Body armor is protective clothing that has the ability to repel weapons used in combat against the wearer. Armor is designed to ward off attacks from both sharp and blunt trauma. While the body armor used today is primarily designed to give protection from projectiles moving at high velocities (i.e. bulletproof vests), armor has traditionally fallen into one of three categories: soft, mail, or rigid armor. Soft armor was usually comprised of layers of leather, fabric, quilting or felt, and often, a combination of these materials was used. Mail armor was usually made from iron or steel rings that were interwoven. This gave the wearer some flexibility without sacrificing a great deal of protection. Rigid armor was often made of metal, wood, or any other highly resilient material that offered maximum protection to the wearer. This category also includes the familiar plate armor worn by knights in the latter part of the Middle Ages. The protective plates were made of metal and eventually covered the entire body. The plates were often riveted together and connected internally by leather straps so that they offered maximum protection, yet still allowed the wearer to have freedom of movement.
It is assumed that the use of body armor predates historical references. It is known that as early as the eleventh century b.c., Chinese warriors wore armor made of rhinoceros skin. Most likely, prior to that time, other primitive combatants wore protective helmets and clothing made of leather, animal skins and other similar protective materials. Thus, it is more than likely that the first type of armor used by man was the soft type, but actual verification predates written history. Padded garments were the predecessors of more intricate and protective armor. As technology advanced, so did weaponry and defenses. The makers of weapons and armor were in a constant struggle to keep up with the advances in each field; an advance in armor was offset by an advance in weaponry. This struggle dictated the evolution of armor from a soft outer garment to the knight's full metal suit.
The armor of knights changed over the course of time. Initially, knights wore a helmet of quilted fabric covered with leather that may have been covered with mail. The 1300s witnessed the use of a stronger helmet with more protection for the skull and face. Plate armor was added to protect the vital organs and helped to cover areas left vulnerable by a lack of mail. Eventually, elongated pieces of plate were used to protect many of the joints and this evolved into the metal plates that are often associated with knights by the 1400s.
While early body armor was primarily soft, metal protection was introduced with the advent of metal weapons. For obvious reasons, the use of metal to protect the wearer from a blow or piercing objects would be much more effective than soft material. The first metal armor consisted of overlapping bronze plates sewn onto a protective garment. This offered real protection against attacks. This type of armor eventually evolved into chain mail as stronger metals were discovered. Yet, the soft armor was not totally abandoned. Padded undergarments continued to be worn to help absorb some of the shock from blows to the body.
Chain mail consists of interwoven rings of metal that provide a flexible, yet strong defense from slashing weapons. The fabrication of mailwas extremely costly and labor-intensive. Mail served to be the main armor of Europeans until the fourteenth century. Even after that, mail was worn to help protect the inevitable gaps that came from wearing plate armor.
The byrnie was one of the earliest forms of armor that used mail. It was originally a sleeveless suit of armor that covered the upper half of the body. The byrnie consisted of a soft backing overlaid with hardened metal rings. Another version of this was a garment that is now referred to as chain mail. It consisted of interlaced metal rings that proved to be much lighter than the byrnie, but less protective. Padded garments known as gambesons were often worn under the mail to make up for the lack of protection from crushing blows that was associated with chain mail. When this was extended to the head, it was known as a coif. The coif covered the head and neck, but left an open area for the face. This provided the head with a significant degree of protection.
The ensuing years saw the development of better coverage of the body with mail and more sophisticated helmets. The art of fabricating mail became so advanced that even gloves of mail could be made with fine mesh. Around the same time, plate armor was quickly overtaking mail as the preferred choice for protective garments.
The earliest plate armor appeared in the early 1200s in the form of thin plates worn beneath the gambeson. Later, external plate armor began to appear as covering for the joints. Around 1250, the first breastplate made of plate armor, called the cuirass, appeared in Europe. Plate protection then appeared on various parts of the body for the next 100 years until the entire body was protected by plate armor. However, soft armor and mail were still used under the metal plates.
Gothic-style plate armor appeared in the early fifteenth century and represented the pinnacle of personal armor protection. These armor suits gave full body protection covering its wearer literally from head to toe, with only a slit for the eyes and small holes in the helmet for breathing. The fabrication of these suits was so advanced that individual finger joints were made in gloves. The area of the shoulder perhaps demonstrated the greatest sophistication. The knight could easily wield a weapon with full range of movement, yet still have his body completely covered with armor.
As time went on, the armor became much thicker and heavier, in order to protect the knights against the latest advances in warfare. Interestingly, larger breeds of horses also appeared at this time in order to support the heavier armor. In addition, armor and mail were consistently used to protect the horses as well. The increased protection made the wearer much slower, required more energy for movement and made it difficult to stay cool. The full helmet obscured vision, hampered breathing and made it impossible to communicate during battle. Body armor was so intricate that it needed to be made by skilled craftsmen using expensive materials. A complete set of body armor was a huge cost to the wearer.
Eventually, the modernization of weapons made body armor obsolete. The thickness of the armor plate needed to stop an arrow gave way to the impractical thickness needed to stop projectiles shot from firearms. By the sixteenth century, body armor was no longer used and served primarily for ceremonial and decorative functions.
The advances in body armor had a significant impact on medieval society. In fact, it could be argued that armor helped to shape society and encourage feudalism. Knights played a major role in this social development and perhaps their greatest symbol was their armor. The armor was, in many respects, what allowed knights to be knights. A knight's position in society was determined somewhat by his ability to protect that position and for this, his armor served a knight well. Armor allowed knights to exert power over the lower class, both through the physical protective nature of the armor, as well as through the psychological advantage that they gained by wearing it. Armor was an integral part of being a knight and even served to help define behavior, through a code of ethics commonly referred to as chivalry. For example, by the late twelfth century, it was considered a dishonor for a knight to attack another knight without allowing the opponent to don his armor.
Armor also helped accelerate technological advances in weaponry. There was a constant battle between the development of offensive and defensive weapons in attempts to keep one type ahead of the other. Each advance in offensive arms was soon met by a change in the armor to help combat it. In turn, the offensive weapon was further advanced. This seesaw struggle pushed the development of arms and defenses to the limit, leaving many technological advances in its wake.
While it will never be known for certain, it is likely that medieval society would not have developedas it did without the advances in body armor. Armor had tremendous impact on knights and medieval European society as a whole by providing both a protective function and serving as a symbol for all to see. Armor helped to define behavior, create and enforce a social system, and encourage militaristic technology. In these ways, armor helped to shape the Middle Ages.
JAMES J. HOFFMANN
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