Monday, April 09, 2012

Muscle vs. Armor: Variation in Armor Protection

In evaluating these accounts, it’s important to remember that there was considerable variation in the amount of protection armor offered.

First, the quality of metal in the best and most expensive armor was considerably better than the worst. Many men at arms could not afford the best tempered steel and made do with something less. Often the protagonists in the recorded deeds of arms were elite individuals who could afford above average craftsmanship.

The purpose and requirements of harness also affected the protection it could offer. At one extreme there was field harness designed for the battlefield. It had to allow the range of motion required by all the weapons a man-at-arms might use, and allow him to mount his horse unaided. On campaign the owner might need to wear it all day. He needed to be able to easily open or remove the helmet for ventilation. He also needed to be able to detect threats that might come from many different directions.

Jousting armor, in contrast, only needed to allow enough range of arm motion for the jouster to control his reins and transfer his lance to the rest. He only needed to see a target directly in front of him. Sometimes stairways were provided at each end of the lists, allowing him to climb to stirrup level. Typically, the jouster only needed to wear the armor for a limited number of courses, and attendants could assist him until just before the start of the run. The legs were not a legitimate target in jousting, and some types of jousting saddles protected the legs from attacks from the front. For these reasons some jousting harnesses did not include leg armor at all, allowing the rest of the harness to be thicker for the same total weight. Because they were worn only briefly and exposed to only predictable threats, jousting helms could provide ventilation in ways that were impractical on campaign; for example, with a trap door in the faceplate that was closed just before each course run. They also could use systems of internal straps that were effective at absorbing the force of blows but required outside assistance to tighten.

Protection for other types of deeds of arms fell between these extremes. Participants in a mounted melee tournament, unlike jousters, needed enough mobility to swing a sword or club, but did not expect to spend all day in armor: King Rene thought it was reasonable for tournament teams to be armed and ready to ride out by 11, and fighting would need to end no later than nightfall.

Men who fought a judicial duel or a foot combat by consent could also be better protected than men-at-arms in field harness on campaign. They knew when they would fight, and could wear armor that was reasonable for a short combat at a known time, but that would have been excessive if worn day after day against potential but unpredictable attacks. Unlike a man-at-arms on campaign, they could have an armorer ready just before they fought to do everything possible to make them more secure. For example, the armorer could use metal wedges to fix the champion’s helmet securely to his body armor. This was reasonable for an agreed combat at an agreed time, but not on campaign.

So when we look at accounts like the record of the Passo Honroso, we must remember that the armor of those jousters was probably more resistant to effective penetration than the average field harness used in battle. Firstly, many of the jousting armors were described with additional reinforcing pieces absent on field armor. Secondly, the harness of the elite jousters was probably above average in metallurgical quality. Also, the 16th century Spaniard Zapata advised pine lances for jousting because the ash or beech used for war “would be a cruel game indeed”; a pine lance breaks more easily than an ash or beech one of the same diameter. It seems plausible that the same practice was followed in the 15th century.

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