Monday, December 19, 2011

Perhaps not thinking this all the way through...

Taking a sports medicine approach to medieval armor, researchers perform an exhausting study and reach some surprising conclusions. F'rinstance:
There was another major tradeoff for the defensive shield armor afforded its wearers, the team discovered. Fully encased in metal, muscles in the chest wall that help with respiration would have faced additional resistance, causing soldiers to take faster, shallower breaths. “Being wrapped in a tight shell of armor may have made soldiers feel safe,” said Federico Formenti from the University of Auckland, one the study’s co-authors. “But you feel breathless as soon as you begin to move around in medieval armor, and this would likely limit a soldier’s resistance.”
Hey, doc, you know what else makes you feel breathless and take fast, shallow breaths? A spear in the guts.

39 comments:

MeatAxe said...

Its an interesting point.

I know the French at Agincourt had a long muddy slog to the English lines after their horses were all shot to bits.

On the other hand, take away the armor, and the French knights would have been dead back with the horses.

Chas Clifton said...

Steed threatens steed, in high and boastful neighs
Piercing the night’s dull ear; and from the tents
The armorers, accomplishing the knights,
With busy hammers closing rivets up,
Give dreadful note of preparation.
Henry V

True enough, but there are a lot of variables.

Some extra-heavy armor was only for tournament use.

Fighters had options about how much to wear, depending on conditions. Full suits were expensive, and many wore less.

Yes, the French made a poor tactical decision at Agincourt, but perhaps that battle should not be considered typical of the early 15th century.

russell1200 said...

The Longbowmen shot eveyone up, not just the knights.

When the English fought each other, and for some reason one side didn't have any bowmen: guess which side won.

As has been stated ad nauseum, the armor worn on the medieval battlefield was generally lighter than a modern infantrymans pack/gear. Given that the Marines were exploring the concept of having little electric golf carts follow them around on patrol - I don't think their load has been lightened.

There was looser padded clothing/armor under the plate armor. This helped against concusive (non-penetrating) damage, and no doubt helped them "breath" easier.

Anonymous said...

As opposed to the Berserkers of the Norse, who supposedly fought naked. They could breath quite well. (This obviously distracted any troops of the enemy who happened to be gay and aided the Norse cause.)

Alas, current thought is that they wore "bear skins" not "bare skins" in battle.

Its a shame. Naked Berserkers probably wasn't true, but it should have been.

cj said...

A couple of silly thoughts...perhaps the knights allowed breathing room inside their armor? You know...vanity sizing for knights.

Also, I'd be curious if you gave a Marine a choice of how much they'd be willing to carry if it made them just about impervious to whatever the enemy has...

Armed Texan said...

"muscles ... would have faced additional resistance"

Hmmm, I'm trying to remember what happens when muscles constantly face consistent resistance...

Jason Cato said...

"...the team recruited four historical re-enactors and fitted them out in replica 15th-century armor..."

It says nothing about the physical conditioning of the re-enactors either. I would wager that they were not as tough as those old Knights.

Pakkinpoppa said...

I'm pretty sure the wearers of armor would have been in a shape to make many bodybuilders of today jealous.

A buddy of mine went to the sandbox not long ago, he reported they started wearing body armor 2 to 4 months prior to deployment to get used to wearing it, well, all the time.

I'm betting the "reenactors" picked to do this test may not quite have been the physical specimens that wore 120 pound suits of armor around to fight in, but that's just a guess. Because the people wearing armor not only just trudged around, they actually swung heavy sharp or blunt objects attempting to ruin other people's social schedules.

Think I'd rather get shot than stabbed, chopped up, or bludgeoned, but I'd also rather have a 308 and engage armored foes from, well, far away.

Woodman said...

"It says nothing about the physical conditioning of the re-enactors either. I would wager that they were not as tough as those old Knights."

I would put money that in almost every case the rein-actors were healthier though.

The fact that that bone in your leg broken a few winters ago by that boar didn't heal right might help make up for the fact that your nine to five is sitting on an ass spreader. Or the lack of nine million other small injuries and diseases. And if I'm not mistaken, and I often am, the knights didn't exactly wear their armor 24/7 365 either. When not on campaign I doubt they hardly saw their armor.

And their examples are kind of no brainers, regardless of the armor the troops would have been exhausted at both of those battles. While More Tired > Tired, I'm not sure it's enough to have turned the battle.

Rob K said...

"I would put money that in almost every case the rein-actors were healthier though. "

I sure wouldn't. Most of the reenactors I've seen (and I've seen a few) tend toward the pork-pie mold.

Jenny said...

A couple friends of mine up here are medieval reenactors. One of their favorite schticks is guy one standing up chatting to the crowd about how the armor was so heavy and encumbering the old knights could hardly move, had to be winched onto their horses, were done for sure once they fell over, tra la la...

... meanwhile guy two, covered head to toe in medieval plate armor, would be doing calisthenics behind him - running in place, jumping around, rolling to the ground and recovering, swinging his sword, so forth and so on.

That said, guy two has been a diver, wilderness guide, back country hunter, etc etc etc for years. Strong lean wiry guy.

But like Russel says - if men today can manage to carry all the stuff they do and still run around killing people, I'd be really surprised if their medieval counterparts didn't handle it with equal ability, vigor, and grousing.

Able said...

Why is it whenever I read some supposed piece of research I get the feeling the conclusion was written first?

Am I naive, but didn't knights in full plate armour.. sit on bloody great horse, not trudge miles in it?

The "muscles in the chest wall that help with respiration would have faced additional resistance", well yes, if you measure the activity of an XL size guy wearing a M size cuirass then it would, but maybe, just maybe, they had armour made to fit, so it didn't restrict their breathing! (whilst the guys who wore the cool tailored look Nike [just smite them] armour couldn't breath and.. died.)

Sean D Sorrentino said...

The conclusions are horseshit. I tried to find a polite way to put it, but there isn't. The human body is not shaped the same way now as it was then. If they didn't make accommodations for the broader shoulders we have now, they would be constricted.

Additionally, they make the common mistake in believing that if something doesn't make sense now, that it didn't make sense then. They pretend that they are all knowledgeable, and that their ancestors were stupid. Let's think for half a second here. If the armor made breathing difficult, don't you think that they would have taken the time to correct that little problem?

War armor from the 15th Century was the equivalent in monetary terms of you or me purchasing an F-16. If you had the money to buy an F-16, don't you think that the people selling it to you would build you a seat that actually fit your ass? Or do you think that they would tell you "Screw the millions of dollars you just handed me, you get the seat everyone else gets"? Do you honestly believe that someone would purchase custom made (and it was all custom made) body armor for more money that you, I, and all our friends will ever see in a lifetime, and the guy building it with hammer and anvil couldn't figure out how to make it fit properly?

Honestly, I don't know what makes people believe that they are so much smarter that the people who invented the armor in the first place.

Woodman said...

They didn't even have the excuse the military industrial complex has now.

The next war usually was just like the last one, especially since the last one was last spring.

There were changes in weaponry and materials, but in most cases they seem to have been incremental. Except for the occasional (Questionable) surprise like massed English longbow fire. Making the armor fit and making it so you could operate during an entire battle in it, or adjust the weight based on the length of the battle and protection needed was most likely one of the first things done to any armor design.

docjim505 said...

Sean D Sorrentino - [T]hey make the common mistake in believing that if something doesn't make sense now, that it didn't make sense then. They pretend that they are all knowledgeable, and that their ancestors were stupid. Let's think for half a second here. If the armor made breathing difficult, don't you think that they would have taken the time to correct that little problem?

Excellent point. The ancients - just as we do today - solved problems with the usual tradeoffs between cost and effectiveness. Presumably, armor evolved as it did because it was found to WORK given the conditions (weapons and tactics) of the day.

I add that, while many of the episodes are hokey / contrived, the series "Deadliest Warrior" often does a very good job of showing just how (ahem) nice it usually is to have armor. A line from the episode "Spartan v. Ninja" stands out:

"The [unarmored] Ninja can hurt the [heavily armored] Spartan. The Spartan can kill the Ninja."

Sean D Sorrentino said...

You guys need to forget whatever you “know” about Agincourt. If you want to know why the Brits defeated the French there, you need only look at the Battle of Bannockburn to find the answer. It wasn’t the longbow, it was the pike. Unsupported cavalry will not defeat disciplined and properly armed infantry. Henry V forced the French cav to attack him at his prepared position, supported by archers, but made up primarily of armored soldiers fighting on foot. Over and over throughout history, armies have learned and relearned that essential fact. Infantry is Queen of Battle. Horsies are great for showing how rich and powerful you are, but cavalry is only good against a mobile enemy. Against a dug in infantry opponent who will not move, they are useless.

And yes, armor was built differently to suit different tasks. Horse armor had pointy shoes and spurs that would be unsuitable for walking. Commanders had a tendency to wear open face helmets so that they could shout orders.

Woodman said...

Reminds me of an article that debunks the "heavy" swords myth.

http://thearma.org/essays/2HGS.html

Here is one that shows a Two-Hander, at 5-6 feet long only weighing 5-8 pounds.

If it really doesn't make sense I think it's safe to say hundreds of thousands of people would not have been fighting each other in them successfully.

The M16, for all it perceived faults, and some actual ones, would not be used if it didn't work. The forward assist, 30 round magazine, and burst all point to changes that even the American Military could make in just 10 years. If it didn't work at all we wouldn't use it.

LabRat said...

Others have already covered the subject thoroughly, I'd only note that our average intelligence, which is not the same as our accumulated cultural knowledge, has not changed since the Neolithic. Any of our ancestors once they started making spears and pots would have been just as good or bad at problem-solving as any of us.

Anonymous said...

How much did a suit of armor really weigh? I was under the impression a suit of armor would run 50 or so pounds, well distributed on the body. That's less than your average infantryman carries. My combat load (armor, M4, M203, 15 mags, 10 40mm grenades, a smoke grenade, plus whatever BS they forced me to carry around at all times) ran around 75 pounds. With a pack for missions away from the vehicles I was carrying over 100 pounds. I could run, climb, whatever, and that load was pretty awkward since it was concentrated. You have to learn to how to manage it: it's a new way to move. I hear soldiers are carrying more these days.

A mere 50 pounds of articulated plate, distributed and supported by padding, would hardly slow me down at all. I'd be more worried about the fact that it would be hot as hell to fight with a sword or whatever wearing a steel shell.

Yeah, it burns more energy to wander around with a heavy load. There's this thing called... eating more. A well conditioned body can burn loads of calories in a day if it is kept properly fueled. I ate like 5000 calories a day overseas and was in great shape. Even the periods when we were running constant ops and I wasn't eating enough I never ran low on energy (other than the state of perpetual fatigue all combat soldiers exist in), I just burned my fat right off. When I shifted from dismount to driver/gunner I gained a bunch of weight fast because I was just chilling in a humvee on missions, but didn't change my eating habits for a few weeks.

The breathing thing is just stupid. You know how you make sure a horse isn't holding air in its lungs when you cinch a saddle, so the saddle isn't loose when it breathes out? Take that principle and reverse it, and strap the armor on while the wearer has his chest fully expanded. Voila!

As LabRat and others have said, our ancestors were not fucking retarded. If plate armor really was so flawed, they wouldn't have used it.

Of course, I haven't read the actual paper the article is talking about so maybe the History writer is not accurately representing the researchers' conclusions. However, I will say if the article is an accurate synopsis of the paper, the researchers are shitty scientists.

- weambulance

Firehand said...

The figure I've seen for either mail or plate armor is ~60 pounds for a full set, and that's distributed all over the body(better in plate, actually). Add to that someone who's trained in it for years...

I'll throw in, someone who trains for years in sword/shield/spear combat won't look like the actors in 300; you get to look like that by working at it, whereas the muscles developed from weapons training are developed in the ways that help you fight.

Woodman, the numbers I came up with when I was researching the subject was that, in the medieval period, the average broadsword weighed in a range from 2-3 pounds and length was a spread from 32-36 inches; not the sash weight a lot of people think. I had a chance once to handle a sword that'd been dated to the 2nd Crusade; it weighed a shade over two pounds, and the balance... the thing handled like a wand.

Sean D Sorrentino said...

The weights sound about accurate. Having fought in armor, I can tell you that the real issue is heat exhaustion. That's a training issue. Drink water, stay mentally tough, and keep fighting. It's more a mental thing than a physical thing.

And swords are useless against a guy in armor. All they do is leave straight edged dents in the metal. You have to use a mace, a spear/pike, or a war hammer. Sharp edged objects are primarily useful for carving up the peasants. points, mass, or a combination of the two is what you need to injure the knight.

Plus, you have to remember that killing each other was a waste of good ransom money. Let's say you captured a guy who had so much money that he could buy himself an F-16 to fight with. Would you slaughter him, or would you hold him up for ransom?

Everyone likes to point to the Longbow and the gun as the death knell for the armored knight. It was actually the Swiss mercenaries and their German counterparts, the Landsknechts that ended the sway of a mounted noble in armor. Those unfashionable Swiss decided that if they slaughtered all their enemies, they wouldn't have to fight them again later. Since they were getting paid to win battles, it just made sense to kill their opponents the first time and save themselves the bother of fighting them a second time.

Sigivald said...

Properly fitted armor (especially plate like they're evidently talking about) shouldn't be compressing the ribcage; even chain or brigandine will only be restricting breathing from sheer weight - in other words, not all that much, for a fit person who's used to it.

("But you feel breathless as soon as you begin to move around in medieval armor, and this would likely limit a soldier’s resistance."

Well, they can try telling that to all the people I know that do that every week for a few hours at a time without feeling breathless instantly.

I don't think they'll believe it, though.)

Robin said...

Full plate armor was really only in use for a very limited period of time.

Anonymous said...

Another point.

Similarly to the way that modern "repro" swords do not "feel" like REAL old swords. ( Apparently experts who have handled real medieval swords enough can tell them apart blindfolded within seconds unless it's a REALLY REALLY! good repro sword.)

Modern repro armour is not in the same class as a top-class Milanese or Austrian production quality high-gothic plate armour.

Modern steel is better, but the old weapon smiths were working from a 100's of year old tradition and they knew ALL the tricks on how to lighten the useless bits, shape it "just so" etc...

(And it's no so much an F-16 as a MBT though the point is correct.)

That coupled with people training since they hit puberty to work in this stuff, makes for a study that I can't put much faith in based on this article.

Sure it's tougher than doing this in your speedos..but who cares.

Sean D Sorrentino said...

@Anon: I picked F-16 rather than M-1 for all intents and purposes, an armored knight is invincible against the peasants. One could toss Molotov Coctails onto tanks. What could they do against an F-16?

Also, F-16s are much harder to operate. Any idiot could get three friends together and figure out how to drive, aim, and shoot an M-1 well enough to terrorize the population within about a day. I've been inside tanks, they aren't that complicated. They drive like cars, and all the turret controls would be instantly recognizeable to any gamer geek.

F-16s are basically impossible to operate without a lot of instruction and practice. Sort of like trying to fight in armor from horseback.

Justthisguy said...

Someone above pointed out that people wore padded vests under their armor. I mind a scene from "Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen" in which he bitches to himself about how hot and sweaty his arming-doublet makes him. He remembers the line from Shakespeare about "a rich armour, which scalds with safety."

That actually seems to be the most serious problem with wearing lotsa armor these days, as our guys have found while doing a lot of fighting in very hot climates.

Dying of wounds, or heatstroke? Most people seem to come down on the side that the former is more to be dreaded than the latter.

Ed Foster said...

Robin points out that full plate was only worn for a very short time. I've read of young knights in plate running, wrestling, and doing somersaults in said plate.

A number of decades ago, I worked evenings and weekends during school at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. In the medieval hall, they had a glorious suit of engraved tournament armor, southern German, early Charles the 5th, say 1505 or so.

It had the potbelly to deflect lance tips, and the welded striations running up over the torso to stiffen it without adding much weight. Add amazing engraving on both the knight's armor and the matching armor for the horse, and it was truely a stunning work of art.

Tournament armor, or parade armor? I don't know, except that it didn't have a dent or scrath.

Except in one place. The chainmail skirt covering the bottom of the cuirasse had a square puncture right at the base of the spine.

My guess, and it's only that, is that a brave/foolish young knight in Papa's shiny best found a broken pike formation and thought he would nail one of the impertinent peasant upstarts one on one. Wrong move.

The base of Scottish and some continental pikes had a tapered, four sided spike maybe 8 inches long, backed with a round stop or pommel.

I suspect our brave young knight with his 15 foot lance, found himself at the end of a longer lever when he crossed points with the no doubt more experienced pikeman, who parried the lance and thrust with the other end as hero rode by.

The pike butt came in just a fraction of an inch above the back of the saddle. Sumbitch knew his trade.

The full set of horse and rider's armor had spent almost four centuries in Scotland before the Wadsworth bought it, so perhaps the supposition isn't too farfetched.

Discobobby said...

Ed,
Your brain dumps are righteous stuff. Cool story. And thanks to all for the fascinating commentary. ThIs is why VFTP is a daily stop. Maybe Smiths, maybe pikes, maybe snark. All good.

Rabbit said...

I'm going to throw in on a genetics/physiology/nutrition angle. Humans used to be shorter, lighter, and less well-muscled up until say, 150 years ago because of lack of access to high-protein diets, vitamins, less genetic diversity due to breeding within local groups, and recent progress in medicine.

Go look up the average size of a US Civil War soldier, an English and a German soldier from WW1, and a US soldier from today, or even the Korean War. Your 16th century yeoman will give up a couple of inches, and probably a good 20 pounds to a Doughboy, and a lot more to 21st Century fighting men from NATO.

Anonymous said...

Rabbit - That's not an apples to apples comparison. The people who could afford armor in the middle ages could sure as heck afford to eat well. Maybe an average peasant was much smaller due to nutrition, but I suspect there was a clear difference in size and health between peasants and nobles. The average US serviceman throughout history doesn't really compare to the wealthy elite of the middle ages.

As far as musculature, the weapons they used argue against knights being weak. I'm no swordsman but I do own a few swords, and you have to be strong to fight with one. Anyone can flail about with a blade, but to keep it under control you need incredible forearm and shoulder strength. And that's without carrying 3-4 pounds of extra steel on each arm.

Same thing applies to bows (yeah, they weren't used by knights, but still); the draw weight on a normal English longbow was on the order of 100+ pounds, wasn't it? How many people here can draw a 100 pound longbow once, let alone several times a minute? I doubt I could fully draw a 100 pound bow more than about 5 times in a row (if my fingers are even strong enough), and I'm somewhat stronger than the average modern man. I don't think I could fully draw a bow much heavier than 100 pounds at all.

- weambulance

Tam said...

Attn. History Geeks,

It is worth reading the linked article and video via the University of Leeds, in addition to the "History" Channel article.

I'm sure the guys who did the study are as amazed by the reporter's conclusions as you are.

(And I think they're onto something with why limb-covering full-plate enjoyed such a short heyday on the battlefield, while various sorts of half- and three-quarter-plate lingered on well into the era of pike and shot...)

Rauðbjorn said...

Having worn plate armor (if not quite the full war harness of Maximillian) I can tell you that it only runs around 60 or 70 lbs from sabotons to spaulders. And rather than the off-the-rack armor of the modern era, plate was custom fitted to the wearer.

As for swords? Versus Plate? HA!
Try the ever popular hammer or pick, the can openers of the midevial battlefield. Of course, the fact that it's impossible to armor the lower leg enough to avoid disableing or lethal trauma kinda obviated the point of greaves(hello 3/4 plate). And once the ultimate pole arm lines were revealed by the "Pole-Arm Industry" (Halberd, Bec-de-Corbin, Lucern Hammer) the need for dexterity overwhelmed the need for vambraces(why hi there half-plate).

Sean's right about the F-16 analogy, Armor cost a bloody fortune, and the tack and board alone for a percheron was outrageous (still is come to think of it), never mind the barding. It takes a couple or years to actually get good enough with a sword, shield, horse and lance to survive a battle with green troops, much less an experienced force. And that doen't count the hand to hand, or other melee weapons a knight was expected to be proficient with (axe, morning star, pick, hammer, dagger etc.).

Note that as armor developed to counter weapons, the wepons evolved to defeat the armor. Swords led to maile, maile led to bows, bows led to plate, plate led to the crossbow, the crossbow led to an early instance of "bow control legislation". Meanwhile light infantry inspire bowmen, bowmnen inspire cavalry, cavalry inspire heavy infantry (pikes) and heavy infantry inspire cannon.

Tam said...

There's always the (immensely pleasing) mental image of a bunch of pissed-off leather-jerkined peasant conscr... er, "levies" going at a proned-out guy in plate, stunned from taking a header off Ol' Paint, with a bunch of billhooks as though they were lobster forks. :)

acairfearann said...

Leaving aside some of the professional athletes and some of the military and a few people in labour intensive trades (roofers say), no one in North America/Europe comes close to the fitness of the average medieval individual. Injury, as someone pointed out obviously weakness health more, but lifelong physical conditioning was far greater. The mass grave at Visby, one of the best sites for studying the, ah, impact of medieval weaponry, show bone remodeling consistent with people who used swords and pikes and armour from age 6 or 7. To the point were you can tell if the swordsman was left handed or right. Other graves show the same. Very few people today work hard enough to show actual bone remodeling in the shoulders, hips and femurs.

Most museum plate armour survived because it wasn't heavily used, it is tournament, parade, gift armour. A more extreme example of this is fate of the common medieval utility knife, round handled with a small guard, not dissimilar to some of the European hunting knives, evidence from paintings and literature shows everyone, especially the peasants, carrying them. Good luck finding one though, they got used and used up. The utilitarian tools get used up, the special ones don't.

It also is worthwhile remembering that the medieval peasantry and nobility were in much better health than their counterparts between 1750-1920. Urbanization and the Industrial Revolution without modern infrastructure/science does a real number on health, physical size, life expectancy. In the medieval period men and women if they survived: childhood, childbirth, war, major infection, could and did live into their sixties and seventies. I studied one Scottish earl who was still riding to war at nearly eighty, in the late 1300's.

Firehand said...

I read something a year or so back talking about exactly that drop in size and health; enough so that, late 17-early 1800s the British had to lower the minimum size for a soldier because so many men were actually smaller than had been before; worse nutrition and so forth(dammit, I wish I could remember the book/article!)

Swords also changed from flatter-cutting to thicker-puncturing to deal with plate; and lots of people had a battleaxe or war hammer hanging on their saddle, too. Not everyone you'd run into had plate, or good mail, and what a sword could do... nasty weapons.

I'll throw in that, while a shield is primarily for defense, you can injure/cripple/kill someone with it, too; when I was playing that game there were specific "You will NOT do 'X' with your shield" to keep the injury rate down.

One more comment: on weight, some company used to make an exact replica of a claymore picked up off the field at Culloden; the museum had let them handle it for exact measurements and weight. I handled one of the repros: it weighed about 5.25 pounds. That's for a five-foot long, two-handed beast; if you weren't familiar with swords, the ease with which it swung would've amazed you. People knew what these weapons had to be able to do, and made them accordingly.

Anonymous said...

I have an actual "dervish" sword (think Pasha Gordon and Kartoum). And you are correct. The thing is about four feet long and weights a little over 3 pounds.

Tam said...

Yup. You know when you pick up a properly weighted sword, because when you do, the first thing you want to do is cut something with it.

A good tool transmits its function to the brain through the hand.

Turk said...

Ok, I'm a medieval recreationist. I've been in a group called the Society for Creative anachronisms (SCA)for about 30 years. I'm a big, fat, out of shape guy, no lies, but I've put on armor and fought for an hour or more at a time without TOO much trouble breathing. Armor HAS to be made to your measure. Improperly fitted armor is too much of a hindrance in more ways than just restricting breathing...

Firehand said...

Acairfearann: years back I found a picture of a dirk and sgian dhu that'd belonged to a Highland Regiment officer who'd served in North America for years; the family still had it and had allowed pictures and measurements. The dirk, the fighting/heavy cutting tool, was noticeably worn back from the original edge: the sgian dhu was at least half gone in width from use and sharpening. These were his personal tools, and were used. As you say, the actual using tools we often don't see because they were worn out. Literally.