Common Misconceptions about Medieval Arms and Armor
By Dirk H. Breiding
J.J. Medveckis Associate Curator of Arms and Armor
The Philadelphia Museum of Art
The field of arms and armor is beset with romantic legends, gory myths, and widely held misconceptions. Their origins usually are to be found in a lack of knowledge of, and experience with, genuine objects and their historical background. Most of them are utter nonsense, devoid of any historical base.
Perhaps the most infamous example is the notion that “knights had to be hoisted into their saddles with a crane,” which is as absurd as it is persistent even among many historians. In other instances, certain technical details that escape an obvious explanation have become the focus of lurid and fantastically imaginative attempts to explain their original function. Among these, the lance rest, an object protruding from the proper right side of many breastplates, probably holds first place.
The following text will attempt to correct some of the most popular misconceptions, and to answer some of the questions most frequently asked by the public during guided tours of the Museum’s arms and armor galleries.
Armor Was Worn Only by Knights – WRONG
This erroneous but common belief is probably a result of the romantic notion of the “knight in shining armor,” an image that itself harbors a host of further misconceptions. First, knights rarely fought alone, nor did medieval and Renaissance armies consist entirely of mounted knights. Although knights were the dominant force of most of these armies, they were invariably—and with time increasingly so—supported (and opposed) by foot soldiers, such as archers, pikemen, crossbowmen, and handgunners. During a campaign, a knight depended on a small host of retainers, squires, and attendants who lent armed support and looked after his horses, armor, and other equipment—not to mention peasants and craftsmen, who made the organization of a feudal society with its warrior class possible in the first place.
Second, it is wrong to assume that every nobleman was a knight. Knights were not born but created, by other knights, feudal lords, or sometimes priests. And, under certain conditions, people of non-noble birth could be knighted (although the knighting was often regarded as their admission into lower nobility). On some occasions, mercenaries or civilians fighting as ordinary soldiers could be knighted for exceptional displays of courage and valor, while in later times a knighthood could be bought.
In other words, it was by no means an exclusive right of the knight to wear and fight in armor. Foot soldiers such as mercenaries, or groups of retainers comprising peasants, as well as burghers, also participated in armed conflict and accordingly protected themselves with armor of varying quality and extent. Indeed, the burghers (of a certain age, and above a stipulated wealth or income) of most medieval and Renaissance cities were expected—an expectation often enforced by laws and decrees—to acquire and keep their own arms and armor. Usually this would not be a complete suit of armor, but comprised at least a helmet, a body defense in the form of a mail shirt (2008.245 ), fabric armor, or breastplate, as well as a weapon such as a spear, pike, bow, or crossbow. In times of war, these militia forces were required to defend the city or do military service for feudal lords or allied cities. During the fifteenth century, as some wealthy and powerful cities became more independent and confident, even burghers organized their own tournaments for which, of course, they would have worn armor.
Accordingly, not every piece of armor was once worn by a knight, nor can every person depicted in an artwork wearing armor be identified as a knight. A person in armor should more correctly be referred to as a man-at-arms or man in armor.
Women Didn’t Fight in Battle or Wear Armor – WRONG
There are several references to women participating in armed conflict from most periods of history. While some evidence is available for noble ladies-turned-military commanders, such as Countess Jeanne de Penthièvre (1319–1384), there are only scattered references to women from lower levels of society taking up arms. Nevertheless, some are recorded as having fought in armor, although no contemporary illustrations showing any of them actually wearing armor appear to have survived.
Joan of Arc (ca. 1412–1431), probably the most famous example of a female warrior, is reputed to have had a suit of armor commissioned for her by the French king Charles VII. Yet only one small illustration of her, undoubtedly drawn during her lifetime, has come down to us, showing her with a sword and banner but not dressed in armor. The fact that contemporaries apparently perceived women leading an army, or even wearing armor, as something worth recording at least in writing indicates that such a sight must have been an exception rather than the rule.
Armor Was Expensive and Only Nobility Could Afford It – WRONG
This idea may stem from the fact that much of the armor on exhibition in institutions like the Metropolitan Museum represents equipment of especially high quality, while much of the plainer arms and armor of the common man and lower nobility has been either relegated to storerooms or lost over the centuries.
It is true that, unless looted from a battlefield or won in a tournament, the acquisition of armor would have been a costly affair. However, as there are certainly differences in the quality of armor, there also would have been differences in price. Armor of low to medium quality, affordable to burghers, mercenaries, and lower nobility, could be bought, ready-made, at markets, trading fairs, and in urban shops. On the other hand, there were also the high-end, made-to-measure products of the imperial or royal court workshops, and of famous German and Italian armorers . Armor made by some of these celebrated masters represented the highest art of the armorer’s craft and could cost as much as a king’s ransom.
Although examples of the price of armor, weapons, and equipment are known from several periods in history, it is difficult to translate historical monetary value into modern terms. It is clear, however, that the value of armor ranged from low-quality or outdated second-hand items quite affordable to citizens and mercenaries, to the cost of an entire armory of an English knight, the contents of which were valued in 1374 at over £16. This was equivalent to about five to eight years of rent for a London merchant’s house, or over three years’ worth of wages for a skilled laborer, a single helmet (a bascinet, probably with aventail) being worth the purchase price of a cow.
At the upper end of the scale, we find examples such as a large garniture (a basic suit of armor that, through the addition of further pieces and plates, could be adapted for various purposes both on the battlefield and in different types of tournament) commissioned in 1546 by a German king (later emperor) for his son. For this commission, the court armorer Jörg Seusenhofer of Innsbruck received on completion a year later the enormous sum of more than 1,200 gold coins, equivalent to twelve times the annual salary of a senior court official.
Armor Was Extremely Heavy and Rendered the Wearer Immobile – WRONG
An entire suit of field armor (that is, armor for battle) usually weighs between 45 and 55 lbs. (20 to 25 kg), with the helmet weighing between 4 and 8 lbs. (2 to 4 kg)—less than the full equipment of a fireman with oxygen gear, or what most modern soldiers have carried into battle since the nineteenth century. Moreover, while most modern equipment is chiefly suspended from the shoulders or waist, the weight of a well-fitted armor is distributed all over the body. It was not until the seventeenth century that the weight of field armor was greatly increased in order to render it bulletproof against ever more accurate firearms. At the same time, however, full armor became increasingly rare, and only vital parts of the body, such as the head, torso, and hands, remained protected by metal plate.
The notion that the development of plate armor (completed by about 1420–30) greatly impaired a wearer’s mobility is also untrue. A harness of plate armor was made up of individual elements for each limb. Each element in turn consisted of lames (strips of metal) and plates, linked by movable rivets and leather straps, and thus allowing practically all of the body’s movements without any impairment due to rigidity of material. The widely held view that a man in armor could hardly move, and, once he had fallen to the ground, was unable to rise again, is also without foundation. On the contrary, historical sources tell us of the famous French knight Jean de Maingre (ca. 1366–1421), known as Maréchal Boucicault, who, in full armor, was able to climb up the underside of a ladder using only his hands. Furthermore, there are several illustrations from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance depicting men-at-arms, squires, or knights, all in full armor, mounting horses without help or instruments such as ladders or cranes. Modern experiments with genuine fifteenth- and sixteenth-century armor as well as with accurate copies have shown that even an untrained man in a properly fitted armor can mount and dismount a horse, sit or lie on the ground, get up again, run, and generally move his limbs freely and without discomfort.
There are a few exceptional instances when armor was extremely heavy or did indeed render its wearer almost “locked” in a certain position, such as armor for certain types of tournaments. Tournament armor was made for very specific occasions and would have been worn only for limited periods of time. The man-at-arms would have mounted his steed with the aid of his squire or a small step, and the last pieces of his armor could then be donned after securely sitting in the saddle.
Knights Had to Be Hoisted into Their Saddles with Cranes – WRONG
This notion appears to have originated during the late nineteenth century as a joke. It entered popular fiction during the following decades, and the image was finally immortalized in 1944 when Sir Laurence Olivier used it in his movie Henry V—despite the protestations of his historical advisors, who included the eminent authority Sir James Mann, Master of the Armouries at HM Tower of London.
As outlined above, most armor is neither so heavy nor inflexible as to immobilize the wearer. Most men-at-arms would have been able to simply put one foot in a stirrup and mount their horse without assistance. A stool or perhaps the help of a squire would have made the process even speedier; a crane, however, was absolutely unnecessary.
How Did Men in Armor Go to the Toilet? – UNCERTAIN
This is one of the most popular questions, especially among the Museum’s younger visitors, to which, alas, there is no definitive answer. When the person wearing armor was not engaged in warfare, he would simply do what people do today. He would make his way to a toilet (in medieval and Renaissance times usually referred to as a latrine, or garderobe) or some other secluded location, remove relevant parts of his armor and clothes, and heed nature’s call. Being on the battlefield must have been a different matter. In this case, we do not know the answer. However, we should keep in mind that, in the midst of battle, going to the toilet probably ranks among the least of one’s worries.
The Military Salutes Originates from the Raising of a Visor – UNCERTAIN
It is sometimes argued that the military salute originated during the Roman Republic , when assassinations were common and citizens were required to approach public officials with their right hand raised in order to show that they did not conceal a weapon. A more common account is that the modern military salute originated from men in armor raising the visors of their helmets before greeting their lord or comrades. This gesture would have made a person both recognizable as well as vulnerable, at the same time demonstrating that the right hand (i.e., the sword hand) did not carry a weapon, both being signs of trust and good intention.
Although these theories are compelling (and romantic), there is actually little evidence to support either of them as the direct origin of the modern military salute. As for the Roman practice, it would be virtually impossible to prove that it continued through fifteen centuries (or was revived during the Renaissance), leading in a straight line to the modern military salute. There is also no direct evidence for the visor theory, although it is more recent. The majority of helmets for war after around 1600 were increasingly of types not fitted with visors, and helmets became rare on European battlefields after about 1700.
Be that as it may, English seventeenth-century military records indicate that “the formal act of saluting was to be by removal of headdress.” By about 1745, an English regiment, the Coldstream Guards , appears to have amended this procedure, being instructed to “clap their hands to their hats and bow as they pass by.” This practice was quickly adopted by other English regiments and may have spread from England to America (via the War of Independence) and Continental Europe (through the Napoleonic Wars). Accordingly, the truth may lie somewhere in the middle, with the military salute originating as a gesture of respect and politeness parallel to the civilian custom of raising or tipping one’s hat, possibly in combination with the warrior’s custom of showing an unarmed right hand.
It Was “Chain Mail”, Not “Mail” – WRONG
Defensive garments composed of interlinking rings should correctly be referred to as “mail” or “mail armor” (14.25.1540 ). The common term “chain mail” is in fact a modern pleonasm (a lingual mistake meaning “the use of more words than are necessary to express an idea”: in this instance, both “chain” and “mail” refer to an object made of interlinking rings). In short, the term “chain mail” is saying the same thing twice.
As with so many misconceptions, the origins of this misnomer are to be found in the nineteenth century. When early scholars of armor looked at medieval artworks, they noticed what they thought to be depictions of many different forms of armor: rings, chains, bands of rings, scales, small plates, etc. With poetic license, all early armor was referred to as “mail,” distinguished only by its appearance, hence the terms “ring-mail,” “chain-mail,” “banded mail,” “scale-mail,” “plate-mail,” and so forth. It is today commonly accepted, however, that most of these different depictions are actually various attempts by artists to efficiently show the surface of a type of armor that is difficult to render both in paint or sculpture. Rather than showing each interlinking ring, the small links were stylized by dots, slashes, S-shapes, circles, and the like, which readily lent themselves to misinterpretation.
It Took Forever to Put on Armor – WRONG
To give a definitive answer to this question is impossible for several reasons. First, hardly any evidence survives that would provide a complete picture for any given period. Scarce evidence is available from the fifteenth century onward as to how armor was ordered, in what time the order was completed, and how much the parts or entire armor cost. Second, a complete armor could comprise elements made by several specialized armorers. Pieces might also be held in stock half-finished and then fitted for a specific commission. Finally, the matter is complicated by regional and national differences. Throughout the German-speaking lands, most armorer workshops were controlled by strict guild regulations , which limited the number of apprentices, and thus had a direct effect on the number of pieces that could be produced by one master and his small workshop. In Italy, on the other hand, no such regulations existed, and workshops could accordingly be much larger, which undoubtedly must have enhanced speed and quantity of production.
In any case, one must bear in mind that the production of arms and armor was a thriving business throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Armorers, blade smiths, gun makers, crossbow and bow makers, and fletchers were found in every large town. Then as now, their market was regulated by supply and demand, and time-efficient work must have been an essential part of a successful business. The commonly encountered myth that “it took years to make a single mail shirt” accordingly is nonsense (which is not to deny, however, that mail making was an extremely labor-intensive occupation).
The answer to this question is therefore perhaps as simple as it is elusive. The time it took to make armor depended on several factors, namely, who ordered the work, from whom the work was commissioned (i.e., how many people were involved in the production, and how busy the workshop was with other commissions), and finally, what quality of armor was asked for. Two famous examples may serve to illustrate this point. In 1473, Martin Rondelle, probably an Italian armorer working in Bruges, who called himself “armorer of My Lord the Bastard of Burgundy,” wrote to his English client, Sir John Paston. The armorer informs Sir John that he can make the requested suit of armor as soon as the English knight tells him what pieces he requires, in which fashion, and when the armor must be completed (unfortunately, no time frame is given). In court workshops, the production of garnitures for a princely client appears to have required more time. It apparently took the court armorer Jörg Seusenhofer (and a small number of assistants) about one year to complete a horse armor and a large garniture commissioned in November 1546 by King (later Emperor) Ferdinand I (1503–1564) for himself and his son, and delivered in November 1547. We do not know whether Seusenhofer and his workshop were also working on other commissions during that time.
The Lance Rest and Codpiece Explained
There are two details of plate armor that appear to spur public imagination more than any other feature: one is often referred to as “that thing sticking out from the right of the breast,” while the other is usually only mentioned under a hushed giggle as “that thing between the legs.” Arms and armor terminology knows both objects as the lance rest and the codpiece.
The lance rest appeared soon after the emergence of the solid breastplate in the late fourteenth century and remained in use until the decline of armor. Contrary to what the English term “lance rest” seems to imply, however, its foremost purpose is not to take the weight of the lance. Its actual purpose is two-fold and somewhat better described by its French term “lance arrest” (arrêt de cuirasse). It allows the mounted warrior to hold the lance firmly couched under his right arm, thus “arresting” or stopping it from sliding backward. This serves to stabilize and balance the lance, permitting a better aim. Furthermore, the combined weight and speed of horse and rider are transferred onto the point of the lance, making it a most formidable weapon. If the target was hit, the lance rest also acted as a shock absorber, preventing the lance from “shooting” backward, and dispersing the impact via the breastplate all over the upper body, rather than leaving it concentrated on the right hand, wrist, elbow, and shoulder. It is noteworthy that on most field armors, the lance rest can usually be folded upward so that it would not impede the mobility of the sword arm, after the lance had been discarded.
The history of the armored codpiece is closely related to its counterpart in civilian male costume. From the mid-fourteenth century onward, male garments for the upper body had occasionally become so short as to almost reveal the crotch. In these times prior to the development of trousers, men wore leggings tied to their undergarment or a belt, and the crotch was hidden with a flap secured to the upper inside edge of each legging. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, this flap began to be padded and thus visually emphasized. As such, the codpiece remained commonplace in European male costume until the end of the sixteenth century. On armor, the codpiece as a separate piece of plate defense for the genitals appeared during the second decade of the sixteenth century and remained in use and fashion until about 1570. Thickly padded on the inside, it is attached to the armor at the center of the lower edge of the skirt. While its early form was rather cuplike, it remained under direct influence of civilian costume, and later examples are somewhat more pointed upward. It was, however, not typically worn with armor for use on horseback; first, because it would get in the way, and second, because the armored front bow of the war saddle usually offered enough protection for the groin area. Thus the codpiece is usually found on armor used for fighting on foot, both in war and tournament, and, although of some protective value, it has always been as much an element of fashion as one of defense.
Viking Wore Horns on Their Helmets – VERY UNLIKELY
One of the most enduring and popular images of a medieval warrior is that of a Viking , made immediately recognizable by his helmet adorned with a pair of horns. There is, however, little evidence to suggest that Vikings ever used horns as decoration for their helmets.
The earliest use of a pair of (stylized) horns as a crest appears to be the small group of helmets surviving from the Celtic Bronze Age, particularly in Scandinavia and the area of modern-day France, Germany, and Austria. These crests were embossed out of bronze, and could take the shape of two horns or of a flattened triangular profile, sometimes both. These helmets probably date to the twelfth or eleventh century B.C. Two thousand years later, from about 1250 onward, pairs of horns again became popular throughout Europe and remained one of the most widely used heraldic crests on helmets for battle and tournament alike during the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It is easy to see that neither of these periods coincides with the period usually associated with the Scandinavian raids of the late eighth to the late eleventh century.
Helmets used by Viking warriors were usually of conical or hemispherical shape, sometimes made from a single piece of metal, sometimes constructed of segments held together by connecting metal lames (Spangenhelme). A number of them appear to have been fitted with a face defense. The latter could be in the form of a simple metal bar extending over the nose (nasal), or a faceplate comprising a nasal with additional protection for the eyes and upper cheekbones made of plate, or finally, a full protection of the entire face and neck made of mail.
Armor Became Obsolete Because of Firearms – LARGELY TRUE
Generally speaking, the above statement is correct as long as it is stressed that it was the ever-increasing efficiency of firearms, not firearms as such, that led to an eventual decline of plate armor on the battlefield. Since the first firearms appear to have been in use in Europe as early as the third decade of the fourteenth century , and the gradual decline of armor is not noticed before the second half of the seventeenth century, firearms and plate armor coexisted for more than 300 years. During the sixteenth century, attempts had been made to render armor bulletproof, either by hardening the steel or, more commonly, by thickening the armor or adding separate reinforcing pieces on top of the normal field armor.
Finally, it should be noted that armor as such has never become entirely obsolete. The ubiquity of helmets worn by today’s soldiers and police forces are proof that armor, although of different materials and having perhaps lost some of its earlier importance, is still an essential part of martial equipment around the world. Moreover, even body defenses have lived on in the shape of the experimental breastplates of the American Civil War, the breastplates of airplane gunners during World War II, and the bulletproof vests worn today.
Armor Size Shows Medieval and Renaissance People Were Smaller – GENERALLY TRUE
Medical and anthropological research demonstrates that the average height of men and women has gradually increased over the centuries, a process that, for reasons of progressively better diet and public health, has accelerated during the past 150 years or so. The majority of surviving armors from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries appear to confirm these findings.
However, when trying to affirm such generalizations from armor, a number of factors need to be carefully considered. First, is the armor complete and homogeneous (i.e., do all parts belong together), thereby giving an accurate impression of the height of the original wearer? Second, even a high-quality armor, made to measure for a particular owner, can provide only an estimate of its former wearer’s height with a margin of at least an inch or two (2–5 cm), since the overlap of the protections for lower abdomen (skirt and tassets) and thighs (cuisses) can only be approximated.
Indeed, armor comes in all shapes and sizes, such as armor for children or young men (as opposed to that for adults), and there are even armors made for dwarfs and giants (often found at European courts as “curiosities”). Moreover, then as now, other general factors have to be taken into account, such as differences in average body height between northern and southern Europeans for example, or the simple fact that there have always been people who were exceptionally tall or short when compared to their average contemporary.
Among the famous exceptions are royal examples such as Francis I, king of France (r. 1515–47), or Henry VIII, king of England (r. 1509–47). The latter’s height of about 6 feet (180 cm) was commented upon by his contemporaries, and can be verified by the more than half-dozen of his armors surviving today (two of them in the Metropolitan Museum).
For an interesting contrast in the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Arms and Armor, compare the (composite) German harness of about 1530 and the field armor attributed to Emperor Ferdinand I (r. 1556–64), of about 1555 (33.164 ). Neither armor is complete, and the sizes of the former owners are necessarily broad estimates, yet the differences in size and stature are remarkable: while the owner of the first armor was probably around 6 feet 4 inches (ca. 193 cm) tall, with his chest measuring about 54 inches (137 cm) in circumference, the owner of the latter harness, probably Emperor Ferdinand, does not appear to have measured more than about 5 feet 7 inches (170 cm) in height.
Only Knights Were Allowed to Carry Swords – WRONG
As with the wearing of armor, not everyone who carried a sword was a knight. But the idea that the sword is an exclusively “knightly” weapon is not entirely wrong. The custom, or even the right, to wear a sword varied according to time, place, and changing regulations.
Throughout medieval Europe, swords were the chief weapon of knights and mounted men-at-arms. In times of peace, however, generally speaking only noblemen were allowed to carry a sword in public. Since in most regions swords were regarded as “weapons of war” (as opposed to the dagger, for example), peasants and burghers, not belonging to the “warrior class” of medieval society, were forbidden to carry swords. An exception to this rule was granted to travelers (citizens, merchants, even pilgrims) due to the inherent dangers of travel by land and sea. Within the walls of most medieval cities, however, the carrying of swords was generally prohibited for everyone—sometimes even nobility—at least during times of peace. Standardized measures for the trade, usually attached prominently to medieval churches or city halls, often also included examples of the permissible length of daggers or swords that could be carried inside city walls without fear of penalty.
It is undoubtedly due to such regulations that the sword was transformed into an exclusive symbol of both the warrior class and knightly status. Yet, due to social changes and newly evolved fighting techniques during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it became gradually acceptable for civilians and noblemen alike to carry the lighter and thinner successor of the sword, the rapier, as an everyday weapon for self-defense in public. Indeed, until the early nineteenth century, rapiers and smallswords became an indispensable dress accessory for the European gentleman.
Swords Were Heavy and Crude Weapons – WRONG
It is a common notion that the sword of medieval and Renaissance times is an unsophisticated instrument of brute force, excessively heavy, consequently almost impossible to be wielded by a “normal” man, and thus a rather inefficient weapon. The reasons for these allegations are easily explained. Due to the rarity of genuine specimens, few people have ever handled a medieval or Renaissance sword. Furthermore, practically all of these swords—with rare exceptions—are in excavated condition. Their corroded appearance today, which can easily give the impression of crudity, can be compared to that of a burnt-out car, having lost all signs of its former glory and sophistication.
The majority of genuine medieval and Renaissance swords tell a different story. Whereas a single-handed sword on average weighed 2–4 lbs., even the large two-handed “swords of war” of the fourteenth to the sixteenth century rarely weighed in excess of 10 lbs. With the length of the blade skillfully counterbalanced by the weight of the pommel, these swords were light, sophisticated, and sometimes beautifully decorated. As illustrated by documents and works of art, such a sword, in the hands of a skilled warrior, could be used with terrible efficiency, capable of severing limbs and even cutting through armor.
Swords Were “Grooved” for Blood and Poisons – WRONG
Swords as well as some daggers, whether European, Islamic , or Asian , often have one or more grooves extending down one or both sides (or faces) of the blade. Misconceptions as to their function have led to these grooves being called “blood grooves” or “blood channels.” It is commonly believed that these grooves would speed the flow of blood from an opponent’s wound, thus ensuring a more severe or fatal injury, or that they would break the suction on the blade created by the opponent’s wound, which would make the removal of the weapon easier and a twisting of the blade unnecessary. As misguidedly “entertaining” as these gory theories may be, the actual function of such a groove or grooves is simply to lighten the blade, decreasing its mass, without weakening the blade or diminishing its flexibility. Consequently, such grooves should correctly be referred to as either a groove or a fuller, or by another appropriate technical term.
On a number of European edged weapons, such as swords, rapiers, and daggers as well as some staff weapons, these grooves show elaborately cut and pierced perforations. Similar perforations can be found on Indian and Near Eastern edged weapons. It has been proposed, based on scant documentary evidence, that these perforations served to retain poison in order to ensure an opponent’s death. This misconception has also led to such weapons, especially the daggers, being labeled “assassin’s weapons.” Although references to poisoned Indian weapons exist, and there may have been similar but rare incidents in Renaissance Europe, the actual function of these perforations is unsensational. First, the perforations resulted in a loss of material and accordingly served to make the blade lighter. Second, these perforations are often arranged in delicate decorative patterns, serving both as a demonstration of the bladesmith’s skill as well as an aesthetically pleasing decoration. If further proof is wanted, one only need point to the fact that the majority of these perforations are usually found near the hilt (grip and guard) of the weapon and not closer to the blade, as one would expect were the weapon to carry poison.
Originally published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, republished with permission under an Open Access license.