When it comes to movies that are set in medieval times then we have all seen these scenes during which the main character cuts through his opponents’ armor like it is nothing. And while most of us will probably immediately recognize that these scenes as completely unrealistic one question still remains.
How effective was medieval armor? The answer to that question will be presented in the following article. But since there is no such thing as medieval armor but different types of armor that were constantly improved and developed I would like to split these article into the 3 major types of medieval armor, the Gambeson, Chain Mail, and Plate armor.
Medieval armor was highly effective but did not make its bearer invulnerable. While gambesons offered good protection against cuts they were weak to stabs. Chainmail offered good protection against cuts and stabs but was expensive and offered little protection against blows that could break bones without piercing the armor. Plate armor offered excellent protection against stabs and cuts but was vulnerable to blows with a mace or thrusts with pollaxes.
It is generally important to state that there was a race between the development of new weapon technology and new types of armor that could withstand these newly created weapons.
Let`s find out more about the strengths and weaknesses of Gambesons, Chain mail, and Plate armor!
How effective was a Gambeson?
The Gambeson was a padded jacket made out of multiple layers of linen fabric that were quilted together and weighed around 17 lb (8 kg). The gambeson got its typical pattern from the quilting. It would usually be padded with scrap cloth, wool, horse hair, or on rare occasions cotton. A gambeson could either be worn under chain mail or plate armor but could also serve as a stand-alone armor.
Gambesons were comparatively cheap to manufacture although the entire process took several hundred hours. But that made it still cheaper than any other type of armor and as such gambesons were common among the foot soldiers that made up the majority of a medieval army.
An interesting fact about the gambeson is that contrary to the depiction in movies they were never made out of leather since leather, unlike multiple layers of linen, would not have offered any protection. And that brings us to the effectiveness of a gambeson.
Now one might wonder how effective a relatively cheap gambeson that was completely made out of linen and padding like horsehair or wool could actually be. A gambeson protected the bearer from cuts and blows or did at least lessen the damage but did not offer good protection against stabs or arrows. Especially the armpits were weak spots since that area could hardly be armored without severely limiting the mobility of the arms.
When it came to arrows then especially Botkin-arrowheads as well as the armor-piercing polygonal arrowheads could penetrate a gambeson. But despite that the gambeson would remain a cheap and yet pretty effective piece of armor throughout the Middle Ages and would later be worn under Chain mail and Plate armor or on its own.
But as weapon technology advanced the gambeson became more and more insufficient in offering protection. So let`s look at the next type of medieval armor, the chain mail.
How effective was Chain Mail?
Although Chain Mail is widely associated with the Middle Ages it has been used much earlier. Actual shirts of chainmail had already been used during the 4th century BC and the Romans would adopt the chain mail when they came into contact with their northern neighbors during the 3rd century BC. You can find out more about that and the Expansion of the Roman Republic in my article here.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire during the fifth century, the production of chainmail declined in Western Europe and made chain mail expensive so that during the Early Middle Ages only high-ranking members of society could afford a shirt of chainmail, the so-called byrnie (or hauberk). That changed during the 12th century when the byrnie, oftentimes worn over a gambeson, became the most important armor of a medieval knight.
Depending on the size of the rings a single byrnie (also called hauberk), a shirt of chainmail, could consist of up to 40,000 rings that all had to be intertwined with each other before each of the rings was (ideally) riveted to prevent the ring from splitting open when hit by an arrow. The production of one byrnie, a shirt of chain mail, could take up to one year!
Needless to say that that made chainmail the most expensive part of the equipment of a medieval warrior. Here you can find out more about how much the arms and armor (including the byrnie) of a medieval knight did cost.
But the result was worth it!
Chain mail offered excellent protection against cuts and decent protection against stabs. When worn over a gambeson, a padded jacket, a shirt of chainmail (also called a byrnie or hauberk) prevented Botkin arrows and other armor-piercing arrows from severely wounding the bearer. Its main weakness was blunt weapons like maces that did not cut the chainmail but could still break the bone below.
But that was usually better than a deep cut since medieval physicians were pretty skilled when it came to setting broken bones (remember, a blow with a mace did usually not shatter the bone) but could only do little when it came to infections. And open cuts, especially when received under unhygienic battlefield conditions, were prone to getting infected.
Now I told you that despite all its benefits chainmail could still be pierced by Botkin arrows. The reason for that can be found in the rings. When a polygonal, pointed arrowhead hit one of the rings of which the chain mail consisted then it could split the ring and penetrate the armor. However, the arrow would have lost much of its energy so that a gambeson that was worn under the chainmail could stop it.
Here you can find out more about that.
With the introduction of new production techniques during the High Middle Ages, chainmail became cheaper to produce and as a result more common among the regular foot soldiers. But weapon technology also advanced. And the introduction of new weapons and fighting techniques (like lanced cavalry charge) made the protection that chainmail offered insufficient.
How effective was Plate armor?
In the late 13th century armorers began reinforcing hauberks (shirts of chainmail) by adding metal plates at crucial parts of the body (Elbows for example).
Plate armor that was made-to-measure offered excellent protection against cuts, stabs, and to a certain degree bows. Its weaknesses were the armpits (covered by chainmail for better mobility of the arms), the eye slits, the crotch, and the points where the individual plates had to be able to move over each other to allow the bearer to move.
Now one might think that Plate armor was even more expensive than armor that was completely made of chain mail. But that is actually not true. While the production of a hauberk, a shirt of chainmail, could take up to one year, a full suit of plate armor could be made within a few weeks. In the 15th century, the production of a breastplate did only take 2 days!
That fast production of plate armor can be attributed to multiple reasons like the utilization of water energy for hammering out the plates or the growing importance of cities as industrial hubs with many completing armor factories. So in the 15th-century plate armor had become cheaper than mail armor.
Now you might have noticed that just like the gambeson a weakness of Plate armor was the armpits. And that is no coincidence. To allow the bearer to move his arms properly the armpits could not be protected with plates, thick layers of padded cloth, or chainmail. Because of that, the armpits were always especially endangered areas in medieval combat.
However, while the many different plates and parts of chainmail offered great protection they did take some time to put on. If he had help, a medieval knight could put on his plate armor within 6 minutes. Good plate armor did not restrict the agility of its bearer although the weight of 55-77 lb (25-35 kg) took a toll on his endurance.
Plate armor would remain reliable protection until weapon technology advanced once more and firearms started to become more common. Until then plate armor was mostly vulnerable to halberds and maces. Here you can find out more about how effective maces were against plate armor.
But even with the introduction of firearms Plate armor was still valuable. Especially the early firearms did not have a lot of penetrating power, especially when fired at some distance. Because of that firearms and plate armor coexisted for quite some while.
If you wanted to stretch the wording of plate armor a little then you could even make the argument that the cuirass, the breastplates, that French Cuirassier regiments still wore during the first weeks of World War I were plate armor.
And before that Napoleon Bonaparte had increased the number of Cuirassier regiments from 1 to 14 and had reintroduced the full cuirass, a piece of plate armor that protected the chest. These cuirasses could deflect long-range shots from flintlock muskets and offer protection against pistols as long as they were not shot at close range.
If you want to find out more about the wars of Napoleon Bonaparte and the 9 reasons for the success of his armies 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).