The Development of Medieval Armor Over Time

The Development of Medieval Armor Over Time Part 1

German, after Albrecht Dürer, Knight, Death and the Devil, 1500s, engraving on cream laid paper, Gift of Robert F. Johnson, 1994.300

This German engraving on paper from the 1500s shows the classic image of a knight fully dressed in a suit of armor. Literature from the Middle Ages (or “Medieval,” i.e., the 5th through 15th centuries) was full of stories featuring knights—like those of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, or the popular tale of Saint George who slayed a dragon to rescue a princess.

Paolo Veneziano, St. George, mid-1300s, tempera on panel, Museum Purchase, 1927.19.4a

However, knights of the early Middle Ages did not wear full suits of armor. Those suits, along with romantic ideas and images of knights, developed over time. The image above, painted in the mid 1300s, shows Saint George the dragon slayer wearing only some pieces of armor.

Southern German or Austrian, St. George and the Dragon, 1480–1490, lindenwood with traces of paint, The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection, 2014.1

The carving above, created around 1485, shows Saint George wearing a full suit of armor.

European, Mail Shirt, 1400s-early 1500s, iron, The John WoodmanHiggins Armory Collection, 2014.842.2

The first type of armor worn to protect soldiers was mail armor, commonly known as chainmail. Mail was made by hand, weaving interlocking rings of iron into a pattern of protective mesh. Artisans weaved the mail into a variety of attire: shirts, leggings, and hoods.

Arms and Armor Objects on Display for a Program

An early knight would have additional equipment to protect himself. Under his mail, a knight would wear a light, padded garment, which goes by different names: a gambeson, aketon, wambais or panzeri. The purpose was twofold: to prevent chaffing of the mail against the body, and to provide further protection.

A shield was also used. While shapes varied, the triangular type is popularly associated with knights. (Our shield here is upside down so it can stand!) Helmets were worn to prevent head injuries.

Italian, "Mezza testa" (skullcap), about 1490–1500, steel, The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection, 2014.1056
Sudan, Helmet, 1800s, russeted iron with gilding, The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection, 2014.91
English, Helm, 1800s, iron, The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection, 2014.1126

The 5th through 12th centuries saw round or conical, open-faced helmets. Sometimes a nose guard or a mail curtain was included to protect the face from slashes. Helmets that covered the whole head developed between the late 12th and 14th centuries. These helmets, often worn while riding horses, offered limited vision and were removed when fighting on foot to see better. Helmets with brims were popular for foot soldiers, or infantry, as they added extra protection without covering the face.

German, Basinet Helm with Aventail (mail hood) and "Dog-Faced" visor, about 1360–1370, steel, iron and brass with modern leather, cord and restorations, The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection, 2014.842.1
Southern German, "Sallet" Helmet, 1480–1490, steel, The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection, 2014.1146.1
Northern Italian, Milan, Close Helmet for Field and Tournament, about 1550–1570, etched steel with traces of gilding, The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection, 2014.1124

•By the 14th century, the basinet, a helmet with a moveable visor, developed. The visor pictured here was called “Dog-faced!”

•By the 15th century, the sallet became the most popular helmet for combat. Note that it has a projection to protect the neck.

•In the 16th century, the close helmet developed. The close helmet covered the entire head and had a visor that lifted. This helmet is often associated with knights today.

Egyptian/Ottoman, Persian, Mail Coat, late 1500s, iron and brass, 2019.9; Turkish, Kalkan (one-handed shield), 1800s, wood, iron, textile, leather and brass, 2014.86; Northern African , Sudanic region, Spear, 1800s, iron with etching, brass inlay and wood, 2014.3; North African, Sudanic region, Kaskara (sword), 1800s, steel, iron, wood, crocodile skin, and leather, 2014.67.1; North African, Sudanic region, Scabbard, late 1800s, tooled leather, fabric, brass, and iron, 2014.67.2. All objects from The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection

This outfit is a combination of mail, helmet and shield together, similar to that worn by early knights. It shows the armor worn in the Sudanese area of Africa by cavalrymen— soldiers on horses—between the 16th and 19th centuries. Mail armor’s main strength was its resistance to cuts from the edges of spears, axes and swords. However, mail was vulnerable to the hard force of impacts from weapons like maces and axes. Sharp, pointed weapons, such as spears, swords, and arrows could also pierce through mail.

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