Perfect Portrayals, Imperfect Objects: How Armour Should Look and Fit in Reenactment

Dada a extensão deste artigo, achei por bem publicar as versões inglesa e portuguesa em separado. Para a versão portuguesa, cliquem aqui.

When it comes to armour in reenactment, everyone knows: armour must fit, and it must fit well. But does this preoccupation with fit mirror historical reality? Was all historical armour made to fit a specific wearer like a second skin, or is our contemporary obsession with accurate fit a reenactorism? To what extent, if any, is a less-than-ideal fit not only accurate, but also desirable for our portrayals?

Medieval Armour, and How to Purchase It

Anyone seeking armour during the late Middle Ages had several ways to go about it. A man with money would have had armour made bespoke, from scratch, to fit his individual body and tastes. As Nicholas Dupras put it, commissioning high-quality armour would ‘require consultation and measurements in much the same way as bespoke tailors work today’ (and, indeed, as they worked back then) [1]. Patrons would visit armourers’ workshops (tendas, in Portuguese) to be measured, assessed, and to set out their specific ideas for a harness. If a patron was important enough, the armourers themselves would come to them: such was the case with Francesco Missaglia, a member of the famous Missaglia family of Milanese armourers and armour merchants, who in 1466 stayed for a few days at the court of king Louis XI of France to take the monarch’s measurements. Kings and princes had their own cadres of appointed armourers, sometimes entire families working for them – a working relationship which often extended across entire generations [2].

Bespoke armour was, of course, the upper end of the scale. At the lower end was armour commissioned in lots to furnish arsenals and equip large bodies of men. This is the armour we see bought in its hundreds and thousands of pieces from large production centres (in the case of Portugal, mostly from Italy and Flanders), to be stored in warehouses, arsenals and castles, at the ready for any eventuality; or acquired in small portions from armourers and merchants by individuals, to armour themselves or their entourages. These pieces were made in standard sizes, expected to fit any number of different men (and different bodies) as needed. And it wasn’t just mass-produced, low quality armour that got commissioned wholesale. In 1476, Álvaro Lopes de Chaves, secretary to king Afonso V, recorded the king’s wishes to acquire five hundred harnesses from Genoa to give to his knights in lieu of pay, to wage war against Castile [3]. Though these harnesses were meant to equip wealthy individuals, it is doubtful that any individual measurements would’ve been taken for such a large order.

Standard-sized or custom-made, armour wasn’t always bought new from the shop. It could be inherited, for example, handed down from brother to brother, from liege lord to servant, from father to son – like the complete set Vasco de Sousa left his son Gil in 1359 [4]. Armour could also be lent for a specific occasion, as it was to some of the knights who took part in the Paso Honroso in 1434 – including Asbert de Claramunt, sadly killed not because his borrowed harnesss didn’t fit him, but because of ‘a chance blow through the eye-slit’ [5].

Fit versus Shape

The metal polisher Hanns Pernecker (1483), depicted in the Hausbuch der Mendelschen Zwolfbruderstiftung from Nuremberg.

It is clear, therefore, that most armour was usually not made with a specific end user in mind. Even when it was, it often found its way into the hands of someone else who may not fit the first wearer’s proportions exactly.

Yet no-one at the time seemed to be bothered by the fact that most armour didn’t fit them. The reason why this happened wasn’t just tied to market economy, to poorer soldiers being content with getting any armour at all to protect them, no matter its shape. Rather, it had a lot to do with how armour itself was made. Today, we tend to assume that cheaper prices mean imperfect designs – the so-called one-size-fits-none approach. In the modern mindset, an armourer’s skill in shaping metal is directly proportional to how much their pieces cost: the cheaper the piece, the more inaccurate in shape we expect it to be. Though this is generally true for the 21st century, it wasn’t true for the Middle Ages. All medieval armourers knew, at least to a certain extent, how pieces should be shaped to fit the human body – the learning process weeded bad armourers out (badly shaped pieces would, after all, get people killed). Therefore, a historical piece of armour’s ultimate price only partially reflected the skill involved in anatomically shaping it – a basic skill for any armourer at the time -, whilst other factors, such as the materials and effort employed in making and finishing said piece, were much more relevant than they are today. Whereas today even a neophyte armourer can achieve a quick and consistent degree of surface polishing, for example, in the 14th and 15th centuries surface finish had a great impact on the final price, since polishing was one of the most time-consuming and laborious stages in armour-making. If a piece is made to fit correct human proportions, however, even a few standard sizes can cover significant variances in body shapes via small working life adjustments made to straps, padding/liners, and/or by trimming away (or even adding) bits of material. And we must also bear in mind that, and as my friend Callum Tostevin-Hall hypothesised, we have some reason to believe that there was far less variance in body shape, size and height back then than there is today [6] – which meant medieval standard sizes went a long way compared to standard sizes today.

Armour in Reenactment

The issue with modern pieces, therefore, is that there is little to sometimes no difference in value between something black from the forge – a common finish for low-quality armour during the Middle Ages – or something mirror-polished. The value of modern armour is almost entirely tied to how accurate its final shape is. The same, say, design for gauntlets can cost almost the exact same, no matter whether they’re made standard-sized, mass-produced armour or high-end bespoke pieces to fit one set of hands alone. And because good reenactors know that there are no acceptable “off the rack” pieces when it comes to shape, it’s in for a penny, in for a pound: since one’s paying a reputable armourer anyway (because most of us can’t make armour ourselves), why not have things fit our dimensions exactly, given that the cost is the same? Why spend hundreds on a helmet that won’t fit my head properly, if the same exact amount of money can ensure I can get one that does?

Where does this leave us then? Well, this leaves us in a peculiar place where even pieces designed to look like part of a poor soldier’s kit, something supposedly taken from the town arsenal or given for the duration of the campaign by one’s lord, all fit everyone like a glove. In other words: even in mimicking imperfection, we make things too neat and perfect.

This doesn’t just apply to armour, of course. The same applies to hose, for example, and the enduring obsession for the most perfect, tightest hose possible (a pursuit in which any wrinkle is anathema, no matter what class you’re portraying). But it is particularly noticeable with armour because most of us have to buy it from someone (unlike clothes, for example), and spend considerable amounts of money doing so.

How to fix this? In truth, for those of us portraying anything other than the upper echelons of society, there are only two options. The first is sourcing good second-hand kit that fits us reasonably well – a rare possibility, since there is almost no supply for good second-hand armour to cater to such vast demand. The second option is investing directly in something made to be imperfect – a question which forces us to balance the limits of authenticity against other personal factors. Do we want full historical accuracy, or do we make concessions that are, at the end of the day, rather imperceptible for all others except ourselves?

At the very least, knowing that most medieval armour wasn’t made to fit should be something of a consolation when we buy good, well-shaped equipment that doesn’t quite fit out of the box. Disappointing? Undoubtedly. But also undoubtedly accurate – and isn’t that what we’re after in proper re-enactment?

[1] Dupras, N. (2012) Armourers and their workshops The tools and techniques of late medieval armour production [doctoral thesis]. Leeds: University of Leeds, p. 80.

[2] The best-known examples of which are arguably the Helmschmied family of Augsburg, armourers to several Holy Roman emperors as well as the archdukes of Austria and Tyrol, and the Seusenhofer family, tasked with running Maximilian I’s imperial workshop at Innsbruck. Portuguese monarchs, too, had their own chosen families of armourers – for example, Afonso Pires was armourer to King Duarte, while his father João Pires had been armourer to King João I’s (Duarte’s father and predecessor). See Monteiro, J. G. (2001). Armeiros e Armazéns nos Finais da Idade Média. Viseu: Palimage Editores, pp. 18-19.

[3] Chaves, A. (1984). Livro de Apontamentos (1438-1489). Lisboa: Imprensa Nacional Casa da Moeda, pp. 54-55.

[4] Gil inherited ‘o cavallo do dito Vasco de Sousa, seu Padre, e huma espada, e huma lança, e huma loriga de cavallo, e duas ffalhas [solhas], e huum elmo com sseu camalho, e huuns braçaes[1], e huuns mosequinrs, e humas luvas d’aço, e huuns coixotes, e caneleiras velhas de coiro[2], e huum escudo, e çapatos de ferro hunns (‘The horse of said Vasco de Sousa, his father, and a sword, and a spear, and a horse’s maille armour, and two coats of plates, and a helm with its camail, and bracers , and musekins, and steel gloves, and a pair of cuisses, and old leather greaves, and a shield, and of solerets one pair’ [my own translation]). Originally published under the entry for ‘Camalho’, in Santa Rosa de Viterbo, J. (1966). Elucidário das Palavras, Termos e Frases que em Portugal Antigamente se Usaram e que Hoje Regularmente se Ignoram, 2. Lisboa/Porto: Livraria Civilização, p. 64.

[5] Fallows, N. (20112). Jousting in Medieval and Renaissance Iberia. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, p. 88.

[6] See for example Steckel, R. (2004). “New Light on the “Dark Ages”: The Remarkably Tall Stature of Northern European Men during the Medieval Era”, in Social Science History, 28 (2). Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 211-228.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Chaves, A. (1984). Livro de Apontamentos (1438-1489). Lisboa: Imprensa Nacional Casa da Moeda

Dupras, N. (2012) Armourers and their workshops The tools and techniques of late medieval armour production [doctoral thesis]. Leeds: University of Leeds

Fallows, N. (20112). Jousting in Medieval and Renaissance Iberia. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer

Monteiro, J. G. (2001). Armeiros e Armazéns nos Finais da Idade Média. Viseu: Palimage Editores

Santa Rosa de Viterbo, J. (1966). Elucidário das Palavras, Termos e Frases que em Portugal Antigamente se Usaram e que Hoje Regularmente se Ignoram, 2. Lisboa/Porto: Livraria Civilização

Steckel, R. (2004). “New Light on the “Dark Ages”: The Remarkably Tall Stature of Northern European Men during the Medieval Era”, in Social Science History, 28 (2). Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 211-228.

VISUAL SOURCES

Hausbuch der Mendelschen Zwolfbruderstiftung (end of the 14th century to the early 16th century). Nuremberg: Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg

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