Evolution of Medieval Armor

Early Medieval

Warriors in the Early Middle Ages (~600 to 1000 AD) wore mail armor, made of interlocked iron rings, with a conical helmet that covered the top of the head. A coat called a hauberk (like those worn by the soldiers depicted in the famous Bayeux Tapestry, left) would be made of more than 30,000 individual rings.

High Middle Ages

For most of the medieval period, mail was the most common, and most effective sort of armor. Dressed in a padded tunic (jupon) with a mail coat (hauberk) and leggings (chausses) a knight was extremely well protected against any sort of attack. 

By the end of the High Middle Ages (~1000 to 1300 AD) mail armor was supplemented by reinforcements of small iron plates, or hardened leather, over the extremities (shins, knees, elbows, and forearms) and great helms that fully covered the head. These images from the Maciejoweski Bible (c. 1250) show figures in armor common at the time.

Late Middle Ages – The Fighting Manuals

Fighting manuals written and illustrated in the 14th and 15th centuries depict men at arms in knightly armor commonly in use in the Late Middle Ages.

Some of the earliest depictions (like the Codex Wallerstein, below, c. 1400) show fighters in transitional armor, comprised of plate defenses for the limbs, with coat armor covering the torso. A mail shirt was worn beneath to complete the harness.

This armor represents the “transition” between the (primarily) mail defenses of the 12th and 13th centuries, and the “full plate” harness of the 15th and 16th centuries.

The illuminated manual of Fiore de’i Liberi, written in the first decade of the 15th century, shows a wide variety of different styles of armor in use One of the four existing copies of this Italian manuscript is currently on display in the Getty’s “Chivalry” exhibition.

Il Fior di Battaglia
Il Fior di Battaglia

By the middle of the 15th century, armor craftsmanship had advanced to allow knights to wear harnesses made of full steel plate, with mail voiders filling the small gaps at the neck, armpits, and elbows.

The fighting manual written by Hans Talhoffer (c. 1459) depicts German/Gothic plate armor of the time. Several cities in Germany, such as Augsburg, Basel, and Nuremburg were renowned for making quality armor, as was Milan in Southern Italy.

Manuals of the 16th century, such as the book written by Paulus Hector Mair (c. 1550), depict the elaborate knightly armor used at the time.

Although increasingly obsolete on the battlefield, armor was still routinely worn by noblemen and wealthy merchants in duels, tournaments, and parades. These elaborate tailor-fitted harnesses were truly the ultimate expression of the armorers’ craft.