Armor and Heraldry

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Armor and Heraldry

Costume for Military Identity.

Throughout the medieval period, the upper-class male maintained his sense of aristocratic identity in part through wearing the specialized clothing and insignia of military life. This clothing was connected to both military combat itself and the peacetime military exercises known as tournaments, which served not only to provide practice for knights in training but also spectacle for members of the aristocracy. Defensive clothing changed radically during the period from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries, and these changes were largely in response to the evolution of new methods of combat and military organization. While early medieval warriors (before the year 1000) fought in tribes and encountered each other mainly on foot, the development of a system of lordship usually referred to as "feudalism"—based on the idea of an exchange of land for part-time military service as an obligation to an overlord—created a class of mounted soldiers (knights) who were obligated to present themselves, their weapons, and their horses for a certain number of days a year to satisfy the requirements of their contract with the overlord. These knights, known as vassals, formed small troupes accompanied by younger noblemen called squires who acted both militarily as supporters and also as servants. Owing to the cost of their equipment, as well as of the horses for both traveling and combat, only quite wealthy persons could muster such a group and own the armor and weapons that the new style of mounted combat required. The connection between wealth and military costume in this strongly hierarchical social system was further reinforced when decorative elements were added to serve as a way of identifying the individual knight, who was anonymous once clad in his armor. Not only did these decorative elements, in the form of coats of arms, provide a way of distinguishing one knight from another, but they also contributed to the visual stimulation of tournaments and indicated the family lineage that set the aristocrat apart from the other classes.

Leather and Cloth.

The military costume of the Germanic peoples, including the Vikings who conducted raids throughout northern Europe well into the eleventh century, was largely like that of the workers on the land. From about the first century c.e. until about 1150, the warrior's costume was short enough to allow for freedom of movement, and used layers of animal skins or padded fabric to protect the wearer from hacking swords and spear thrusts in close quarters. It was not intended to stop projectile weapons, which were not then in common use. Though this defensive costume had bosses (circular metal plates covering critical areas on the body) and fastening pins of iron or precious metals, only the head covering was of solid metal; this helmet was in the form of a pointed cylinder, often surmounted by an ornament such as the boar's head mentioned in the Old English heroic poem Beowulf, which details battles and military life in Scandinavia during the seventh to ninth centuries. Some forms of the helmet during the Carolingian period (eighth to tenth centuries) had a protective bar or "nasal" which came over the nose and sometimes flaps which served as cheek protectors.

Chain Mail and Plate Armor.

Military costume changed markedly with the rise of lordship in the eleventh century. The knight who served as a vassal to an overlord held a well-defined place in the social hierarchy and soon had a costume intended both to distinguish his social class and to protect him in the new style of combat, in which mounted knights charged at each other with lances in an effort to unhorse their opponents. Once the knight was dismounted, he fought with sword, axe, or mace—weapons requiring a defensive costume that protected against piercing and blows. This costume evolved rather quickly between the eleventh and twelfth centuries and differed in a number of ways from the older Germanic or the even earlier Roman style of military dress. Over the knight's outer robe known as the bliaut or later the cote, he wore a vest, often called a gambeson, made of cuir bouillée (leather boiled to make it tough) or of padded linen, a garment often worn alone as soft armor by non-aristocratic warriors. It was slit at the sides and in the middle of the lower portion, which allowed its lower panel to drape protectively over each thigh as the knight sat on a horse. Over this vest was another waist-length garment called the brogne or burney from German and French words meaning "bright," which was made of many tiny rings of iron linked together like chains into a sort of metal "fabric" that allowed movement. Up to the eighth century or so the early version of this garment had not protected the neck, but a caped hood of mail soon developed, called in Old French a hauberc. Some armor historians use the term "hauberc" to refer to the whole mail garment, but haubergeon is the correct term. This chain-mail garment could be sleeved or sleeveless, but it came up over the head and neck in a characteristic hood-like fashion and was supplemented by an iron skull-cap-like conical helmet for further protection. At the end of the eleventh century, through contact with the great metal-working centers of Damascus in Syria and Toledo in Spain, French knights obtained the finest quality haubergeons of mail, in which each ring was welded for strength and had sleeve-like extensions to protect the lower arms. Matching chain-mail-covered leather gauntlets (forearm-high gloves) and cloth or leather leggings with chain mail came into use about 1150 and continued to about 1330, completing this relatively light and flexible defensive costume, especially suitable for close hand-to-hand combat. From about 1350 onward, armor responding to the technology of archery developed; now key areas of the haubergeon would be reinforced with plates of iron, flattened cow horn, or boiled leather to protect the wearer from the bolts or shafts of the crossbow, which appeared in France as early as the mid-tenth century, and the long bow, in use by 1290 or so. Gunpowder weapons appeared around 1350. From 1330 to about 1450, knights attempted to protect the entire body against these projectile weapons by the addition of plates of iron, eventually linked together by leather straps, and cylindrical helmets with eye and breathing holes. But this standing suit of armor, which is so familiar in modern depictions of castles and medieval life, was unwieldy and eventually became mainly ceremonial.

The Coat of Arms.

On top of chain mail, as early as around 1100, knights began to wear a long thin fabric garment. It could be sleeveless and open under the arms, or it could have short sleeves. Beginning around 1130, this shirt, which buttoned down the front, often had painted or embroidered on it a shield-shaped insignia called a cote a armer, or coat of arms, which identified the disguised knight at a distance. This technique apparently developed during the period of the Crusades in imitation of an Islamic custom of painting an image (a blazon) on the knight's shield to identify him to his own troops, who could then recognize and defend him. The cote remained in use until 1410, and its ensign or design contained elements such as bars, stars and stripes, flowers, animals, crosses, and other images that enabled the knowledgeable viewer to know the whole lineage of its wearer. Such insignia were also painted on the outside of the knight's shield where they could easily serve to identify him when his cote might be obscured. In addition to these two forms of insignia, knights also often carried banners, wore scarves around the helmet (again probably in imitation of their Islamic rivals), and decorated their horses with cloth trappings. These markings and patterns soon became hereditary so that a knight bore the insignia, with small identifying changes, that had been worn by his father and grandfather. Since the possibilities for deception existed, heralds—persons knowledgeable in family history—were trained as early as the 1130s to recognize and validate the knight's right to display the coat of arms.

The Influence of Heraldic Decoration.

Over time, displays of arms provided a popular motif for the decoration of civilian costume, as, for example, in the use of the fleur de lis (the symbol of the French royal family) as an appliqué on royal robes and dresses. Such designs also began to move from costume to architecture, in the stained glass window of a chapel donated by a certain local family or carved on the façade of a building. The coat of arms might also be inscribed on jewelry (still common on the modern signet ring) or painted on the title page of an illuminated manuscript to indicate ownership. Arms were placed on tombs of knights in churches as early as 1135 where the sculpture of a knight in lifelike armor, often with his dog at his feet, was displayed atop the tomb chest with armorial shields at the sides of the chest. When members of noble households married, the symbols of the two families were often combined to form a new heraldic device in which the arms are said to be "impaled" or divided down the middle, with those of each family occupying half of the shield. This "impalement" brought the influence of the coat of arms back to fashion as it gave rise to "parti-colored" costume in which one leg of hose might be red and the other green. With the gradual coming to power of a civic elite through trade or administrative service, a person's arms could often include elements of the occupation his preeminence was founded on; in the north of England, for example, the family called Bowes, from their original trade as makers of bows and arrows, showed a pattern of bows presented vertically in panels on the shield. Eventually corporate entities such as cities, universities, and even colleges within universities all came to have arms which were displayed on plates, draperies, in stained glass, and the like.


Claude Blair, European Armor circa 1066 to circa 1700 (London: Batsford, 1958).

Jim Bradbury, The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare (New York: Routledge, 2004).

Gerard Brault, Early Blazon: Heraldic Terminology in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries with Special Reference to Arthurian Literature (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972).

François Buttin, Le Costume militaire au Moyen Age et pendant la Renaissance (Barcelona: Real Academia de Buenas Letras, 1971).

Claude Gaier, Armes et Combats dans l'universe médiévale (Brussels: De Boeck, 1996).

Paul Martin, Arms and Armor from the 8th to the 17th Century (Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle, 1968).

David Nicolle, Arms and Armor of the Crusading Era, 1050–1350. 2 vols. (White Plains, N.Y.: Kraus, 1988).

Michel Pastoureau, Heraldry: An Introduction to a Noble Tradition (New York: Abrams, 1997).

Matthias Pfaffenbichler, Armorers. Medieval Craftsmen Series (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992).

see also Religion: The Military Orders