The brave and virtuous knight in his shining armor is probably one of the most iconic images of the Middle Ages. But is it actually a true image? Was medieval armor really polished?
Many medieval sources and images show mirror-bright polished plate armor. The mirror-bright armor should not only intimidate the enemy, but polishing armor also prevented it from rusting. A mirror-bright, polished armor also represented the courage, strength, and virtue of the knight and was generally associated with the knightly class. Contrary to that, plate armor used by regular late medieval soldiers was not polished but painted.
Plate armor was actually quite common among late medieval soldiers. Yet unlike the mirror-bright plate armor of the knightly class, their mass-produced plate armor was of lower quality and often painted.
Let`s take a closer look!
Was medieval armor polished?
When the talk about the question of whether or not medieval armor was polished, then we only talk about the plate armor of the Late Middle Ages since polishing chainmail is kind of impossible. But even though chainmail could not be polished to prevent it from rusting, mail armor was still extremely popular for most of the Middle Ages. There were 5 reasons for the popularity of chainmail!
However, there are a lot of late medieval depictions that show plate armor that is so well polished, that the surrounding environment is mirrored on the plates! And there are also written sources talking about the need for well-polished plate armor. One example of that is the „Ritterspiegel“ (Mirror of chivalry), which was written by Johannes Rothe in 1415. The Ritterspiegel (Mirror of chivalry) is comprised of 4108 verses and is the most comprehensive knightly primer in German. In it, the author Johannes Rothe also talks about the ideal condition of a knights` armor.
In the „Ritterspiegel“ (Mirror of chivalry), written in 1415 by Johannes Rothe, the author explains that the armor of a good knight has to be polished so that neither rust nor grime can be found on it. According to Johannes Rothe, a well-polished mirror-bright armor does not only intimidate the enemy, but it is also a sign of the virtue, strength, and courage of the knight.
So keeping the armor well-polished was not only important for the maintenance of the armor, but also for the reputation of the knight within the armor! A rusty, dirty armor would have drastically reduced the reputation of the knight.
Speaking of rusty armor. Have you ever wondered how knights prevented their iron chainmail and plate armor from rusting? Then I would like to recommend you my article here!
Ok, so polished armor was important. But how did knights polish their armor in the Middle Ages?
How was armor polished in the Middle Ages?
As mentioned, polishing the armor was not only important for the maintenance and longevity of the armor but also for the knights’ reputation. A dirty or rusty armor would have hurt the knights’ reputation but would have also reduced the effectiveness of the armor.
Polishing plate armor was its own profession in the Late Middle Ages! Originally, these craftsmen used wooden tools with felt and a sort of polishing soap/wax to polish the armor. Later they also used large wooden abrasive wheels that were powered by water power and also had felt and some sort of polishing soap/wax on them.
So yes, the armor that knights wore in the Late Middle Ages was so commonly polished that well-polished armor was even associated with the knightly class.
That, however, does not mean that every late medieval plate armor was polished. The bulk of late medieval plate armor was not worn by knights, but by regular soldiers and mercenaries since plate armor had become pretty affordable.
That kind of mass-produced plate armor of lower quality was not polished but was usually brightly painted to prevent rust.
Preventing rust was generally one of the most tasks when handling armor in the Middle Ages. And it was actually one of the situations in which chainmail was way superior to plate armor.
But that is a story for another time. Please check out my article here for more information on how chainmail and plate armor were prevented from rusting in the Middle Ages (and why chainmail was superior to plate in that regard)
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).*
Alan Williams: The knight and the blast furnace (2003).*
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