A knight in armor, Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament. Source: (Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Beginning in the 1400s, warriors devised a new way to keep them uninjured during battle—suits of armor. These mostly-metal protective garments not only kept the wearers safer in sword fights; they gave rise to the highly-romanticized images of knights that we have today. Let’s look at what suits of armor were really like for the medieval knight.
The Protection of Metal
Improvements in metallurgy in the Middle Ages contributed to the rise of suits of armor. Also called plate armor, the metal was the best way to protect the fighter from being slashed apart by a sword or pierced with a lance or pikes so pieces of metal were pounded flat and used to fashion a protective garment. The pieces of metal were held together by chains or leather straps.
Suits of Armor and Blunt Force Trauma
While suits of armor were helpful protection from sword and dagger attacks, they were less effective at keeping the wearer safe from forceful hits. Weapons such as war hammers, maces, and poleaxes could still be deadly to the warrior because the metal suit did little to prevent injuries from blunt force trauma. The knight could die from a concussion or head injury if struck on the head with one of these weapons, even if he were wearing a metal helmet.
An English longbow. Source: (realmofhistory.com)
Suits of Armor and Arrows
When it came to arrows or bolts, the degree of protection ranged from suit of armor to suit of armor, and from arrow to arrow. If the metal plates on the suit of armor were thin enough or made of less-quality metal, and the arrow being shot was pointy enough and had enough velocity, it could pierce right through a suit of armor, killing or gravely injuring the knight. As suits of armor got better and better, so did the arrows. Weapon makers developed arrows that could be more effective against the suit of armor.
Suits of Armor were Costly
Depending on the quality of the metal and craftsmanship, the amount of coverage it provided, the time period, and geographic region of the knight, a suit of armor was a major purchase. For the cost of a suit of armor, a family could purchase a farm. They were so costly that only the elite class of professional knights and noblemen could afford to buy one. Common, low-ranking soldiers either did without, wore chainmail, or wore inferior armor.
Chainmail was not a knock-off version of suits of armor. In fact, chainmail was an effective form of protection in battle by itself. Made of metal that had been formed into wire and woven into a metal fabric, chainmail was lighter than armor and less expensive. It still wasn’t totally impenetrable. Arrows and spear points could piece the holes in the chainmail or enter through chinks in the metal caused by sword blows. For the professional knight, chainmail offered another line of defense in battle when worn in combination with a suit of armor. The chainmail protected the wearer’s body in places that the armor couldn’t.