrace to better defend the arm – we stock excellent reproductions of these items to match your spaulders.  

The Pauldron Comes of Age

In the late 1300s CE, armor makers began to think differently about armor. Where before, individual pieces of armor were attached over a unified suit of maille, now armor began to be conceived of as a unified system, with knights commissioning whole garnitures of armor from a single workshop. The pauldron is the outgrowth of these armor systems: extending from a simple spaulder, they were designed to interlock with other pieces of armor to defend the shoulder, armpit and upper back, often featuring elegantly articulated connections made with sliding rivets. Jousting, a ritualized form of horseback combat, had become wildly popular amongst the elite during the 1400s CE, and specialised oversized jousting pauldrons, heavily padded with bespoke arming wear, were made to deflect the impact of an opponent’s lance away from the body. Our range of medieval pauldrons, spaulders and ailettes do a sterling job of replicating all of these functions: from heraldic identification to solid battlefield armor, to fantastic fantasy designs.