What Materials Were Used to Make Medieval Armor?

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What Materials Were Used to Make Medieval Armor?
Many medieval suits of armour combined steel plates and chainmail. (Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images)

Throughout the middle ages, from approximately the 5th to 15th Centuries, the technology of personal armour continued to develop. In the later part of the period, heavily armoured knights were covered from head to toe in armour of expertly worked steel plate. However, until then, a variety of materials were used to make armour.

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Chainmail, sometimes just called mail, was the dominant form of armour during the early part of the middle ages -- from the 5th to 11th or 12th Centuries. A hauberk, or chainmail coat, was made of rows of interlocking rings made of steel wire. Each ring connected to at least four others, making the armour strong but flexible, capable of resisting cuts from swords or axes. Initially, most mail covered only the body and sometimes the head, but from the 12th Century onward mail armour began to be worn on the legs and hands as well, particularly in Western Europe. Armour of this type was already known in the Near East.


During the early middle ages, the only solid steel pieces of armour used in western Europe were helmets, although some Byzantine soldiers still wore arm and leg armour made of steel strips. From the 13th Century onward, steel plates were added to mail armour to protect vulnerable areas such as the shoulders and abdomen. In western Europe, this was particularly common around the shoulders and knees, while in the Middle East it tended to be focused on the chest and abdomen. As the middle ages progressed, the amount of plate used in a suit of armour increased. Chainmail was relied upon to protect joints and other areas that were hard to cover with solid pieces of armour. The best plate armour was fitted to the wearer's body and angled to deflect blows from lances or arrows.


Not everyone could afford plate or mail armour. In addition, although it was expertly made to be as easy to wear as possible, metal armour was still heavy and tiring to march and fight in. Some soldiers made do with fabric armour. Called gambesons or aketons, these padded jackets stuffed with layers of cloth or wool were sometimes worn under metal armour, but even by themselves they could offer some level of protection against attacks.


In addition to metal and fabric, leather was used to make some forms of body armour. A number of different techniques were used to harden and stiffen the leather, including boiling it in wax or oil, which produced a hardened leather called cuir boulli. However, few examples of leather armour have survived into the modern day. Leather was also used along with fabric to create garments called brigandines or coats of plate, in which layers of metal plates were sandwiched between layers of cloth or leather.

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