ARMOUR FACTS FOR FICTION
Warriors wear plate armour, thieves wear leather and wizards wear robes everybody who plays D and D knows that. Simple right, now let’s write a story set in England six hundred AD and have Uther come to Egrain in full plate, right? Wrong! In reality armour though the ages is a complex technology that evolved over thousands of years. It’s not static through time, nor is most of it restricted by profession though at times, in some cultures, some types were restricted to certain social classes.
Many examples of common misconceptions can be found with plate armour that in gaming is generally considered the best for medieval tech. In reality late period plate armour was amazingly flexible and mobile it was also heavy as heck and would bake in the sun. It was expensive and designed primarily for use by horsemen. In modern terms the mounted knight could be likened to a tank. While on foot a man in plate could move and could mount a horse without assistance, despite this the weight, seventy-five pounds, meant that he would tire quickly. One must also remember that under the iron shell the man would be wearing a padded gambeson. Picture wrapping yourself in a wool blanket covered by sixteen-gauge iron plate in the sun. Heat exhaustion was a common problem for the fighting men of the past.
Another problem with many forms of armour is the helmet. Most closed faced helms limit the fighter’s vision. Again they were designed with the joust in mind where you wanted the smallest eye slit possible to protect the eyes from flying splinters when a lance shattered. This problem extends back to some early period helmets. So if one is writing about a warrior in a helmet one should know which type of helmet and hopefully look at a picture of it and an example if possible to determine its strengths and drawbacks.
One should also remember that plate armour only existed for a short span of centuries reaching its zenith in the early sixteen hundreds. After this time improvements in firearms made plate armour obsolete.
The main defensive strength in plate armour didn’t come from stopping a blade but instead by deflecting the force of the blow. Thus it is common to see curved and or angled surfaces in solid armour. This also resulted in the popularity of several types of maces in the late middle ages, as they were more effective at battering through the armour.
The final drawbacks I will mention are that plate is hard to put on. It can take twenty minuets or more to put on a suit and without someone to assist with doing up the buckles ect it can’t be done at all. It was also expensive, taking months sometimes years of work to make a single suit. Each suit had to be custom made to fit, off the rack was not possible and making alterations took a lot of time and effort. Thus it was armour for the wealthy few.
Moving back in time a bit, though variations on chain-mail are still used today, we come to chain-mail.
This was heavy with most of the weight resting on the shoulders. It came in for categories. The best, each link was riveted then soldered. There is a marvelous example of this in the Middle Eastern exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum. The next level down was riveted links followed by soldered links ending with loose links that were just pushed together. This again was worn over a padded gambeson.
Chain was very effective at stopping a cutting edge but allowed the full kinetic force of the blow through to the person wearing it. Thus it stopped cuts but broken bones were still common. Given a middle-ages technology this probably saved a lot of lives by preventing infection, but in the heat of battle would have been of limited benefit.
Chain also allowed a high degree of mobility and some air circulation.
At this point I should mention the transition of chain to plate was not sudden and many highbred suits did exist.
Another bit of trivia is the origin of the term knitting where the ladies of the castle would sit with pliers and wirers making sheets of the lowest grade chain-mail. When the armour smith came round he would take these and cut them like fabric to form the main part of a suit then reinforce the most vulnerable areas with higher quality links to make a whole suit.
It adds a bit of a new spin on the phrase “Mind your knitting,” because your man’s life might depend on it.
For the purposes of brevity I’ll skip several generations of armour development like scale mail and chain linked plates. A trip to a museum or a tour of the library will tell you all you need to know about these. I’ll now focus of leather armour. This is not James Dean’s jacket. Generally, for leather armour you’d be looking at boiled ox hide shaped to fit its wearer. This stuff can be close to a centimeter thick and is about as flexible as a pine plank. Again it would be worn with an under-pad to lessen the force of blows.
In all these instances armour would be passed down from father to son. It was not uncommon for the less well off members of a campaign to be wearing armour that was a hundred years out of date. To be frank, it was not uncommon for the conscripted peasants to be wearing a quilted jacket their wives sowed for them or no armour at all. Caring for the common solders well-being has increased over the centuries. With their frequent use as human Ginny pigs in recent history that really says something about human decency over the ages.
Another thing to remember is that with each advance in armour there was a corresponding advance in weapons to counteract it.
In the present day we are dressing, at lest some of, our warriors in kevlar vests. So what happens? They come up with teflon bullets that penetrate the weave of the vest effectively poisoning the man they hit. This same process went on throughout human history.
The first armour was undoubtedly some guy wearing skins or maybe braches strung together with hide. Now they are experimenting towards suits that mimic Iron Man from the comic books. In all the principle remains the same to defeat the weapons tech of the day.
So when you’re writing a noble knight there are some questions to ask yourself.
When is your story? If he is a Celt from 150 BCE, he will probably fight in nothing but woad, blue paint that depending on how it’s made can have hallucinogenic properties. He might also wear leather armour, or if he is very important and rich they have found examples of chain-mail in Celtic burials. He will not have plate armour no matter how romantic you think it looks.
How much money does he have? If he is wealthy in the year 1600 he will probably have plate armour, but he may well choose to train in leather or chain to preserve the quality of his fighting suit. This could lead to some very cute meet scenes since many less well to do members of society would wear out of date armour as a matter of course.
What type of fighting is he engaging in? Armour that is well suited to horse can be completely inappropriate for foot combat. Sometimes a suite of armour that works well in a campaign setting with others to cover your flanks is worse than useless for individual conflict. Remember, the heavier the armour the harder to move and the slower to respond to threats.
Where is he? In this article I’ve focused on European armour. Other areas have had other armoring traditions. Know where your warrior is. This even applies to fantasy. I’ll address this in a moment.
Why is he dressing in tin? Armour is a response to weapon’s technology. Have some idea of what the armour is trying to defend against. If your knight is facing a repeating rifle an iron suit is worse than useless.
In a fantasy setting you have a lot more leeway than in a historical one where much is defined for you. Still, you must have an eye to consistency. Iron chain-mail in a Bronze Age society raises a lot of questions, though these can be dealt with. Such a suit would be viewed as magical. In short remember your technology level should be consistent. Your armour should reflect your society. Horseman’s plate is unlikely to be developed by people who live in a swamp. Advanced armour and weapons coming into an area from outside will likely be viewed as magical but may not be suited to the environment. A man fighting in mud is better off not sinking into it and getting stuck, thus heavy armour may be counter productive.
A final observation, no one but a masochist is going to where armour when they don’t have to because it is hot and uncomfortable.
Stephen B. Pearl AKA Lord Stephen Bruce of the principality of Ealdormere in the Society for Creative Anachronism is a Museum Junkie and writer. To find more about his works Please visit his website at: www.stephenpearl.com
or his blog at: http://www.draumrpublishing.com/forums/blog/stephen_b__pearl