The Writer’s Guide to Medieval Armor: Part 2

I hope you enjoyed last week’s post on armor myths because I am covering some more this week.

As always, magic is the exception to the rules. Because magic.

Leather Armor

Fantasy seems to be in love with leather armor. You can see it from “Vikings” to “The Lord of the Rings” to Dungeons & Dragons. But how prevalent was it during the Middle Ages? An extremely heated debated is raging online.

What we do know is that boiled leather was quite common in medieval Europe and was used to make protective cases for books and delicate instruments such as astrolabes. As for its use in making armor, there are multiple examples of leather limb armor but few of leather torso armor. There are reports of starving soldiers eating their shields and other leather kit like Josephus’ account from the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD and advice from a medieval Arab author on coating leather armor with crushed minerals mixed with glue to made it tougher. It is believed the term “cuirass,” referring to armor covering the torso, comes from the French term cuir bouilli, meaning boiled leather. We have few physical examples of medieval leather torso armor but there is uncertainty whether that is due to its scarcity or because they rotted away.

Compounding the problem is a lot of misidentification of armor in medieval paintings. Much of what is thought to be leather or studded leather is in fact brigandine, a type of armor made up of small metal bands or plates riveted to an outer layer of cloth, canvas or leather. In short, the debate still rages. [1]

Detail of a medieval painting showing a crossbowman in brigandine with plate limb armor. Photo source.
Medieval painting depicting a soldier in brigandine. Photo source.

Expense

The price of armor of course depended on the type, quality, and time period. I will be detailing cost of specific types of armor in their own posts. I will however provide you with some highlights to give you an idea.

Mail during the 12th century cost around 100s. [2] A complete set of knight’s armor in 1374 was valued at £16 6s 8d. Armor owned by the Duke of Gloucester in 1397 was worth £103. [3] A suit of ready-made Milanese armor (meaning it wasn’t tailored) in 1441 was priced at £8 6s 8d while squire’s armor cost £5-6 16s 8d. [4] In 1590, a cuirass of proof (indicating it had been tested against the strongest weapons of the time) with pauldrons would run you 40s while one that had not been proofed would cost 26s 8d. For comparison, a cuirass of pistol-proof with pauldrons in 1624 was priced at £1 6s. [5] For more information as well as medieval prices for many other items, I recommend this website.

Social Class Limitations

There is a common belief that only knights wore armor. Obviously, the cost would limit who could acquire certain types but we have evidence of non-knightly people owning various types of armor. In fact, it was sometimes the law. In England in 1181 it was mandatory for every freeman who owned goods valued at 10 marks (1 mark = 13s 4d) to have a mail shirt, helmet, and spear. Any freeman poorer than that was required to own a spear, helmet, and gambeson. During the 15th and 16th centuries, soldiers in full plate made up 60-70% of the French army and the percentages were probably similar in other countries. [6] Brigandine was popular with outlaws and highwaymen because it was cheap and easy to make and repair. We also have a lot of artwork from the medieval period showing soldiers in various forms of armor. As you can see in the painting below depicting the 15th century Battle of Crécy, everyone is wearing armor, including the English archers who were commoners and weren’t even worth enough to ransom.

A 15th century painting depicting the Battle of Crécy. Photo source.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2020 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boiled_leather
[2] The Knight in History, Frances Gies, Harper & Row, New York, 1984
[3] Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages, Christopher Dyer, Cambridge University Press, 1989
[4] English Weapons & Warfare, 449-1660, A. V. B. Norman and Don Pottinger, Barnes & Noble, 1992 (orig. 1966)
[5] The Armourer and his Craft from the XIth to the XVIth Century, Charles ffoulkes, Dover, 1988 (orig. 1912)
[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plate_armour

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