Skip to content

Harness Overview – Basic Principles


Contents overview

  1. Basic principles and philosophy of protection
  2. Armour and society
  3. Nature of warfare
  4. Weapons, shields and armour interaction
  5. Terminology

Philosophy of protection

Armour is supposed to protect the wearer. This protection however can never be absolute, and its extent varies depending on technology, available materials, threats faced, climate and so on. Thus, priorities are necessary.

This list of priorities is based on physical and biological realities, and thus roughly corresponds to priorities of human skeleton. From looking at said skeleton, it is clear that there are only two areas which are protected by external (or more accurately, subdermal) bones: head and chest. This is because they contain crucial organs. Brain is located in top of the head, and it is a fairly sensitive organ to boot. Heart is located in the chest, and it is organ responsible for supplying entire body with oxygen – without which brain damage happens in maybe 5 minutes.

First Tier

Therefore, cranial and chest protection are the first order of business. Of two, cranial protection is more important, as brain is more easily damaged than even heart. Consequently soldiers always gave priority to cranial protection, acquiring even metal helmets long before acquiring textile body armour (which would be much cheaper than a metal helmet). Roman velites, medieval archers and crossbowmen, and also medieval light cavalry and infantry oftentimes wore no armour at all – but they always wore helmet (and, if possible, shield). Face protection is a different matter. Face is not rigid and is thus more difficult to armour, and protecting face often involves tradeoff in terms of sight, hearing and speech. Thus many helmets left face exposed. Neck is also left unprotected in many cases – despite being critical target, mobility of neck is important and shape of neck means that it is difficult to protect. As such, while missile troops may protect neck, close-combat troops will likely leave face and neck unprotected by rigid defences until proper protection is available. What was used were scarves. By the time full plate armour appears however, missiles are enough of a threat that some kind of neck and face protection is necessary: Gothic armour used a combination of sallet helmet with bevor plate to provide neck and face protection while still allowing good head mobility (for this reason, Gothic plate harness is perhaps ideal plate armour, but more on that in next post).

Next in terms of priority is chest protection. While chest is armoured, much like cranium, it also contains extremely important organs. Abdomen also contains important organs as well as a large number of important veins. Chest will usually be given priority over abdomen, for two reasons. First, while both contain vital organs, heart and lungs are easily more important than most if not all organs in abdominal region. Second, chest is closer to arms, and thus much more easily reached by the enemy. Especially with short weapons, reaching targets low on body is difficult. Further, frontal protection is given priority over back, as it is ideal (and logical) to be facing the opponent.

Second tier

At this stage, armour will not protect hips or thighs – at least not with solid protection. Ancient Greek, Roman and early medieval plate cuirass all terminated at natural waist, that is, the narrowest part of torso. Shoulders, hips and thighs were protected by a skirt of freely-hanging leather strips. Medieval textile armour also often covered only upper arms and upper legs, leaving lower arms and legs exposed. Later 16th century almain rivet also protected shoulders, hips and thighs, but left rest of the limbs unprotected. Half-exception here is 15th century half-plate armour worn by infantrymen, which included complete head, torso and arms protection, but legs were protected only by fauld and tassets, while lower legs (lower thighs, knees and below) were protected by tall boots if by anything at all.

It should be noted that it is never the case that second tier is included but first tier is not, or is less extensive than second-tier protection. Thus while a complete suit of textile armour makes sense, suit of textile armour with metal shoulder protection does not. What can be the case is that shoulder pads are left exposed while body is protected by textile or leather armour with metal inserts: for example, coat of plates or a brigandine. Else, body armour might be covered in textile, as is the case here.

Third tier

Third tier includes least important areas – legs and arms. Both of these are fairly hard to armour while also being rather mobile and – in case of arms – not very big targets. Arms also hold weapons and/or shields which can block attacks. As noted before, when armouring arms and legs, it is upper arms and upper legs (thighs) that are given priority, as they are closer to body and thus less mobile and harder to hit, as well as often being larger targets. Lowest priority are hand and feet protection, as they are even harder to armour while also being even harder to hit.

One exception to this tiering can happen if infantry is equipped with large shields (e.g. Greek hoplites, Roman legionaries). In this case, lower leg protection may be included even if upper leg protection is not – or even if no protection other than shield and helmet is. Reason for this is that shields rarely cover lower part of the leg, and leg will also often leave protection of the shield. Being rigid, shin is also easy to armour.

Armour and Society

Armour also tells much about the society. A highly stratified society with warrior class might have extremely high-quality armour for said class, while most troops remain relatively – or absolutely – unprotected. A more equal society may skimp on relatively high-level armour in order to provide adequate protection for as many soldiers as possible. Further, in a highly stratified society which has contact with more advanced societies nearby, ruling class will import high-quality armour while remainder has to do with whatever is locally available.

Heavy infantry- centric armies are thus a feature of relatively socially equal societies. Ancient Greek polises relied on middle-class of landowners to provide heavy infantry, as did Roman Republic and Byzantine Empire of 7th to 11th centuries (in last case, this middle class – stratioti – also provided light cavalry). Frankish state of Charles Martell also had very few nobles and large landowners, but many middle-class landowners – and thus high-quality heavy infantry which won them the Battle of Tours (it should be noted however that Arab cavalry actually broke into Frankish infantry square at several points, despite unfavourable terrain and Frankish discipline; more on topic here). Very existence of heavy infantry means that society both possesses and values extensive middle class, as only middle class can provide effective heavy infantry. In contrast, feudal societies often had no or very little infantry, and what infantry there was was typically lightly armed and armoured. It was also untrained – only professional soldiers were men-at-arms, who were mounted – and thus could not have acted as heavy infantry even if equipment had been available. When heavy infantry started appearing again, these were mostly mercenaries as opposed to organic troops, for precisely this reason – and often (as with Swiss pikemen and English longbowmen) came from societies which had extensive middle class. Other source of such infantry were independent cities, again due to existence of extensive middle class in said cities; for this reason, primary user of pikes were urban militia troops.

Further, standardization of armour is also significant factor. Highly standardized armour means either mass-issue by centralized production system (e.g. Roman lorica segmentata, early modern almain rivet) or else specialized production by relatively few production centres (e.g. Gothic plate armour). Mass issue of armour by large number of decentralized production centres should lead to a fair degree of variation – this can be seen by comparing Gothic armour (from Germany) with Milanese armour (produced in Italy). English also developed their own style of armour, while everybody else used either German or (more commonly) Italian armour. In fact, since 15th century plate armour was issued individually, there was much more variation than what would be suggested by nature of its production in relatively few geographically-concentrated centres. Fully standardized armour only reappears with appearance of mass-produced almain rivet, a one-size-fits-no-one armour for professional pikemen. This was in fact a half-plate infantry armour, similar to what was already utilized for heavy infantry in 15th century, although latter generally had more extensive arm protection – infantry armour being simply plate armour with no leg armour. Almain rivet also had no underlying metal protection, though padded jack or buff coat was used to protect against chafing and some attacks alike.

Infantry which fights in formation (e.g. pikemen) needs to be well-trained. This indicates at the very least middle-class militia, and more likely professional troops. Because of this, and nature of combat, such infantry is likely to have at least some armour.

Nature of warfare

Above are not the only factors in armour type and utilization. Armoured heavy infantry and cavalry usually indicate a culture that is focused on direct confrontations and shock action. This is the reason why Western soldiers were heavily armoured, as knightly ideals produced a culture which focused on direct confrontation of armed forces – culture which persists even today. In Byzantine Empire of 7th – 9th centuries and, later, Croatia, Hungary and Poland of 15th – 17th centuries, necessities of facing a massively superior Arab (Byzantine) or Ottoman (rest) military machine coupled with Arab and Ottoman’s own military culture produced an emphasis on avoidance of direct combat, substituting instead quick raids and counter-raids. For this reason, all states listed relied heavily on light cavalry. In fact, nature of warfare against Islamic powers – that is, constant “small war” along the border – led to development of specialized light cavalry units dedicated to this type of warfare. Thus appearance in Byzantine Empire of tasinaroi and trapezitai light cavalry, and in 15th century Central Europe of hussar cavalry also using similar approach. Due to mountainous terrain, Byzantine Empire also heavily employed akritai and apelatai – light infantry recruited from Armenians and the native Roman population. By comparison, Croatian, Hungarian and Polish armies are almost exclusively cavalry during 15th century, though light infantry was also important – especially in mountainous terrain of southern Croatia.

In Western Europe, focus was on heavy cavalry and infantry. Knightly cavalry, supported by mounted crossbowmen, fought through shock action. Raids were not unknown – chevauchee tactics were well-documented during 100 Years War – but were secondary in importance to battlefield clashes and sieges. English launched major chevauchees on average once every ten years, which does not come close to yearly razzia raids which Arabs launched into Byzantine territory, nor to Ottoman Akinjis which could launch multiple raids each year. Still, importance of cavalry may well have been a holdover of Viking, Saracen and Magyar raids, as early armies were predominantly infantry – and thus could not react to raids quickly enough.

Terrain is also significant factor. Open plains will lead to dominance of cavalry, whereas mountainous terrain means that infantry will be more important, regardless of the type of warfare waged. What type of warfare will decide is whether said troops will fall into “heavy” or “light” categories. Light infantry – slingers and javeliners in particular – was important in mountainous terrain of Iberian peninsula, Balkans and Anatolia. When it went on offensive, Byzantine Empire also introduced large numbers of heavy infantry, as did Spain. In contrast, 16th century Hungarian and Croatian armies, often fighting on open plains of Pannonia, had high proportion of light cavalry – as did Polish and Russian armies of period. Even so, Ottoman armies also were dominated by cavalry, despite mountainous nature of their empire; reason is likely the fact that Ottoman warfare was focused on raiding. Switzerland, another mountainous country but surrounded by Western-style opponents, developed highly effective heavy pike infantry.

Weapons, shields and armour interaction

Weapons and protection generally respond to each other. Greek soldiers fought in phalanx, with spears. Since armour only covered head and torso, large shield was necessary for protection. Macedonian phalanx reduced shield and lightened armour in order to adopt two-handed sarissa – but shield was still important because of incomplete protection of armour. Roman legionaries had massive shield but used one-handed weapons, with various javelins as primary and cut-and-stab gladius as secondary weapon. During late Empire, quadratical shield and javelins were exchanged for a large round shield, spear and mail armour. This combination was standard for early medieval infantry, while cavalry utilized same equipment but with a smaller shield.

Mail armour protects well against cutting weapons, but not against piercing weapons – such as arrows, javelins, darts, stabbing spears and swords. Because of this, shield is still necessary for mail-armoured troops. Lamellar armour is better against piercing attacks, but harder to provide complete protection with, and thus also requires a shield. Even so, widespread adoption of mail required adaptation with new weapons – swords with geometric pyramidal shape and narrower blade, axes with smaller heads, as well as introduction of weapons such as maces and flails. This led to development of armour with added mail protection which in turn led to development of weapons designed to strike into gaps (such as rondel dagger, already mentioned narrow swords – estoc). In response (and possibly as allowed by developing metallurgy), armoured plates extended to cover gaps in armour, thus minimizing vulnerable areas which could be exploited – end result was development of a full plate armor, such as Milanese or Gothic style. Response to that was development of war hammers, pollaxes, military picks and guns which could defeat the plate directly. Likewise, widespread adoption of crossbows and – later – pikes on battlefield led to development of barding to protect the horse.

What this means is that weapons and armour must make sense relative to each other. In era of plate armour, sword was a backup weapon – and possibly backup weapon for a backup weapon. Primary weapon was lance for a knight, pike for professional infantry and bow/crossbow for missile troops, with warhammer being backup weapon for all three. Pike however requires excellent training, and thus implies professional troops. Less well trained infantry might use warhammers (technically, pollaxes) or similar blunt weapons as primary weapons, with sword being a backup (a literal sidearm). Out of all these weapons, only warhammer and pollaxe could reliable penetrate armoured plate, but their issue was lack of reach. With lance, pike, bows, swords and daggers, soldier could only injure opponent by targeting gaps between plates, though heavy lance might (?) have been able to pierce lower-quality infantry plate. But lance and pike both provided massive reach advantage, which was major advantage in mounted combat or when facing cavalry.

Similar situation existed during era of mail armour, except shields were required for protection against missiles. As a result, one-handed spears were much more common (though cavalry still utilized lances – and Byzantine kataphraktoi with their heavy lamellar armour often had no shield), and instead of pollaxes, variety of one-handed anti-armour weapons were used. Clubs, maces, morningstars were used in addition to warhammers, as force did not need to be as focused to get through mail.

Against unarmoured enemies, ranged weapons were always preferred. Roman legions used javelins as their primary weapons, with bows and slings supplementing legionary “firepower”. Primary (and in case of legionaries, only) backup weapon was gladius, a short cutting-and-stabbing sword.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: