We are familiar with the fact that as many interpersonal conflicts are unpleasant, they are often inevitable, so over the course of history, people needed to find a way to protect themselves during those difficult moments. We all wish to avoid battles, especially if the cost of one is human life, but at the times when people couldn't avoid combats, they needed special equipment to protect themselves. And armor has proven itself to be the most efficient in those dark times. Modern-day armor has saved thousands of lives since it was first invented, but some of you may wonder - how was it invented?
Since the need for protection is inborn, we can easily say that the history of armor is as old as humankind. In a broad sense, the first type of armor was no different than regular clothes because the primary thing humans needed shelter from is bad weather.
Armor evolved from thick pieces of clothing and metal to the body armour worn by the military, police, security guards, and personal bodyguards, and somewhere between those two, it existed in the form of plate armor. Today we are going to tell you a story about plate armor, its origins, and development through history.
History of Plate Armor
Primal traces of plate armor were noticed during the last phase of the Bronze Age, somewhere between 1600–1100 century BC in Ancient Greece. Mycenaean plate armor, how it is often called among historians, was typically made of bronze, and it consisted of several, not-so-well connected parts, leaving most of the body exposed. Because of the price of the material, this plate armor was made of not many people could afford it, and it was mostly worn by the members of the military. Mycenaean plate armor became better century after century until it finally evolved into its later cousin - lorica segmentata.
During the rise of the Roman Empire, plate armour still remained in use, but some parts of it were slightly improved. Just like the Ancient Greeks, Roman soldiers wore helmets made of steel to protect their heads, but the type of protection they would use for their upper body was somewhat dissimilar. Romans would use metal stripes made of bronze, iron, or steel to ensure the vital parts of their body, leaving legs and arms free, while the rest of the body was fastened with leather. This old cousin of plate armour was called lorica segmentata, and it served its purpose well enough for centuries to come.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, plate armor fell into oblivion until the period between the late 15th and early 16th century. At that time, the rise of the medieval metal industry was at its peak. Therefore, weapons, helmets, mail skirts, and armour were of higher quality. All pieces of armour were much less heavy, which allowed the warrior to fight more easily, even when riding a horse. The warriors who wished to have full coverage of all parts of the body oftentimes wore various heavy weapons and up to 30kg of metal on top of their regular war attire.
Some parts of armor eventually started to become more and more obsolete. And that is the case with a part of armor called a coat of plates. Coat of plates is mostly connected to the period of military history known as transitional armor, when the typical war attire went from simple mail chains to full steel plate armour. Coat of plates was mostly worn by the members of the army and rarely by the civilians, even in the cases of war. As we previously mentioned, the coat of plates first appeared in the form of a simple mail chain, but as the metal industry progressed over the next period of time, it evolved into armours we know as brigandine and jack of plates. Jack of plates, also knowns as simply 'jack,' would later become modern body armor, that we still use today.
During the Renaissance period, firearms were far more popular than cold weapons. Since plate armor hasn't proven itself to provide the best protection against bullets, its usage slowly began to lose its primary purpose. Still, it remained an essential part of knights' attire.
Items a typical plate armor consisted of slightly vary from one culture to the other. In this segment of the article, we will try to mention the most important parts of it, regardless of the time frame they were made in.
The first component of full plate armor is naturally a helmet that came in various shapes and forms. Mail coif, the oldest cousin of a helmet we know today, appeared during 500BC, and it was made of a flexible metal chain that covered the head, throat, neck, and it was connected to the mail shirt that covered the upper part of the body. After mail coifs, helmets started evolving into separate pieces, and as time went by, they covered more and more parts of the skin. In the period between the early 14th and mid 15th century, a type of helmet called bassinet became widely utilized among Medieval soldiers. Bassinets were skullcaps made of either iron or steel and were oftentimes worn beneath another helmet that provided extra protection.
The next 100 years was the period of time when helmets reached their full glory. After bassinet came a sallet, a short-tailed helmet made of steel that was used to cover the back of the neck. The shape of a sallet probably influenced Nazi helmets during the WW2. The next important form of a helmet was developed during the late 14th century and was commonly known as the close helm. Close helm is what we usually have in mind when talking about the plate armour, since it the type of helmet popular culture usually represents.
When did Plate Armor Stop Being Used?
It is important to remember that although full plate armour was widely used ten centuries ago, medieval warriors weren't the only ones to see the benefits of this metal suit. In fact, plate armour remained in use up until World War I. Naturally, as the time passed, the plate armour was made of lighter materials than it was during the medieval era, and because of its high quality continued to provide full coverage of both front and back of the soldier's body
Soon after World War I, it became obvious that although plate armour could provide high protection against cold weapons, it hasn't proven so well against firearms. During the middle 20th century it was clear that the plate armour became obsolete for the new form of warfare that was ahead. It was during the WW2 when the horses were entirely replaced with different combat vehicles, hot weapons replaced the cold, and a flak jacket became the new protection armour.
Although passed two centuries brought many technological improvements when it comes to warfare, no one can deny that the moral aspect of it wouldn't be something medieval knights would approve.
What is a Full Suite of Armor Called?
During the late Middle Ages, there was a far more popular name for the suit of steel we are talking about today. Namely, when 15th century Europeans discussed the topic of a full suit of plate armour, they preferred the ancient Greek term panoply. Since panoply's literal translation is 'all arms', it is no wonder why it represented the full plate armour medieval knights used for protection during war.
Can Plate Armor Stop a Bullet?
When we are talking about any type of full plate armour, especially the medieval one, it is important to mention that no type of armour could make a person invulnerable. Although most full plate armours could give you protection from a medieval sword, it is fair to say that they were far from bulletproof. 15th-century bullets were a lot slower and had much less penetration power than the bullets we use today, but even then, an experienced shooter could easily break through a metal plate used for protection.
Did Knights Wear Plate Armor all the Time?
In movies, books, and fairy tales about the medieval times knights are represented as almost ideal and superhuman beings who put their values above everything. A knight was a person you could trust during the medieval and renaissance times and a person you wanted to become in modern ones. But were knights really always wearing a full plate armor or larp armour all the time? Or are some things simply too unrealistic to expect?
As you already know, plate armour was mostly used for military purposes until the late 15th and early 16th century, but a battlefield wasn't the only place you could see a knight in it. Since medieval plate armours were very heavy and uncomfortable, especially for an inexperienced young knight, it was important for the soldiers to wear this suit of steel, even in times of peace. Many medieval knights wore the plate armour just to get used to the heavyweight of it, so they are well prepared for the war.
Common Misconceptions about Plate Armor
The first of many popular misconceptions about medieval and and renaissance plate armour is probably that full plate armour was worn only by knights. Although armour served its purpose to horse riders during lance tournaments, it wasn't the only thing it was used for.
As almost no army in the history of military consisted only of full-time soldiers, but of common people as well, it would be unrealistic to believe that the medieval knights were the only ones who fought during the Middle Ages. Therefore, it is fair to say that not only knights wore full plate armour, but all the men who needed protection during the war.
The other misinterpretation of full plate armour that became popular in modern times, is that most steel armours were so heavy, they made the soldiers immobile. Over the centuries, full plate armor started to become much lighter and more comfortable both for the medieval rider and his horse.
How Much does Plate Armor Cost?
The fact that most modern museums exhibit only the best plate armors they have, made many people believe that all plate armors were of excellent quality and high cost, and that is simply far from the truth. In fact, most plate armours from the late 14th to early 16th century were of an affordable cost for most medieval soldiers.
Just like during the 15th century, price of a full plate armor nowadays depends on different factors. One of those factors is naturally the time in history that specific armour was made. The older the armour is, the more popular it becomes among medieval and renaissance connoisseurs who are willing to invest their money in one of these precious items. And just in case you are one of the potential buyers, in would be fair to mention that depending on the quality, the cost of most plate armours you can buy today is estimated to be from 5 to 50 thousand dollars.
We hope we managed to shed light on this almost forgotten topic from Medieval history and provided you with some proper knowledge you can later share with other armor lovers. We also want to admonish that although plate armour served its noble purpose in the history of humankind, we can only hope that unless you are a collector, you keep it in the back of your closet.