Leather armor was not very popular in medieval times. There are not many pieces that survived till our age – but that’s maybe because this kind of material can’t last that long. In the early middle ages, the knights wore chain armor.
Later on, plate armor was invented, and everyone turned to this type of body protection. However, chain and plate armor were hard to make and very expensive. Not everyone could afford them – especially not the bulk of common soldiers on the battleground. That’s why some historians believe there was a third type of armor that was made of hardened leather.
How useful leather armor was?
Leather armor was not strong enough to endure a direct blow from a blade, but it was sufficient to protect warriors from some injuries. The main reason why it was used was that it was much cheaper than plate armor. On top of that, leather armor wasn’t that heavy, and it enabled the people who wore it to move more swiftly.
Leather was sometimes strengthened with metal strips and bands, which helped protect against slashing blows. Especially helmets were often made by combining leather and metal.
Some researchers recently tested the type of leather that was most likely used for armor production. They noticed it could lower the depth of an arrow wound a lot.
What kind of leather was used for armor making?
Boiled leather, also known by its French name cuir bouilli, was a popular material in the middle ages. It was used in making a lot of stuff, including carrying-cases, various instruments, books – and armor.
To create such stiff and robust material, the leather had to be treated in some way. It looks like there were many ways to harden it, but the most popular one was to soak it in water. Regardless the name (boiled leather) the process did not really include boiling.
The leather was immersed in water for a while – longer if the water was cold or just a couple of minutes if the water was warm. At some stage, the leather was soft enough to be pressed into a mold, which gave it a particular form and decoration.
All surviving pieces of hardened leather had been adorned that way. Later on, the material would dry and become really robust and durable.
There were other ways to produce hardened leather. There were many recipes and approaches rather than one. Sometimes, tanned vegetable leather was baked after soaking and molding. At least one of those recipes involved using beeswax and other product to reinforce the leather
Who wore boiled leather armor?
In short, it was infantry – mostly. The knights (cavalry) normally didn’t wear armor that was completely made of leather, but their own protective clothes had some elements that were made of that material. For example, the parts that covered arms and legs. The account of knight wearing leather armor can even be found in contemporary fiction.
In Canterbury Tales, Sir Thopas’s jambeaux (greaves) were of cuir-bouilli (boiled leather). Moreover, on some tournaments, the knights and even their horses were dressed in leather.
Even though there is no material evidence, some people wrote that fifteenth-century the majority of English longbowmen had leather helmets. In the late Middle Ages, helmets had massive decorative tops that were made of hardened leather.
Did medieval knights wear leather armor?
No, except on some tournaments, and sometimes their armor had elements made of leather.
How was hardened leather armor produced?
Leather was soaked in water and then molded.
What was the French name for hardened leather?
It was cuir bouilli.
What other two basic types of armor existed in the middle ages?
Those were chain armor and plate armor.
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