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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Arms and Armor in Medieval Europe

European warriors of the early Middle Ages used both indigenous forms of military equipment and arms and armor derived from late Roman types. One of the most widely used types of helmet was the Spangenhelm. Body armor was usually either a short-sleeved mail shirt (byrnie), made up of interlocking iron rings, or a garment of overlapping scales of iron, bronze, or horn. Shields were oval or round and made of light, tough wood covered with leather. Metallic mountings lined the rims. A hole in the center of each shield was bridged by a hand grip inside and a shield boss outside. Weapons were the spear, sword, ax, and the bow and arrow.

At the height of the Middle Ages, Saint Anselm (ca. 1033–1109) listed the equipment of a knight: his war horse (which by the thirteenth century was protected by mail and fabric), bridle, saddle, spurs, hauberk (a long-sleeved mail shirt, sometimes with a hood, or coif), helmet, shield, lance, and sword. Toward the end of the twelfth century, a new flat-topped type of helmet with side plates, which hid the face of a knight, became popular. To distinguish friend from foe, the knight’s triangular shield was painted with identifying symbols. By 1200, mail for the legs, called chausses, was commonly worn by mounted warriors. Later, boiled leather or steel pieces protected the knees (kneecops), while small squares of the same hard materials covered the vulnerable shoulder joints (ailettes).

By the fourteenth century, the improved crossbow was able to pierce shields and mail armor. To counter this, knights first wore a poncho-like coat with small rectangular plates riveted to it, while articulated plate armor was developed for the legs, arms, and hands. The small, square, convex shield of the time (the targe) was eventually relegated to use in tournaments, since improved body armor made it unnecessary. A new form of helmet joined the all-encompassing great helm and the wide-brimmed chapel-de-fer (war hat). This was the more streamlined, close-fitting bascinet, with a curtain of mail (camail) from chin to shoulders, which frequently had a movable visor. By the late 1300s, solid breastplates first appeared to protect the chest as part of the short, tight-fitting coat of plates called a brigandine, while smaller plates covered the abdomen, hips, and back.

Within a few years, by about 1420, full head-to-toe plate armor was in use, completing the image of the knight in shining armor.