Leather Armor in the Middle Ages – Fact or Fiction?!

Most video games that are set in a medieval environment rank armor in a clear hierarchy. First, the protagonist starts out with leather armor, then he gets textile armor, then chainmail, and last but not the least he gets the – supposedly – most effective plate armor. But leather armor also commonly appears in movies.

Because of that, I would like to dedicate this article to answering the question of whether or not leather armor was used in the Middle Ages.

Leather armor was not used in the Middle Ages since leather offers basically no protection against stabs and blows and only very limited protection against cuts and slashes. Leather was sometimes used as a carrier material for metal, for example in a brigandine. Lamellar armor, small plates of thick rawhide (not leather) that were stitched together, was used in Scandinavia, but especially by the Mongols.

Let`s take a closer look!

But first a small disclaimer: I will only be talking about medieval Europe in this article, other regions of the world and their types of armor will not be debated. Ok, but let`s now get into it and start with the most important point.

The leather armor made from soft leather that is shown in movies and video games as well as studded leather armor did not exist in the Middle Ages since it offered no protection against stabs and only very limited protection against cuts and slashes. I mean let`s face it. A material that can be cut with a knife and punctured with an awl needle does not make for good armor! And no, a couple of metal studs that are sprinkled over the leather do not improve the protective qualities of the leather.

The idea of studded armor is most likely a misinterpretation of a brigandine, a real piece of medieval armor.

Brigandines used leather or thick cloth as a carrier material for steel plates. These steel plates were riveted to the inside of the carrier material (leather or cloth) and sometimes covered with a second layer of cloth. Remember, the leather does not provide protection. Only the steel plates that are riveted to the inside of the leather offer protection not the leather itself!

The advantage of such a Brigandine over a full suit of plate armor was, that the steel plates needed for a brigandine were much smaller and as such easier to produce. Additionally, the Brigandine was easier to produce in general.

Speaking of plate armor. Have you ever asked whether or not knights were the only ones wearing plate armor? Then I would like to recommend you my article here where I talk about just how common plate armor was on a late medieval battlefield.

Ok. So the biker gear made from soft leather that many movies and video games try to sell as authentic medieval armor has nothing to do with real medieval armor and was not used in the Middle Ages!

However, there were types of medieval armor (or pieces of medieval armor) that consisted of leather. But the leather that was used for such real medieval armor was not the normal soft leather, but hardened leather.

The development from mail armor to plate armor started in the 14th century and resulted in a lot of experimenting with different armor designs. During that time, boiled leather (so-called cuir bouilli) was worn as protection for legs and arms. It is unclear how exactly cuir bouilli (Boiled leather) was produced in the Middle Ages. However, the cuir bouilli was still not the main protection (chainmail was) but was used to distribute the impact of the blows and stabs.

Speaking of material worn in combination with chainmail to soften the impact of stabs, thrusts, and blows. Have you ever asked yourself what a knight wore under his armor? Then I would like to recommend my article here where I also talk about why some knights chose to not wear any padding under their chainmail.

Aside from cuir bouilli, Lamellar armor was also used, not just in medieval Europe but all around the globe. Especially the Mongols used Lamellar armor, but it was also used to some extent in Scandinavia and the Baltics.

Lamellar armor consisted of small segments of tough and thick rawhide that were laced together. Especially the Mongols, but also people all around the globe, used that quite flexible type of armor. However, Lamellar armor also doesn`t have anything to do with the leather armor that is usually shown in movies and video games.

So it shows that actual soft leather was never used for armor in the Middle Ages.

But unlike leather, chainmail was used extensively and was very popular not only in the Middle Ages but also in Antiquity. There were 5 reasons why chainmail was popular for so long.

But that is a story for another time.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


Quita Mould: Leather in Warfare Attack, Defense, and the Unexpected (Leeds 2017).*

David Nicolle: A companion to medieval arms and armor (Woodbridge 2002).*

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