Collections: Armor in Order, Part II

In the last post, here, we talked about some basic rules for what parts of the body are likely to be more armored – either armored first, or exclusively, or more intensely. Now comes the fun part: being excessively judgemental about some examples from popular culture!

Lets start with the most obvious one:

Viggo Mortensen’s expression here is priceless. It’s like someone just told him he’d get an Oscar nod for The Green Book and he’s as stunned as we were.

Put on a damn helmet! Soldiers on ancient and medieval battlefields would wear helmets even if they wore no other kind of armor at all. For poor soldiers, when the choice came down to armoring the body or just the head, helmets won out every time. Even in cultures where body armor was quite rare (for instance, pre-Roman Gaul), head protections were common.

Of course, I know why they aren’t wearing helmets: the directors want us to see their actors lovely emoting faces. But to the argument that it is simply impossible to put these actors in helmets and still have them act effectively, I have a retort:

John Rhys-Davies can act in a helmet. Can you?

There are actually a lot of open-faced helmet designs that still allows us to see the face. HBO’s Rome made great use of early Gallic-type Roman helmets to let us see the faces of actors while still putting helmets on them. So wear a damn helmet.

Donut Armor

“May I Please Have a Punctured Lung?”
Game of Thrones, Season 2, Episode 3. Catelyn Stark’s guards

This is a great example of ‘donut armor,’ where less important extremities have received a lot of attention while far more important parts are neglected. But first, the good: I love that both of these soldiers are clearly carrying their helmets. Helmets are bulky, uncomfortable things to wear a lot of the time, and soldiers in the ancient world were infamous for putting theirs on at the last possible second.

So does this armor pass our heuristic? No. The issue here is that the figures appear to have a simple textile armor over the key chest area, but have indulged in plate shoulder protections and a full plate gorget. I think it is possible we’re meant to understand that the jacket they are wearing is something like a coat-of-plates, but it clearly isn’t – brigandines and coats of plates are quite rigid (they are, after all, a collection of small steel plates). This is clearly fabric.

The gorget is a particularly odd touch. Compared to the gut or lungs, the collarbone has little to recommend itself for such strong extra protection. Gorget plates like the ones shown above do exist, but they are part of a harness which also includes a breastplate that covers the lower part of the chest and belly. Next up:

“Effigies Gone Wrong”
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

First off: Prince Caspian’s armor there on the right? Works. Solid coverage on the body and you can see that his mail collar is actually a coif (it can be pulled up over the head), so he actually brought head protection. Perhaps he attended some support group to overcome hero-helmet-phobia. His armor is a touch ‘top heavy’ (see below), but it works and I always love seeing appropriate use of transitional armors, such as his coat of plates there (where, mirabile dictu, the plates properly overlap, rather than just being next to each other).

No, I want to look at Peter Pevensie’s armor there. Does it pass? No. He has afforded plate protection to his arms and shoulders (you can’t see, but also his legs), but only has mail and thin textile covering his body. The great advantage of plate armor is puncture resistance: a spear or crossbow bolt can split the rings of mail in order to kill the person behind it, but even the strongest crossbow won’t be able to push the head of the bolt through a solid steel plate with enough force to wound (you can see even a poor quality modern replica resist a crossbow at very close range here: ). This man, like the previous one, is requesting his enemies deliver him a punctured lung (free one day shipping!).

So where does this mistake come from? I suspect the answer is 14th and 15th century English funeral effigies. I mentioned this earlier, but let’s look at it in a little more depth. The road to the full plate harness begins with the development of transitional armors (coat of plates, brigandine) in the 13th and 14th centuries. These armors were faced with textiles (and indeed, early plate cuirasses also had textile coverings). As a result, when they show up in funeral effigies, these sorts of armors can appear to be a simple textile surcoat or tabard. Consider this example, from 1325:
Image from – which is a fantastic resource for looking at funeral effigies. This one is of Sir John de Creke, from Cambridgeshire England, dating to 1325. What he has on his chest is not simple textile – that is a coat of plates.

It is not hard to see how someone unfamiliar with armor would mistake what Sir John there is wearing for simply textile over mail on the chest. The ‘tell’ that this is a coat of plates is around his knees, where you can see the lower end of the rigid coat of plates poking out below his surcoat. In person, there would be no mistaking this – the metal plates of a coat of plates or brigandine give the armor a semi-rigid shape and a volume to it. So where Peter’s surcoat in our Narnia image just hangs limply, it ought to be falling on the contours of a rigid armor below it – one that likely projects out from the body a fair bit.

Top-Heavy Armor

Lannister Army Folk-Pop Band
Game of Thrones, Season 7, Episode 1

I picked on poor Ed here, just to get a good example of the standard Lannister armor we see throughout the show, and this armor is not perfect, for sure – those tassets look like they were made by someone who has never, in fact, seen any real tassets before. But does it pass our heuristic on the order of armor? Yes.

This particular setup – a cuirass with pauldrons, tassets and fauld, but essentially nothing else, is exactly the form of the historical almain rivet and is sometimes called ‘half-plate.’ And it makes perfect sense: the most important and vulnerable parts of the body receive full protection, but the rest of expendable. This sort of armor was used by infantrymen, especially pikemen, in the Early Modern Period, who needed some protection, but could not afford anything like a full plate harness. Some states even stockpiled arsenal-grade one-size-fits-no-one forms of this armor to equip their infantry.

So while the execution of this armor leaves a lot to be desired – the tassets and fauld are made wrong, the use of biker-leather to connect everything is bizarre (a blow would glance off of the metal plate and into the much weaker leather connecting bits), the concept of this armor is actually spot on. I have no trouble imagining a version of this concept, properly made, that would serve a wearer well. Onward!

Game of Thrones, Season 2, Episode

If I continue to review bad armors, Game of Thrones is going to feature heavily. I don’t know if the costume team didn’t have the know-how, or if it was an issue of budget, but a lot of the armor in GoT is both nonsense, but also look awful. I want to come back to this armor later to discuss it in more depth – it is clear just watching that it was poorly made and poor Gwendoline Christie cannot move properly in it. But that is a discussion for another day.

So what is wrong here by our order-of-armor? After all, Brienne looks fairly well armored. But notice how top-heavy it is. Brienne has opted to wear a complete arm-harness, with gauntlets and couters (!) a visored helmet, full layered pauldrons and…absolutely nothing protecting her knees or upper legs, save for the bottom of her gambeson (the under-armor padding). Even her hips are remarkably vulnerable, covered only by her gambeson and the bottom of her mail shirt (in this case, a haubergeon). A small mercy is that she does have greaves, but really, there should be more leg protection here.

Here, there can be no defense that her gambeson might actually be a coat of plates, since she is clearly wearing it beneath her breastplate.

At the very least, this armor should have longer tassets and a real fauld protecting the waist. More to the point, with mail sleeves, we might also expect mail leg coverings, which are called chausses. For someone competing in a tourney – as she is here – we really could expect a complete leg harness (greaves, poleyns and cuisses all connected as part of a single harness for each leg) to match the complete arm-harness.

Overall, I assume the reason they did not do this (almost no one in GoT wears a leg-harness) is that, again, the costume department couldn’t make armor the actors could move in properly. In later seasons, Christie drops a number of pieces from this ensemble (gauntlets, the arm-harness, etc), presumably so she could actually move in it. Needless to say, a proper harness doesn’t restrict movement nearly as much (see: ). Oh well: Onward!

“Who Needs Knees? At Least My Left Shoulder Will Be Fine”
Dragon Age: Origins

I am using the concept art because it is more readible, but I can assure you the original is in game. I think people assessing this armor will rush to either the single asymmetric pauldron or the shaped cuirass as problems, and I don’t think they are. Late 15th, early 16th century Italian armor often features asymmetrical pauldron layouts, usually with a very large left pauldron – because you advance the left side of your body to the enemy in combat – and a smaller right-side pauldron.

Likewise, cuirasses shaped to look like human anatomy (typically the male chest) are very common in antiquity, so that is no problem. It is not hard to imagine a fantasy culture where a female warrior might do the same.

No, the problem here, again, is top-heavyness. The figure has a very complete, heavy arm-harness – actually rather more than Brienne does in the example above – but no protection at all over the knees and lower thigh.

Though, while we are here, lets talk about those tassets (the hanging bits below the waist). This design – the ‘four point’ tassets (one in front, one in back, two on the sides) shows up a lot in video-game designs. It does not appear, to my knowledge, historically, and it is not hard to imagine why. In a combat stance, the legs are spread – imagine where the tassets fall once you do that: the center tasset covers the empty space between your legs, while the bulk of your leg occupies…the empty, unprotected space between the tassets. This configuration protects everywhere your legs are not.

Alright, that’s enough judgement for one day. I’m sure I will come back and do specific armor reviews in the future. Poor Brienne’s armor up there is especially a mess (I’m honestly amazed at just how well Christie does in it, given how clear it is that she can barely move because of how badly it is fitted).

Next week, I’m going to start a multi-part series on what is one of my favorite battle-sequences in film: Peter Jackson’s version of the Siege of Gondor from Return of the King. We’ll see what works, what doesn’t and what the books do better.

10 thoughts on “Collections: Armor in Order, Part II

  1. I will point out here that “top-heavy” armour is actually fairly realistic and historically accurate. Oftentimes, leg protection was discarded completely; this was done to a) improve mobility and endurance in close combat, or b) because troops were standing behind pavises and so legs were protected anyway.

    Here are reconstructions:–medieval-armor-medieval-life.jpg

    Here are illustrations showing such armour: – by archers – by man-at-arms (one in pink pants) – by several men-at-arms

    1. At the Battle of Visby, there are staggering amounts of skeletons with severe leg and foot injuries, with many cases of feet being chopped clean off. That doesn’t happen by accident as you swing around your blades. The attackers must have actively aimed at the vulnerable feet poking out from under the shields. Though it is important to know that the skeletons are from a peasant militia that got completely slaughtered by veteran soldiers. None of these would have been able to get state of the art armor for their upper bodies either.

      Leg armor, particularly lower leg protection, is the most tiring piece of armor to wear while marching. When you walk, all the weight on your upper body is moving at a nearly constant velocity. But your feet are permanently accelerating and decelerating, which puts a lot of strain on the muscles. And an army that is on campaign for months stil would only be fighting for probably just a few hours. Swinging around all that metal on your leg while you march hundreds or thousands of miles would often not have seemed worth it.

    2. The second set is exactly the almain rivet or half-armor Bret mentions, standard for early-renaissance pikemen. It follows his scheme: head, torso, shoulders and hips/thighs covered, lower limbs not.

      1. Technically it is a variant of 15th century Gothic armour but specialized for infantry. But yes, it does follow Bret’s scheme. First armour and illustrations however do not. I suspect the reason for this was that there was actually full plate armour for infantry use, but many if not most infantrymen opted to simply remove the leg armour.

    3. A little funny quip. In that last pic you posted the one where several men-at-atms go half plate, there is a funny illustration why one should not go commando with the leg protection: one of the men-at-arms is pulling an arrow from his ass and he seems to be the victim of friendly fire 😀

  2. Bret, I’m going back to read all your previous posts. Hope you don’t mind if I also provide some proofreading corrections, if you ever want to do some clean-up of the originals. (bf emphasis used to show corrected word)

    Even in cultures were body armor was quite rare -> Even in cultures where body armor was quite rare

  3. Hey, I hope you see this when I comment, I think the second image in the Narnia section broke, for me it simply reads a long link and when I right-click I can try to load the image but it still doesn’t work.
    Anyway, really liked the article. I also noticed in the Narnia section that Caspian has a ton more (and I think better) armour than Peter, whose armour comes from a thousand years in the past. Thus the better Telmarine armour represents innovations made while he was in Britain.

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