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Harness Overview – 15th Century Gothic Armour

Nature of combat

Gothic armour developed in 15th century. At this time, warfare was in fact highly complex, professional (with few exceptions) and varied. As such, soldiers had to cope with a significant variety of threats. Especially mounted knights and men-at-arms – the only ones to use full Gothic armour (though infantry wore half-plate) – had to cope with:

  1. infantry armed with crossbows and spears
  2. early professional infantry armed with crossbows and pikes
  3. early gunpowder weapons
  4. other missile weapons (longbows, short bows, javelins…)
  5. polearms
  6. artillery

This placed significant requirements on armourers. Armour had to be flexible enough – and, when necessary, provide enough visibility and audibility – for hand-to-hand combat, yet be capable of providing enough coverage to protect wearer against various forms of missile fire. This was very difficult to do, but Gothic armour provided a reasonably good answer to these challenges.

Further, Western European warfare was based primarily around shock action, that is, clash of arms. As such, protection was prioritized over everything else: endurance, visibility and communication were given much lower priority, as fully-enclosed helmet attests. In fact, armour provided such extensive protection that cavalrymen did not wear shields; only infantry did, because it often abandoned leg protection in exchange for greater mobility in close combat. Men-at-arms however often fought on foot, as horses were much more rarely protected, and could number up to 60% of army.

Armour overview

Armour provided complete coverage, head-to-toe. Plate protection was very extensive, and what gaps were left in it were protected by mail voiders. Unlike fantasy armours, many if not most surviving gothic armours are relatively slim. This is a result of two factors: first, body type of armour’s wearer, and second, sheer practicality. When it comes to first factor, available accounts show that slim and agile body type was considered ideal for combat, though naturally reality often did not conform to the ideal. Second aspect was that armour had to be close fit to the wearer, in order to provide maximum protection while getting in the way as little as possible. Unnecessary protrusions will have added weight (as more material is required to protect greater volume) and also caused armour to possibly catch things it was not supposed to. Plate thickness varied according to priority and also mechanical strain plate would have to bear; thus not only did thicknesses of different pieces of armour vary, but so did different parts of same plate vary considerably in thickness. Naturally, front of the helmet and front of breastplate were the thickest parts of armour.

Plates were – in German armours especially – reinforced by flutings and curves. These provided mechanical reinforcement to armour, reducing impact of blunt damage from blows. Fluting also prevented strikes from deflecting into more vulnerable areas.

Armour was tested by having crossbow bolt shot at it from a close range. Later, a musket was used. If armour passed the test, it was stamped with armourer’s mark. This was referred to as “armour proofing“. Already by 1347. there existed in England regulations for proofing armour against crossbow bolts. The 1448. Statutes of Armuriers Fourbisseurs d’Angers stated that, in order to be fully proofed, an armour had to be tested with a windlass crossbow (arballeste a tilloes). Pieces that passed the standard were stamped with two assayer’s marks. Pieces that were half-proofed only had to withstand a shot from a belt-and-claw crossbow (arbaleste a croc) and were awarded only a single assayer’s mark. Arrows of proof had their heads dipped in wax, which allowed them to reduce deflection, as proven on Todd’s Workshop.

Since wearer had to remain mobile, there were areas which could not be protected even by articulated plates. These were armpit and knee pit areas as well as inside of the elbow (“antecubital fossa”) and groin area. These areas were protected by mail voiders – pieces of mail armour sewn onto arming doublet.

This armour was naturally very difficult to produce. Nobility of Hungary and Croatia typically ordered their armour from southern Germany or northern Italy. While there were armourers in England (and France) capable of producing full plate armour, nobility of these areas also often placed orders abroad.

Plate armour consisted of a helmet, a gorget (or a bevor), pauldrons (or spaulders), besagews, couters, vambraces, gauntlets, a cuirass with a fauld, tassets, a culet, cuisses, poleyns, greaves, sabatons and mail voiders (most notably mail skirt and underarm protection). Complete suit of Gothic armour weighted 15 – 20 kg, with weight being carried primarily on shoulders (head, torso and arms protection) and hips (leg armour). Because of this, the wearer remained highly agile and could jump, run, climb, do cartwheels, handwalks, and even swim (if for a very short time). For comparison, half-plate used by infantry – essentially identical to full plate but without leg harness and helmet visor – weighted some 8 kg.

Weight distribution is as follows:

  • helmet: 2,1 kg
  • bevor: 1,36 kg
  • breastplate: 2,34 kg
  • plackart and skirt: 1,97 kg
  • backplate: 3,64 kg
  • arms armour: 3,64 kg
  • legs armour: 6,03 kg
  • TOTAL: 21,08 kg

Head protection

Head protection consisted of a helmet and a bevor. Bevor was necessary because helmet – typically of a sallet type (originated in Italy but most popular in Germany) – protected only top half of the head, to just below the nose. This had disadvantage in that any strikes which did not penetrate the plate would still affect the head, which could result in head and neck trauma / injuries despite the padding usually provided for the helmet. Major advantage of a sallet helmet was that, since it sat freely on the head, it did not impede turning of the head. When combined with movable visor – as later sallets were – this could allow the knight excellent visibility and very good hearing. Visor itself was often sculpted so that plate to each side of vision slot was concave, thus ensuring that hits close to vision slit will slide away from it. While vision slot is narrow, it is also very close to the face and thus allows for (relatively) good field of view. Extension of plate above vision slot meant that helmet had double thickness of plate over the forehead, and visor was designed in such a way that it always fit snugly to the helmet no matter the angle. Helmet did not protect lower part of face or the throat, which was done by addition of a bevor – a plate protection affixed to the breastplate. Bevor itself could be made of single piece of plate, or made of two plates with upper plates being articulated – allowing it to be lowered. If articulated, it was called falling buffe. Compared to bascinet, both helmet itself and the visor were much smaller and lighter, thus reducing strain on knight’s head, and allowing visor to be raised and lowered much more easily. As usual, there tended to be regional variations. Italian sallets were more curved than German ones, which tended to be more angular. Some German sallets also had ridges, which may have provided structural reinforcement.

Some Italian sallets (but rarely German ones) were provided with no visor, and likely used by missile troops which required good visibility. This type of sallet appeared by 1460., while German type of sallet appeared in 1450. – 1460.. As noted, German sallet was less curved than Italian ones. While still round-skulled, it was less curvaceous and had rear of the helmet drawn out into a long tail. This tail was often segmented into a number of lames (“lobstered”, though I am unsure whether that particular term is historical) and it became longer with time. Early sallets of German (visored) type were provided merely with eye-slit for vision, while later sallets – as noted before – acquired a movable visor. English-Burgundian type developed later on from German sallet. Compared to German variant, it was more curvaceous and had less extreme projection to the rear, making it a halfway-step between German and Italian styles. French sallets were also very similar to English-Burgundian type, and all have been classed as “short-tailed sallets”. The tail on non-German helmets was not lobstered, and helmet followed the shape of the back of the head as it goes into the neck, only flaring out at the bottom.

This adaptability made sallet into a highly popular helmet, used by heavy cavalry, light cavalry, heavy infantry and light infantry alike. Its lightness and visibility were highly advantageous in context of hand-to-hand combat, especially infantry combat, while its protectiveness (when worn with bevor) also made it highly effective in context of missile combat. Popularity of sallet meant that large numbers of “munition sallets” were produced for usage by the common infantrymen.

Later German cavalry sallets had bevor attached to the helmet, making it into, effectively, close helmet (or armet) – a type which replaced sallet in early 16th century. It is notable that out of five types of helmets available in 15th century, sallet was the only one to evolve into 16th century.

In order to provide padding, sallets – like other helmets of the time – had suspension system with a band which was riveted to the helmet. Helmet liner was very similar to that of modern combat helmets, and was an important factor as helmet sat freely on the head. Later closed helmets (armets) were fitted to the armour and thus did not sit freely. As such, they had no helmet liner; instead, soldier wore a wide “hat” which filled the space between the head and the helmet and was used to turn the latter. It was not uncommon for sallets to be painted, as is the case with a specific sallet from Germany cca. 1490., or else be covered in cloth or leather.

Infantry often wore cabassets instead, as it was a simpler (and likely cheaper) design, but – combined with bevor – allowed for very good protection against missile fire.

Torso protection

From around 1445., Gothic cuirass consisted commonly of two or more overalpping plates, with lower rising in a point over the upper (plates were, thus, technically “underlapping”). As such, breast of the cuirass often had edges of lower plates “engrailled” or cut out in a decorative pattern, which is repeated en suite in a downward-lapping plates of the backplate and the principal lames of the harness. Plates were connected by straps or sliding rivets, allowing a certain amount of flexibility. Below the trunk, armour was extended by fauld and culet lames. As can be seen here, armour transitioned into fauld at natural waist, which is the narrowest point of the trunk (in people without gut, that is). This bell-shape combined with articulated lames allows for high freedom of movement. Since knights were generally fit, this produced a wasp-waisted shape – which modern filmmakers are apparently allergic to. Such shape also created globular shape of chest armour, allowing strikes to more easily glance off the armour.

Arms and shoulders

Shoulder and elbow cops were large in order to guard the openings and joints, and cops on tournament armour were much larger than those on battlefield armour (which were, in fact, comparatively small – but even tournament cops were much smaller than ones seen on most fantasy armour). Shoulder cops (pauldrons – technically a cop and several lames) were constructed of articulated lames, while elbow cops (couters) were often a single piece. In some cases pauldrons did not cover armpit even from the front, so protection in that area was provided by round plates called besagews. This was in fact relatively typical for Gothic armour, whereas Milanese armour preferred larger pauldrons.

Forearms were protected by vambraces. Armour’s pass-guards were closed, and covered both joint and beind of elbow – for this purpose, they were arrow-shaped. Gauntlets were narrowed at the wrist, and each finger received its own protection.

Leg protection

Feet were covered in laminated solerets, with long, pointed toes which could be removed when wearer was on foot. Toe cap was partly a fashion statement, but also had a practical function in that it helped prevent the loss of stirrup. Knees were also protected by cops (poleyns), while shins were protected by greaves, which – much like gauntlets and rest of the armour – were reinforced with ribs. By 15th century, these had come to extend around the entire shin (closed greaves, made of two plates joined by hinges on the outside and fastening with buckles and straps on the inside). Upper leg was protected by tassets and cuisses. Cuisses were solid plate protection for thigh, wrapping around outer thigh though not necessarily around lower thigh. The hip and/or upper thigh area was protected by tassets, separate plates hanging from breastplate or the faulds.

Weapons and armour interaction

Since Gothic armour provided extremely extensive protection, weapons had to be adapted to counter it. Indeed, normal broadswords and even longbows and crossbows were nearly useless against well-made and maintained Gothic armour (or other plate armour of the period). As such, main weapons were various polearms – primarily warhammers and poleaxes equipped with spikes (bec de faulcon) to punch through armour, with hammer (croix) or axe (taillant) on the opposite side for blunt damage. Spike (dague) of square crossection was also provided on top for piercing between the plates. Warhammer was a single-handed weapon for use by horsemen, while pollaxe was a two-handed version of a warhammer. It was widely used by infantry/dismounted forces, and skull trauma evident on bones from the mass graves of Wisby and Towtown is consistent with wounds caused by pollaxes. Pollaxe could also have axe head instead of a hammer.

Sword and dagger also changed shape. Much rarer were broadsword and wide-bladed dagger of old. Instead, swords and daggers popularly (though not exclusively) used through 15th century had pyramidal (triangular in profile) blade which tapered from a normal (broad) base to a very long and narrow point. Another popular variant of sword was estoc, essentially a longsword with no edge – just a tapering point. Swords could be one-handed (“arming”) swords typically used by mounted knights, hand-and-half or “bastard” swords suitable for one-handed and two-handed use alike, and two-handed swords.

Ranged weapons were still important mostly owing to the fact that plate armour was not all-present. While most knights could easily afford it, many supporting troops could not. And even among knights, many could not afford to armour their horses in the same way. Because of this, archers and crossbowmen remained an important counter to cavalry.

Since Gothic armour provided so complete protection, shield was mostly abandoned by knights and men-at-arms, allowing them to use two-handed weapons such as pollaxes when fighting on foot. Less well-armoured troops were mostly missile troops – and missile infantry typically remained static when fighting, relying on pavises (large “tower” shields, typically held by a servant or set into ground) for protection against enemy missile fire.


Parts of armour:

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