Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Sophistication of Fifteenth Century Armour

The increasing sophistication of fifteenth century armour, which was designed to deflect sword and spear, made crushing weapons more popular. Noblemen tended to use maces, battle axes, and hammers. Common infantry made use of staff weapons, combining axes, spikes, and hooks. They were intended to knock an armoured opponent off his feet, rather than to pierce his armour.

In the fifteenth century, the fully equipped man-at-arms was encased from head to foot in articulated metal plates. The haubergeon was no longer required, nor was the shield; the great helm was abandoned in favour of the visored bascinet, then armets and longtailed sallets, whose weight was supported on a gorget. This occurred across western Europe, although more slowly in Spain and Italy. A heavier lance was adopted to counter the improved protection, which necessitated a lance-rest to be attached to the breastplate from c. 1390.

In producing such armour, improved metal-working techniques were employed: steel with a high carbon constituent and hardening techniques for outer surfaces were used; surfaces were rippled and fluted to deflect lances, swords, and arrows; vulnerable areas were reinforced. The best armours were tested at point-blank range against steel crossbows. Improved protection was achieved without reducing the man-at-arms to immobility. A mid-century armour weighed about 50-60lbs (23-27kg) - comparable to infantry equipment in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries - but the weight was better distributed than earlier mail. Only the attempt to proof armour against firearms made it impossibly heavy in the sixteenth century. The horse was not neglected, and by c.1450 the neck, breast, and flanks were given some protection against pike and arrow. This required breeding heavier horses. The expense of cavalry warfare was mounting inexorably. By no means all knights or men-at-arms could afford full equipment. Those without horse armour or full body armour fought behind the front ranks, adding weight, or performing auxiliary tasks.

How much protection did this armour afford? In the view of the twelfth-century historian Orderic Vitalis, only 3 out of 900 knights engaged in the battle of Brémule (1119) were killed because all were mail-clad. Knightly armour did afford a good deal of protection. The Muslim Beha ad-Din described Christian infantry in 1191 with ten arrows stuck in their quilted armour, and it was easier to batter a well-armed man to the ground than to kill him. However, when mail was pierced the rings were driven into a wound. In chivalric warfare it made sense not to kill a ransomable knight or man-at-arms since he represented a profitable asset. But when knocked to the floor (heavy armour made it difficult to rise), if his opponent did not wish to ransom him, the heavily armed knight was vulnerable. Even the fifteenth-century carapace had vulnerable points - the visor being forced open followed by a dagger in the eye. The study of medieval armour presents many difficulties and risks of creating a false impression of standardization. Although medieval rulers legislated for the equipment to be owned, it is difficult to determine how often ideal standards were met. Individual wealth and personal inclination determined the equipment possessed, and at times of low military activity there was no incentive to maintain readiness.

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