Monday, 8 August 2011

Medieval Armour Was Heavy

Various press reports have latched onto the recent publication of some findings in the field of armour research.

A team involving academics from Leeds, Milan and Auckland measured the effects of walking and running in a 30-40kg suit of plate armour, and discovered -- surprise, surprise -- that wearing armour has a detrimental effect on a man's breathing.

Actually, their analysis is slightly more detailed than this. They have discovered that distributing the weight around a man's body and along his limbs in a suit of armour has a rather different effect from loading the same weight into a backpack. When suited up, a man's energy expenditure is around 2.2 times higher when walking, and 1.9 times higher when running, although his mass has increased by only 1.4 times.

Press reports (e.g. The Guardian newspaper, with video) have enthusiastically attributed the English victory at Agincourt in 1415 to the fact that "the French knights were knackered". Hopefully, historians will have a more sophisticated analysis of the battle!

Report: G.N. Askew, F. Formenti & A.E. Minetti, "Limitations imposed by wearing armour on Medieval soldiers' locomotor performance", in: Proceedings of the Royal Society B, online content: 10.1098/rspb.2011.0816


  1. I tend to see the evolution of the heavily armoured knight as somewhat similar to the development of the main battle tank in 1916. It had a very definite purpose which was to smash through the enemy front (which up until 1918 proved almost impossible no matter how many infantry you sent 'over the top')creating confusion and panic which could be followed by light infantry to sieze control of the 'field' and thereby 'win'the day. The French misuse of the 'medieval' tank (by way of over reliance)resulted in a rout the same as the Egyptians were routed in Sinai in '67. Without airsupport tanks are excellent targets and when massed together they are even bigger targets ! They also suffer from a similar drawback ..... lousy mileage.

  2. Stretching the point a bit there I think....maybe its just me but the concept of air support really didn't seem to fit a discussion about medieval knights. I am sure it is, like totally true, but ultimately beside the point....unless you call "Cavalry" a form of medieval "air support".

    The fully armourd knight was first of all a member of the Chivalry. That means they rode a Cheval. On the ground, they were slow, and knew it. On horseback, they OWNED the guys on the ground whether they were armoured or not. Most armour was surprisingly light...18AWG and lighter. It was supposed to deflect badly aimed arrows, sling bullets, and bullets from stone bows, as well as to prevent incidental damage from the drunken 16 year old with the sword singing battle songs beside you. That being said, it STILL weighed a fair amount. The idea that it crushes your chest (making it hard to breathe deeply) is just bogus.
    I make armour. The armour I made for myself seems to not slow me down at all...or at least, no more than combat boots and pack.

  3. By 'air support' I had meant to imply control of the sky above the knights in question (air cover would have been a better phrase). With arrows that have armour piercing capability raining down from relatively long range and lacking the need the actually be aimed at an individual target(a few thousand knights massed together would occupy an extraordinary large amount of field and the English longbow having a range of at least two hundred plus yards)the French nobles were sitting ducks. Since early antiquity the name of the game in establishing control of a field of battle has always been trained infantry supported by 'pikemen' who will stand their ground even when confronted by an armoured foe and light horse for special ops. As the French "tanks" were apparently cut down before they reached the English pikes in any number they could not break through what was probably a very breakable front line. From what I have read about horses (I am not in any way an equestrian) they are rather reluctant to impale themselves onto a line of pikes and rear back when faced by such. The purpose of the French assault would seem to me to have been to terrorize the enemy pikemen into breaking and running in fear. As they were being slaughtered from a great distance in full view of the English the effect would have been the opposite. The modern day lesson would be that tanks are vulnerable from the air above and without infantry incapable winning the day by themselves.

  4. << I make armour. The armour I made for myself seems to not slow me down at all...or at least, no more than combat boots and pack. >>
    Interesting point, STAG. But the researchers actually monitored four re-enactors from the Royal Armouries at Leeds -- these guys ought to be used to wearing their 30/40kg suits. But they still showed premature fatigue.

    << As the French "tanks" were apparently cut down before they reached the English pikes in any number they could not break through what was probably a very breakable front line. >>
    I may be wrong, Fvrivs, but I thought that the French cavalry were repelled by the palisade stakes that the archers had planted, so they had to retire (rather than being cut down). It then became an infantry battle between the French knights and the English men-at-arms. I think.

  5. You of course are not wrong on this point of defense (excepting that regular infantry ie pikemen probably labored along side everyone else). But whether an army has the time to fortify the defensive line with stakes (assuming they know the direction to position them...which obviously they did)or rely on infantrymen to maneuver the'line'to repel a flank attack...which they must have prepared less important excepting the manpower issues. As a highly knowledgeable Londoner(by way of Newfoundland) G.Dyer observed in his excellent book "WAR" "In an attempt to deal with the threat posed by longbows (and crossbows),which propelled an arrow with enough force to penetrate chain mail at a considerable distance, the mounted knights were first driven to the use of plate armor: the classic iron pajamas worn by the last few generations of European pierce plate armor effectively an arrow had to strike it at an angle of nearly ninety degrees within a distance of two hundred yards - but they could not protect their horses with similar armor ;the weight was simply too great.The last battles of the Hundred Years'War,like Agincourt in 1415,saw the pathetic spectacle of dismounted knights,wearing about sixty pounds of plate armor each,attempting to charge on foot like infantry. Chivalry in the most literal sense was dead." Presumably the longbows had done their part in crippling the 'mounts' and surely a direct frontal attack would have let a sufficient number of arrows(many thousands)to strike at the necessary angle - the failure to break through the front line was the deciding factor - the battle was then finished and 'won' by regular infantrymen who were unencumbered by 'iron pajamas'. I remember reading 25 years ago about a Libyan "intervention" in a civil war in the nation of Chad. Western 'observers' were stunned when rebel units attacked and defeated Soviet built tanks with modified Toyota pickup trucks (weaponry mounted on the bed of course !). Quickness and agility should never be under rated.

  6. Agincourt was not won by the was lost by the squabbling French. The battle has an undeserved reputation. Things happened there that are not typical....knights blindfolding their chargers and running them onto the pikes is only the beginning. However, the battle is a fine example of how NOT to run a battle.
    I was a soldier for twenty years. I know what I can do with combat boots and full pack. My comments reflect that I am a professional maker of suits of armour, many of my designs are based on Leeds armours. On my 50th birthday, I fought 50 fights. Simulated fights admitedly, but full steel and with full armour. I find my armour is easier to move in and fight in than modern military battle armour and pack.
    The salient and important facts from this study is that in their opinion, you get more fatigued more quickly wearing distributed armour than you would when wearing modern webbing and pack. That the use of arrows is important will get no arguement from me. However, as I said, the use of arrows or even of cavalry tactics is simply beside the point of this article.
    The men who were tested were fit and healthy, and presumably fit the armour. (I doubt that last bit. People wearing MY armour have no trouble breathing.) However, their muscular development was dedicated to strong legs (lots of marching!) and very little weight hanging off their arms. My classes have noted that for a few weeks after starting, the students have trouble getting their shields up into place, and the weight of the swords becomes insuperable. After several weeks of workouts to strengthen the arms and shoulders, this problem mostly went away. We always assumed it was because in normal athletic activities, upper body strength is underdeveloped. Tradesmen such as framers and muffler repair persons seemed to have little problem. Soldiers and mouse potatoes seem to have more slow twitch muscles in their shoulders and arms, which gives them a nice strength, but not a lot of endurance.

    So, I suspect that modern soldiers train differently than medieval soldiers. Gosh...what a surprise! What that has to do with the end results of battles...hmmm. Not sure. But such studies are a start.