Can you move in armour? An Experiment in Mythbusting

By Daniel Jaquet

In the 19th c. the novelist Mark Twain wrote in A Connecticut Yankee in King’s Arthur Court (1889) that wearing a heavy, uncomfortable and cumbersome steel outfit makes you feel “so strange and stuffy”, that you feel like somebody else, “that has been married on a sudden, or struck by lightning, or something like that, and hasn’t quite fetched around yet, and is sort of numb, and can’t just get his bearings”. This idea, alongside with the infamous crane hoisting the knights in saddle, was sadly to be widely disseminated through time, for example in the movie Henry V (1944). It still persists today in medieval attraction parks where you can still see “medieval cranes”, whereas more than a century of scholarly research has proven otherwise, as lately put forward by Dierk Breiding and Tobias Capwell.

Drawing Copyright Nicholas Baptiste
Drawing Copyright Nicholas Baptiste

Already in the beginning of the 20th century, short films regarding mobility in armour were created to rectify these misconceptions. Here is a lovely early example, part of the educational program of the Metropolitan Museum of New York (A Visit to the Armor Galleries, 1924).

The issue of mobility in armour is addressed in this video with striking images of actual armour pieces to demonstrate the range of movement allowed when worn. Today, our contribution follows the same goals, but with other technological means and approach.

In this video we have recreated the deeds of the famous knight Jean le Maingre, known as Boucicaut, which were put in writing in the early 15th century. His work includes a well-known passage where his training in armour is described in some detail, outlining what you could actually do in a late medieval armour.

Our video, created for a museum exhibition held actually in Switzerland (Armatus Corpus), follows a previous one we made five years ago, displaying preliminary results of our scholarly endeavour, but aimed also for public outreach (Le combat en armure au XVe siècle). Meanwhile, another team, based in Leeds, attempted to measure and study the energy expenditure of locomotion with an experiment running on treadmills in armour. Our study, started earlier but published lately, discusses their findings and adds the analysis of the range of motion in armour with 3D cinematics.

It shows that such armour, tailored to measure, actually allows the wearer almost full range of movement for natural motion (such as gait, sitting down or standing up) or for combat motion (based on our studies of the Fight Books). The relatively impressive added load is comparable to the one imposed on modern soldiers with bullet proof vest and full gear, or to the one imposed on the fireman with his oxygen bottles. Therefore, the trained body of the wearer adapts to such a heavy load and is able to achieve top physical performances, but limited by the added load. However true that harnesses produced for the aristocracy to allow them to display their fighting skills in knightly games (eventually for more serious matters), this has little to do with the armoured footmen of the end of the Middle Ages in the context of the battlefield.

In the beginning of the 16thcentury, late medieval technology and know-how of the armourers reached such a peak, that one of the suits created for Henry VIII for the single combat planned against his rival François I during the Field of the Cloth of Gold (1520), encapsulated the whole body with sheets of steel without leaving any part uncovered. This incredible suit of armour, a high-tech exoskeleton, was taken as model for the design of the first space suits in the 1960’s.

Our study follows in the footsteps of more than a century of scholarly research busting myths about clumsiness of medieval armoured fighter. It offers the full description of the experiment alongside with the data collected measuring both the range of motion and the energy expenditure. It is nonetheless to be considered as a proof of concept, involving one trained subject in Historical European Martial Arts wearing one specific type of armour replica.

Our endeavour is aimed both for public outreach with the short films, and for the scholarly audience with the article. It brought to light new hypotheses about armour design in the perspective of the technical gestures as codified in the Fight Book corpus, dealing with single combats rather than “mass battles”. However, due to its limits and its status as proof of concept, it calls for further research and investigation, notably to repeat the experiment in a similar fashion with other types of armour (and subjects) to have a more comprehensive set of data to work with and to investigate the issue of the garments worn underneath the armour, also limiting the range of motion, sometimes more than the armour itself.

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