For more than a thousand years, chainmail was king of the battlefield, worn by chiefs as a symbol-in-metal of their might. Then, the high medieval era saw an explosion of new styles and types of experimental armor amidst the unleashed power of burgeoning kingdoms. Plate armor emerged victorious — birthing an age of the highest form of the armorer’s craft. The evolution of medieval armor was a complex mix of technological innovation, social change, and shifting symbolism, and its story reveals the deep undercurrents of medieval history.
Medieval Armor: The Age of Chainmail
Chainmail emerged in Iron Age Central Europe in the first millennium BCE, the invention of cunning Celtic metalsmiths. Early chainmail was likely made from bronze, and later iron –— and when the Republican Romans encountered chainmail-wearing Celts in the 3rd century BCE, like every good empire, they shamelessly stole the idea. The “Roman” (or, really, Celtic) pattern of chainmail became widespread across Europe: it consisted of alternating rows of round wire rings and stamped flat rings to save on labor.
It was used mainly as armor for auxiliary troops, non-Roman levies called foederati, as well as for cavalry. Unlike Roman plate armor, which required the large-scale division of labor in slave-manned Imperial workshops, chainmail could be made on a relatively small scale by an armorer and a handful of apprentices. As the Roman Empire grew to its most overstretched extent, Roman military governors began employing “barbarian” foederati more and more as primary troops to police border regions, and thus chainmail more or less wholly eclipsed plate armor in the Late Roman Empire.
Maille and Status
With the fragmentation of the Roman Empire, the enormously interconnected networks of trade that permitted Roman plate armor to be made were replaced by the much more localized production of chainmail for early feudal elites. However, the Roman style, characterized by alternating round and flat rings remained dominant; surviving early post-Roman chainmail was likely made outside of Roman influence, but it still bore clear Roman stylistic influences.
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In these fragmented post-Roman polities, metal armor represented an enormous investment of time, effort, and material wealth in societies that revolved around the payment of food rent. Since every miner, metalworker, smith, and apprentice represented another pair of hands who could not be put to work in the fields, a suit of fine maille was an enormous statement: look ye upon my wealth and despair. Only the wealthiest lords would have been able to equip their retainers with suits of maille. The court documents of Charlemagne (r. 800 – 828 CE) illustrate this wonderfully – the first Holy Roman Emperor’s proclamations placed a ban on the sale of fine brunia (chainmail armor) to foreigners, and the rolls of inheritance show that chainmail was frequently passed down from one generation to the next.
Consequently, most Early Medieval levies would have been outfitted in stout local textiles (usually linen and wool) and equipped with a wooden shield — easily the most effective form of cheap medieval armor, that could defend its wielder from thigh to neck. But even ordinary levies would have been equipped with helmets, which, for most of the early medieval period across most of Europe, followed the spangenhelm pattern: an iron-banded skullcap, with or without a simple nasal defense projecting from the brim.
Medieval Warfare Comes of Age
This relative scarcity of metal medieval armor began to change during the High Medieval era (c. 1000 – 1250 CE). The High Medieval era (the time of the Norman conquest of England and the first Crusades) saw the emergence of the first large unified states since the collapse of the Roman Empire, as well as a significant population boom. This allowed for much larger militaries, as well as the industrial specialization required to support significant metalworking operations.
Chainmail armor expanded from the short-sleeved, waist-length byrnie of the Early Medieval period to the full-length hauberk that covered the wearer from knee to wrist. The Bayeux Tapestry clearly shows a significant number of Norman and Saxon troops in full maille hauberks, and modern historical estimates suggest that as many as 20,000 men took part in the Battle of Hastings in 1066 CE. While the vast majority of soldiers were still likely equipped with little more than stout clothing and wooden shields, the number of troops wearing effective metal armor on any given battlefield would likely have been in the hundreds or low thousands rather than the dozens.
During the Crusader period (1099-1291), chainmail armor developed to its greatest extent: the full-length hauberk was augmented by a coif (hood), chausses (leggings), sabatons (foot coverings), and mitons (mitten-gauntlets) all made from maille. Knights now frequently wore the great helm, enormous barrel-shaped steel helmets that were worn over layers of maille, padding, and a metal skullcap — which provided great defense but was extremely uncomfortable! Western Knights in the Holy Land also quickly adopted local dress in order to stave off heatstroke, wearing flowing light fabrics over their armor. When they returned to the West, these ‘surcotes’ set off the fashion for wearing a bright coat bearing one’s coat of arms.
The Crisis of Chainmail and “Transitional” Armor
By the end of the High Medieval era, two factors began to drive experimentation with new forms of medieval armor: the increasing insufficiency of chainmail, and the development of sophisticated iron production processes. The high medieval era birthed some of the most powerful weaponry seen on the battlefield to date. Crossbows that could fire heavy piercing bolts, war-hammers with pick points, and couched lances wielded by riders with firm stirrups all proved an existential threat: these weapons could pierce, burst, and split chainmail.
At the same time, the emergence of blast furnace technology meant that much larger quantities of iron and steel of a more consistent quality were available than ever before. Though blast furnaces had been used in China since the first millennium BCE, their appearance in Northern and Central Europe in the 13th century CE, at sites like Nya Lapphyttan in Sweden and Dürstel in modern Switzerland, marked a significant change for ferrous metal production and created the precondition for widespread use of steel in weaponry, tools, and Late Medieval armor.
Massacre at Visby
Thus, armorers, knights, and soldiers began to experiment with alternatives to chainmail around the start of the 1200s CE. Some of this was likely systematic, but a lot was probably done as a matter of ad-hoc experimentation! Historians refer to these as “transitional armors”, since they were part of an experimental interregnum between the supremacy of chainmail and the supremacy of plate armor. The “coat of plates” was created by sewing or sticking metal plates into the lining of the knight’s colorful surcote, the forerunner to the Late Medieval brigandine armored jacket. The Battle of Visby in 1361, on the Swedish island of Gotland, saw a well-equipped Danish army massacre a force of local Gotland’s farmers. The Danish dead were buried rapidly in boggy ground, wearing cutting-edge medieval armor. The finds from the battlefield at Visby are among some of the best-preserved from the transitional armor period and include coats of plates worn over round-ringed chainmail, and even early examples of much more effective maille made from stamped steel rings.
Other examples of transitional medieval armour include “splint-mail”, which was created by reinforcing tough cloth or leather clothing with steel bars or “splints”. Debate rages over the “Valsgärde splint armor”, which appears to be an early set of splint-mail armor dating from the 7th century CE — but we are certain that splint-mail was used from the 13th century CE. For example, this detail from an early 15th-century depiction of the Crucifixion at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, shows a gentleman in a blue hat with splinted leather vambraces and rerebraces (forearm and upper-arm armor).
It is only in this era that leather began to be used commonly on the battlefield, despite what Early Medieval-inspired films and TV might portray! Medieval leather was generally far too prone to cracking or rotting, and was too difficult to mend to be much use as hard-wearing field armor — it was almost always only used for secondary functions, like belts, pointing (laces), weapon sheaths, and shoes.
Plate is King
By the end of the 14th century, medieval plate armor was being produced on a large scale for the first time since the Roman Empire. The fact that plate armor re-emerged in this period tells us a lot about the degree of interconnected trade networks that were required for the production of this kind of armor; it required the significant division of labor and a much greater degree of urbanization, as well as strong and stable states which could guarantee trade over long distances.
Plate armor was not initially made into whole “suits” — although we lack much documentation that could tell us about the specific process of commissioning, producing, and delivering armor in this era, it seems that armorers began to make cheap breastplates and helmets, known as “black armor” for their unpolished forge scale, that could be bought “off-the-shelf” by even the wealthier townsfolk, as well as individual commissions for fine pieces of armor for aristocrats.
Armor as Fashion
While networks of aristocrats had always been to some degree trans-national in the High Medieval period, by the Late Medieval era (after 1250 CE), the high families of Europe were deeply interconnected and maintained regular correspondence. There emerged a pan-European armor culture in the first years of the 15th century, with different “schools” of medieval armor.
These were not mere fashions (although the latest trends were always highly contested), they were also design philosophies put forward by fine armorers. Knights began to discard their brightly-colored surcotes to show off their fine armor. The Italian style of plate armor, like this example at the Met Museum, embraced wide expanses of polished “white” plate, with curved and rounded shapes to deflect blows away from the body and deliberate asymmetry to better defend the wearer in a tournament or on the field. Gothic armor, on the other hand, was sharp and angular, creating a narrow-waisted silhouette, and using a signature “fluting” technique to ridge and strengthen the plate — Maximilian I’s field armor from the late 15th century is an example of archetypal Gothic medieval armor.
The Impact of Plate
Plate armor revolutionized warfare. Now, the battlefield was dominated by small (but increasingly large) numbers of heavily-armored mounted elites who were near-impossible to stop. Swords, spears, and most other ordinary infantry weapons were more or less useless against a fully-armored knight.
Poorly-armed troops could overwhelm a lone knight by sheer weight of numbers, dragging them from their horse, pinning them down, and using knives to slip into their weak-points, at the armpit or groin — but that wasn’t always possible. Instead, it drove another round of innovation in warfare. Swords got narrower and longer, resembling enormous needles, used for searching out vulnerabilities, or they became enormously outsized like the German Zweihander, for battering plated opponents into submission with sheer percussive force.
Specialist anti-armor pole weapons like the halberd developed so that levies could be outfitted against well-armored knights, with a hook to unhorse and a spike to puncture armor. By the 16th century, armorers began to mass-produce “munition armor”, cheap and effective articulated half-armor suits for infantry that could be used to instantly outfit a town militia or mercenary company. And, of course, gunpowder weapons that would ultimately spell doom for plate-based medieval armor began to be widely adopted from the 15th century onward.
Medieval Armor: Playing at Knights
The irony is that, just as plate armor was reaching its zenith in the Renaissance, its actual field use was becoming obsolete. Light cavalry tactics and the increasing prevalence of gunpowder weaponry meant that heavy horsemen in shining armor were increasingly anachronistic, a throwback to an imagined feudal past of chivalry and honor on the battlefield.
Much of what we think of as medieval armor was invented right at the end of the Late Medieval era when aristocrats constructed their heritage on the tournament field in suits of armor that were spectacular, but wildly impractical for actual military use. Some examples of plate armor from the 16th-century show attempts at bullet-proofing, with extra layers and interchangeable extra-thick plates, but these were ultimately futile. By the middle of the 17th-century, plate armor was mostly entirely ceremonial, with all light troops having discarded plate armor almost entirely, and with breastplates retained only amid a handful of light cavalry units. The age of medieval armor was at an end.