The knight in his shining armor is probably the first thing most of us imagine when thinking about the Middle Ages. But was armor really exclusively worn by knights?
Not only knights wore armor! In the Late Middle Ages, even regular soldiers and mercenaries wore more or less complete suits of mass-produced plate armor that only cost between 4 and 6 monthly wages of a craftsman. So while the quality of a knight’s plate armor was better, mass-produced plate armor was common on the battlefields of the 15th century. Most soldiers in the High Middle Ages had to rely on padded textile armor since chainmail was expensive and mostly worn by knights.
Let`s take a closer look!
Throughout the Middle Ages, both the design and the price of armor changed quite drastically. While the coats of chainmail that knights wore especially during the Early and High Middle Ages were highly effective, they were also quite expensive since the production of chainmail was a time-consuming process.
In the Late Middle Ages, Plate armor was developed. And due to the development of entire industries and the use of water-powered hammers, plate armor soon started to become much cheaper and more affordable. That was not the case in the Early and High Middle Ages when armor (chainmail) was much more expensive and rare.
Especially the men of the levy who made up the bulk of the medieval armies could usually not afford chainmail and had to rely on their shield as protection. However, medieval shields were quite effective and much more than just a couple of boards that were quickly nailed together! So even knights who could afford chainmail used the shields as their main defense and the mail armor as the last line of defense and a lifesaver.
It is actually quite hard to name the price of medieval chainmail, but some sources indicate that a Hauberk (a shirt of chainmail) cost the same as six oxen. Needless to say that that was too expensive for most soldiers. So in the High Middle Ages, mercenaries and soldiers who could not afford chainmail would rely on textile armor like the Gambeson. Here you can find out more about the effectiveness of the Gambeson compared to chainmail and plate armor.
So (mail) armor was rare on an early medieval battlefield. That changed in the Late Middle Ages when mass-produced Plate armor became more affordable.
Since the Plate armor of the Late Middle Ages was much cheaper than the chainmail of the Early and High Middle Ages, even mercenaries and the citizens of cities (who had to defend their city) could afford a more or less complete suit of plate armor depending on their wealth.
Let`s look at the city of Frankfurt am Main as an example.
Carpenters who lived in the late medieval city of Frankfurt am Main and who had a fortune of more than 30 Gulden (roughly 1 year’s pay) had to own a helmet, a breastplate, neck armor, armor for the arms, and Gauntlets (gloves). Patricians had to own a complete suit of plate armor!
By the way, while plate armor was cheaper than chainmail it needed way more maintenance. Here you can find out more about the maintenance of medieval armor and how knights prevented rust on their armor.
However, just because plate armor got cheaper and more affordable that does not mean that there were no differences between the armor of a knight and the armor of a regular soldier. The knights wore more expensive plate armor that was usually tailored to them. And unlike the mass-produced cheaper plate armor, the plate armor of a knight was polished! In contrary to that the cheaper plate armor was often painted.
The more or less complete suits of mass-produced plate armor were pretty common among regular soldiers and mercenaries in the Late Middle Ages since such a quickly produced suit of plate armor only cost between 4 and 6 wages of a craftsman.
Do you want to find out more about the pay of medieval soldiers and how that pay compared to the pay of regular craftsmen? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
And here you can find out more about the diet of a medieval soldier.
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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