Fighting in Armor

A couple of interesting things have floated through my social media feed in the last couple weeks that have me thinking about fighting in armor, what it would be like, how it changes things for the fighters involved.

This is apparently a thing in Russia:

They are using steel swords in that video. They aren’t sharpened, but honestly, that wouldn’t make as much difference as you might think. Movies often portray knights fighting in armor in the most unrealistic ways, swords chopping straight through metal plates and hacking off limbs. Other knights with limbs hacked off still managing to fight some how.

That’s not how it happened at all. Battles between knights in plate armor in medieval times wouldn’t have been so different from what you see in the video, a battle of endurance as much as skill. A properly armored knight was pretty impenetrable, without specialized weapons. That was the other thing that crossed my stream this last week.

Thick wool tunics and leggings were often wore underneath armor to help absorb some of the force. Chainmail came next, deflecting cutting blades but still allowing for movement. Over that protective plates. Steel gorgets protected the neck, helmets protected the head. Once the knight was encased in armor, he seemed pretty unstoppable.

The one factor they don’t mention in either video is socio-economics. Plate mail armor was expensive to buy and maintained. The knights and men at arms that wore it had to be trained to move and fight in it. For most of the medieval period, knights were a privileged social class.

Socio-economics was both a source of great power for the knights, and ultimately their undoing. Foot soldiers in the early medieval period simply didn’t stand a chance. They might be armed with spears, short bows, swords and axes. Their armor was little more than thick leather, or if they were lucky, pieces of chainmail. A small band of heavily armored knights in plate armor could easily dominate the battlefield. I can almost imagine how terrifying it must have been for the peasant foot soldier, their weapons would bounce off the knight with no effect. Meanwhile one false move on your part and the knight would hack you to pieces.

Many of the strange weapons we see in the second video were designed by and for the peasant foot soldier, in a desperate attempt to even the odds against the better armored knight and man at arms. And as they appeared, the flipside of socio-economics appeared. Knights were expensive to maintain. Forget what you’ve seen in Lord of the Rings or even on the TV version of Game of Thrones, armies composed entirely of heavily armored knights and men at arms are works of fiction. Knights were elite forces.

A lot of people mistakenly believe that the age of knights was ended by the development of firearms, which blasted through the plate. The truth is that a) early firearms were difficult to use, slow to reload and incredibly inaccurate and b) the age of knights was already fading.

What really ended the knights reign of the battlefield was a new generation of foot soldiers. Soldiers with specialized weapons and training. The English longbow decimated the French knights at the battle of Agincourt in 1415. The second video mentions the Flemish Gottentag, a peasant weapon that successfully held French knights at bay as well. Swiss Mercenaries armed with pickaxes, working in phalanxes, could withstand a charge of knights on horseback.

This all has me thinking about a story I want to write someday. It’s in the Gilded Empire saga. The only problem is that it’s nearly a generation ahead of where I’m at right now in the saga, so I probably shouldn’t write it yet, not until I have finished the books I am on anyway.

This story creates a powerful three way conflict between one of the noble houses, with a huge private army of men at arms, the church, with a strong force of it’s own, and a group of elvish peasants. The peasants are being driven from their ancestral home. The lord hopes to open the woods to logging, and the church wishes to enforce its beliefs on the elvish people. However the two powers quickly come into conflict with each other over who ultimately holds sway in the land, the lords or the church.

It’s a long way from being written, let alone published. But for now it’s interesting to research and plan.

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