Armor has been used by men for protection for as long as men hunted or fought against enemies. Before men learned how to mine raw ores, other natural materials were utilized. Wood was form into shields and chest guards. Leather was used as body armor. Even after bronze and iron appeared, leather wasn’t completely phased out. Armor didn’t completely protect the wearer against weapons. Certain weapons could penetrate plate metals, which included longbows, crossbows, and depending on the position the point of contact, archers could be effective as well. Hand weapons, such as axes, halberds, poleaxes and similar weapons could hack through weak areas of armor at close range.
Knowing vulnerability, warriors naturally wanted protection while they fought. Shields were one line of defense. Over the centuries, shield shape changed to fit the ever changing needs. William the Conqueror’s knights used the kite-shaped shield. With the larger surface of the kite, the knight’s backs were protected as they rode amongst their adversaries. The round buckler was used for hand-to-hand combat while the classic heater shield is associated with jousting.
A brigandine was a flexible coat of leather, or cloth, with metal rings or plates riveted to the outside. Hauberks, otherwise known as ‘chain maile’ shirts, were one of the most commonly worn items that reached to mid-thigh level. A padded garment was normally worn under a hauberk to ease the pressure of the maile. A coif was a maile hood that also extended to cover the neck. Chausses were maile hose wore to protect the legs, and were of varying length.
The classic full plate armor didn’t come about until the 15th century, although partial plated armor was introduced in the 13th century. Contrary to common belief, the armor wasn’t so heavy a hoist was required to get a knight up on his horse. A proper set of full plate armor weighed about 50 to 70 pounds pounds. Consider this compared to the weight that is carried by a modern soldier in his or her pack, which is roughly more. Think about if the armor was too cumbersome to walk in, and did need a lift to get on his horse. The moment he fell or was knocked off his warhorse, he’d be helpless as a turtle on his back. That just doesn’t make sense. Yes, 50 pounds is a lot of weight to carry, but remember these men trained all their lives and were used to the gear. A knight was easily able to walk, and fight on foot if unhorsed, in his armor.
Armor worked best if it was custom made for the wearer, which was very expensive. Armor was passed down from family members, altered if necessary. During wars, armor could be taken from the dead, if not retrieved along with bodies by family first. Tournament armor was different from fighting armor in that it was decorated. The art of heraldry came about from being able recognize one’s friends, or foes, during a fight.
Cannons showed up during late 13th century in China and were sparingly used up to the Hundred Years War. Over the next few centuries, countries started to rely more on the cannons and foot soldiers. In the 15th century the Matchlock gun made its appearance, which signaled the end of the mounted knight. From that point on, knights became leaders in the armies. The classic mounted knight charges were regulated to tournament fields.
How does one know one piece of plate armor from another? Starting from the head, the helm (or Bascinet or Bassinet) protected the head. Sometimes the helm would have a visor that could be taken off, a length of maile called an Aventail which covered the neck and/or shoulders. Other head protection included Cervelliere which was a steel cap. Italian knights may have worn an Armet, which was a bowl-type helmet that enclosed the head with hinged cheek pieces and a steel neck collar. There were other versions of helms, with or without visors, ventilation slits, maile, etc.
Next the shoulders were protected by circular pieces of plates called Besagues (or Besagews), upper arms by Rerebraces (or Brassart), lower arms by Vambraces (may be strips or plates), and hands by Gauntlets (may be articulated). Cowters (or Couters)covered the elbows. Spaulders covered armpit and a section of the shoulder both. Pauldrons covered the shoulder, armpit, and on occasion, part of chest and back – Pauldrons also had a dome-shaped part called a shoulder cop).
The chest was covered by a Cuirass and the back was protected by the back plate; both the chest and back were connected by Faulds. Faulds were rings, which also covered areas of the chest, back and hips not protected by the chest or back plates. The abdomen was sometimes protected by a Plackard. A Culet was composed of small sections called Lames attached to a back plate, or cuirass, to protect the lower back or buttocks.
The upper legs were covered by Cuisses. Poleyns went over the knees, and could be articulated. Greaves covered the calves – usually both sides. Schynbalds were reintroduced in the 13th Century to protect the shins. Sabatons (or Solleret) protected the feet (they went over boots). Spurs went on over the boots and/or Sabatons. Steel bands called Lame were riveted together in order to be articulated. A Rondel is a round piece of armor. For protection of areas of the body not covered with plate armor, maile Gousset might be worn.
The warhorse, or destrier, was a valuable part of a knight’s arsenal. Eventually armor for horses, or barding, was developed to protect venerable parts of the warhorses’ body. The Chamfron protected the horse’s head, on occasion with a spike resembling a unicorn’s horn. The Criere covered the horse’s neck, and was an articulated series of lames. The Criere was connected to the Chamfron and the Peytral. The Peytral covered the horse’s chest, while the Croupiere protected the horse’s hindquarters. The warhorse’s flanks were covered by the Flanchard. For participation in tournaments, the knight would add caprisions, or brightly decorated coverings. The caprisions would often be in the heraldic colors of the knight, or the lord he was sworn in service to.
For more detailed information on armor, I suggest the following references:
Knights in History and Legend by Constance Britton-Bouchard, 2009 Global Publishing Press, Australia, ISBN #978-1-74048-028-4
A Daily Life in Medieval Times (Illustrated edition of the bestsellers Life in a Medieval Castle, Life in a Medieval City, and Life in a Medieval Village), by Frances & Joseph Gies, 1969, Barnes & Noble Books, New York, ISBN #0-7607-5913-8
A Chronicle History of Knights by Andrea Hopkins, 2004, Barnes & Noble Books, New York,
Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight, an Illustrated History of Weapons in the Medieval Ages by David Edges & John Miles Paddock, 1988, Crescent Books, New York, ISBN#0-517-64468-1
Weapons & Fighting Techniques of the Medieval Warrior 1000-1500 AD, y Martin Dougherty, 2008, Metro Books, New York, ISBN#978-1-4351-0207-1
You might also consider the Higgons Museum armory collection
There are many other books on armor and weapons. One of the best sources of information on weapons are books by R. Ewart Oakeshott. Another is Osprey Publishing for military history books.