Some Arms and Armour Terms and Facts
by Richard H. Fay
Even in this supposed Age of Information, some people still seem a bit misinformed when it comes to proper terminology used for and certain actual facts about historic arms and armour. This may be especially true in the realm of fantasy literature, though such inaccuracies are not restricted to that realm alone. On occasion, one may run across authors of fiction and non-fiction alike using less-than-proper terms, such as “plate mail” or “scale mail”. At other times, one may read about heroes wearing overly-burdensome armour that no sane warrior would don or wielding heavy swords that no experienced swordsman or swordswoman would ever carry into battle. Such mistakes stick out like a sore thumb to anyone with knowledge of historic arms and armour. The use of proper terminology and accurate facts in reference to arms and armour not only aids the scholar of historic arms and armour in his or her studies and writings, it also helps the fantasy author create a more realistic fantasy setting. At the very least, an author utilizing more appropriate jargon and factual details won’t sound like he or she got their information from video games and role playing game rulebooks!
First off, “mail” is not a generic term for armour. The term “mail” (sometimes spelled “maille”) refers specifically to a flexible form of armour composed of interlocking metal rings. The English word mail possibly derives from the French maille, which itself is thought to derive from the Latin macula, meaning “mesh of a net”. Victorian antiquarians coined the pleonastic phrase “chain mail”, which is still in widespread used today. However, many modern scholars of historic arms and armour believe “chain” to be a redundant word, since “mail” already refers to a metal fabric of interlocking rings.
As for the terms “plate mail” and “scale mail”, they are absolute rubbish! Again, we can blame the Victorians for the absurd notion of using “mail” as a general term for armour. Knowing what the term “mail” actually means, it should be clear to see that the phrases “plate mail” and “scale mail” make no sense. Toss them right into the dustbin and be done with them!
The Romans did have a generic term for body armour: lorica. Thus, a lorica hamata (hamata = “hooked”) means a Roman body armour of mail, lorica squamata (squamata = “scaled”) means a Roman body armour of scales, and lorica segmentata means a Roman body armour made up of iron segments or lames. However, lorica laminata, a term the Romans themselves may have applied to what scholars today call the lorica segmentata, is gaining ground amongst some enthusiasts.
Medieval terms for a coat of mail include byrnie, hauberk, and haubergeon (usually a smaller type of hauberk with shorter hem). Hauberks could also be composed of scale or plate. “Hauberk of Plates” occasionally appears in medieval sources as a label denoting plate protection for the torso. Such a protection, consisting of plates riveted or sewn inside a fabric cover, might also be called coat of plates (the usual modern term for such armour), pair of plates, or simply plates. The brigandine, a developed form of coat of plates used from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, consisted of many metal plates riveted inside a fabric covering. The brigandine’s poorer cousin, the jack of plates, featured overlapping plates sewn between layers of canvas.
As mentioned above, plate armour should not be called “plate mail”. That’s just wrong! More properly, plate armour should be called just that, plate armour. Harness is the preferred term when talking about a full suit of armour. Cuirass, from the earlier cuirie (a leather defence for the breast), refers to protection for the torso, breastplate and backplate. The uncovered harness of the “knight in shining armour” of the Late Middle Ages is called white armour or “alwhyte”/”alwite” armour.
One misconception about late medieval and Renaissance plate armour, popularised by the Victorians (again) and some classic Hollywood films, is that plate armour was unduly heavy and rendered the wearer relatively immobile. What rot! While it is true that some specialised tournament armour was exceptionally heavy and deliberately locked the wearer into position, armour made for the battlefield allowed the wearer to move and to fight. For those trained to fight in armour, well-made field harness was neither excessively heavy nor impossibly inflexible. A full plate harness weighed around forty-five to sixty-five pounds or so, and because of the armour’s crafty design, this weight was distributed more evenly than the similarly-weighted kit borne by modern soldiers and firefighters. Contrary to what was shown in Sir Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film Henry V, the late medieval knight did not require a crane to mount his warhorse. While clad in full field harness, the famous French marshal Boucicaut could scale the underside of a ladder using just his arms.
Speaking of the actual weight of historic arms and armour, medieval swords were neither exceedingly hefty nor excessively clumsy. Not the brute-force weapons some believe them to have been, medieval swords were properly weighted and well-balanced for the job they had to do, cutting up and dismembering the swordsperson’s opponents . The pommel at the top of the hilt wasn’t there just for decoration; it helped counter-balance the weight of the blade. The fuller found on the blades of many swords did not function as a blood grove; it helped lighten the blade without sacrificing strength. Most medieval one-handed swords weighed, on average, less than three pounds. Larger swords-of-war, with longer blades and hilts, typically weighed less than four-and-a-half pounds. The specialised two-handed swords of the Renaissance Doppelsoldners weighed around five to eight pounds, not absurdly heavy for swords of such great size. Some huge processional swords weighed as much as fourteen pounds, but such ponderous pieces created for ostentatious display were never intended for use on the battlefield.
With the correct information easily available to those who know where to look (the links below are a good start), there is no excuse to perpetuate the popular myths and misconceptions about historic arms and armour. With a little research into the subject, one may utilise proper terminology when writing about arms and armour, whether it be in non-fiction essays or fantasy fiction. With a bit of knowledge on the subject, there really is no excuse for using imprecise terminology and inaccurate facts when describing arms and armour.
Some links of interest:
(Originally published in the Classically Educated blog, July 15, 2014.)