Types And Uses of Medieval Armor

Published: 04th September 2008
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Mail

The earliest form of medieval armor -- mail (a.k.a. "chain mail") -- traces its origins back to around 500 BC. The Celtic people developed this kind of armor -- iron rings woven together into a protective garment -- and the Roman Army later copied this engineering to protect its soldiers. In the early Medieval Ages, armor craftsmen added discs, plates, and groin caps to standard mail gear to protect vulnerable areas. Leather coats, kneecaps, underarm protectors (a.k.a. "besagews"), and skullcaps (such as early forms of the bassinet) all provided critical support for soldiers as well.

As the Middle Ages progressed, however, advanced new weapons -- like the crossbow, battle-axe, long bow, and mace -- gained popularity among warriors, making mail and even plated mail far less effective at defense.

Plate Armor

The full body suit of armor that is typically conjured up when one imagines King Arthur at the Round Table didn't come into being all at once; rather, it evolved over hundreds of years to meet the latest technological advances in weaponry. After the advent of such weapons as hand cannon and crossbows in the 1500s, warriors began adding plated armor to their battle gear, shielding more and more parts of their body with steel.

As early firearms made their way onto the battlefield, armored knights responded by adding yet more protection and plating. In a sense, the Middle Ages saw a kind of "arms race"; as weapon strength increased, so did armor strength. By the 18th century, the firepower had become so devastating that even heavy suits of tempered steel armor were no longer sufficient to protect infantrymen.

Armor for Horses

Knights provided a kind of armor called "barding" for their steeds. This metal plate protection served a dual purpose. On the one hand, it provided practical resistance against all manner of firearms, swords, axes, maces, and the like. On the other hand, it served an aesthetic purpose. Gilded barding announced a knight's social position and served as a badge of ownership. Cavalry armor for the steeds included helmets, back plates, and central steel pieces.

Shields

The medieval soldier's shield armor likewise evolved over the course of the centuries to respond to developments in offensive weaponry. In the early Middle Ages, medieval warriors used wooden shields covered in leather (or other soft material). As advanced bows and weapons made their way onto the battlefield, however, soft shields proved ineffectual. Craftsmen began to incorporate iron and steel support in shield designs.

Shields also became status symbols, reflecting a given knight's social position, family heraldry, and other key identifying aspects. Some aristocrats and artisans decorated their shields with elaborate designs, jewels, and other adornments. The shield evolved to be much more than just a functional piece of defensive equipment. It became a key social signifier of rank. Interestingly, as the aforementioned "arms race" between plate armor and offensive weapons built to its climax during the late Middle Ages, shields became less and less common -- simply because they became redundant (and also because they were expensive and heavy to carry around).

Offensive Uses of Medieval Armor

While most people today think of armored pieces like helmets, chain mail, shields, and plating to be purely defensive mechanisms, these items, in fact, were often used to devastating effect as aggressive weapons. Well-trained knights would wield heavy shields as battering rams, engaging in complex military ballet. True, knights had their fair share of purely "aggressive" weapons, such as battle hammers, swords (which could weigh in at well over 35 pounds), lances, and maces. However, on the medieval battlefields during hand-to-hand combat, anything could become a weapon. A helmet designed merely to shield against blows to the head could, for instance, suddenly be transformed into lethal projectile in close combat.

The aesthetics and functions of medieval armor suits, shields, and defensive weapons varied widely, not just from decade to decade, but also from region to region. Styles came and went relatively rapidly; military historians can speak volumes about the evolution of European cultures simply by looking at how specific defensive artifacts spread from group to group throughout the Middle Ages.

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