Building your own Armour
Part 3: Early Body Armour
Sir Michael DeLacy
Body armour in the late dark age and early medieval period (500-1200) consisted primarily of mail armour, which is unfortunate for us, since, as any of us who have tried fighting in mail armour can attest, mail is about as useful as a wet towel for stopping an impact with a blunt weapon, whatever its qualities against sharp blades may be.
Fortunately for those of you who have an early period persona, there are ways around this problem. First, you can wear an alternative type of armour, such as scale or lamellar; although these armours were not as common as mail, they were available during this period, and are much better than mail for SCA combat. Second, you can wear reinforcing under your mail shirt; this bright idea was used toward the end of the early medieval period, when small breastplates of boiled leather were sometimes worn under the mail hauberk.
First, a look at some of the alternative armours. Scale armour has been around since the bronze age, and was probably the first type of metal armour ever made; it consists of metal scales (sometimes make of whalebone, horn or boiled leather) sewn, riveted or wired to a fabric base in such a way that each scale overlapped the gap between the two scales below. This gives a flexible defence, and is very protective, although a blow from below with a sharp point can work its way under the scales. This form of armour seems to have been in use throughout recorded history, lasting until the 17th century in the East. It is a very simple and cheap form of armour, and was always popular with the footsoliders, although it was also used by knights and nobles.
Lamellar armour is an eastern invention, popular with the steppe tribes, and used by the East-roman and Byzantine empires will into the middle ages. Lamellar armour was used in Scandinavia to a lesser extent at least as late as 1361. Lamellar differs from scale armour primarily in the fact that the plates are laced to each other, and not to a backing fabric (note; this makes lamellar armour a very cool armour to wear, lots of good ventilation). Lamellar armour also tends to be a bit stiffer than scale, if the thongs are drawn tight, which is good for SCA combat.
Hidden armours, armours worn beneath mail armour, were worn toward the end of the thirteenth century, but because they are hidden from view, they are ideal for all periods as far as SCA combat is concerned. The actual armours, called curies, because they were originally made of boiled leather (cuir boulli; the root of the later word cuirass, used to describe a breastplate) and later made of metal plates riveted to a soft leather or fabric jack, which in due time came to be worn over the mail as the coat of plates (see next issue). A hidden armour can be made of almost anything, as long as it is tight fitting and fits under your mail shirt.
Another option is the reinforced gambeson (for info on how to make a gambeson, see issue I). Metal armour was preferred by warriors of the middle ages, but most fighters wore only a padded gambeson for protection. For SCA use, a heavily padded gambeson is sufficient, provided that the kidneys are protected by at least a layer of heavy leather. The gambeson itself can be reinforced by sliding pieces of heavy plastic or leather into the quilted tubes, and securing them with thongs or thread. Alternatively, a heavily padded gambeson can be worn with a heavy and wide leather belt, to cover the kidneys, and some form of pauldron to cover the shoulders.
Armour for the arms and legs was practically non-existent during this period; some forms of splinted armour, composed of thin bands of metal linked into tubes, were used, but for the most part arms and legs were bare. One solution to this problem is the use of close fitting hidden armour arms and legs which can be worn under loose clothing, such as baggy trousers and sleeves, and gambeson or mail sleeves. The important thing to remember is to make sure that the armour is close fitting and will not snag or rip the fabric which covers it.
By using hidden armour you not only save money, since hidden armour need not be particularly pretty, but you usually can make the armour much lighter than the plate armour that many of our fighters now have, since you can use many non-period shortcuts like thermoplastic and velcro! Here are some examples of complete early period armours, slightly modified for SCA combat, which you could build using the techniques described above:
7th Century Scandinavian Chief
Mail shirt worn over curie of thermoplastic or hardened leather, vambraces and greaves of splinted armour, knee and elbow cops hidden under long mail hauberk. Helm of a round Vendel type with mail covering face grille and back of neck. Small round shield and sword were typical of this period, as were spears. Helmet would be richly decorated with gold ornamentation.
9th Century Frankish warrior of Charlemagnes' Empire
Scale armour cuirass covering the upper body and arms, a skirt of leather pteruges, in imitation of the old Roman style. Hidden cuisse and knee cop worn under trousers, and hidden elbow cops and vambrace under loose tunic. Helmet is of a curious morion-like construction, possibly derived from a late roman model. Curved round shield and cloak finish off the ensemble.
10th Century Byzantine Kataphraktos
Lamellar armour covering upper body and arms, worn over mail shirt, which is in turn over a long colourful tunic. Splinted armour vambraces and greaves, knee and elbow cops hidden under tunic and trousers respectively. Helmet is of a simple conical design, with decorative leather or fabric strips attached to back. Round shield, curved in 1 plane; teardrop kite shield also used by Byzantines. Hardened leather gauntlets added for SCA use.
10th Century Viking Warrior
Reinforced gambeson covering body and upper arms, hidden leg armour under bloused trousers, vambrace and elbow cop hidden under tunic. Helm of a spectacle type, with a fabric or soft leather coif attached to outside. Axe or sword and large round shield for weaponry.
The important thing to remember when making body armour is to cover what needs to be covered by SCA combat regulations: the elbows and knees must be covered with steel, the kidneys, back of neck and shoulders must be covered with at least heavy leather; if you have these covered, you're' legal. Consult with the Marshall when you come up with an Idea, and he will be glad to give you advice and let you know if you are on the right track. Happy armouring!
Claude Blair, European Armour. London: B.T.
Ian Heath, Armies of the Dark Ages. Worthing: Wargames Research Press, 1979.
Harold Hart, ed. Weapons and Armour; a pictorial archive of woodcuts & engravings. New York: Dover Publications, 1978.
Ian Heath, Byzantine Armies; 886-1118. London: Osprey Publishing, 1979.