Arms and Armor in the Late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance
Although plate armor was redeveloped in the fourteenth century after roughly a millenia of it not being seen in Western Europe, it was by no means a universal armor. Mail, brigandine, mail with selected large plates, and, in some places, even thick leather were all used, depending on the finances of the fighter and the role that he played on the battlefield.
It is fatiguing to fight in heavy armor, but fighters wearing this protective gear are far from the clumsy behemoths often portrayed in film. If armor were that encumbring, no fighter in his right mind would have bothered with it, because being slowed that much would be tantamount to suicide. Modern reconstructions have shown that fighters in full suits of mail or plate can perform cartwheels, leap up directly from the ground, and even sprint for short distances. Great endurance is obviously required to fight for long periods in armor, and men-at-arms trained in armor from childhood to be able to do so.
Mail, with its many riveted links of steel and iron wire, is extremely effective against cuts and slices. It can be very difficult to penetrate: to succeed, any cut must land directly against the links. If a blow does not hit perpendicular to the mail, it will simply glance off rather than snapping the metal. Even with a solid, correctly-placed blow, well-designed mail will often catch the blow by allowing the individual links to deform rather than break. This flexibility, however, means that mail itself is not particularly effective at protecting against bludgeoning impacts. To counter this, mail was almost always worn with a layer of padding. Thus protected, a fighter could shrug off blows that would instantly drop an unarmored man. One reason for the custom of ransoming nobles from the battlefield may have been the sheer difficulty of cutting him down, as opposed to merely bludgeoning him into submission through his armor.
The technology to produce plate steel had been in place for many centuries: coats of plates, or brigandine, had been used for at least fifty years prior to the fourteenth century. These consisted of plates that were riveted to a cloth surface. In this image, several examples can be seen, but they are not immediately obvious: from the outside, they look like thick padded cloth or leather with rows of studs embedded in them ("Studded leather" as an armor is an ahistorical term that comes from not correctly recognizing brigandine). Brigandine protects from cuts, and is much better at shirking off impacts than is mail. However, brigandine does not quite give its wearer the freedom of movement that mail does, and it's not practical for armoring the limbs: often a brigandine "shirt" must be worn with either mail or with plates for the arms or legs.
With the advent of larger forces of footmen armed with pole weapons, however, such protection was not always adequate. In addition, archery remained a problem with the widespread use of the crossbow among the Italian city-states. Since the links inevitably had holes, the heads of crossbow quarrels, and even the arrowheads of particularly powerful bows (such as the English longbow and the stronger composite bows such as used by some Hungarian troops and especially those used by Ottoman archers) could penetrate directly through a fighter's armor. Padding helped, but generally not enough. Therefore, during the course of the fourteenth century, plate steel was added to those places most likely to be hit by missile fire, and gradually complete suits of plate armor were created. This suit of transitional mail is an excellent example: the breastplate and backplate provide protection from missile fire, with the next areas armored being the forearms, which are very vulnerable on the battlefield. These suits had an additional advantage: while mail and brigandine provide excellent protection at a relatively slight cost to mobility, the wearer of a suit of full plate armor is essentially immune to cutting attacks from single-handed swords. Crossbow power and plate armor hardness each steadily increased, as armorers provided better protection, and crossbow makers increased the power of their weapons so that they would still be effective.
Although most plate armor came from the Italian city-states, and a vast
quantity was exported to the north, regional differences in warfare dictated
different types of armor. This suit of armor protects almost all of the
surfaces of the fighter. It is a fairly typical suit of "German gothic
plate," and it provides an excellent balance of protection versus mobility.
Full plate carries definite penalties to a fighter's agility, however,
and one must learn how to move effectively in this armor. If you compare
the next armor, built in the "Milanese" fashion,
one can see a drastic difference in the armoring strategy. This armor provides
much greater protection, without any of the relatively unprotected portions
of the gothic plate. It is less vulnerable to the thrusts of a spear or
sword, and much less vulnerable to a hail of crossbow bolts. At the same
time, the massive shoulder plates, or pauldrons, restrict how the
wearer can move his arms: fighting techniques that work perfectly while
wearing gothic plate simply cannot be performed in this suit of armor.
Given the mobility drawbacks of wearing this suit of armor compared to
the suit of gothic plate, one can surmise that it was designed to allow
its wearer to survive in a much more dangerous environment where the additional
protection was well worth the loss of a little more agility. Although the
crossbow was used throughout Europe, it was in Italy that the crossbow
was literally a household weapon, and had been widely used since Roger
Guiscard's Sicilian campaigns against the Papal States in the twelfth century:
it was common for groups of crossbowmen from Italy (particularly Genoa)
to serve as mercenaries north of the Alps. Crossbowmen defending these
cities were not vulnerable to being swept off an open battlefield, and
so while a knight in the north might carry a crossbow (as did the "Iron
Lords" in fifteenth-century Bohemia) and expect to be shot at periodically,
for a knight fighting in one of the Italian campaigns it was an absolute
inevitability, especially if he participated in any naval warfare.
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