The knight in his full suit of plate armor is probably among the first things we imagine when thinking about the Middle Ages. And for good reason! Not only were these suits of plate armor highly effective in keeping the knight safe, but they are also a lasting testimony to the craftsmanship of the medieval armorers.
But how long did it take to produce such a suit of plate armor?
Most plate armor was produced in the workshops of cities like Nuernberg, Milan, and Toledo that had specialized in the production of plate armor. Full suits of plate armor could be produced extremely quickly. In 1427 the armorers in the city of Milan produced enough plate armor within a couple of days to outfit 4000 cavalrymen and 2000 infantrymen! That armor was used to outfit regular soldiers and low-grade men-at-arms. But even the custom-made suit of plate armor of a knight could be produced within a few days by the armorer and his assistants.
Let`s take a closer look at why plate armor could be produced so quickly!
While plate armor is probably the first type of armor we imagine when thinking about a medieval knight it was only developed in the Late Middle Ages. For most of the Middle Ages knights wore mail armor. There are 5 reasons why mail armor was so popular for so long.
Only during the Late Middle Ages these suits of chainmail were developed into Plate armor.
However, plate armor was not only worn by knights. Cheaper, often painted plate armor was also worn by regular late medieval soldiers and mercenaries since plate armor could actually be produced at a much lower price than chainmail.
But there were obvious differences between the plate armor a late medieval knight would wear and the plate armor a late medieval regular soldier would wear. One of these differences was that the knight`s plate armor was grinded and polished until it was mirror bright while the plate armor that was used by regular soldiers was usually left rough from the hammer.
Needless to say that it took much longer to produce custom-made plate armor for a knight than to produce low-grade standardized plate armor that was worn by regular late medieval soldiers and mercenaries.
Speaking of the production of plate armor. The suits of plate armor were usually not produced by some local blacksmith. Instead, there were large centers that specialized in the almost industrialized production of plate armor.
One example of such a center of late medieval armor production is Nuernberg. Specialized businesses produced steel plates so that the armorers (the craftsmen who actually built the plate armor) could order plates with the right thickness, get them delivered to their workshop, and focus on building the plate armor.
Aside from Nuernberg, the cities of Landshut, Augsburg, and Innsbruck were large centers of armor production in the Holy Roman Empire, while Milan was a major center of armor production in Italy. Toledo was the center of armor production on the Iberian peninsula.
These centers were famous for their production of plate armor and evidence of the workshops exists to this day.
Speaking of the Holy Roman Empire. Have you ever asked yourself why it was called the Holy Roman Empire despite being neither Roman, nor Holy, nor an Empire (as a common joke among Historians goes)? Then I would like to invite you to read my article here.
When it comes to England, then it`s a different story. While we have English Plate armor, we do not have the names of the late medieval English workshops that produced the armor. Instead, it seems like much of the English plate armor was produced in Flanders and then imported.
The export and import of plate armor was actually quite common.
Especially the Northern-Italian city of Milan was famous, not only for the plate armor its workshops produced but also for the speed with which the Milanese armorers could pump out plate armor. In 1427 the armorers in the city of Milan produced enough plate armor within a couple of days to outfit 4000 cavalrymen and 2000 infantrymen!
However, that was low-grade plate armor like it was used by regular late medieval soldiers, mercenaries, and low-grade men-at-arms.
The kind of quickly produced plate armor that was used by regular late medieval soldiers was not custom-made but was produced in more or less standardized sizes.
However, knights and wealthy citizens of the late medieval cities would not be satisfied with such a standardized suit of plate armor. By the way, the citizen of the cities had to own plate armor. The degree to which their suit of plate armor had to be complete depended on their wealth, more on that here.
Instead, wealthy late medieval individuals wore custom-made plate armor that was not only more expensive but also took longer to be made.
There were basically two ways to order such a custom-made suit of plate armor that was tailored to the body of the bearer.
The first option was to hire an armorer, visit him several times, and have the plate armor produced. That way could be taken but was quite inconvenient.
Another way for a knight to get a customized suit of plate armor made to his measure was to order it in one of the centers of plate armor production (like Milan). First, the knight sent a set of clothes (clothes in the Late Middle Ages were pretty body-hugging) to the armorer in Milan. The armorer then produced the plate armor according to the measurements of the clothes he had received and sent both armor and clothes back to the customer when he was finished. The final adjustments were then made by a local armorer.
That combined the best of two worlds.
The knight got a custom-made suit of plate armor that was perfectly tailored to his body. And thanks to the almost industrialized production of plate armor in the cities that specialized in armor production, plate armor could be produced quite cheaply and quickly.
Even the custom-made suit of plate armor of a knight could be produced within a few days by the armorer and his assistants. There were several reasons why plate armor could be produced so fast. First, the armorers bought steel plates from suppliers and didn`t produce the steel plates themselves. Second, thanks to water-powered hammers these steel plates could be shaped relatively fast.
That is actually one of the few advantages plate armor has over chainmail. Here you can find out more about why plate armor was only introduced relatively late while chainmail had been popular for much longer.
Ok, so now we talked a lot about plate armor. But what did such a suit of plate armor weigh? And was a suit of chainmail heavier or lighter than a suit of plate armor? You can find the surprising answer to these questions in my article here.
And if you have ever asked yourself whether or not the leather armor that is often portrayed in video games (you know, the biker gear) was really used in the Middle Ages, I would like to recommend you my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Alan Williams: The knight and the blast furnace (2003).*
David Nicolle: A companion to medieval arms and armor (Woodbridge 2002).*
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