Friday Weird Science: Knights in Shining Armor, Not as sexy as you might think

Jul 29 2011 Published by under Friday Weird Science, Uncategorized

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 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!

14 responses so far

  • Josh says:

    Sci, I wrote the original blurb about the armor article (Armor is Heavy) though Matthew Payne is the real expert on such historical matters at The Paltry Sapien. Please, let me know (@rugbyologist or at the required email) what your questions were and I'll see what can be done about getting them answered.

  • Adrian Blake says:

    The royal armoury is awesome! If I was told I couldn't be a scientist anymore, my next dream job would be sword fighter at the Royal Armoury, heavy armour or nay!

    • scicurious says:

      I totally would too!!! But I hear they don't let girls do that. Something about historical accuracy. 🙁

  • daedalus2u says:

    If they had ammonia oxidizing bacteria biofilms, they wouldn't have BO and wouldn't need deodorant.

  • Monado, FCD says:

    I've read that full armour weighed about 60 lb. or about the same as an army pack. And, as stated, the knight would be on a horse, which would be essentially a light draft horse, not a modern saddle horse.

    Here's a related query: years ago, probably around 1975, I read a one-paragraph blurb in Scientific American about how peasants on foot could bring down and kill a knight on horseback. There was a detailed procedure, which started with hamstringing the horse. Unfortunately, I no longer have the magazine and have not been able to find it with online searches. Do any of you medieval enthusiasts know of such a procedure?

  • AK says:


    I would strongly suggest you do a little networking, and find some members of the Society for Creative Anachronism. These folks hold regular tournaments and melees, and probably can tell you much more about both the historical and practical aspects of fighting in armor than anybody who just studies it.

    I'd do it myself, but I never really knew any SCA members well enough to keep in touch when circumstances changed. But somebody you know probably knows an active SCA member, who'll know who to ask about fighting in armor. If not somebody you know, somebody who knows somebody you know.

  • Militant Agnostic says:

    I remember someone in a museum in Scotland explaining that the purpose of a claymore was to knock a knight off his horse without killing him so he could be held for ransom. Anyone on in amour and on a horse was important enough to be worth a significant amount of money as a captive.

  • Wazza says:

    there are medieval woodcuts of knights in armour doing handstands. If I remember correctly, they're from sword books, ie instruction manuals for actual combat. That'd be at least an indication that these particular suits might be too heavy.

  • "You once thought of me as a white knight on his steed,
    But now you know how funky I can be."

    --John Stewart

  • Bill says:

    A quick check of ARMA (Association for Renaissance Martial Arts) didn't turn up anything concerning the weight of armor but if you ask they may be able to supply links to applicable articles.

  • Art says:

    Likely heavy armor wasn't worn in battle. Some writing suggests plate battle armor was calibrated so that the vital areas, mostly head and chest, were thicker and arms and legs especially near the hands and feet, were very much thinner and lighter. Knights were not fools. Tournament armor was thicker. Slight wounds to extremities were an acceptable trade off for combat but getting sliced up in exhibitions, when medical care was abysmal, was a higher price.

    Early texts also point out that unlike our test subjects the knights would spend hours, sometimes days, getting used to their armor. Some knights were trained from eight or nine years of age. These men were the trained athletes and specialists of their day.

    There is also the matter that it looks like the armor was off the shelf and not fitted to the subjects. I've read that even minor errors in fit can make armor much more of a burden. If the joints align closely with the body you won't fight the weight and joints so much. Armorers produced a rough fit for a person and then spent a lot of time tuning the pieces to fit right.

    A lot of mythology has been produced about armored knights turning turtle and stumbling around clumsily. Our ancestors were not fools. A friend trained on period swords and noted that the large swords were not anywhere near as heavy or clumsy as the movies present. He noted that the weapons were light and swift and deadly. I suspect that the period armor properly fitted to a conditioned and trained knight was far more capable and swift than is widely assumed.

  • Scicurious: Heck, people wearing full plate armor like this can't mount their own horses, and have pity on them if they fall off!

    Actually, they can. Or at least modern day re-enactors wearing 75 pound replica suits can, and modern infantry lugging around 100 pound loads can engage in equally strenuous tasks.

    You're right that this wasn't field armor. Something else to consider is that field armor wasn't a single item either, it was common to carry everything but the breastplate and helmet in your pack and only put it on right before battle. You're still carrying the same amount of weight, but it's a lot easier without your limbs weighed down.

    Militant Agnostic: From what I've read and heard from SCAdians, that museum guide was exactly wrong, the purpose of the Claymore was the break through that heavy armor and into the squishy bits inside. Also used for breaking enemy pikes, and other such light demolitions. It was a specialist weapon, most of the fighters in the unit would have had shorter, easier to wield swords.

    Art: I've read that even minor errors in fit can make armor much more of a burden.

    I can attest to this, where modern armor is concerned. A helmet or flack vest that's only slightly too loose or too tight feels about twice as heavy.

  • Erik says:

    I used to fight for the SCA and most of us wore either stiff leather (about 1/3 inch thick) with some metal strips to reinforce it, or molded plastic plate. Both have pretty substantial padding underneath. My own rig was overlapping plates of HDPE that were 1/4 inch thick and about 4 inches wide for breastplate, and then solid pieces for arms and legs, attached to pieces of soft leather with rivets to hold it all together. The only metal bits were joints and helmets. I made it to specifications for a suit of 15th century-ish northern european field plate that someone else in my group gave me. Whole thing weighed about 20 pounds (with sword and shield more like 28), which is about 40% what a suit of steel armor with similar strength would have weighed. Because I quite literally molded it to my body, it was extremely easy to move in, and I could wear it all day without too much problem (so long as it wasn't too hot). Our weapons are about the same weight as real swords and, had I been in better shape and done this as more than an occasional hobby (i.e. if I did it for a living), I've no doubt that I could have fought in a similar suit that weighed twice as much. Like a hiking backpack, the key to wearing plate is good weight distribution, if it's all carried by your shoulders, you're going to tire much much faster than if it is carried equally by your hips. Each suit has to be custom-strapped for the person wearing it or it won't work properly.

  • Muhr says:

    Here's a video of a curator at the Met museum discussing armor. In it he infers that 50-60 lb armor isn't considered heavy although he doesn't distinguish between jousting armor or melee armor. He argues against the idea that mounting a horse in full armor was that difficult. He shows some old video (@33:36) of a man in authentic armor mounting a horse easily although he doesn't mention the weight, but I'm assuming the 50-60 lb weight would be accurate. One of the best parts (starts a little after 34:23 but the set up is good as well) is of a guy in 50 lb armor running with a 3 foot sword, he's moving swiftly.

    Here's another video of an armored guy on horseback deliberating falling off his horse and getting back to his feet. I don't know how much his armor weighs, however. He mentions full Milanese armor weighing under 80 lbs and he doesn't seem to imply that being too heavy.