Why wasn't plate armour introduced earlier in the medieval period?

Oct 2017
86
South Australia
#1
While I believe mail armour is underestimated by many, nevertheless I think it is fairly safe to say that plate armour provides better protection in basically every way- correct me if I'm wrong here.

As such, it seems puzzling that mail armour was around for probably over a millennium, and most of the medieval period, whereas plate armour only came in towards the end of the Middle Ages. I don't really know the exact chronology but I believe it first came into use in the 1300s.

Plate armour hardly seems like an idea that it would take centuries to dream up, it's literally just solid sheets of metal as opposed to interlinking rings of it. Even the Romans used the lorica segmentata for a while, which although different to medieval plate armour, was nevertheless similar in that it was composed of solid sheets of metal. (let's keep the discussion to the medieval period here though, just to keep it focused, I might start another thread on Roman armour).

Was it that in the earlier period of the Middle Ages armourers didn't have the technology or knowledge needed to make plate armour - does plate require steel as opposed to iron, or perhaps a higher grade of steel? (I know next to nothing about the metal used in medieval armour)

Was it that people in earlier periods didn't have enough money to consider plate armour - they couldn't afford it? But surely the rich could afford it, I know it was expensive but I don't think it cost the earth

I think I'm right in saying plate armour was introduced to protect against weapons which could pierce mail, like the longbow (though I think there might be some debate on this?), or concussive weapons like a mace. However, as stated above, as far as I know, it provides better protection than mail against basically everything, so surely they didn't have to wait until something like the longbow came along?

Then again, although I assume plate is superior, maybe mail armour still provided enough protection to make plate armour unnecessary. As far as I know, compared to mail, plate armour is heavier (although it does distribute weight better than mail so Im not sure which is easier to wear in the end), traps more heat, is harder to store, is harder to move in (I think?) and is generally less convenient, so I guess that could contribute to this. I realize that protection isn't everything with armour and practicality plays a part too, so I would probably opt for the answer that mail really was sufficient enough protection until longbows, maces etc. came along

I have some interest in armour, but I'm no expert, so I'm interested to hear your thoughts

Edit: I realize there is a current thread which is also discussing different types of armour, I'm asking specifically why plate armour was introduced when it was, and why it wasn't introduced earlier
 
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Aug 2014
4,473
Australia
#3
Plate became widespread when it did because some new mass production technologies (e.g. blast furnaces and trip hammer mills) reduced the cost, not because it was better. Plate works best if it is fully articulated and custom tailored to fit the wearer. The technology for this (such as sliding rivets and gorget turns) was developed over several centuries and wasn't available before the 15th century. Mail is superior to most kinds of plate, which is why it dominated the battlefield in earlier periods despite plate being available.

Giovanni Michiel was a Venetian Ambassador to Queen Mary and King Philip. This comes from his "Report of England", written to the Venetian Senate on the 13th May, 1557.

"... and for the body they either use some sort of breastplate (qualche petto di corsaletto) which guards the forepart, although indifferently, or else more willingly (especially those who have the means) some jack (giaco) or shirt of mail (camicia di maglia); but what they usually wear are certain padded canvas jupons (giubboni di canevaccio imbottiti), each of which is double high, two fingers or more in thickness (doppi alti due dita); and these doublets are considered the most secure defence against the shock of arrows. Upon their arms they place strips of mail (liste di maglia), put lengthways, and nothing else."

It says that breastplates were the LEAST desirable of all the kinds of armour - only worn by those who couldn't afford anything better. By this time, mail armour and textile armour cost more than plate. It also says that their padded canvas jupons were best at resisting the "shock of arrows" and not plate armour as many modern writers think.

This might help
Mail: Unchained
 
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Likes: Marshall Ney
Jan 2015
2,903
MD, USA
#4
Well, it's a good question! There *were* bits and pieces of plate armor in the earlier middle ages, such as "splinted" limb defences, but they were rare. Except for helmets! All we can really say for sure is that mail is VERY good armor, and they must have really liked it's advantages of flexibility, airflow, fitting, etc. Impact weapons simply do not seem to have been a deciding factor, except that the head may have been seen as more susceptible to blows since helmets tended to be solid and were more common than body armor.

Plate armor really doesn't require much fancy metallurgy, in fact the iron does not need to be as carefully refined as that needed for drawing wire--slag inclusions that can be ignored in a piece of plate will cause wire to break when being drawn. So it's just a matter of shaping, which is no problem for any culture that can make a helmet (or cookpot, or any other iron item). (For simple plates just strapped on, that is!) I believe the first references to iron plates being worn on the chest under mail are in the 12th century, though they certainly don't seem to be common. Mail worked! Remember that the SHIELD was still the first line of defense, as well.

The nobles who wore mail were no less wealthy than the first ones to wear plate. And plates being added over mail seem to coincide with the growing use of 2-handed weapons by infantry, not to mention cavalry charges with heavy lances. Those pack more of a punch, and were *possibly* more of a threat to mail, encouraging something extra. Possibly the same for crossbows, though it doesn't seem like bows were a deciding factor. A full suit of mail is in the same general weight range as a full suit of plate--it was only in the transitional era when a full suit of mail was nearly covered in plates that total weight rose to well over 60 pounds.

It did take a while for all of the complex articulation to develop, and that is definitely highly refined craftsmanship. Note that one factor which inhibits the spread of new technology is that trade secrets were SECRETS, not to be shared around, but carefully guarded to preserve one's edge in the marketplace. Also, warriors tend to be VERY conservative about military technology, not trusting newfangled ideas or changes that might get them killed, when they know and trust what they are already doing and using. So change comes slowly.

Seems to me that the great rise in the production of plate armor, making cheap munition armor widely available, only happened after the nobility was pretty much covered in high-end plate. So I'm not sure I'd say that the rise of plate armor was dependent on production methods. Nor would I say that a noble's expensive breastplate was less desirable than mail or something else! That really only crops up with later cheap infantry armors.

It's a complicated question!

Matthew
 

sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
4,515
Sydney
#5
it is a bit of a mystery
for plate there is the law of diminishing return
breast plate are by far the most efficient protection .shoulder pads , sleeves and greaves come next ,

by the thirteen century breast-plates came to be increasingly used , it provided a substantial gain in solid cover and the greatest saving in weight
I would go along the thinking that battlefield weapons were changing

an articulated full suit only provide marginally more for a very high cost
 
Likes: Marshall Ney
Jun 2019
29
Southeast Asia
#6
There are several factors in my opinion.

1. No experience with it.
Germanic kingdoms have no tradition of having plate armor unlike the Greco-Romans and are still too impoverished to attempt to create new kind of armor.

2. Price.
Plate armor require tailoring on the limb and torso which increase the price. Creating a full body plate armor is too expensive, even full body mail armor are non existent in early Medieval period.
With no full body armor, cutting method would be used on unprotected parts, getting cut on the upper arm when wearing sleeveless mail shirt or a cuirass have no difference. The enemy would just avoid the cuirass and cut where there is no armor

3. Durable and easy to repair.
The fight would be done in area with low manufacturing capability which is unlike the High Medieval and Late Medieval period in which cities are common throughout Europe and all would have the ability to repair plate armor.
It is easier to repair mail in German forest than bringing a furnace to reforge damages plates. Mail with holes is still more comfortable to wear than a dented cuirass.

4. No melee high impact weapon like lance or polehammer.
No need to protect against such blunt trauma and therefore no need to make deflective and rigid armor.
When heavy cavalry with couched lance start playing more role in the 11th century, we see Europeans quickly increase their armor.
 
Likes: Marshall Ney
Oct 2017
86
South Australia
#8
Plate became widespread when it did because some new mass production technologies (e.g. blast furnaces and trip hammer mills) reduced the cost, not because it was better. Plate works best if it is fully articulated and custom tailored to fit the wearer. The technology for this (such as sliding rivets and gorget turns) was developed over several centuries and wasn't available before the 15th century. Mail is superior to most kinds of plate, which is why it dominated the battlefield in earlier periods despite plate being available.

Giovanni Michiel was a Venetian Ambassador to Queen Mary and King Philip. This comes from his "Report of England", written to the Venetian Senate on the 13th May, 1557.

"... and for the body they either use some sort of breastplate (qualche petto di corsaletto) which guards the forepart, although indifferently, or else more willingly (especially those who have the means) some jack (giaco) or shirt of mail (camicia di maglia); but what they usually wear are certain padded canvas jupons (giubboni di canevaccio imbottiti), each of which is double high, two fingers or more in thickness (doppi alti due dita); and these doublets are considered the most secure defence against the shock of arrows. Upon their arms they place strips of mail (liste di maglia), put lengthways, and nothing else."

It says that breastplates were the LEAST desirable of all the kinds of armour - only worn by those who couldn't afford anything better. By this time, mail armour and textile armour cost more than plate. It also says that their padded canvas jupons were best at resisting the "shock of arrows" and not plate armour as many modern writers think.

This might help
Mail: Unchained
Good answer, thanks for the primary source!

Just a few questions, mostly just interesting points you make that need explaining:

Mail is superior to most kinds of plate
Could you explain why this is?

earlier periods despite plate being available.
Was plate available/present anywhere in earlier periods?

It says that breastplates were the LEAST desirable of all the kinds of armour
That's interesting, why would that be?

only worn by those who couldn't afford anything better. By this time, mail armour and textile armour cost more than plate
Why was this? I always though plate was always significantly more expensive because it was harder to make

It also says that their padded canvas jupons were best at resisting the "shock of arrows" and not plate armour as many modern writers think.
Great point, people forget about or underestimate padded jupons, gambesons etc. I'm curious about how effective arrows were aginst plate though, could they pierce it?
 
Oct 2017
86
South Australia
#9
Well, it's a good question! There *were* bits and pieces of plate armor in the earlier middle ages, such as "splinted" limb defences, but they were rare. Except for helmets! All we can really say for sure is that mail is VERY good armor, and they must have really liked it's advantages of flexibility, airflow, fitting, etc. Impact weapons simply do not seem to have been a deciding factor, except that the head may have been seen as more susceptible to blows since helmets tended to be solid and were more common than body armor.

Plate armor really doesn't require much fancy metallurgy, in fact the iron does not need to be as carefully refined as that needed for drawing wire--slag inclusions that can be ignored in a piece of plate will cause wire to break when being drawn. So it's just a matter of shaping, which is no problem for any culture that can make a helmet (or cookpot, or any other iron item). (For simple plates just strapped on, that is!) I believe the first references to iron plates being worn on the chest under mail are in the 12th century, though they certainly don't seem to be common. Mail worked! Remember that the SHIELD was still the first line of defense, as well.

The nobles who wore mail were no less wealthy than the first ones to wear plate. And plates being added over mail seem to coincide with the growing use of 2-handed weapons by infantry, not to mention cavalry charges with heavy lances. Those pack more of a punch, and were *possibly* more of a threat to mail, encouraging something extra. Possibly the same for crossbows, though it doesn't seem like bows were a deciding factor. A full suit of mail is in the same general weight range as a full suit of plate--it was only in the transitional era when a full suit of mail was nearly covered in plates that total weight rose to well over 60 pounds.

It did take a while for all of the complex articulation to develop, and that is definitely highly refined craftsmanship. Note that one factor which inhibits the spread of new technology is that trade secrets were SECRETS, not to be shared around, but carefully guarded to preserve one's edge in the marketplace. Also, warriors tend to be VERY conservative about military technology, not trusting newfangled ideas or changes that might get them killed, when they know and trust what they are already doing and using. So change comes slowly.

Seems to me that the great rise in the production of plate armor, making cheap munition armor widely available, only happened after the nobility was pretty much covered in high-end plate. So I'm not sure I'd say that the rise of plate armor was dependent on production methods. Nor would I say that a noble's expensive breastplate was less desirable than mail or something else! That really only crops up with later cheap infantry armors.

It's a complicated question!

Matthew
Great answer, thankyou!

plates being worn on the chest under mail
I always thought plates were worn over mail?

Remember that the SHIELD was still the first line of defense
Great point! People forget this
 
Aug 2014
4,473
Australia
#10
Could you explain why this is?
You first have to define "superior". Factors include comfort, cost, availability, flexibility, weight, durability, longevity, maintenance, repairs, protective capacity. IMO the latter is the least important because there really isn't much of a difference between the various types of armour.

Was plate available/present anywhere in earlier periods?
Plate armour has been around since the Bronze Age. As Matt said, anyone who can make a helmet or a cook-pot can make a breastplate.

That's interesting, why would that be?
IMO it is because it covers less of the body compared to more flexible types of armour and it is the least comfortable.

Why was this? I always though plate was always significantly more expensive because it was harder to make.
The "mail unchained" article cites several sources showing that plate cost less than mail.

Great point, people forget about or underestimate padded jupons, gambesons etc. I'm curious about how effective arrows were against plate though, could they pierce it?
Only the heaviest arrows shot from the heaviest bows from the shortest ranges had any chance of compromising armour.
 
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