Medieval armor offered a great level of protection. Yet, when we look at a medieval suit of plate armor then one thing immediately attracts attention. While basically the entire body is covered by plate, one very specific part of the body – the groin – does not have any dedicated armor as protection. So in the following, I would like to explain why armoring the groin was so difficult in the Middle Ages and what knights used to protect their groin.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the Hauberk, a shirt of chainmail that hung down to the knees, was the main protection for a knight`s groin. In the 14th century, some armorers added a long, narrow stripe of mail on the backside of the Hauberk that could be pulled through the legs and attached to the front for additional groin protection. In the Late Middle Ages, Faulds and Culets (pieces of plate armor) were developed to protect the groin.
Let`s take a closer look and start by looking at why it was so hard to armor the groin.
The problem with medieval groin armor
It seems kind of odd that such an important area like the groin seems to be mostly unprotected by medieval armor.
But it actually makes sense.
Medieval armor was designed in a way that limited the mobility of its wearer as little as possible. But that meant that certain parts of the body that needed to move freely (like the armpits, the inside of the elbows, and the groin) could not be protected with additional layers of armor without limiting the mobility of the knight.
But separate groin protection was also not that high on the priority list since the already worn armor also protected the groin (more on that in a moment) and the knights also fought in a way that reduced the risk of injuries to the groin.
I mean when a knight fought on horseback, he basically had the body of the horse to stop any attacks on his groin. And when a knight fought on foot then he was still aware of the weak points of his armor. In that case, he would take extra caution to cover his groin through his fighting style.
I actually wrote an entire article showcasing how hard it was to kill a knight in his armor despite the armor having less protected parts. And here you can find my article with more information on the effectiveness of medieval knights in battle.
Ok, so let`s now look at the ways the armor that a knight wore in battle already protected his groin without any additional dedicated armor pieces.
Protecting the groin with chainmail
Not only did the used types of armor change over the course of the Middle Ages, but so did the protection for the groin.
The Hauberk, a knee-long shirt of mail, was used by knights in the Early & High Middle Ages. Since it was knee-long it also offered adequate protection for the groin. At that point in time, there was no additional groin armor since it would have drastically limited the mobility of the knight in his armor.
There were also so-called chausses, leggings made of chainmail that were worn as leg protection. These chausses reached above the knee and ended somewhere in the middle of the thigh. So they as well didn`t offer any additional protection for the groin. And especially during the Early Middle Ages, these chausses (leggings made of mail) were quite rare since they were expensive. They only became common among knights in the 12th century, and after 1200 AD, almost every knight wore chausses.
As a result, most of the Normans depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry showing the Norman conquest of England only wear Hauberks and only a minority of the Normans wear chausses for additional leg protection. Once again the price of these mail leggings was probably the reason for that.
Shirts of mail were already very expensive and if a knight did not have the cash for both his shirt of chainmail and the chausses (leggings made of chainmail), then he chose the shirt of chainmail since it protected more of the body.
However, when chausses were worn, they – just like chain mail in general – offered good protection against cuts and slashes, but only limited protection against the blow of a mace or war hammer.
But despite their effectiveness against cuts and slashes, the chausses still didn`t protect the groin.
As a result, armorers started to experiment with different designs of armor to add protection to the groin. In the 14th century, some armorers added long, narrow strips of mail to the backside of the Hauberks. These strips could be pulled through the legs and attached to the front of the Hauberk so that they offered at least some additional protection. And in the 15th century, mail breeves were developed that looked like tight, short boxershorts when put on.
But there were also attempts made to use plate armor as a dedicated protection for the groin.
Protecting the groin with plate armor
Unlike chain mail, plate armor is less flexible. And that made it hard to cover parts of the body that had to move freely for the knight to be able to move without any limitations. Because of that, plate armor had several weak points like the armpits, the inside of the elbows, and the groin (that were usually covered with chainmail).
Attacking these less well-protected weak points was one of the two ways a knight in full armor could be killed. Here you can find out more about both ways.
Despite the disadvantages of plate armor, there were still some pieces of plate armor that were specially designed to protect the groin. Faulds and Culets were pieces of plate armor that consisted of overlapping horizontal lames of metal so that they could collapse, which allowed the knights to mount their horses despite wearing them. But the longer the Fauld and the culet were, the more they limited the mobility of the knight. As a result, many faulds and culets were too short to protect the groin. So even at the time that plate armor had become common, chainmail was still used as the main protection for the groin.
That also had other benefits, especially when a knight in full armor had to answer natures call. Have you ever wondered whether or not a knight could visit the bathroom without having to take off his armor? You can find the answer in my article here.
I hope you enjoyed our trip to the Middle Ages.
If you want to find out more about medieval warfare and how medieval battles worked, then I would like to recommend you my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
David S. Bachrach: Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012).
Malte Prietzel: Krieg im Mittelalter (Darmstadt 2006).