Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

The Function of Armor in Medieval and Renaissance Europe

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Although today appreciated as works of art or as examples of historical technology, it must be noted that all armor, whether used in warfare, tournaments, or parades, once had a "working lifetime." Often these objects have been subjected, literally, to extreme "wear and tear." Therefore, no matter how well armor may be displayed in museums today, its original use and function can be difficult to convey.


Not only was a weapon's point or cutting edge deflected by its "glancing surface," on impact it would also absorb some of the blow's energy. No armor, however, could guarantee complete invulnerability.

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Cited Works of Art or Images (4)

  • A kneeling knight in mail armor, from the Westminster Psalter
  • Tomb Effigy of Walter von Hohenklingen
  • Coat Armor (jupon) of Charles VI of France
  • Leather arm defense, for the right arm

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In medieval and Renaissance Europe, not all armor was made of metal plate. Mail armor, a mesh of interlinking metal rings sometimes erroneously referred to as "chain mail," probably originated over 3,000 years ago. It remained the dominant form of body armor from long before the Migration period (ca. 400–600) until well into the fourteenth century. In western Europe, the development of plate armor for the body began in the thirteenth century and progressed throughout the fourteenth century. Aside from steel, plate armor was also made of leather, some of which was hardened by boiling in wax or oil (cuir bouilli). In addition to mail and plate armor, some European knights and men-at-arms wore armor made of fabric, many-layered and heavily quilted body armor known as a gambeson (worn under mail and early plate armor), or a jupon (worn alone or over a mail shirt). During the fifteenth century, plate armor became the dominant form of protection, and by about 1500 had all but displaced mail and fabric armor or relegated them to secondary functions such as protecting the joints and easily exposed areas of the body. Nevertheless, in all times a complete armor invariably consisted of a mixture of different materials.


Most plate armor is not as heavy as is commonly believed. A fully armored knight was expected to be able to mount and dismount unaided. The image of a knight being hoisted into the saddle with a crane stems from Hollywood and is complete fiction.


Different materials afforded different protective qualities and were thus employed in various ways. Mail armor, for instance, protects well against any cutting movements, including that of a stray lance or arrow. But when worn as the main source of protection, mail necessitates an underlayer of quilted fabric, which would not only make it more comfortable but also cushion and protect against the impact of a strike. Armor made of fabric to some extent could offer both these qualities, but the combination of plate armor and mail or fabric offered the best protection. Not only was a weapon's point or cutting edge deflected by its "glancing surface," on impact it would also absorb some of the blow's energy. No armor, however, could guarantee complete invulnerability.


The process of putting on a full suit of armor usually began with the legs, followed by the upper body and arms; the helmet and gauntlets were donned last. Mail armor was worn on top of quilted leggings and quilted garments of differing length. For plate armor, the knight or man-at-arms wore a specially fitted and padded garment called an arming doublet. Individual pieces of armor could be tied to the arming doublet where needed by arming points, ribbons, or strings attached to the doublet.

Dirk H. Breiding
Department of Arms and Armor, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A kneeling knight in mail armor, from the Westminster Psalter, ca. 1250
By permission of the British Library
British Library, London
Tomb effigy of Walter von Hohenklingen, ca. 1386
Courtesy of the Swiss National Museum, Zurich (AG-125)
Swiss National Museum, Zurich

The effigy of Walter von Hohenklingen, an imperial knight killed at the battle of Sempach, depicts in minute detail the mixture of protective materials worn at the end of the fourteenth century. Note especially the following features: the mail shirt protruding from under the padded jupon, the mail neck protection (aventail) under a similarly padded cover, and the pieces of plate armor (breastplate, gauntlets, and strapped-on leg defenses), as well as the detached visor belonging to his helmet (bascinet) and the reinforcing plate strapped in front of his tournament helm (Stechhelm).

Coat Armor (jupon) of Charles VI of France, late 14th century
Chartres Cathedral/Musée des Beaux-Arts de Chartres
Image courtesy of the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds
Defense for the right upper arm, second half of 14th century
Leather
Inv.No. MLA 56,7-1,1665
The British Museum, London

This arm defense was probably found in London and is the only extant example of its kind. It is made of leather, which was presumably hardened by boiling it in wax or oil. It would have been strapped around the biceps on top of a mail shirt or protective undergarment to which it would have been laced at the top. It is decorated in cut and stamped relief with foliage and grotesque beasts.