Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Another myth about armour.

Over the years I have heard many myths about armour and medieval history. Most of the time now I just shake my head and think how sad. (Although when I was young I believed some of this same BS. and I had a mother who was a librarian.)  But now with the internet, it seemed to me, some myths would be tossed aside, once facts about a subject were so easily accessible. But I was wrong, the internet may make it easy to find facts, but it also makes it easy to spread and elaborate on myths and BS. Since most people do not seem to want to look deeper into a subject or use logic to question things they hear, it is easy to see why with all this available knowledge, myths still perpetuate.

Being in the movie industry, I am often, (and unfortunately) at the heart of a myth spreading vehicle. In my 30 plus years of motion picture work, I have seen authentic, properly represented armour in only a tiny handful of films. Most of these were not main stream Hollywood films.  Hollywood is in love with it’s version of pre 16th/17th Century Europe. Dark, gritty, slovenly conditions and armour that looks like it was made using a rock and a tree stump.  I say pre 16th/17th century because it seems Elizabethan and Cavalier era films are often more accurately represented than earlier history. Although the last couple of films situated in these eras were quit bad. If you go back to the Vikings, Whoa! Hollywood’s version of Viking history would be like depicting 1940’s America as the worst 3rd world country you can imagine. People believe this so much, that if you try to depict the real Viking history, most people wouldn’t believe you.

But earlier this year I read a blog post that seemed to get a reasonable amount of reposts. It was about why you could/ wouldn’t have breast shaped armour in the past. It boggled my mind on how someone could write this, and believe it, let alone the number of people who reposted it without comment or correction. It is so bad, it belongs with Horned Viking helmets and cranes to lift up armoured knights:

Here is an article from the Blog; TOR-COM (http://www.tor.com/blogs/2013/05/boob-plate-armor-would-kill-you )
Never mind the chainmail bikinis—what about those awkward breast plates in armor that we see frequently in fantasy artwork and at the Ren Faire? Whenever women complain about this convention, they are usually shot down for trying to erase women’s true bodies, for insisting that women make themselves more “male” in order to appear strong and capable.
But here’s the thing: those shapely bits of armor would actually get you killed. So the complaint is entirely valid! Now, let’s talk about why.

Let’s start with some relevant history: armor was uncomfortable, guys. It was heavy, hot or cold depending on the weather, and it made you sweat. (Speaking as someone who has donned chainmail shirts before, I can attest to all of these things.) To negate some of its more uncomfortable effects, all armored soldiers wore padded gambesons and the like. Once this padding was added, the shape of the wearer was practically neutralized. So the need for special boob-shaped armor is already suspect at best.
Now we’ll apply some science!

Let’s begin by stating the simple purpose of plate armor—to deflect blows from weaponry. Assuming that you are avoiding the blow of a sword, your armor should be designed so that the blade glances off your body, away from your chest. If your armor is breast-shaped, you are in fact increasing the likelihood that a blade blow will slide inward, toward the center of your chest, the very place you are trying to keep safe.
But that’s not all! Let’s say you even fall onto your boob-conscious armor. The divet separating each breast will dig into your chest, doing you injury. It might even break your breastbone. With a strong enough blow to the chest, it could fracture your sternum entirely, destroying your heart and lungs, instantly killing you. It is literally a death trap—you are wearing armor that acts as a perpetual spear directed at some of your most vulnerable body parts. It’s just not smart.

The article has a number of conclusions, or "points of fact" that are wrong, misleading or complete BS.
"armor was uncomfortable" No.  Armour, could be, if improperly made, but armour was everyday technology and very sophisticated. Properly made armour was very comfortable to wear. The issue here, is  currently, there are only 3 or 4 people in the world  making armour, approaching the level of skill of an armourer of the period. So most people who have worn armour today are making conclusions based on ill fitting, poorly engineered armour.  On the jousting show that was on a few years back, one of the guys bragged about “armour bites”, places his armour pinched him or bit into his skin. This is equivalent to a professional race car driver bragging about how many times he crashed because the steering wheel came off in his hand. If armour is made properly, it doesn’t bite you. In fact, it fits like a second skin. Point of fact; Recently I was doing a fitting for a harness, which took a few hours, and at one point I was looking for where I had set down the lower leg armour. A friend pointed out, I was wearing it. I had had it on so long, I had not noticed it was still on.

2: “It was heavy” This is relative, but in this context, misleading. Like stated above, modern reproduction armour is poorly made. In addition, if made for fighting SCA or Steel weapons, it's made much thicker than its historical counterpart. It may not look much thicker, but for example, 12 sheets of notebook paper does not appear very thick or much different in thickness from 6 sheets of paper, but 12 sheets are twice as heavy. Real armour averaged in weight from 30-50 lbs up to specialist jousting armours in the 70 to 100 lbs. Specialist jousting armour is designed for a specific purpose, riding on a horse, in a straight line and hitting an opponent with the point of your lance.  Not just walking around or fighting with a sword or mace. Also quality armour after about 1350 was made from hardened steel. Many of you may not know what "hardened steel" means. Mild steel (what most reproduction armour is made from) and spring steel (what real armour was made from) is like the difference between household window glass and auto windshield glass. By adding chemicals and a different heat process one is considerably tougher and stronger than the other. In armour, to get the same dent resistance and stiffness as its historical counterpart or to satisfy the modern customers desire to have virtually maintenance free armour, most reproduction armour needs to be 1.5 to 3 times thicker in order to approach the properties of spring steel. But even then, mild steel bends and stays bent, where spring steel (hence “spring”) bends and comes back to its original shape. This has a few advantages; One, the armour can be thinner and the plates more “delicate” in construction, Two, it also makes the metal surface harder so thin plates can fit closer together and slide over one another smoother. And perhaps most importantly, the metal can flex and spring back to its original shape, keeping all of the plates closely aligned and smooth.  

 3. it was…“hot or cold depending on the weather, and it made you sweat” Well most clothes are hot or cold depending on the weather, but in my Maximillian armour (a style of armour from the beginning of the 16th century) in direct sun, it isn’t very hot at all. Being polished, it reflects much of the sun’s rays and doesn’t heat up. As far as sweating, well, you do sweat, actually the arming coat is the insulator, not really the armour. However, when I was a  teen, I worked at a movie location/ tourist park called “Old Tucson” located just west of Tucson Arizona. I learned to wear a long sleeve undershirt, a regular shirt with a vest and sometimes a jacket. Yes, in the desert sun. The result, I was much cooler and had to drink less water than the tourist. Why? Because I was protected from the sun’s rays and my bodies sweating was contained by the layers I was wearing, thus controlled. People asked all the time, why I wasn’t seating, I pointed out I was, but far less than they were because my long sleeve shirt was slightly damp and the outer layers kept that moisture from evaporating, thus I did not need to constantly replace that water on my skin to keep cool. But in their shorts and tee shirts, the sweat immediately evaporated and needed to be replenished constantly. I have the same thing in my armour. I wear a long sleeve under shirt, usually linen, with a fitted garment, then the armour. Once your body heats up and starts to sweat, you are “hot”, but then after a while your under shirt becomes damp and your bodies temperature equalizes and it is very comfortable.

 4. To negate some of its more uncomfortable effects, all armored soldiers wore padded gambesons and the like. Once this padding was added, the shape of the wearer was practically neutralized.” Suggesting the padded garment “neutralized” the wearers shape is ridiculous. As described above, some type of under garment was worn, but it didn’t need to be heavily padded. Armour was heavily influenced by fashion so armour was as much style as it was function, so negating the body shape was far from true. In fact, armour and the under garments “shaped” the body to give the wearer the proper silhouette of the particular period. My Maximillian armour gives me a small waist and rounded chest. I haven’t had a small waist since I was 29.

5. Now we’ll apply some science! Let’s begin by stating the simple purpose of plate armor—to deflect blows from weaponry. Assuming that you are avoiding the blow of a sword, your armor should be designed so that the blade glances off your body, away from your chest. If your armor is breast-shaped, you are in fact increasing the likelihood that a blade blow will slide inward, toward the center of your chest, the very place you are trying to keep safe.” Well, I don’t see any “science” here, but to a point, armour’s primary function was to protect. However, there are many examples where fashion far outweighed the need for ultimate protection. Parade armours as well as some field (functional) armours  in later periods were heavily repoussed (embossed with decoration) and the point of a weapon would easily catch on this decoration. Maximillian armour has flutes that run vertically over virtually the entire armour, these too could collect a sword point. They didn’t seem too worried about it. This brings up another fallacy; Armour could not easily be breached by swords, or arrows. Did it happen? Well I’m sure it did, the same way someone wins the Powerball. But the odds are highly against it. By the mid-14th century quality armour was hardened steel and encompassed most of the body. Arrows and swords had little effect, this is why armour was worn. Why you ask did they still use swords and arrows? Because only the very wealthy were wearing full plate armour. Most of the fighting force was not so well equipped.

 6. “The divet separating each breast will dig into your chest, doing you injury. It might even break your breastbone. With a strong enough blow to the chest, it could fracture your sternum entirely, destroying your heart and lungs, instantly killing you. It is literally a death trap” Again, no basis in fact. Properly fit armour will not press an area of your body anywhere near hard enough to cause injury. In addition, a fractured sternum will not destroy your heart and lungs, instantly killing you. This is highly exaggerated BS. For this to happen, you would have to wearing an axe blade inside your armour with its edge resting on your sternum and get hit by a car. (To quote a medical web site: “…sternal fracture from motor vehicle accidents showed a 1.5% incidence of cardiac dysrhythmia requiring treatment and a mortality rate of 1%”, another quote; Management (for fractured sternum)involves treating associated injuries; people with sternal fractures but no other injuries do not need to be hospitalized.)

 So why do we not see armour with “breasts”. Likely, fashion and social conventions. The same reason so many women fought in the American Civil war, disguised as men. It was not considered acceptable for a women to fight. Why don’t men carry purses or wear dresses? Purses are a very convenient way to carry everyday things and skirts are very comfortable, but men have to call them “Kilts”.  “Man bags” are an exception, but carry a stigma, were as a briefcase or back pack does not.

I’m sure there is a psychological reason for people to believe our ancestors were stupid and ignorant, or maybe it’s just because so many people are ignorant, that it perpetuates the syndrome. I thought that people, once given the ability to access facts easily, would become less ignorant, but sadly this does not seem to be true. I have interns and employees who often, when they don’t know something, when asked if they did any research on the subject, answer, “I didn’t know where to look.” “does it make any difference?” or “ I figured you would know”.

 This is not a new problem. Years ago a friend, feeling my “pain” handed me an article called “A Message for Garcia”. Which can be read here: http://www.foundationsmag.com/garcia.html Written in 1899 for an issue of Philistine magazine, this short “filler” article went on to become an international sensation. The phrase “to take a message to Garcia” became a common slang for people taking initiative.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Talents I have seen: Robert "Mac" Macpherson

Recently, the blog Boing Boing posted an article about my friend Ugo Serrano (http://boingboing.net/2013/04/03/ugo-serrano-armorer.html)

"Daniel sez, "Ugo Serrano is the greatest living armorer, really. A man who camps at the Pennsic war in a 15th Century Italian villa (hat he built/designed that also flat-packs for storage and transportation). The props he makes for the movie/television industry are a who's who of geekdom from Firefly to Riddick to the Haunted Mansion through Zorro. A man whose art helped begin the entire steampunk movement, yet he's almost unknown outside of the SCA, where his themed parties are as legendary as his tent. If you catch him at the right time, he'll give you a pilgrimage badge that he cast in pewter by hand, just for taking the tour"

I was quite shocked at how incorrect the article was. It had facts correct, but incorrectly attributed them all to one person, Ugo. This is an interesting social phenomenon that I have observed many times: When a person has charisma, (and Ugo is very charismatic) many positive things are often attributed to this person, almost automatically, with little or no "fact checking".  The opposite also seems true. If a person is a scoundrel, then bad things are automatically attributed to them.

Ugo has achieved a type of "Stardom" I see in Hollywood. Fame and praise do not always go hand and hand with talent or achievements. Now first, let me be clear, Ugo is very talented and is certainly worthy of fame. But "helped start the entire steampunk movement", "greatest living armourer"? These are the type of statements that start urban legends and myths. Such as, "A knight needed a crane to lift him upon his horse" or “Gene Simmons (KISS fame, not Spartacus) bites his tongue during his concerts to get all the blood he spits". If it's printed, people believe it. Often these things are never "Undone" and the general public goes on believing them.

Daniel, lists that he is an author of books and I get the impression he is a regular poster on the internet. Well, I hope he does a better job checking facts for his books. Writing is not my skill, building things is and for those who have read some of the things I have posted no doubt know I am the one who built the 15th century house and may know, Robert MacPherson is the craftsman who made my pilgrimage badges, using authentic 14th/ 15th century techniques. Robert is a quiet unassuming man who if you saw him at an historical event, you would have no clue he was one of the worlds best armour craftsman. He is not one of those people who the spotlight finds easily, nor does he seek it out. So to most people, have no idea who he is.  I started to write an article on Roberts work last year, but as writing is not my skill, I started and then never got back to it. Here it is:

 Talents I have seen:

 I had heard about "Mac" many years ago and was told, if you want the best reproduction armour, he's the guy. So I sought out Robert MacPherson, even though I was told he had a 5 to 10 year waiting list. I had seen some of his work and been impressed, but it was not until I ordered a suit from him that I appreciated the level at which he was "the best".

Here are some pieces I had seen of Macs work:

At the time, I thought I knew quite a lot about armour, how it was supposed to look, fit, and so on. Well, ignorance is a funny thing, many times you have no way of knowing what you don’t know. I was about to become more enlightened.

 Let me give you some background: There are many different factors that make someone skilled at reproducing armour or any art for that matter. Not only is there the technical (does it work), but the esthetic (does it look right) and does it fit correctly. Plus, there is the skill (and experience) of the craftsman to have the freedom to be able to make whatever is needed. In other words, he may know what a piece should look like, but without the skills to move the metal to that shape, well “he can’t get there from here” no matter how clearly he sees the destination.

 Today there may be as many as 100 armourers, making some type of armour for reancators, SCA, Rennfair or collectors. Most of these are either making armour for people who can’t afford good armour, or, more likely, have never seen really good armour, so they don’t know what they don’t know. As a result, the armour is pretty poor. But since this makes up the vast majority of work seen by the general populace, they don't know either, so they think its all really great stuff.

Of the really good armourers, maybe 4-6, they work for a relatively small clientele or museums and are not well known outside the museum or living history circles.

Now armour in general spans a few thousand years, in European armour about 1200 years. (400-1600 AD) Technology and the skill of the craft was getting better al this time. With many things it is possible to find those who are very good at one thing or in this case, period of armour, but not other periods. (Although, just about every armourer believes he can make anything)
For example; recreating a 1960’s Ferrari is easier than recreating a 2010 Toyota, due to the complexity of manufacture and techniques. So after seeing Mac's work, it seemed he was the kind of guy, who could make anything you asked for.  I found out Mr. MacPherson did not have a 10 year long waiting list (Another urban myth, one I’m sure Mac thought was flattering, but maddening when he didn’t have work) so, I set up an appointment to discuss making a new armour. Now, when you have a guy like Mac make a suit of armour, it seemed to me, if you go to Ferrari, don’t ask them to build you a truck. At the time I was really into 14th Century European armour. But for mac, I wanted to order something that I didn’t think any other armourer could make well. (I would later learn that even the simple armour , made by Mac is a "Ferrari")  
Well I decided on Maximillian armour. This is a modern term applied to an abundantly fluted style of armour from the beginning of the 16th century. The name comes from Emperor Maximillian of Germany, a 16th century “rock star” of jousting and armour patronage.

I told Mac that I had never been a big fan of this style, but this one suit from the NYC Metropolitan museum of art, really caught my eye. Mac asked me, what is it about this one you like, that in the others you don’t? This was my first clue that Mac was really good at what he does. No one had ever asked me this before. I had to think about it, why did I like this one?  I said, it’s the helmet and the proportion’s I think. OK he said, what about them, do you think? After explain why I like the suit I had a sense that Mac knew better than I did, what I wanted.
I would later find out, Mac had not only the eye to see styles of armour and what made these styles correct for a particular time period, but he had the skills to make the armour look like it should. He also has an incredible knowledge of the subject on all levels. It is quite astounding.
 He pointed out, that the armour I liked at the MET is in fact 3, maybe 4 different amours pieced together, along with extensive restoration. Seen here: (04.3.289) (http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/40000195?rpp=20&pg=1&ft=+04.3.289+a-q&pos=2 
We agreed on a price (Very reasonable) and I sent him body casts (an advantage to owning a special effects costume shop) and he started. We had a few fittings and each time, I got to see the armour in it rough state and event then, it looked amazing. Here is the finished work:

 The armour he produced was amazing. It looked better than the original (the first time this had ever happened to me) In addition, the fit and mobility were like nothing I had ever experienced. I had worn a lot of armour, both casually and in combat, I felt like I could do anything in this suit. Years later in a combat with great swords (Not my best form) a fellow who was very good and very fast, took a shot at my head, I ducked it and came back to hit him hard enough to win the fight. He later remarked that he was so stunned that in that much armour, I ducked his shot, he forgot to block mine.

I called Mac up after I received the suit and couldn't thank him enough. I told him it looked better than it did at any of the fittings. Mac said he didn’t like some pieces, so he tossed them aside and made new ones. Again, I was seeing why he was “the best”; if the part was not right, it was not right and it made no difference how much work he had put into it, it was remade. In the specialty costume world, it is the same way. If the piece isn’t right, you remake it. You may not like to, but the best of the best shops will and if you want to be one of those shops, you will too.

Unfortunately in the film business, they know nothing of armour, at least not approaching the same level of fit and finish they have for regular clothing. As an example; Years ago, a friend of mine, who is one of the best cutter/ fitters in the business, pointed out that in the movie “Leap of Faith”, Steve Martin was probably wearing $3,000 to $4,000 in clothes during one scene. She was referring to his “T-shirt & Jeans”! Designer t-shirt, designer jeans, custom tailored, shoes….$4k. The subtly involved here it to make them fit him perfectly, yet look “off the rack” and every day, yet still make him look Marvelous! This take a lot more work and expertise than most would imagine. In movie armour, they don’t understand that real armour can fit amazingly well and look very heroic in its original design and material. Because of course, "A knight needed a crane to lift him upon his horse". Not helping this, are modern so, so armourers making mediocre suits that reanactors go “WOW”, “Incredible” “I’ll be in my bunk” over. This is changing. As more people see what is possible by the very good armourers getting their work out there for more than a handful to see, as well as others, such as some in Eastern Europe, get seen by the rest of the world. Real quality armours were hardened steel (Similar to modern 1050 spring steel) and didn’t clank, they went “snickity snick”/. They also were comfortable to wear, easy to move in and didn’t hurt you every time you moved. One of these recent Jousting shows on TV, had some “expert” point out that all armour “bites you” and you just deal with it, it’s part of what makes armour cool to wear! What BS.

This next suit was a mid 15th century English harness made for Tobias Capwell, the curator of the Wallace arms & armour collection. He has jousted in this regularly. My Maximillian  armour was the last suit Mac made from mild steel, everyone since, including this one is hardened 1050 spring steel. Remember, this is all hand formed with hammer and stake, and no welds! All single pieces of steel. Some only .035” thick as like the originals.


I sent these images to a film producer to show him what could be done. His response was "Are these in any way CG?" (Computer generated) He didn't think there was any way these suits pictures could be of a completely real suit and must have been at the very least augmented with a computer. I explained that no, no computers, in fact the suit is all hand made, by one guy.

There is a video from a presentation given by Dirk Breiding , assistant curator of the MET, of Toby running in this suit and at first, you can’t tell he is wearing armour. His gate is perfectly normal. The armour has little to no effect on his stride. (Seen here at 35:10 http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=Dirk+Briedling+armour+&view=detail&mid=140B9BC842FD85A007C6140B9BC842FD85A007C6&first=0&FORM=NVPFVR

Mac and I discussed building another suit for me, this one to have etched bands and borders, perhaps some gilt bands. I was thinking of the harness he made just before mine, which was amazing.
The original harness is known as the "KD" harness. Macs is the "Harness with palmettes"
Here it is:

I couldn't decide which period or style and during one phone conversation with Mac, I suggested perhaps using parts of one suit with elements from another. There was a silence on the other end, then in a slightly apprehensive, tone "ah, well....One should pick a style and revel in it." In other words, you don't really want to mix a bunch of styles that don't go together do you? Yet to me, I didn't see these as very different styles, I mean, in my brain  they were only 20 or so years apart, imagine a 1960's mustang with a 1980's Chevy front end,...oh, yeah, that would look awful. OK, lets do a Greenwich harness. This was a style distinctly English from the mid to late 16th century. At a time when there was no king on the throne to "upstage" and you could commission the Royal Armoury, with Queen Elisabeth permission of course, to make the most elaborate  armour you could imagine.
Here is what was decided.

The original (shown here) is now in the Wallace collection in London. This new suit  would be a garniture as was the original, that is a harness with exchange pieces. Consisting of different helmets, reinforce pieces for the upper body and left arm. All used for different styles of tournaments. This armour would have originally had a dark blue finish in the areas not gilded. We decided on the garniture pieces and  Mac started the new suit, this one in hardened 1050 spring steel. Unfortunately part way through this project, Mac damaged his elbow and it made if near impossible for him to make armour. So the project sat unfinished for a few years. Recently I contacted Jeff Wasson, an immensely talented craftsman, who has agreed to finish the harness.

Here are some images of the harness as it is now:

Hopefully, later this year it will be completed. Check back, when its completed I will post images. Oh and the pewter Pilgrimage badges? Mac and his wife Mary Ann make those, along with many other fine pewter goods and they can be found here at "Billy & Charlie's" http://billyandcharlie.com/