Armour Was More Than Protection

Wearing armour was once about much more than just self protection.

It signalled one’s rank and it also relayed one’s fashion preferences. Occasionally, its chief purpose was the psychological intimidation of an opponent.  And those who crafted it – from everything from bone to iron – were valued artisans of their day.

Greek Mycenaean armor, c. 1400 BC

A scan of past eras reveals that body armour once served as a statement, of sorts, in addition to protecting the body from swords ,spears and other edged weapons. It could indicate whether a man was a king or a mere soldier, a tournament jouster or a knight.

Armour must have been wildly uncomfortable, but during certain periods – the 16th century, for example – discomfort was a trade off that men willingly made. And armour wasn’t only used in battle.

It was worn in parades and ceremonies too, outfitting kings and knights almost head to toe in steel, chain mesh, iron and other materials that were often heavy and hot.

It wasn’t only the head and body that armour makers concerned themselves with. For example, King Charles V wore something called “beard armour.” He had this unique item crafted by a man in Italy who was considered the finest in the trade.

Filippo Negroli made the king a helmet and beard armour that was a replica of the ruler’s own curly locks. The steel covering was not intended to be worn in battle, only pageants and  parades. Negroli wanted the armour to reflect King Charles’ power and his wealth, and it succeeded. It is one of the few examples of “beard armour” ever created.

Charles V ‘Beard Armour’ helmet.

Another example of weird yet compelling armour is from the 14th century.

In 1389 Serbian Prince Lazar decided to create armour for himself and his knights that would intimidate and cower any invading opponents.

Serbian 15th-century armour (Military Museum Belgrade)

Hence, he put together a set of armour pieces with giant wings.

He crafted outfits that covered himself and his soldiers, almost head to toe, in steel pieces. The shins, calves, forearms, chest and even the genitals were protected; virtually every vulnerable spot on the body was shielded.

But the piece de resistance, so to speak, were the amazing wings attached to a nap sack affixed to each man’s torso.  The wings were made of eagle or ostrich feathers, and they could be seen from great distances.

No doubt these knights looked like horsemen of the apocalypse, with giant wings arching high over their backs and swords raised for battle. If psychological intimidation was the goal, it must have worked. The prince and his fighters won many battles, some even when they were vastly outnumbered.

From the weird and compelling to the truly bizarre comes the porcupine fish helmet, worn by warriors of Kiribati in the 1890s.

Each helmet was outfitted with many sharp sharks’ teeth. In truth the helmets didn’t offer much in the way of protection, but their unusual appearance, which lent a frightening affect to each man, made enemies even more scared. Add to that the fact that the Kiribati warriors’ reputation was as fierce and tireless fighters, and the helmets capped off the look of a formidable opponent.

Kiribati armour. Truly different.

Their body armour was not made of metal, primarily because on this series of islands in the Pacific Ocean, metal was almost completely unavailable at the time.

Instead, their armour was densely woven from plant fibres. Each fighter carried a spear lined with rows of sharks’ teeth – and in this context the teeth were indeed deadly.

These and other examples of ancient body armour still carry a fascination for modern audiences. Exhibits of them are on display in many military museums around the world, including Canada’s National War Museum and the Metropolitan Museum in New York City in the US.

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They demonstrate that machismo, vanity and ingenuity, as much as necessity, drove how armour was made centuries ago. Warriors wanted to look good as well as feel fierce, and body armour helped them accomplish that. Whether it truly helped them live longer is another question entirely.