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.
First:
"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.