This new article has gained substantial attention on the interwebs, and who can blame us? After all, knights, shining armor, it's what lots of people like to pretend to be (or pretend to be rescued by, goes both ways).
Picture it if you would: a damsel in distress, inches from death in the maw of a GIANT DRAGON, she shrieks for help!! Suddenly, over a ridge appears the pennant of a shining knight on horseback!! He draws his sword and gallops to her rescue...
...and then he gets close enough to smell. The severe BO emanating off his frame frightens off the poor hyperosmic dragon. He approaches the damsel, now swooning from more than just fear, and rips off his helmet, to reveal a face completely dripping with sweat...
Awwww c'mon, aren't you totally romanced??
Because you know, all that armor may look very romantic, but it's not exactly the lightest. And the question then becomes: how hard is it to carry?
(Image of a man in full armor. DID he in fact die on the field of battle or of illness? Or was it from heat and exhaustion in all that metal?)
Askew et al. "Limitations imposed by wearing armour on Medieval soldiers’ locomotor performance" Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 2011
Now let's get away from romantics and body odor and talk about armor. Seeing the suits in museums now, it doesn't seem like the smartest thing in the world to wear. Heavy, clanking, difficult to move in. But during the Medieval period, the armor was the only thing that worked against swords, knives, and even most arrows (excepting crossbows, which pack one HECK of a punch I can tell you). In fact, the protection was good enough that people rich enough to afford it packed on all the armor they could, even arming their horses, like medieval hay-burning tanks.
But all that protection comes at a price. Being encased in metal is a heavy proposition. The question is: how heavy? And how hard is it to carry?
So the authors of this paper took 4 volunteers (volunteers, by the way, who were pretty used to wearing armor, being volunteers at the museum where the study took place). The average height was around 5'8", and weight 175lbs (giving a BMI of 26, slightly overweight, but since these guys are wearing armor a lot I'm going to assume that's muscle). They stuck these guys in full sets of plate armor, and stuck them on a treadmill.
They then took measures of their breathing and metabolism as the volunteers walked or ran. The metabolic rates they saw were TWICE that of walking or running without armor on. Of course that's a lot, but armor is heavy. The authors also saw that the volunteers were breathing both hard and SHALLOW, thus breathing more frequently than they would without armor, probably due to being unable to take full breaths in the metal suit (keep in mind you can't just wear armor over your jeans or something. All of that has to be worn over specific padding over all of the skin, so you don't get some WICKED metal chafing).
From this they concluded two things:
1) Armor is heavy.
2) The heaviness of the armor really increases the work it takes to move, and this might have contributed to the outcome of certain battles (they use for example the battle of Agincourt, where the flower of French chivalry wore themselves out in heavy cavalry charges against the lightly armed English bowmen).
Now, I have no problems with this paper. In fact I think it's really awesome. I would LOVE to be able to run in armor on a treadmill for science! I noticed the authors are based in the Armory at Leeds, and if you ever get a chance, I have NEVER been to a better Armory! Full sets of elephant armor up in there, and I still have the piece of leather one of the hawking demonstrators gave me. There's a great and highly informative section on medieval torture (did you know they used a pointy metal mask to punish gossips? Perez Hilton wouldn't have lasted 5 minutes). Jousting demonstrations, too. It's good times. And they used several of the volunteers who worked for the museum and routinely wore medieval armor for their testing, guys who were in good shape, not just some out of shape grad student who hadn't seen daylight in months.
I like the study and I think the findings are definitely accurate...but I wonder about the armor. See, Sci is a total history nerd. MASSIVE. And medieval and renaissance Europe is my favorite time period. So I've done a lot of reading. That said, armor isn't my expertise. But I have to wonder...is this REALLY the armor they wore into battle? My previous sources say...actually it's not. It's the armor they wore for TOURNAMENTS, certainly, and certainly it was dress armor. But in a war? Some sources suggest that armor this heavy (the armor they tested was full plate armor weighing 77lbs or 35kg) wasn't actually worn in battle at all. Armor this heavy might not be optimal in a battle. Heck, people wearing full plate armor like this can't mount their own horses, and have pity on them if they fall off! They have to move slowly, and don't have fast reaction times. For a single heavy cavalry charge that's not the end of the world, but for serious sword swinging?
Instead, it appears that armor worn into actual battle started out around 15kg (33lbs) and ended up around 25kg (45lbs). That's a lot, definitely (45lbs is roughly the recommended weight for a full hiking backpack), but it's NOT 77lbs, not by a long shot. No, the lighter armor was better for movement, easier to wear, and you could probably successful mount a horse in it.
So what were these 77lb piles of armor FOR? Jousting. Tournaments. The kind of fight where the only limits placed on you are the weight that your horse can carry at a gallop.
And even if they WERE in 77lb armor...most of the time they were mounted, letting the horse take most of the weight. So you'd only be really feeling the weight if you ended up standing on the ground in a melee. In generally, this is relatively unlikely for heavy cavalry, cause a knight off his horse is a pretty dead knight.
Now keep in mind, I could be wrong here. I'm not an expert. But I do wonder if they may be working with higher weight loads here than are actually warranted. I put in a question to some people over here, where they look like they might know what they are talking about, but it looks like Sci's no good there. So does anyone know? Was this REALLY the armor they fought for three hour melees in, stood in the sun all day in, tromped through the swamps all night in? Or were they in fact wearing something a little lighter for everyday wear?
But there are two things that we can take away from this:
1) Armor is not for the faint of heart or lungs. And it's definitely not a fun time if it's also hot out. If this is what they were wearing, no wonder Europe did so poorly in the Crusades.
2) Damsels, if you're getting ready to be rescued by a knight in shining armor...before he sweeps you up in his metal clad arms, you might want to hand him some deodorant. Or maybe ask him to take the armor off first, that much weight can't be good for the romantic mood.
Askew, G., Formenti, F., & Minetti, A. (2011). Limitations imposed by wearing armour on Medieval soldiers' locomotor performance Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.0816
EDIT! Josh (below in the comments) volunteered to answer some of my questions and get the others to those who knew more. We had a looooooong conversation on twitter, and for the benefit of the masses, here it is as a Storify, a little reorganized so you can get the feel for what we really covered, including the purpose of heavy cavalry, the reality of field armor weights, the different sword types, and whether a melee is really as romantic and long as everyone thinks. Check it out!