The Evolution of Medieval Armor

History comes to life as knights model medieval armor

The Evolution of Medieval Armor

Winthrop students embrace The Evolution of Medieval Armor presentation that uncovers the differences between the reality of medieval weapons and fighting methods, and the often-deceiving versions you may have seen in movies and on TV. Photo courtesy of the Department of Theatre.

On Friday, real knights from The Order of the Fiat Lux came to Winthrop and donned their armor to teach people about medieval passion regardless of the sweltering heat.

This event was hosted by the Medieval Studies program at Winthrop and supported by the Winthrop Fencing Club.  It started out with an informative presentation by Jonathan McCartney, a junior business major and medieval studies minor here at Winthrop.

During the presentation, he talked about how the driving force behind misconceptions of medieval armor is video games, movies and TV shows.  Mass media can over-fantasize the fighting style and armor of Europeans during medieval times.

It was discussed that a lot of people believe that medieval armor was very heavy and inefficient. This is a myth.  Armor had to be efficiently lightweight but also strong enough to protect the wearer, and weapons had to be light enough to be properly maneuvered during battle.

The skillful battle technique of knights is now referred to as HEMA, or Historic European Martial Arts.

One of the biggest misconceptions that people have with medieval fighting is that “overall [it was] unskilled.  They think that you had to be a big bruiser, a huge man.  People assume that the swords weighed too much, and that it was a very unskilled, brutal affair.  It was brutal, yes, but highly skilled,” McCartney said.

The presentation covered the period between 1000 and 1500 A.D.  At the beginning of this period, knights were not what people automatically imagine when they think of knights; the look that people commonly associate with them came about much closer to the end of the period.

Boys began their training at age 10, and eventually learned all the ins and outs of using and caring for their weapons and armor. They also learned hand-to-hand combat, which most people assume was not used during the time period.

At the beginning of the period, armor consisted of mail, a fabric of interlocking metal rings, which was very good for protecting against slashes but not thrusts.  Shields were not made of metal, but of wood, because it was more plentiful and lighter. Along with swords, they also used axes and spears.

Around 1200 A.D., knights would wear full mail and layer their clothing to cover it up.  They also wore leather chest pieces, which were much more efficient at protecting vital organs. They began using two-handed weapons as well as maces.

After 1300 A.D., knights began to wear plate armor along with mail and leather, a much more efficient form of protection, but still not too heavy to be worn for long periods of time.  Helmets were updated for better visibility and shields became smaller.

1400 A.D. is considered the height of medieval armor. By now, most knights wore full plate armor, which meant that shields were no longer useful. The only downfall to this armor was that it could be unbearably hot and make it hard for the wearer to breathe. New weapons included the war hammer and halberd.

These weapons and armor were not made for looks, but for war, and only faded out of existence when newer and more efficient weapons and techniques were invented.  That is not to say, however, that the armor, weapons and techniques of the knights were useless; they were very advanced for their time.

The second part of the event included live steel fighting, a very competitive contact sport and also a chance for onlookers to participate in a practice fight with proper safety gear and fake swords.

For those who may be interested, there is a medieval studies program at Winthrop.  There is more information about The Knightly Order of the Fiat Lux at tkofl.org, or contact Jonathan McCartney at mccartneyj2@winthrop.edu.

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