Medieval Mythbusting

On Friday at 1PM in Hyatt International South, the Palmetto Knights busted a number of myths about medieval warfare. Laurence Lagnese moderated the program. Participants were Brant Hale, Chris Walters, Josh Waters, Kirk Curtis, and Jeff Bowers. The audience tremendously enjoyed the demonstration portions of the panel, which involved various grades of steel available in the medieval period. The group passed around different grades of steel they had tested by firing various types of firearms at them.

The program opened with Waters producing a long, somewhat ornate sword with a notched blade. Lagnese described it as a “classic wallhanger,” meaning a sword people would hang on their walls for display, possibly thinking they might be able to use it at some point. He and Walters then demonstrated the difference between a sword like that and one that actually could be useful in a fight.

Every sword has a spot called the center of percussion, which is the optimum striking point for making contact with an opponent. A blow that makes contact in that part of the blade transfers all the energy of the strike into the target. Striking with any other part of the blade sends the energy up the attacker’s arm. Waters likened the effect of hitting with other parts of the blade to hitting a ball with a baseball bat, but not in the sweet spot, and feeling the vibration and a sting in the hands. The center of percussion is the part that vibrates when someone strikes the flat of the blade with the flat of their hand. It was obvious in the group’s broadsword. The blade of the “classic wallhanger” did not vibrate, demonstrating that it really isn’t fit for use as a weapon.

Walters led a discussion on the concept of knighthood and its development from the war bands of the Dark Ages. The knight in shining armor became popular during the Victorian revival of interest in the Middle Ages. The idea of the Code of Chivalry and the concept of courtly (unrequited) love also date from the Victorian era. As far as knights in shining, or plate, armor go, they date from roughly the fourteenth to early sixteenth centuries. They didn’t fade from battle because firearms could pierce the armor, as the discs shot with various guns demonstrated, but because firearms are cheaper, and people can become effective with them much more quickly than they can with swords.

Curtis assisted in debunking the need for a medieval knight to have a crane hoist him onto his horse. He wore armor described as transitional. It has the arm and leg pieces and gauntlets of plate armor, and a brimmed helmet. Instead of plate on the torso, however, he wore a brigandine, a cloth garment with overlapping layers of steel sewn into it. “How about a burpee?” Lagnese asked. Curtis obliged easily. He then jumped onto the dais from a standing start. After that, he performed a shoulder roll and a wide squat before running full-tilt down the center aisle and back. Lagnese announced that Curtis would run the 5K Geek Girls Run on Sunday in the armor he was wearing.

Hale then demonstrated the joys of stabbing various grades of steel with a selection of bladed weapons. A spear pierced chain mail made of six-inch rings. The blade severed the steel rings. A standard arming sword or broadsword also pierced the mail. The popularity of chain mail decreased as plate became more readily available.

The demonstration then turned to the capabilities of various weapons against “mild” or unhardened steel, which average fighters would’ve been able to afford, tempered steel, which elite fighters would’ve worn, and titanium. Several points pierced the fabric of the brigandine but slid off the steel. If the plates of such a garment don’t overlap properly, though, the blade will slide in between the plates and stab the wearer.

The group also looked at the effects of hammer blows on a helmet. Strikes from the hammer end of the head dented the helmet but mostly wouldn’t have seriously injured the wearer. The exception was an overhand blow to the flat top of the helmet, which bashed it in substantially. The spike end of the hammer, however, pierced the steel. A blow with that end against the eye slit of the helmet produced a large hole and would’ve gone into the wearer’s eye. Lagnese said the helmet was 1.6-mm steel, which was about the average since surviving medieval helmets range from 1.2 to 1.8 mm.

Discussing the transition from mail to plate armor, the panelists pointed out that chain mail or Curtis’s transitional armor can be worn by people of somewhat different sizes. Plate armor, on the other hand, has to be fitted to its wearer for maximum efficacy. Plate weighs about the same as the other types of armor, a full suit topping out at about 60 pounds. As armor improved, shields grew smaller and eventually fell out of use.

At the end of the program, after a discussion of paintings of medieval knights in plate armor battling on a ship, Waters pointed out that soldiers aboard ships did not wear full armor because the armor would become a death trap for anyone who fell into the water. Combatants at sea, he said, wore a helm, a breastplate, and a gambeson (padded tunic) so they could shed their gear easily if they went overboard. Lagnese took the opportunity to caution the audience against relying too much on art as a historical source. Sometimes it’s a guide, and sometimes it’s just art.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. She's the author of The Herald of Day, the first book in the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy, and the Light Mage Wars paranormal romantic suspense novels. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she writes the Outcast Station space opera series.

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