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Plate ArmourPlate armour consists of plates of sheet metal used as protection. It replaced chainmail, where linked rings of metal formed the armour during the thirteenth century. The earliest mentions of plate armour, during the reign of Richard the Lion Heart, refer to thin sheets of metal worn under all the other armour as a form of extra protection. By the middle of the thirteenth century, small items of plate were being worn at key points such as the elbows, kneecaps and shins, somewhat in the manner of shinguards in modern sports. Next in the thirteenth century came the cuirass or breastplate, in effect a metal vest, which left the armpits and neck unprotected and was not significantly better than chainmail. Finally, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw the development of the suit of armour familiar to us. This armour gained weight, thickness and complexity over the period, as survivability came to dominate mobility, and by the early fifteenth century it was possible for a middle aged knight to die of a heart attack caused by the weight and heat of the armour, as apparently happened to Richard, duke of York at Agincourt. Noble casualties could be very low in medieval warfare, but how much of this was due to the armour, and how much to the practise of paying ransoms for captured noblemen is hard to say.
Armour (British English) or armor (American English see spelling differences) is a covering to protect an object, individual, or vehicle from damage, especially direct contact weapons or projectiles during combat, or from a potentially dangerous environment or activity (e.g., cycling, construction sites, etc.). Personal armour is used to protect soldiers and war animals. Vehicle armour is used on warships, armoured fighting vehicles, and some combat aircraft.
A second use of the term armour describes armoured forces, armoured weapons, and their role in combat. After the evolution of armoured warfare, mechanised infantry and their weapons came to be referred to collectively as "armour".
History of Plate Armor - Coat of Plates
Plate Armor is today remembered as one of the most popular armors in European middle ages, even though historical records are very clearly describing that rise of the plate armors and their extreme version “suit of armor” were most prominent during 15th and late 16th centuries. Period of time that promoted plate armor the most was Hundred Years' War that introduced many advances in the military gear of that time. Today, plate armor plays a very important part in the history of personal armors as the most distinct and easily recognizable type of the armor in the entire world. As soon as someone sees plate armor in any of its forms (whether it is full plate suit for both soldier and horse, or just breastplate protector named cuirass), modern people are immediately thinking about medieval times, numerous wars that happened during early Renaissance, and romanticized vision of fully-armored knights and pre-gunpowder warfare. However, history of plate armor is not only connected to medieval Europe. Its origins go back all the way to the 2st millennia BC, when advances in metallurgy enabled for the first time creation of Bronze tools, weapons and of course armor pieces.
The oldest plate armor ever made comes from ancient Mycenean-era Greece from around 1400 BC. Armors from that period (which were discovered by archeologists around city of Thebes, Mycenae and Troy) consist from several single-piece plate items that protected body (body), shoulders, lower protection plates, and neck protectors, all made from bronze. Because of the difficult manufacture and weight, body plate armors were mostly used in a form of cuirass that was split into front and back section. Those two parts were connected together either with leather straps. Greece introduction of this type of armor morphed into new forms of plate armors, most notably in Rome where Lorica Segmentata became popular during several centuries. However, after fall of Roman Empire single-piece chest plate armors fell from popularity for a long period of time because of difficulties with manufacture and very high cost.
Almost one thousand years after fall of Roman Empire, plate armors returned in fashion after rise of metallurgy techniques enabled medieval blacksmiths to start easier manufacture of larger metal pieces. Reintroduction of larger plated armors started with chest pieces, and slowly expanded to the protection of the other body parts. Even though it was very expensive and hard to maintain, full body plate armors became commonplace after 1420s with blacksmiths being responsible for creation of up to 20 individual metal parts that soldier had to wear (most commonly those items were helmet, gorget, pauldrons, besagews, rondels, couters, vambraces, gauntlets, cuirass, fauld, tassets, cutlet, mail skirt, cuisses, poeyns, greaves and sabatons). The average full metal plate armor that covered soldier from head to toe was heavy, but those create for ground combat were made to be not more heavy than 25-30kg. Armors that were made for mounted combat were heavier, with specific armor pieces being placed on the horse, covering his entire body except legs. Even though they were expensive and hard to use, full plate armors were deemed to be cost effective because they offered great protection against bladed weapons, spears and to some extent against blunt trauma. However, expansion of full plate armor use also caused inovations in the field of weapons, most notably larger swords, longer pollexes, halberds, stronger longbows, hammers, maces, and introduction of crossbows that had enough power to pierce full plate armor even at larger distances.
Popularity of full body plate armors reached its popularity during 15th and 16th century, with records showing that several battles were made utilizing up to 10 thousand soldiers that wore these types of armor. This happened mostly during Wars of the Roses, Italian Wars and Hundred Years War. Arrival of gunpowder during early Renaissance lessened the impact of full plate armored soldiers on the battlefield, but they remained in use for specific heavy troops (especially in the New World where opposing natives did not have access to crossbows and gunpowder weapons) and for ornamental purposes. Many of those armors from the time of Renaissance were made by master blacksmiths, ornamented to the highest degree and used by royalty and nobility during parades and various ceremonies.
After arrival of gunpowder, full plate armor became obsolete, but that did not mean end for all types of plated armor. Chest protection remained popular for a long time, with most of the Renaissance soldiers wore cuirass breastplates with some additional lighter protection for other parts of their body. Special type of plate armor set was created specifically for jousting. Plate armors remained in use until 18th century, mostly in specific cavalry military units. Some isolated uses were also present during World War 1 with soldiers using plate cuirass armors to protect their vital organs against shrapnel.
Descriptions of Women's Armor
There are certain tropes that come up time and time again when medieval authors describe women in armor. Medieval historians note that women in armor were the exception rather than the rule, and the awe-struck language of the people who wrote about them seems to back that up: Armored women are described almost universally as Amazons, often as Penthesilea incarnate. But another concept that comes up again and again is that these women are masculine in their armor. It's not surprising, given that weaponry and armor and later, knighthood were considered the almost exclusive sphere of men.
In the pre-platemail days, it seems that women wore very much the same thing that their husbands and brothers did. The Order of the Hatchet, as was mentioned earlier, fought wearing men's clothing, and would have worn any armor that they could piece together. In most cases when armor is mentioned at all, historical women warriors are described as wearing hauberks, the chain mail shirts that protected the arms, torso, and upper thighs. The Anglo-Norman historian Jordan Fantosme recounted that, when she was captured during the rebellion against King Henry II, Petronilla de Grandmesnil "was armed in a hauberk and carried a sword and shield." Ermengard(e), Viscountess of Narbonne, was renowned in the 12th century for marshaling her own forces against Raymond VI of Toulouse, and the contemporary cleric André le Chapelain included her as a character in his treatise De amore, imagining her speaking thus:
"I myself will ride there
wearing my coat of mail, my shining helmet laced on
shield at my neck, sword at my side
lance in hand, ahead of all others.
Though my hair is grey and white,
my heart is bold and thirsts for war."
That's not to say that André le Chapelain ever saw the viscountess or her armor he may have been drawing from other reports about Ermengard (she was a favorite of troubadours) or relating what he thought a woman in her position would wear. But Fredric L. Cheyette, who profiles the viscountess in Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours, similarly places her in a hauberk and helmet.
'Imad ad-Din, a historian of the Crusades (whose account is taken with a grain of salt), described the female crusaders as wearing the same armor as the men with which they rode:
On the day of battle, more than one woman rode out with them like a knight and showed (masculine) endurance in spite of the weakness (of her sex) clothed only in a coat of mail they were not recognized as women until they had been stripped of their arms.
Like many historians, Matthew Bennett, who quotes the above passage in his Gendering the Crusades essay "Virile Latins, Effeminate Greeks and Strong Women: Gender Definitions on Crusade?" doubts the veracity of 'Imad ad-Din's account of woman warriors, but he doesn't discount the possibility that women might wear mail coats for protection—if such expensive pieces of armor were available to them.
By the time Joan of Arc became the mascot for Charles VII's forces during the Hundred Years' War, plated armor was in use. As was mentioned earlier, there are no surviving images of Joan of Arc in her armor that were made in her lifetime. In fact, the only known image of Joan made during her lifetime is a sketch by Clement de Fauquembergue, who never saw her and sketched her based on reports of a young maid leading the French army carrying a sword and a banner he puts her in a dress. When she is depicted in armor by later artists, she is typically depicted in the style of that artist's day.
But we do have accounts of Joan's armor. In Tours in 1429, she was measured for a full suit of plated armor that was custom-made so that it would fit close to her body. It was not a particularly expensive piece of equipment as far as plate mail went, costing 100 livers tournois. It was also a "white harness," meaning that it bore no adornment, not even the fleur-de-lis that actress Leelee Sobieski wears in her portrayal of Saint Joan. In his famous biography of Joan, Anatole France imagines that in Tours she may have also been measured for a houppelande, a loose coat that would have been worn over the armor's cuirass. In Joan of Arc: Her Story, Regine Pernoud, Narue-Veronique Clin say that Joan wore a capeline, a steel hat with a wide brim, but was often said to go bare-headed on the battlefield. Although Joan's armor was designed for practicality, to both fit well and protect her body (which is a good thing since was was struck in battle), when considering her headgear (or lack thereof) it is important to remember that Joan served as a symbol and a military strategist, not a warrior on the field. If she had served as a soldier, she might have employed a different sort of helmet.
Despite historical reports of women wearing men's or at least masculine armor, feminizing women warriors in literature isn't just a modern convention. In David Hay's "Arms and Armor" entry in Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, he notes that authors of medieval romances "had difficulty portraying women as both armored and feminine." In the romance Le Roman de Silence, the female character Silence is portrayed as male when she dons armor, reverting to female only after her death when her head was again uncovered. And stories of women disguised as male knights were popular, with the gender reveal serving as the key to the story. A story about the historical Agnes Hotot claims that Agnes took her sick father's place during a duel, wearing his clothes and armor. It was only after she had defeated her opponent that she bared her breast and revealed that the man had been bested by a woman.
Hay also says that "[s]ome romances even attempted to gender the very armor itself by adorning the men's with more "masculine" apotropaic gems, while fashioning the women's in tighter and more revealing styles." This, he indicates, does not reflect the reality of women in armor, but was a device used by writers and artists to present these women as at once transgressive and socially acceptable.
And portrayals of the Amazons would have influenced both historical and romantic depictions of armed women. Alison Weir in Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life notes that Benoît de Saint-Maure's, writing about Eleanor leaving for the crusades a decade or so after her departure in his Roman de Troie likened her visually to Penthesilea, riding horse adorned with "a hundred tiny twinkling bells" and wearing "a hauberk whiter than snow" as she and her companions let their hair hang loose. (Again, it is worth noting that if Eleanor did wear armor to the Crusades, as she is widely reported to have, it was ceremonial.)
Painting depicting Queen Tomyris.
There were other ways to feminize woman warriors aside from the shapes and adornments of the armor. Evans points to the tale of Margaret of Beverley, a woman who did indeed participate in the defense of Jerusalem while the city was under siege by Saladin during the Third Crusade. Margaret's brother wrote that she wore a cooking pot on her head while she brought water to the men on the walls. Although her behavior is described as man-like, and Evans notes that it seems entirely plausible that anyone might find a cooking pot a handy piece of armor in a siege, he wonders if Margaret's headgear was invented to make her seem more womanly, or to create an absurd visual of a woman in war, using a woman's tools to defend herself.
Lessons from Modern Armor
If we are talking about actual medieval history, women wearing armor was rare and women in plated suits of armor even rarer. But if you want to create a fantasy story set in a medieval-inspired world where women in armor is not so uncommon, then you might have sets of female armor that are somehow distinct from male armor. In response to the Tumblr Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor, fantasy armorer Ryan at MadArtLab notes that one way to make armor look feminine (if that is a thing that you want) is in the detail work. Just as the apotropaic gems of medieval men's armor was designed as "masculine," your world might have certain colors, materials, or designs that are associated with masculinity or femininity.
Early firearms vs plate armor
I've tried searching and I keep coming up with tests and comparisons of modern firearms. Are there any good books or articles about the time period where firearms were seeing widespread use but so was the traditional "knight" or heavy armor sets? Was this ever the case or did the change to guns happen too suddenly?
Was this ever the case or did the change to guns happen too suddenly?
Assuming you're not talking about field cannons, guns didn't play a major role in combat during what you call the traditional knight period. The use of handheld cannons was frowned upon and although the effects could be devastating, early handheld cannons had very low range and even lower accuracy. Hitting a target was pure chance. Soldiers also had to modify every bullet to fit the barrel or cast a stock of bullets before each battle. Due to the lack of good stopping power, massive failure rate and ineffective loading, guns weren't used in large numbers until the early 16th century.
The first battle that is today considered as the first that was won by gun powder, is the Battle of Cerignola in 1503. The hand cannon that changed the battlefield forever was the Arquebus.
edit: It's actually 'one of the first battles in Europe won by gun powder'.
As a low-velocity firearm, the arquebus was used against enemies who were often partially or fully protected by steel-plate armor. Plate armor worn upon the torso was standard in European combat from about 1400 until the middle of the 17th century. Good suits of plate would usually stop an arquebus ball at long range. It was a common practice to "proof" (test) armor by firing a pistol or arquebus at a new breastplate. The small dent would be circled by engraving to call attention to it. However, at close range, it was possible to pierce even heavy cavalry armor, although penetration is heavily dependent on the power of the arquebus and the quality of the armor. This led to changes in armor usage, such as the three-quarter plate, and finally the retirement of plate armor from most types of infantry.
The development of volley fire — by the Dutch in Europe, and by the Japanese and the Portuguese in Asia — made the arquebus of practical advantage to modern militaries. Arquebus volley fire, in evidence on European battlefields as early as the 1520s, allowed armies to turn their usual formation into a rotating firing squad with each row of soldiers firing a shot then marching to the back of the formation to reload.
edit: I think I have to clarify something about 'traditional knight period'. Many people naturally assume that the concept of heavy armored knights on horses ended with the introduction of proper guns. But there's more to it. Battles haven't been fought by a knight ruleset for centuries at that point. That idea became obsolet when foot soldiers from Flandern beat the crap out of the glorious and confident French knights in the Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302. It took a a bit over a century to seal the fate and additional, famous battles like the Battle of Crécy in 1346 and the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 had to occur to make military strategists realize that longbows and food soldiers had become the new major force on the battlefield.
While heavy cavalry were still an important tool during a battle, the increased cost of plating for the horse and the horseman were tough to handle for most knights until guns finally put an end to the arms race.
The ongoing race between arms and armor in the Middle Ages led to the emergence and spread of many types of protection, such as mail-brigandine armor, mail-plate armor, and finally full plate armor.
Thinking of the Middle Ages as an era when warriors covered in steel plates became a mass phenomenon is, if nothing else, inaccurate. Full plate armor was widespread for a relatively short period of time, and even at the peak of popularity it was quite expensive. So, what preceded it?
For quite a long time &mdash from the X to the XIII centuries &mdash basic metal armor for those who could afford it consisted of long mail reaching the knees, with full length or partial sleeves (reaching the elbows), as well as a coif (a mail hood, separate or connected to the mail). In the latter case, the mail was called a &ldquohauberk&rdquo. Front and back lower parts of the mail had cuts for more convenient movement, as well as providing more comfort when sitting in a saddle. Knights also wore a gambeson under the mail &mdash you can read more about this type of protection in one of our previous posts. Often, to protect the legs they also wore mail hose.
In the XIII century, a combination of chain mail (also known as maille, or just mail) and a coat of plates (and, later, a brigandine), provided more protection than just mail alone. Both the coat of plates and brigandine are armor made of metal plates, riveted on cloth, quilted linen or another fabric &mdash sometimes leather. There is no clear criteria to distinguish one from another, but it is generally assumed that a coat of plates consists of a smaller number of larger plates compared to a more sophisticated brigandine, and usually closes in the back. Early brigandine-mail protection consisted of a breastplate or a vest worn over the mail (hauberk). A statue of St. Maurice (1250) in Magdeburg is a good example of this combination.
St. Maurice statue, 1250. Magdeburg
In the XIV century the mail and coat of plates combination was still widely used, but a chest part of the protection became a larger curved breastplate which was much harder to penetrate with a spear, pointed sword and other weapons of the period. In parallel with this, some elements of plate armor begin to appear: first, a plackart and faulds covering the stomach of its wearer, and then a full cuirass. Due to its high cost, at the beginning of the XIV century cuirasses were available to few knights and nobles. In addition to that, we can see a spread of other types of steel plate protection, such as bracers, which protected from the elbow to the hand. From here, we can see the development of more extensive armor, such as full arm harnesses, greaves and kneecops.
In the second half of the XIV century the coat of plates became more complex in shape: more rounded, gradually approaching a narrow waist silhouette with a rounded single plate chestpiece.
The end of the XIV and the beginning of the XV centuries was a time characterized by a huge variety of combinations of armor: mail, coat of plates / brigandine and mail, brigandine and breastplate, full cuirass, accompanied or not by all kinds of bracers, arm harnesses, kneecops and greaves, as well as closed and open helmets with a variety of visors.
And it is the XV century that we can truly call the age of plate. Due to the development of metalworking and manufacturing technologies plate armor became way more accessible and, as a result, appeared in large numbers among knights and, to a lesser extent, infantry. Also, during this period, the fashion of covering armor with layers of fabric goes away, and the typical look for this period is shining (or not so much) &ldquobare&rdquo exposed metal armor without a surcoat. The new shining look was often called a &ldquowhite harness&rdquo.
Late XV c. armor, Thun Sketchbook
Among our products there are a few examples of the armor typical for the XV century: a blackened &ldquoWayward Knight&rdquo armor set with a coat of plates, that represents a transitional knight&rsquos protection between the centuries, a knight armor kit &ldquoPaladin&rdquo, representing the full plate armor from the middle of the century, and a more sophisticated premium-looking and aristocratic &ldquoGothic Armour Knight Kit&rdquo, inspired by a functional Gothic harness from the late XV century. We have already published a blog post dedicated to the Gothic armor. If you want to read more about this magnificent invention of the European armorers &mdash make sure to check it out!
C. Blair, a famous British historian and armament specialist, called the time from 1410 to 1500 a &ldquogreat period in the history of knightly protective armament,&rdquo since he believed that, although a high-quality armor was produced in later periods too, never again did they combine such excellence with an understanding of the material which they now mostly worked with in their products. Jewelry in the armor of this era played a minor role, and the armorers focused on the perfection of the form, so that people in this armor were justly called &ldquosteel sculptures&rdquo. Later, on the contrary, the decoration passed any measure.
By the middle of the 15th century, two main centers (and two different schools) were formed, producing full plate armor: the first one in Northern Italy, in Milan, and the second one in Northern Germany, in Augsburg. But, of course, there were many different local productions that basically copied popular samples of the above mentioned schools, sometimes modifying them to a greater or lesser extent.
A typical gothic knight armor, 1480&ndash1490. Ingoldstadt, Germany, Bavarian Military Museum
The famous British historian David Nicolle in his work &ldquoFrench Armies of the Hundred Years War&rdquo cites an excerpt from an essay by the unknown author of the book &ldquoDu Costume Militaire des Français en 1446&rdquo, who gives the following description of the equipment of those years, starting with a &ldquolance&rdquo &mdash basic cavalry unit of the time: &ldquoFirstly the said men-at-arms are commonly decked, when they go to war, in entire white harness. That is to say close cuirass, vambraces, large garde-braces, leg harness, gauntlets, sallet with visor and a small bevor that covers only the chin. Each is armed with a lance and a long light sword, a sharp dagger hanging on the left side of the saddle, and a mace. Each man must also be accompanied by a coutiller [squire] equipped with a sallet, harnois de jambes, haubergeon [hauberk], jacque [padded jack], brigandine or corset, armed with dagger, sword and a vouge [vogue] or demi-lance. Also a page or varlet with the same armour and one or two weapons. The archer wear leg armour, salets, heavy jacques lined with linen, or brigandines, bow in hand and quiver at side.&rdquo
As we can see, pages and squires, accompanying knights, had simpler protection typical in previous century: a mail hauberk and a brigandine, but with a more modern type of helmet. This is dictated both by tasks performed on the battlefield and by a trivial reason &mdash an economic one. Not so many soldiers could afford a full plate armor.
So, how much did it cost? Let us turn to historical sources and try to compare the costs of the XV century plate armor with something from modernity for clarity.
Another quote from the above mentioned &ldquoFrench Armies of the Hundred Years War&rdquo: &ldquoThe 125 to 250 livres tournois which one young nobleman required to fully equip himself represented eight to sixteen months&rsquo wages for an ordinary man-at-arms, and clearly applied to the best possible gear. Even ordinary equipment remained expensive. Salets were valued at between 3 and 4 livres tournois, a jacque, corset or brigandine at 11 livres. A full set of such armour and weaponry cost around 40 livres while the cost for a complete lance was from 70 to 80 livres.&rdquo
Alan Williams in &ldquoThe Knight and the Blast Furnace: A History of the Metallurgy of Amour in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period&rdquo provides some very interesting facts. For example, due to the change in technology at some point the production of mail has become more labor-intensive and less profitable than the production of plate armor: &ldquoWhen labour costs rose after the Black Death, then the price of mail rose accordingly. In an era of rising prices, it ceased to be an economically attractive way of making armour. Indeed, by the 15th century the cost of a mail shirt (4.59 gulden) at Iserlohn [Germany, North Rhine-Westphalia] was notably greater than the cost of plate armour (4.33 gulden).&rdquo
Also, in the book we find a table with horseman&rsquos and foot-soldier&rsquos armor prices:
|Date||Location||Foot-soldier&rsquos armor price||Horseman&rsquos armor price||Equivalent days&rsquo wages|
£5&mdash£6 for imported Milanese armor
Since many historians use the infantry's salary of the time as a reference to estimate the cost of armor in monthly wages, we suggest using a similar means of assessment. According to open sources, a US Army corporal earns about $30,000 a year, which gives us a monthly wage of $2,500. Now, this means that depending on the type, quality, place of manufacture, and finishing, a set of XV century plate armor would cost from $8,000 to $40,000 or more. At the same time, a simple set of armor for a regular foot soldier, especially if some obsolete pieces of equipment were used, could cost around $2,000 &mdash but a good one would still be somewhere near $4,000 and more.
When we talk about this price range, we still mean one of the most numerous parts of the armies &mdash men-at-arms &mdash ordinary soldiers, not the true elite, though their status allowed them to be referred to as &ldquogentlemen&rdquo. By definition, those who fought in full plate armor were called 'men at arms', while a knight is a person granted an honorary title of knighthood by a political leader. And the price difference between the regular men-at-arms&rsquo plate armor and knight&rsquos plate armor is huge! It can be compared with a difference between a regular modern business suit and a modern exclusive designer limited edition bespoke business suit. Such armor was made to order by renowned armorers, and, as a rule, had decals and decorations, even if we are talking about combat, not ceremonial armor, and its cost converted by the above mentioned method was in the range of $100,000 to $250,000.
Also, let us not forget another important detail. A knight usually fights on a horseback. And a dead or seriously wounded horse is a huge problem, as the medieval armor ceases to play a significant role when you are thrown to the ground and surrounded by the enemy. A thin blade of a cheapest dagger in the joints of the armor caused the inglorious death of a myriad noble knights. The conclusion here is that your horse also needs reliable protection, otherwise your shiny armor can quickly change its owner!
And, of course, our ancestors began to create armor for horses &ldquoen masse&rdquo as soon as the technology and the economy allowed it. Here is another quote from David Nicolle: &ldquo. given the threat from English longbowmen, it is not surprising that the XIV century saw considerable development in horse armour. Early chamfrons covered only the front of the horse&rsquos head, though some had and extended pol at the back. New forms which appeared later in the XIV century were larger, covering not only the back of the head but having a bulbous projection over the nose and pierced cups covering the eyes.&rdquo
XV c. German Gothic Armor for Horse, Wallace Collection, London
Now, keeping in mind the above mentioned prices for the knightly armor, you can roughly imagine how much the horse&rsquos armor would cost. Overall, expenses needed to equip a medieval European knight could go up to $500,000. Some researchers and medieval bloggers even say numbers go up to $3,500,000, but we could not find sources or historical examples of such an expensive armor. Nevertheless, we consider it possible. Perhaps the mentioned price was set for some very exclusive and richly decorated armor.
In addition, because of the spread and improvement of plate armor, in the XV century there was a gradual abandonment of shields as such. Shields turned into bucklers &mdash small round fist shields, necessarily made of steel and with an umbon. They became a substitute for the knightly targe in foot combat, where they were used to both parry and strike with umbon or edge.
In the late XV &mdash early XVI centuries, due to the gradual improvement of firearms two opposite processes occurred: if the armor of the cavalry was being increasingly strengthened and thickened, the infantry, on the contrary, becomes more and more &ldquoexposed&rdquo. In this period the famous &ldquolandsknechts&rdquo appeared &mdash German mercenaries who served during the reign of Maximilian I (1486&mdash1519) and his grandson Charles V (1519&mdash1556). This infantry unit used only the cuirasses with tassets &mdash at best. But since in Europe the cavalry was always a smaller part of the armies, we can observe a certain decrease in the proportion of full plate armor among military forces.
Thus, it is precisely the XV century that can be called the era of warriors protected by plates of steel.
Chain Mail Knight Armour
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History of Armor and Weaponry
Hi! You will find me on many of the pages for this site explaining some of the history behind the swords and armor that we display here. My hope is that it will help you understand why these pieces were created originally and why we feel like this was an important piece to add to our collection. If you are interested in the historical significance of any piece that has caught your fancy, just look for more descriptive text on the various swords, shields and armor pieces and categories on any page.
Armor began the first time tensions developed between tribes. Rudimentary pieces at first, perhaps a thick hide thrown over one’s chest or a carved bowl over the head were enough to deflect the worst of the blows from sticks or rocks. Then Man got more creative with his attacks and with his defensive shields. Imagine the shock the first time a sharpened stick was propelled by a rude gut string placed on a young limb or having poison sting you from a sharpened twig or a chiseled rock through a hollow carved wooden tube. Slingshots were developed for hunting small birds and animals but could propel a rock right into the head of a person much, much larger than the one defending with only a tool used for hunting previously. Man existed for thousands of years with these elementary devices that were used very successfully against man and beast to ensure the survival of our species. We refer to this part of our history as the Stone Age. Neanderthals Welcome! Unfortunately, we don’t have anything you would recognize here.
The Bronze Age was a marvel. The Sumer civilization was spread through Modern day East Africa, Spain, Asia Minor and what is referred to as the “Cradle of Civilization” in modern Iraq and the entire Arabic peninsula. When we began to approach the metal working eras, here we begin to find the beginnings of what we focus on in this site. From them, we got the first writers in Man’s history, the potter’s wheel, government, social divisions and slavery. But the most fascinating invention was the combining of different metal alloys that made it possible to use it for tools, weaponry and armor. Various metals such as gold, silver and copper were the first metals probably tried in suits of armor but were too soft and malleable for the sharpening edges needed for axes and cutting tools. I can only imagine the first smelters playing with the different metals, combining them to see the different effects that were produced and the delight of finding that tin and copper could make a metal that was hard enough to be tempered into uses beyond their dreams for commonly built sword blades and shields of the period.
Early Bronze Helmets
Different areas developed their techniques over a period of 5,000 years, some simply trading for the alloys they needed that were not available in their area, which produced the first trade routes. In any case, through casting, newer and more effective weaponry began to appear along with much better coverings than furs for the warriors.
Primitive Armor Made Of Furs
Around 600 BC, we go into the Iron Age. NOW we begin to see real progress with weaponry and armor. Iron wielders were able to cut down with ease the civilizations that still relied on bronze, and in spite of its tendency to rust, iron rapidly replaced bronze as the superior metal for tool, shields and armor. Yet the real progress was made with the advent of steel which was a big advantage in a battle suit of armor.
The Romans had it by 4th century BC and it is noted by them that the Celts were still using iron. Two very different types of armor and weaponry were developing. One was what we consider Barbarian style. The Hordes- Franks, Vikings and Goths- used this more than the Romans and Greeks whose equipment was refined and advanced. These two styles and populations finally converged around 500 AD.
And here we begin our journey through the Medieval age of glory, the pinnacle of armory and hand to hand weaponry, fought in an era when men looked each other in the eye as they battled each other with sword, armor and shield.
The emergence of late medieval full plate armour wasn't really prompted by any specific discovery or advancement in metallurgical tech. Partial plate armour, in principle, can be traced all the way back to Classical Antiquity, such as the Greek muscle cuirass later Roman lorica segmentata.
Rather, the most critical development was the appearance of larger bloomeries. It was no coincidence that plate armour began in North Italy shortly after such bloomeries appeared there - they made it possible to produce sufficiently large steel plates in one piece.
The suit of armour of large articulated plates first appears in 14th century Italy, followed later by Germany and the rest of Europe. This was a result of bloomeries having grown large enough to produce metal plates of the required size.
Williams, Alan. "The Metallurgy of Medieval European Armour." Proceedings of the Forum of the 4th International Conference on the Beginning of the Use of Metals and Alloys. Shimane, Japan, 1996.
The problem before this was that you need quite a sizeable amount of steel, about 10kg, for a breastplate. Prior to the late 13th century or so, European bloomeries were generally not large enough to produce so much steel in a single chunk. To make a steel breastplate then, you'd have to weld two or more separate plates together, which compromised its protective value despite an enormous price tag.
A plate of armour which weighs between 2.5 and 4.5 kg will pose new problems lo the producers. Billets of metal of 10kg or more may be needed to make such a plate
Williams, Alan R. The Knight and the Blast Furnace: A History of the Metallurgy of Armour in the Middle Ages & the Early Modern Period. Brill, 2003.
A significant factor behind the rise of larger bloomeries was that Late Medieval Europe began harnessing the power of rivers - using waterwheels to power furnace bellows enabled larger blooms of steel to be produced.
Once decent full plate armour became feasible to create, the main obstacle to adoption - aside from a lack of need early on - was simple economics. A full set of plate armour was extremely labour intensive to forge, and consequently very expensive. Keep in mind, even the Romans had to abandon the lorica segmentata after the Crisis of the Third Century rendered it economically and logistically unsustainable. No military in medieval Europe could rival the Roman Empire's resources.
By the 14th century, however, smiths had begun using watermills to driver hammers for shaping the steel, greatly reduced the labour required.
Water-power enabled smiths to increase their output. Bellows driven by a waterwheel could produce a continuous powerful draught from a free energy source, so it was at last possible to enlarge the size of the furnace and the bloom thus produced. Water-powered hammers were also heavy enough to fashion the larger blooms.
Blair, John, W. John Blair, and Nigel Ramsay, eds. English Medieval Industries: Craftsmen, Techniques, Products. A&C Black, 1991.
It was the newfound relative affordability of plate armour, combined with improved designs reducing its tactical downsides, that ultimately enabled its adoption. The full plate armour reached its peak about the same time advancements in projectile weaponry began to render it obsolete, however.
The Early Medieval Period
Medieval Armor in the 11-12th Centuries
The 11th Century was a time of big change in the history of Europe. It was coming out of the Dark Ages and ntering the Middle Ages. There were several times of armor that were most common during the 11th century. Platemail wasn't in use yet and the most common type of armor for the chest and the torso was something called a mail Hauberk. This was a garment that covered the torso and usually reached down to about the knees. It was made of a series of rings that were stitched or riveted together and armor made from this technique is called "Chain Mail". Hauberks were also, although less commonly, made of a series of overlapping metal scales that were sewn or stitched together and it is speculated that this configuration was riveted to some type of undergarment. The picture and product to the left is an example of a chainmail hauberk. It also shows another aspect of medieval chainmail armor: the coif. The coif was a chainmail piece of armor that was worn on the head. In the early centuries it was worn along but as the 12th century came around it was often worn under a helmet.
Armor for the Head: The helmet is of course one of the oldest types of armor. It has been around for many centuries and it has developed dramatically over that time. The Spangenhelm was used extensively in the centuries before the 11th but it was still very much in use. It was composed of sevaral strips of iron or some other metal that were riveted into a helmet shape and then the spaces in between the strips were filled with sheets of metal or other material. Often the plates were composed of layers of metals like copper or bronze. Another type of helmet in use during the 11th century was the conical helmet. It was composed of a single sheet of iron that was hammered and shaped into a half cone that sat on the head. It sometimes had a piece of iron that extended down to cover the bridge of the nose.
Armor for the legs: The legs of a mounted knight were very vulnerable so some armor was developed early for this part of the body and this took the form of chausses which were chainmail leggings. These first started to appear around the middle of the 12th century.
The GreatHelm - Is one of the more iconic types of helmets. I have a tutorial showing how to make one out of steel. You can check out that tutorial on my youtube channel right here. Forge a medieval GreatHelm
The Shield: The Traditional form of warriors shield throughout the latter part of the dark ages was circular or occasionally oval. Usually not larger than 3 feet in diameter and made of wooden planks laid next to each other. The surface frequently covered with leather and painted. Typically a hole was cut in the center and an iron grip put in and this covered by a shield boss. The Normans used a variation of shield called a Kite shield. It was larger and shaped like an upside down tear drop. I have more medieval shields here And I have a history of the Medieval Shield here
Medieval Armor of the 13th Century -
Much of the armor was a refinement of the armor of previous centuries. Chain Hauberks were still the common chest armor and helmets were common but with many variations in shape and size.Plate armor started to make its first appearances during this century. These weren't large plates for the chest area but rather they were plates covering the
extremities like arms and legs. A garment was added under the armor. It was a quilted and padded garment called a gambeson. One of the important developments in medieval armor during this century was the expansion to covering of more of the body. It is during this century that the Greaves or 'leg guards' for lower legs, cuisses for the thighs, poleyns for the knees and coters for the elbows made their appearance. It is toward the end of this century that metal gauntlet hand covering first came into use, replacing mail gauntlets. And the common kite and circular shield were often replaced by the heater shield which was smaller and less cumbersome. Toward the end of the 13th century the surcoat came into use. This was a sleeveless cloth gown that a knight wore over his armor.
Armor for Horses: It is during this century that armor started to be put on horses. This was typically made up of plates of leather and metal.
Gunbai: Ancient Japanese Warfare
This is a very technical topic that I wanted to discuss here on my blog, since I was asked to but also because it's one of my favorite focus when it comes to history, material culture and ancient technology of Japan.
So today I will write about one of the most crucial aspect of Japanese armor development, a step forward that changed the warfare and history of the country of the rising sun.
Trying to write about Japanese armor history is extremely difficult: we lack a good amount of artistic representations, archaeological findings as well as inventory notes or written descriptions, and much of the knowledge is written inside expensive Japanese books.
To add even more confusion, a great deal of misconceptions have been circulated in the past, which created a very distorted picture that will be addressed here today.
One thing however is quite clear: armors for the torso in Japan went from lamellar to plates over time, from classic armors to tosei gusoku armors, with a complete transition in the 16th century.
To better understand this process, and why it only happened in a specific time period, it is useful to talk about Japanese lamellar armors first.
Japanese Lamellar Armors
Without taking into account the very early lamellar armors and lacing systems, there were essentially three main ways to make lamellar armor in Japan (and several variations to assemble them which I won't discuss here). So here there are some very simplistic descriptions:
The first one which was the most common and famous in the early armors is to make sane-ita ( 札板 ) board using kozane ( 小札 ) the small lamellae, when laced together, created a double thickness plate and for this reasons many time an alternated structure of hardened rawhide and metal was used. The board was then stiffened and hardened with lacquer , and laced to other boards to form the armor.
All of these types of structure, (except some styles of the third one) could stay into a fixed shape thanks to the lacquering stiffening or due to the presence of hard strips that acted as structures, and so unlike traditional lamellar which is rather flexible, these armor were semi-rigid when wrapped around the body. So they were able to transfer the energy of an impact through the entire length of the board rather than in one single area , which significantly dissipated the amount of force that was transmitted through to the body of the warrior.
In addition to that, towards the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th century, we started to see internal leather ties called tomegawa ( 停め革 ) which were used to secure the various boards together, helping to make the cuirass more rigid and to hold it erect. For this reason dō assembled in this manner are sometimes referred to as ‘standing cuirasses’, or tachi-dō ( 立胴 ). With the tomegawa, the standing cuirass rested on the hips much better and the weight was equally distributed.
Last but not least, due to the tension of the internal laces, the armor could be opened and closed w ithout the need of hinges It will flex open and spring back into the original position.
Usually, compared to armors made with rigid and big metal structure like plates, traditional lamellar armors lack a lot of features and this fact make them worst defensive garments.
Lamellar is not rigid: so it would transmit part of the energy of the blow to the body and cannot dissipate the energy through a larger area.
A flexible structure cannot be fixed into shape , so it could not benefit of deflecting curvatures, it is usually closer to the body compared to a rigid structure and the weight is all on the shoulders rather than on the much more comfortable hips.
Finally, the intricate lacing system is subjected to damage over time by weapons as well as the environment.
However, the traditional Japanese lamellar armors as I have explained above didn't have most of the aforementioned lamellar's problems, since their structures allowed them to be rigid and have a fixed, quite resilient shape that make these types of armors able to have almost all the benefits of the ones made with big and rigid plates.
On a practical and functional level, it is easier to understand why the Japanese retained their lamellar armors for such a long period (although it went into several changes through out history) before moving to plate: because their armors worked pretty well.
Unlike with western European armor history, in which is much easier to understand the transition from the flexible mail armor to the rigid plate armor, the benefits offered by plates weren't so neat when it comes to Japanese lamellar armor and it's quite clear to understand why there were few incentives to develop a new structure when the old one worked so well (leaving the technology needed to smelt high quality large plates aside).
In addition to that, lamellar armor and the respective lacing system was the symbol of the warrior social class.
So on a sociological level, the colorful suit of armors were essentially part of the cultural identity of the Samurai, and the aesthetic of kozane was deemed to be a sign of nobility.
This two levels help to understand why lamellar prevailed for so long in Japan.
The transition to plate
An extremely important element required to create armors made of plates is the level of metal smelting technology. What is often said about plate armor development in Europe, is that one of the key feature needed was the ability to create large, high quality steel and iron plates. Although I don't argue with that idea, I would like to point out that this is not the main feature nor the primary cause of such development.
In any case, the Japanese didn't faced those problems , which is a myth often repeated on the internet. As I have written in my series about "Ancient Iron and Steel technology in Japan" they had the furnaces able to create such high quality plates very early in their history, and the process utilized to make large steel and iron ingots was already well established by the 14th century.
In fact, quite large iron and steel plates were used in Japan to make rigid armors as far as the 5th century with the tankō armor (短甲) . It is fair to point out that the plates used in that period wouldn't have been on par with the plates used 1000 years later in terms of quality, and like the lorica segmentata in Europe, these types of armor were replaced with a much easier to make version (lamellar in Japan, mail in Europe) but this is a topic for another article.
Relative big plates were also used in the Samurai age, and could be found in armor for the legs, arms, face and other auxiliary forms like the waidate plate of the Oyoroi.
Nanbokucho period - mid 14th century
Despite the few incentives and the high level of protection of Japanese lamellar armor, the first development of plate cuirasses in Japan during the Samurai age happened in the 14th century, during the Nanbokucho period (南北朝時代).
In the well known book Taiheiki ( 太平記 ) written during the mid 14th century, we could read the terms "kana dō" and "kara dō" respectively written with the characters " 金胴" and "空胴".
The first character could be translated as gold, but could also refer to metal, while the second means empty.
So it is assumed that these two words refers to an all metal clam shell cuirass devoid of laces (empty), unlike the traditional armors, and it is accepted that this armor was made with solid riveted metal plates, hinged at one or more sides.
This was a step towards the direction of two the most iconic forms of Tosei Gusoku, the Okegawa and Mogami Dō of the 16th century. In fact it was theorized by Y. Sasama that this type of construction was the forerunner of the aforementioned armors, but unfortunately there are no survivals.
It is not a surprise that the first step in this direction happened in the wars of 14th century within this period there was a shift from mounted archery and light infantry warfare to heavy infantry and heavy cavalry based combat, and although arrows were still the most effective killer , polearms of various types and sizes were widely used, so the laces of the lamellar armors could effectively be damaged in the long run, by weather or edged weapons. This was the biggest limit of traditional Japanese armors (and any type of lamellar armors), and having large, sturdy riveted plates eliminated the problems of laces.
Ōnin war period - mid to late 15th century
After the Nanbokucho period, armor developments slowed down due to the long period of peace.
However, with the outbreak of the Ōnin war and the beginning of the Sengoku period in the late 1470s, armorers had to face new&old problems .
The wars of this period started to be true military campaigns, and in the long run, laced armors, much more than in the 14th century, were deemed to be unsuited for these new types of conflicts. Quoting Sakakibara Kōzan from his masterpiece on Japanese armors,
These facts allowed the creation of a new type of lacing system, the sugake odoshi, which partially solved the aforementioned problems and also decreased significantly the amount of time required to lace an entire suit of armor, but is not the main focus of this article.
Another problem was that with the all country at war, the demand of armors increased drastically.
Lacing an entire board of saneita required a lot of time, and it was only the starting point.
In addition to that, repairing it if needed required time too, and when one of the vertically connected lamellae was broken, the whole ensemble or area was prone to disintegrate.
So the armorers of this period, thanks to the improvement of iron and steel working techniques, started to use slightly curved iron and steel plate called itamono (板物) almost universally in lieu of the old saneita, for the cuirass as well as for the tassets and sode (pauldrons).
To answer to the sociological needs of the Samurai, these plates were sometimes decorated with lacquering to resemble kozane or iyozaneita and due to this application, they are called kiritsukekozane (切付小札) or kiritsukeiyozane (切付伊予札).
These innovations were a throwback of the previous century Kanadō, and gave rise to the Mogami dō (最上胴) at the end of the 15th century.
The Mogami cuirass was made by well-forged iron or steel plates . A d ō made of rigid metal plates can of course not be opened that easily as when constructed of the more fexible kozane.
This lead to the adding of several hinges – located in four "axis", which results in four d ō segments and for this reason it is called a gomai d ō – which allow the rigid d ō to open easily.
It was a practical solution, each plate had their own small hinges at the two extremities, and the plate was connected by them to the other plates horizontally, while it was laced vertically by kebiki or sugakeodoshi with tomegawa knots in order to stand rigid and not telescope on itself.
The major difference from the armor worn earlier, like the Kana d ō , was an increase in the number of rows that encircled the torso from 4 to 5.
However, in order to answer to the lacing's problems aforementioned, occasionally these plates were riveted instead of being laced , just like the previous Kana dō whit this addition, a much more solid and rigid cuirass was created.
One drawback to the Mogami construction was that the small individual hinges were delicate and were easily damaged. Despite this they continued to be produced as long as armor was made. To counter this weakness, the small hinges were replaced by larger, longer ones that connected all the plates together. It was not long before the construction was simplified by fitting only one hinge under the left arm.
By this point, in between the 15th and 16th century, the Japanese had already access to clam shell d ō made with laminated plates.
Sengoku period - early to late 16th century
After the riveted and laced Mogami d ō began to spread in the various armies of the country, and a further development in iron and steel production, it didn't take long for the armorers to have new ideas.
Around the 1520s and the 1530s we start to se the early model of the famous O kegawa d ō (桶側胴).
An Okegawa-d ō was made of riveted bigger plates it was robust and relative easy to make and so it became quickly adopted from the late Muromachi period onwards. The difference between a riveted Mogami curiass is that such armors are hinged at four places, with smaller hinges, which makes them a four d ō sections. The Okegawa-d ō in turn is just hinged with one long hinge at the left side of the cuirass and so it is principally a nimai-d ō . The plates of an Okegawa-d ō can be arranged horizontally (yokohagi, 横矧) or vertically (tatehagi, 縦矧).
These new armors however, had also a different shaping, and were much more towards a globose shape to better deflect weapons.
With the Okegawa d ō, the production time of armors decreased and it is not a surprise to see that said armors were used both by high ranking Samurai as well as by normal foot soldiers.
It didn't take longer to make the next logical step in armor design using a full, single plate instead of a series of riveted plates.
The Okegawa as well as the Mogami could be considered two types of laminar armors, like the European Anime cuirass.
Compared to a breastplate made with a single plate, in theory, the laminar one is structurally weaker because the shock is absorbed by one smaller lame instead of a single plate, and each rivets is a potential failure point.
However, in practice the difference between the two types of armor is minimal, because part of the shock is still distributed among the various plates in fact, even in Europe, Anime cuirass were still used alongside the single plate design. In addition to that, laminar armors are much easier to repair compared to the ones made with one plate.
In any case, around the 1540s and 1550s we start to see the production of one plate breastplate, hinged at one side like the Okegawa.
These models are called Hotoke d ō ( 仏胴 ). This term, "Hotoke", is also used to describe an Okegawa do which is thickly lacquered, with a smooth face not showing any seams, and the words refers to the "unblemished Buddha". The armor underneath is either made of one plate or looks like if made of one plate.
Interestingly enough, within this period, we also have the first contact with European traders. This fact led various armor's historians to question themselves whether or not cuirasses made with one plate were influenced by Western armor.
One could see the Hotoke-d ō in the context of Nanban-d ō( 南蛮胴 - western style cuirass ) , quasi as a product of emulating these Western armors whose face is also made of one plate, and other could see it in the context of a further simplification of armors, namely quasi as the next logical step from the Mogami-d ō of laced plates over the Okegawa-d ō of riveted plates.
If I have to pick one of these versions, I'll go with the latter we knew that European armors influenced Japanese ones, and they were called with a specific name (Nanban), had a different shape and were likely to be first seen in Japan around the 1560s-70s, so the Hotoke style predate the hypothesis of direct influence.
While the concept of making larger plates was the leitmotif of the whole process of simplification started in the 15th century, both in cuirasses as well as in helmets.
In any case, around the 1570s and 1580s we see the final iterations of plate cuirasses in Japan.
The aforementioned Nanban d ō ( 南蛮胴 ) style was used by some Samurai some of these armors were directly imported from the European, although they were an extremely tiny minority (but this is a topic for another article), while the majority of the Nanban d ō were actually made by Japanese armorers.
At the end of the 1580s, the development of tosei d ō was completed, and various mixed styles with several possible iterations emerged in the last years of the Sengoku period.
Common misconceptions associated with the transition to plate armor in Japan
Even if this detailed version of mine could be seen in various books and papers about Japanese armors, and it could be shared by a good number of scholars, unfortunately it is not the mainstream one.
With the need of a very broad generalization in this field, a good number of misconceptions have been circulated around on the internet in order to explain the transition and development of tosei gusoku cuirasses even if there is plenty of material above, for the most curious, I'll try to debunk them
1) Japanese armorers started to use plate due to the presence of firearms in the 1540s.
As I have explained above, the usage of plates in Japanese armors could be dated as back as the 4th century, 14th century and late 15th century. Solid clam shell cuirasses were developed in the late 15th century, and likely there were already some early development in the 14th century, while early firearms didn't play any significant role up until the 1560s, as I have written here in my article about the real spread of gunpowder weapons in Japan .
It wasn't the so called gun paranoiato drive Japanese armor makers into plate, but the need of simplification in the production process.
Although it is fair to say that larger plates were better suited to withstand bullets than lamellar structures, so I do understand why such wrong correlation was made in the first place.
2) The Japanese armorers made tosei gusoku thanks to the inspiration of European armors.
While it would be wrong to underestimate the impact of Western influence into modern armor, it is equally wrong to find in them the starting point of Japanese armor development.
It is a common misconception to attribute the Okegawa, Hotoke and other styles of cuirass to the European, but in reality, Western armors were rare and didn't came into Japan prior to the late 1560s, while we start to see the aforementioned styles prior to that date as a result of a much more complicated economic process.
3) The Japanese were able to make tosei gusoku armor thanks to European's techniques and materials.
While I have already address the old myth of the Japanese iron being poor in quality , there wasn't any significant improvement brought by the Europeans, as far as any sources is concerned, to Japanese steel and iron industry: neither by techniques nor by any "magical superior steel" imported.
By the time the European arrived, the Japanese were already able to smelt high quality steel ingots large enough to make plates thanks to their own native blast furnace, in fact they were able to make their own Japanese made western style armors, and the process didn't change at all after the 1540s.
4) Tosei Gusoku were developed in the 16th century.
Although it is true that the final iterations were developed in the 16th century, the patterns as well as the structures and other minor details ( which I didn't mention in this article ) that make a Japanese d ō into a tosei d ō were already developed around the late 15th century.
If you managed to read it all until here, I wanted to seriously thank you for the time you dedicated to this long, very technical article.
Please feel free to share it, in order to remove these misconceptions on the internet, and for any question don't hesitate to use the comment section below!
Thank you so much, I hope you liked it!