Tuesday, 5 November 2013

armour antics

 Coming soon will be a post on my reconstruction of the Rogart shirt, I have to replace (yet another!) broken camera.In this post I want to examine some modern assumptions about armour and its effectiveness. This comes from two things 1: In my research into highland history I have come across a number of killings of highland chieftains or senior retainers by arrow which suggests that armour used in the Highlands was less protective than contemporary mainstream harness and 2: perusing the forum at My Armoury led to yet another discussion on the effectiveness of chain armour without a protective under garment.
 I have also included a post I wrote on the armour section at Sword forum as well as some of the more meaningful and informed replies.

  The My Armoury piece on chain defences can be read here as well as a piece on padded armours. This quote from Dan Howard's piece of interest to us in terms of archery "An experiment conducted by the Royal Armouries concluded that a padded jack worn over a mail haubergeon (a common combination during the 15th century) was proof against Mary Rose longbows. Another conducted by Alan Williams concluded that mail worn over quilted padding could resist longbow arrows but not crossbow bolts,but these tests may have underestimated the strength of English longbows. Strickland commented that "there has yet to be a test that uses accurate reconstructions of both armour and bow".
 Tests like this might make it hard to make sense of contemporary quotes such as;  ‘seeking out the entrails of men just as much as those of horses , their armour rarely preventing it (Adam Murimuth)’. ‘caused their arrows to prevail over the armour of the knights (Geoffrey Le Baker)’". Rather elementary mathematics will show however that while the warbow was hugely effective at Crecy it might not have been that lethal. A simple analysis of the statistics given for the battle of Crecy give an effectiveness of 2.8%  that is 7000 archers shooting 60 arrows each and accounting for all 12000 enemy casualties. It would be quite feasible to come up with a casualty rate of 2.8% even if the torso and upper arms of the majority of the French army were completely safe from arrows. A disordered horse, arrow in the foot, face, or leg would be more than enough to remove a soldier from battle and disrupt a charge. 
 A can of worms is opened; I have included the above to demonstrate that effectiveness and lethality are not the same thing and that modern experiment does not necessarily back up contemporary accounts moreover contemporary sources and that which they describe need to be examined in the context of the greater conflict. 
 Bernal Diaz describes the atlatl as being able to penetrate armour something that has not been replicated in modern experiment. This is also from a context of the Aztecs in particular being on the wrong side of a major drubbing. Diaz's casualty figures are amazingly low when facing such "powerful weapons". The wider context of the conflict in meso-america which was almost completely one-sided and modern experiment would suggest that ,at best, Diaz witnessed a rare occurrence. To draw from a rather nice example from the modern world. British American fighter bombers were considered hugely effective by both the Germans and the Allies during the Normandy campaign. However analysis after the campaign showed that in terms of actual damage they had been quite inefficient. The effect of the bombing itself and the consequent affect on the Germans in terms of logistics and psychology were far more important than the actual damage caused. 
 I am lucky that the armour of medieval and Renaissance caterans is fairly well recorded in textual and iconographic sources, and that it was part of a wider European armouring tradition. John Major's manifoldly sewn linen garment or a chain shirt would both be appropriate and effective armours. However it is always wise to check our assumptions particularly about the effectiveness and utility of martial hardware. A lot of truths about the way things were done are on closer examination, best guesses or even just guesses.  Modern experience, our frames of reference, expectations and world view are so different from those we study that we should be very critical and reflective on our approach.

This forum piece is predominantly about the supposed used of a padded undergarment by early medieval (specifically Viking) warriors.

I am a long time martial artist for a few years I have moved into western martial arts. I co-founded a traditional/primitive archery group in the UK and have been interested recently in the warfare of ancient/early medieval civilisations from this perspective I have approached my armour studies and "tests" from this standpoint.
I do not believe that the Romans/Celts or vikings used specific purpose built padding under their maille. I have experimented with padded armour and have been truly amazed by its effectiveness.
However in the almost total absence of proof that the vikings (or earlier cultures) used padding I won't assume that it was used. (ed. the submarlis often refered to as a roman undergarment is not known to have been used with mail) Phrases on the my armoury thread such as "logical" and "educated guess" are being bandied around but they belie a set of modern assumptions about the purpose of armour.
I believe (yes believe) that the shield was the primary form of defence ( I will discuss all ancient and early medieval cultures as if they are a homogeneous unit for the sake of brevity I am aware that this will lead to generalisations) followed a close second by the helmet. I believe the evidence bears this out with most warriors being armoured chiefly with these two items.I contend that any body armour was worn as a third tier defence and may have provided less than total protection.
Thaer laeg secg manig
garum agieted, guma Northerna
ofer scield scoten, swelce Scyttisc eac,
werig, wiges saed. 

There lay many a warrior
by spears destroyed; Northern men
shot over shield, likewise Scottish as well,
weary, war sated. 

Battle of Brunanburh

One assumption is that armour should provide total protection from event the hardest of blows. I would argue that in a battle line hard blows would not be so common with warriors maintaining a controlled and defensive aspect. Full thrusts or even blows on a pass would leave a man open to counter from many opponents.
 While hard blows would be given I suspect that they would not be that common. Tertiary (body) armour may well then have been designed with this in mind. I suspect that the majority of attacks would be uncommitted or glancing blows with the occasional hate filled thrust when the occasion permitted. The shield covered the body so presumably most attacks were aimed at the head and limbs.
Spears were the most commonly used weapon and I would assume that armour was primarily designed to defeat spear attacks then edged weapons. Spears don't seem to feature much in modern discussions, not cool I suppose. Casualty rates for victors are reported at much lower rates suggesting
that a man defending himself was quite hard to actually drop.
 Blunt force trauma (BFT); It would be nice if I could work out a way to measure this. modern rebated weapons (particularly the cheap ones) are heavier and more solidly constructed than the sharp edged weapons of the past I believe that they (being heavier and often stiffer) cause far greater BFT than sharps. That said I have been hit by uncontrolled blows from blunts a few times when sparring it hurts like hell but luckily if no limbs (or clavicle) breaks you can carry on (unless you want to yell!). As I understand it maille is impossible to cut through (as is the case with textile armours) making the sword far less of a threat. I am not sure about a great axe or spear though of course worn under maille this garment would by itself need to be fairly slight, I'm not sure how much protection it would actually confer.
So why bother with it then, well in a word, survivability. Until very recently the body armour and helmets issued to soldiers would not stop direct gunfire yet were issued as they increased the survivability of soldiers. I contend that a great many of the wounds suffered in battle would effectively be negated by less than total protection.
After the battle: To the modern there is little (perceived) difference between a bad break and a cut. However  in the past the difference was crucial. Cuts were frequently infected causing death, major, or even minor, ligament damage (which can be caused by small cuts) would have long reaching consequences including disability (not much fun for farming folk!) and all this if you survive the blood loss caused by even small cuts. Broken bones while still serious could be mended with more ease if not less pain. To my mind these factors illustrate the effectiveness of maille armour without padding. If it increased your ability to survive you would wear it.
So there we go that's how I see it armour does not need to provide total protection to be effective and worth having. That a great many of the tests done on armour may not reflect the actual experience of battle and that in the earlier periods of history body armour was a part of a defensive system not the defensive system itself (unlike perhaps later medieval history). Often tests involve a very heavy blow against a target braced so as not to move in a convenient cutting position and obviously not fighting back.
I would also not discount the fact that these people held beliefs that may well have led them to pursue actions that would not be the most effective or logical. If I believed I was going to go to warrior heaven if I died in battle I may not spend a good deal of money on some padded garment ("they must have worn something") especially if my place was the third or forth row back in the shield wall.
I am not attached to these theories and I am completely happy to be argued with (politely) and even proven wrong.

 Neal, I think I love you! Almost exactly what I've been trying to convince people of for years.

The only part I might quibble with is helmets being a "close second" to shields--I'd put them as a rather longer second. There are LOTS of graves (Germanic, Saxon, etc.) that have a shield boss but no trace of a helmet. Unless you want to start a new discussion on leather helmets! (And of course it depends much on the culture, as you said.)

About Vikings and/or Romans not wearing purpose-built padding under mail, I certainly agree that you are right about the lack of evidence! Just thought I'd throw in something suggested by someone else (Erik Schmid?), that it's *possible* that mailshirts had a padded lining, hence the edging or borders that we often see in illustrations (I'm thinking mostly Roman illustrations, here). Just like a shirt of scales was assumed to have a backing, *maybe* "shirt of mail" was assumed to have a lining. But that's just a theory!

Like you, I am willing to be flexible, and would LOVE to see more evidence turn up.

Yeah, I think what people don't realise is how little force is needed to wound or kill an unarmored opponent with a spear. You don't HAVE to hit them hard enough to break bones! The blunt force trauma would be equivalent to a friendly slap on the back. A mere "slap on the wrist" with a big knife or small sword will sever tendons and arteries. With no armor, you're dead or maimed, but with just mail, you'd hardly feel it. The presence of armor allows you to ignore all those otherwise-fatal half-hearted jabs, taps, and slices, and forces your opponent to either really wind up and try to hit you really hard (using energy he'd rather save, and possibly exposing himself to more danger), or aim for unarmored places.

Well, we'll keep preaching! Thanks and Vale,


Many ancient and medieval skeletons show signs of healed broken bones. But cuts in the skin can lead to infection, the danger of which is hard to comprehend for people who grow up with readily available antiseptics, antibiotics, and knowledge of germs. Sure, a shattered leg is bad! But if it's a choice between that and a SEVERED leg, with a good 50 percent chance of gangrene, guess which one I'd choose?
  "they had their own geniuses and their own idiots, same as we do. They just didn't have computers and as much knowledge as we do. Point being, they weren't stupid."
 This old line again.... Point is, they did NOT necessarily think the way we do! There are plenty of people on the planet today whose thought processes are very alien to the modern American or European. Don't assume the ancients were a whole lot more like us. If nothing else, their situation included all kinds of factors that we simply don't know enough about.

Tell you what--go to your kitchen and get out a nice big carving knife. Whack yourself with the edge. Hurts and bleeds, doesn't it? In ancient times (heck, right up into the early 20th century!), that cut could kill you. Now put on some mail, without padding, and repeat the experience. Hit a lot harder, in fact, a couple dozen times. See? It works! It prevented potentially lethal wounds many times, without padding. Sure, if a psycho with an axe comes through the window at this point and you are bold enough to stand there and let him hit you 2-handed, you are probably going to die. On the battlefield, however, that's a pretty rare event. And heck, even padding probably won't save you! But little whacks and slices with sharp pointy things are much more common.

Here's another: Any logical person would drive a bulldozer or tank on the roads today, right? I mean, there are all those other vehicles to bump into and cause damage, and those nasty sharp concrete curbs and walls and utility poles and other things along the edges. One tiny twitch of the steering wheel at high speed and crunch! So it's only logical that vehicles be built to withstand such impacts, yes? Can you tell me why, then, most modern cars are NOT built like tanks? Many reasons, of course, which somehow override the concerns of collisions--which we KNOW are frequent events!

 Sorry I didn't realise this thread had so many replies. Very interesting replies too.
Until it was made compulsory very few people (including me) wore cycling helmets in the UK, until it was made compulsory few people wore seat belts. Cycling helmets and seat belts greatly reduce the risk of injury or death in accidents, however they are both troublesome, awkward uncomfortable and highly uncool, few would use them (despite it being far more logical to do so) until compelled to do so by law.

It will never happen to me, ever!

What I was really getting at was not that padding wasn't sensible or that it made armour more effective, but that armour could have been used to increase the chances of surviving battle rather than defeating fully committed blows.

A parallel can be found in modern times with soldiers being issued with armour (helmets and flak vests) that would not (until recently) stop direct hits but would increase the overall survivability of the soldier in conflict (and soldiers also have to be compelled to wear this stuff).

I wasn't really assuming people didn't wear padding I was saying that no-one should assume people wore padding until evidence is provided to the contrary and that armour without padding is actually worth having.

The "logically they must have worn something" argument I contend is basically not logical, in addition logic is not usually a determining factor in human behaviour.

Really my point about blunt force trauma is that it's effects are vastly overestimated. Spears and swords are quite unlikely to shatter your leg without a serious "wind up" which will get you timed and out of the fight before you can say "joe dimaggi......ugh".

You cannot prove a negative, and irrefutable proof must be found if we want to argue that padded armour was worn by a specific culture.

Unpadded armour could work just fine in the context of ancient world battles and medicine

Dan Howard

Torso armour itself was a part of a whole system of armour with the shield being the most important piece of defensive equipment. "to abandon your shield is the basest of crimes" "come back with your shield or on it" etc etc.

The effects of Blunt force trauma are over emphasised (ask anyone hit by a cricket ball).


 The assumption that historical people "weren't stupid" or "they must have worn something" are truly astounding. While I may have convinced you with the above comment about seat belts this first idea is simply  refuted by simply observing people around you , or even yourself on occasion. Armies don't tend to be full of bookish middle aged types but rather full of hot-headed macho young men. In an early medieval context warriors could have manufactured hardened gloves to protect their hands as ALL re-enactment societies insist on yet they didn't despite the fact that the "need" for a protected hand has been identified by moderns.This would suggest that the combat engaged in by modern re-enactors is not reflective of that in period or that the priorities of those engaging in re-enactment combat are not the same, though the need for functioning hands probably hasn't changed in a thousand years.
 I contend that the perceived need for an underlying padded garment has been identified by the reality of modern day re-enactment fighting. What follows may seem harsh and actually I am rather a fan of re-enactment societies in general, though as stated am not a re-enactor.
From the (superb) Hurstwic site;
Both before and after the Viking era, fighting men wore padded garments under their mail (nope, a submarlis was not known to be worn under maille) to help absorb the force of a blow. Typically, these garments consisted of two layers of wool or leather stuffed with fleece or animal hair (nope, they were stuffed almost universally with cotton hence the later name, cotun), then sewn together. However, there is no archaeological evidence that such garments were worn during the Viking era, nor any mention of them in the stories. One hopes that the Norsemen were aware of and used such garments. They make a enormous difference in comfort and safety in simulated combat. One assumes that in real combat, they could make the difference between a disabling injury and a minor one.
 From the (also superb) Regia Anglorum site:
Mail worn on its own would stop the cutting edge of most weapons, but did not stop the crushing effects. So some kind of padding would have been worn under the mail. These padded garments, now known as gambesons, were made by sewing fleeces, raw wool or layers of woollen cloth (see above) between two layers of linen, felt or leather. Gambesons were probably very thick (really?) and could offer very good protection against the impact of weapons.

 it is possible they could have been worn on their own by poorer warriors. No gambesons have ever been found, but modern practice in re-enactment shows the validity of such things. The Romans are documented wearing padding under their mailshirts which consisted of two layers of linen either side of a felt inner (see above also note the comment about "thick"). Mailshirts also have a tendency to pull your tunic to pieces and stain the cloth, something which a liner such as a gambeson or leather between would prevent (or wear an old tunic).
 Re-enactment "combat" is a rough game between friends which is (I suppose) meant to give an impression of combat within an historical era. The participants expect to go home with little more than bruises and though accidents do happen they are accidents and the intent is not to harm. The rules of re-enactment societies are there to prevent injuries. Obviously head strikes are out, which means the clear favourite target of medieval combat treatises is off limits. Spears are so dangerous that even blunted and used safely  they cannot be used in an historical manner but are used under arm in a two handed shove.A great many re-enactors can afford swords at about £250 for a good quality  Paul Binns or armour class blunted sword. This is a far cry from the 16 milch cows given in laxdaela saga admittedly a gift from a king but iron then was as expensive as silver is in the modern world. Swords are probably over represented but are considerably more wieldy then spears or axes and are therefore relatively safe. The main threats on a medieval battlefield were from spears and arrows weapons used in lesser numbers and so dangerous that they have had to be neutered to the point where they are almost completely unrepresentative of those used in period.
Safe spear use

 While cheaper Indian maille is readily available it is far inferior to that made in the period as metallurgical tests confirm. Maille made to period standards is beyond the reasonable means of nearly anyone today.  In addition modern re-enactors drive to their short lived events rather than walking or riding. The Norwegian army at Stamford Bridge (1066) considered armour such an impediment that they left it at their ships (what was that about them not being stupid?) when surprised by Harold's army. While wealthier troops could afford servants most warriors carried, lived in and maintained their own kit. In modern times U.S. soldiers marching inland from the landings abandoned great quantities of useful to ease their burden life on campaign produces challenges that less disciplined soldiers solve by ditching kit. Punishments for losing kit were harsh in the extreme in the German army.
"No fine save the galloglasses brain"
 British Marines in the second world war regularly fought in their berets for symbolic reasons and even in the Falklands  British forces (except the Paras with their distinctive helmet) fought without helmets in the actual battles for reasons of comfort and perception.
 While the pre-ceding may seem harsh it should be taken that re-enactment combat has its own merit and doesn't need justifying. It often gives and immediate and impressive demonstration of battles from other eras it is however severely limited in terms of what it can tell us about actual combat in period.
 Lastly the assumption of a need for a padded undergarment,has lead to some pretty interesting interpretations of viking picture stones and a kind of "god of the gaps" argument with regards to the textual evidence. Textile armours are not referred to once, in the sagas or in early medieval law. Indeed they are not mentioned in places where they would be expected. Noridc laws expect a maille shirt per ship and a bow for every six benches, with a helmet and shield for everyman. No mention of other armours is made.Anglo Saxon fyrdmen were expected to provide a byrnie or mail shirt too again there is no mention of other armour. Textile armour is absent from the sagas too indeed  magical armours of reindeer leather are often used to justify some kind of non-metallic defence which neatly misses the point that these armours were, magical,and indeed highlighted the depths the protagonist (Tore Hund) was to sink to. Magic especially the magic of Lapps (where he got the armour from) was considered effeminate and suspicious.
 It is entirely feasible that the vikings or indeed anyone else was able to make a form of undergarment to be specifically worn with maille armour. However there would be a significant limit to how thick any armour could be and indeed the effect could easily be reproduced with a wool tunic or two. Whether the semi-professional (at best) armies of the early medieval period would bother or put up with the discomfort will have to be conjecture but Harald Hadrada's battle hardened army found armour to be troublesome enough to leave behind. The extrapolation however is that early medieval warriors actually wore textile armours as standalone armours. Despite the fact that 1: they are never mentioned or depicted (squiggles and hatching don't count) 2: textiles were expensive and remained so until later in the medieval period 3; Textile armours need to be extremely thick to give any realistic protection and are still vulnerable to thrusts 4; a shield and helmet will protect a warrior from nearly all risks on an early medieval battlefield 5: Nothing has survived of textile armours from this period, though textiles and leathers have. Lastly the social and cultural environment of the early medieval period resulted in men with a very different world view and set of priorities to modern people.
 In conclusion there is no realistic test of medieval combat conditions or equipment.Re-eanctment, martial arts and academic study when used together can be incredibly useful in illuminating what happened. However all disciplines must be open to the others, accept and realise that on their own they can result in a less complete picture. In addition our assumptions about the past are just that, assumptions the evidence must ultimately lead us through the dark past whether we understand or like what it has to say or not.........and I'm spent!

Hail, ÆAsir! Hail, Asyniur!

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