Medeival Monday – Arms and the Man

What discussion of Medieval technology would be complete without a look at arms and armor?  I’ll confess, it’s not actually my favorite subject (I’m much more interested in people than battles).  But then again, one of my earliest memories connected to history was seeing the Arms and Armor exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art when I was an elementary school kid.  Even back then I wanted to stay in that room and look at everything, but my young classmates rushed through and the teacher had to push me along to keep up with the group.

A knight and his horse at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Anyhow, the developments in metallurgy and arms-making techniques that took place during the Middle Ages really defined the age to a certain extent.  The Roman Empire had reached a certain level of advancement in mining and forging, but a lot of that knowledge was lost as the empire dissipated.  The mining that remained was mostly open-pit mining on a local level.  Production wasn’t very high.

In those early days of the Middle Ages weapons-making was closely tied together with plow and tool-making.  It was all done by the same guy, the village blacksmith.  If you were going to be a craftsman in the Middle Ages and if you wanted respect that was nearly level with that of the lord of the manor, you wanted to be a blacksmith.  Blacksmiths were the fulcrum around which everything of manor life revolved.  They forged the plows that farmed the earth, they made the tools that allowed other craftsmen to do their jobs, they shoed horses so that work could get done, and they made the arms and armor that the lord used to fight.  They also cast or broke spells for the mystic-minded population, cured disease when there were no doctors around, and set broken bones.  In a Medieval village, the blacksmith was the man.

Notice that the figure on the far right is a woman

Like I just mentioned, most mining in the early Middle Ages was open-pit mining.  The raw ore would be taken to the smiths to be smelted, washed, and roasted so that it could be broken down into pieces that could be worked in a reduction furnace.  And then the magic began.  No, seriously.  The Medieval blacksmiths knew what to do with the ore, they just didn’t know why.  Chemistry hadn’t been invented yet.  But they did know that you had to heat the iron ore to a certain temperature, but not higher, for a certain amount of time, but not longer.  They knew that charcoal was an important part of the process, but they didn’t know about the reactions of carbon and oxygen and the like.  Their knowledge was a trade secret, passed down from generation to generation for hundreds or even thousands of years.

I could fill an entire book talking about the things blacksmiths could make using this technology, and in fact the book that I’ve used as the largest chunk of my research for this post, Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages, by Frances and Joseph Giles, spends a lot of time talking about these things.  The two neat innovations that stick out to me though are chain mail and swords.

The creation of chain mail was one of the coolest, trickiest, and most revolutionary technologies of the Middle Ages.  Especially since even today we’re still not 100% sure how they did it.  How’s that for guild secrets!  The chain links were created by drawing super-heated, soft ore through a series of small holes to create iron spaghetti.  That’s not a technical term, by the way.  Once yards and yards of iron wire was created it would be turned into loops.  The loops would then be fastened together to form a malleable fabric of metal.  That’s the part that we’re not really sure how they managed it.  In some cases chain links were sewn onto leather tunics to create mail.  This kind of mail was given to archers and foot soldiers who would afford it.

Knights and lords wore full plate armor, of course.  That stuff that fascinated me at the PMA in third grade.  I’ve heard a lot of conflicting debate on the comfort and ease of movement afforded by plate mail.  On the one hand, there is the famous story of the Battle of Agincourt where the French knights were unhorsed by English archers.  Supposedly the knights drowned in mud because they couldn’t get up on their own due to the weight and awkwardness of their armor.  I wasn’t there, so I don’t know if this is true.  I had a blog commenter insist vehemently several months ago that armor was actually comfortable and flexible and easy to move in.  My guess is that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

The fact though is that armor became what it was, a full-body defensive covering, because of the increased use of the horse as a beast of war.  Knights didn’t need to be as personally mobile if they were mounted.  But they were more obvious targets sitting above everyone else, so they needed strong defenses.  Voila!  Armor!  But the point I would like to make goes back to the almighty blacksmith.  It was the technological advances in agriculture that raised the horse to prominence as the master of all animals.  A lot of this was due to the improvements in horseshoes.  Once again, peaceful, rural technology gave rise inadvertently to improved methods of warfare.

This is also true of the sword.  The same blacksmiths that were working to produce better and stronger plows also forged swords.  Swords were created by folding super-heated iron over and over and hammering it into a strong, powerful blade.  The effect of so much folding and hammering gave the swords the appearance of streaky bacon, but it also made them valuable, deadly weapons.  Swords were so prized, in fact, that their owners often gave them names, like Excalibur.  Charlemagne’s sword was named “Joyeuse”.

These innovations defined the Middle Ages as the age of knights and armor, swords and battle, but also expanded agriculture and monumental architecture.  And this was all well and good, but in the High Middle Ages, the fourteenth century to be exact, metallurgy merged with another powerful technology, water power, to set the stage for the Industrial Revolution.  The processes for converting ore into metal into arms and tools was already in place.  When water power was added to it, creating more powerful hammers that didn’t rely on human strength, blast furnaces that were able to run hotter and longer and refine metal to a purer degree without direct human attention, and mines that were able to dig deeper as new pump technology allowed for water to be removed, mankind was ready to make a monumental advancement.

But that’s a story for a different day.

Just keep in mind as you mistakenly use the word “medieval” to equate with crude and ignorant that the arms and armor created by these smiths a thousand years ago and the metal hinges, gates, and fastenings that they created for the great castles and cathedrals of Europe are still there.  And they still work.


6 thoughts on “Medeival Monday – Arms and the Man

  1. Fascinating; but my son Lars, the military history writer and military politics commentator notices a slight error in the first word of the headline ;-/

  2. Plate armour is easy to wear. It weighs about 65 pounds, the same as a suit of mail armour. Its awesomely articulated and very agile. The reason men drowned in mud in it wasn’t because of the weight, but because of the way mud sticks to it. Its rather like the effect you get wearing rubber boots in the mud.

    Mail is actually very easy to make. get some wire, wrap it around a dowel, remove the dowel, cut the coil of wire. This gives you rings. Then link the rings together, with each link linking to four other links. Rivet the links to close them. Voila! Mail armour. I have a rivetted mail hauberk at home I made myself. It was invented by the celts long before the birth of christ.

    Early medieval smiths preferred to take bars of iron and twist them together. The purpose of folding and twisting is to even out the carbon content of the iron, rather the way kneeding dough evens it out. Late medieval iron was far superior, and smiths could work it without pattern welding or folding.

    If you are interested in how they fought, check out the HEMA movement which is recreating medieval martial arts from period manuscripts.

    • Thanks! That’s really interesting. I had read about the process of folding metal to get the carbon, etc out but I didn’t have space to include all of that in this post. (I try to stick to 1000 words or less). And I’m really impressed that you’ve made your own mail! =D

  3. It took a few years working an hour here and an hour there. Mail is not hard to make, but it is VERY time consuming. It would have taken even longer if I had decided to heat treat the links…so screw that! Just look on youtube..there are dozens of vids on mail construction

    I am not a reenactor, nor do I roleplay, but I am a serious martial artist and an member of a group that is studying the medieval manuscript “Fior di Battaglia”. I wanted to try and construct a reasonably period accurate harness.

  4. please, can you tell me from where and when is the second image? (the one where there is a women)
    thank you

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