Medieval Armor and Swords Were NOT Heavy by Sarah Woodbury

Posted by on Jun 23, 2014 in Featured Book | 3 comments

The-Unlikely-Spy185x280aMy books are set in medieval Wales, and many of the male characters wear armor at one time or another. While wearing armor and the padding underneath certainly made the wearer warm, that medieval swords and armor were ‘heavy’ is one of the strangest misconceptions of medieval life.  These people’s LIVES depended on their agility and ability to survive a fight.  Why would they be wielding 20 pound swords and wearing armor so heavy if they fell of their horse, they’d find themselves as helpless as upturned turtles?

One reason for the confusion comes from the fact that ornamental swords and armor that remain to us often ARE heavier than ones used in battle, secondly, the sport of ‘fencing’ has greatly confused people as to what sword fighting really entailed (the purpose of fencing is to poke your opponent with the tip; the purpose of sword fighting is to get your opponent on the ground and shove your 2 lb. sword through his midsection to kill him), and thirdly, in the late middle ages, the plate armor knights used specifically for jousting WERE heavier than normal so they could survive a straight shot to the chest from a lance.  I have a children’s book that actually claims that a knight had to be helped onto his horse by two servants and a ladder.

No, no, no.

Despite frequent claims to the contrary, Medieval swords were indeed light, manageable, and on average weighed less than four pounds. As leading sword expert Ewart Oakeshott unequivocally states: “Medieval Swords are neither unwieldably heavy nor all alike – the average weight of any one of normal size is between 2.5 lb. and 3.5 lbs. Even the big hand-and-a-half ‘war’ swords rarely weigh more than 4.5 lbs. Such weights, to men who were trained to use the sword from the age of seven (and who had to be tough specimens to survive that age), were by no means too great to be practical.”(Oakeshott, Sword in Hand, p. 13). Oakeshott, the 20th century’s leading author and researcher of European swords would certainly know.” http://www.thearma.org/essays/weights.htm

A major league baseball bat weighs less than a pound–10 ounces or so–and so in comparison, swords are ‘heavy’.  But no knight is planning on hitting a baseball 200 yards either.  Around the world, the new/old practice of ‘European martial arts’ is springing up, because knights were martial artists, with all the maneuvers and kicks and elbow-to-the-nose of Asian martial arts.  I have post about this here:  http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/european-martial-arts/

If you’re interested in Dark Age and Medieval Armor, here’s another post:  http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/darkageandmedievalarmor/

Mail is very flexible (which meant that while it was effective against slashes and thrusts from swords, was far less so against forceful blows), and relatively light, with a hauberk weighing roughly twenty pounds.  Plate is heavier, more like 45 pounds for a full suit, but with more evenly distributed weight.  When properly fitted, a knight could move easily and fully in either mail or plate.

http://historymedren.about.com/library/weekly/aa041500b.htm

“An entire suit of field armor (that is, armor for battle) usually weighs between 45 and 55 lbs. (20 to 25 kg), with the helmet weighing between 4 and 8 lbs. (2 to 4 kg)—less than the full equipment of a fireman with oxygen gear, or what most modern soldiers have carried into battle since the nineteenth century. Moreover, while most modern equipment is chiefly suspended from the shoulders or waist, the weight of a well-fitted armor is distributed all over the body.

… Historical sources tell us of the famous French knight Jean de Maingre (ca. 1366–1421), known as Maréchal Boucicault, who, in full armor, was able to climb up the underside of a ladder using only his hands. Furthermore, there are several illustrations from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance depicting men-at-arms, squires, or knights, all in full armor, mounting horses without help or instruments such as ladders or cranes. Modern experiments with genuine fifteenth- and sixteenth-century armor as well as with accurate copies have shown that even an untrained man in a properly fitted armor can mount and dismount a horse, sit or lie on the ground, get up again, run, and generally move his limbs freely and without discomfort.”  http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/aams/hd_aams.htm

My 21 year old son informs me that he downloaded a patch for a game–Skyrim–making weapons and armor the proper weight.  Apparently, the original game had swords weighing 10 pounds!

My latest book, The Unlikely Spy, takes place in 1146 Wales. In this era, soldiers aren’t yet wearing full body plate mail, but many of my characters wear armor as a matter of course. It’s an important point that my characters are able to move freely!

Sarah Woodbury, June 23, 2014

 

3 Comments

  1. Dr Toby Capwell curator of Tower Armouries London England would agree
    http://imgur.com/a/3j1jA

  2. This is a very instructive post, Sarah. I well remember seeing Laurence Olivier as Henry V being hoisted onto his horse by a small crane. It made a good visual impact but as you say it was not actually the case.

    I was interested to see the comparisons with modern firefighters and soldiers and wonder how it compares with other soldiers such as Roman legionaries.

  3. The amount of weight carried by a typical foot soldier remained remarkably constant until quite recently. Better nutrition allows modern soldiers to carry somewhat heavier gear.