Iron Tailors

By Peter Fuller

Copyright 1994 Glenbow Magazine

Used with permission

    Whenever visitors walk through the gallery of a museum which contains a collection of armour, one question usually comes to mind: how did people living 500 years ago produce such exquisite craftsmanship? These imposing figures of brightly polished steel seem beyond the capabilities of their medieval creators. Indeed, medieval and renaissance armour is in fact a work of art and more; not only is every curve and contour of the intended wearer's body faithfully sculpted in steel, but his every move is accommodated by an ingenious system of articulated joints, sliding rivets, and internal leathers. To the discerning eye, a fine armour is a marvel to behold.

    How were these "metal clothes" made? Who made them? What were their methods? What tools did they use? The medieval armourer did not have the advantage of modern technology, which most people today would find difficult to comprehend, since everything in our society is manufactured with the use of computers, factories, precision machinery, and even robots. The armourer had none of these, only hand-made tools and his own skill. Electricity was unknown, and any mechanization he incorporated was water-driven. With this in mind, we can look at the construction of armour with even more awe.

    Before the Industrial Revolution of the mid-nineteenth century, everything was produced by a network incorporating a cottage-craft industry. Small workshops produced all of society's goods, and the armourer was no exception. While there were larger "firms" that could supply huge quantities of armour almost at a moment's notice, they were rare, and were still made up of small shops that "sub-contracted" to the "firm." These firms or companies were usually run by families, such as the famous Missaglias of Italy or the Helmschmids of Germany. Entire streets could be lined with small shops that produced armour or the various components that went into making an armour.

    Centres for armour-making grew in areas whose geography provided three components: deposits of raw ore needed for steel and steely-iron which the armour was made from, large expanses of forest to provide charcoal needed for the smelting and forging process, and swift running water to drive the mill-wheels for tilt hammers and polishing stones for finishing. Two areas where all of these components were readily available were northern Italy, especially Brescia and Milan, and southwest Germany around Nuremburg and Augsburg. As a result, these cities became famous for their quality armour and supplied the armies of Europe for generations.

    Armour was constructed by numerous craftsmen, all working under the supervision of a "master" armourer. Each shop had only one or two masters who employed junior armourers and a number of apprentices. Apprenticeship lasted eight years, after which time one had to apply to the local guild to obtain recognition as an armourer. Guilds were established to oversee the armour industry, regulate the trade, and ensure quality control.

    Armour-making was an extremely specialized craft. Very few armourers were qualified to make a complete harness. When applying to the guild for status as an armourer, one had to specify which piece of armour he wanted to make, for example, helmet or breastplate. gauntlets or vambraces. A sample of the applicant's work was scrutinized and approved by the guild masters, and a record was kept of the names of local armourers and what they were qualified to make. After a waiting period of one year, the applicant could apply for approval to produce a different piece. The armourer was only allowed to make those pieces approved by the guild. Through this system of application and approval, the local guilds could ensure the quality of the armour their members were producing. Each piece of armour was stamped with the guild's mark (as a seal of quality), the mark of the shop or master armourer, and the mark of the armourer who actually made the piece.

    Raw material for making armour arrived at the shop in the form of billets, or large bars of iron. These were sent to the local hammersmith, who, with the use of large water-driven tilt hammers, would heat and pound out the billets into plates. They returned to the shop where patterns were traced on the sheets, and the individual pieces were cut out using enormous shears. The armourer would then shape each piece individually, using considerable skill to ensure that each piece not only fit the intended wearer's body perfectly (all quality armour was tailor-made; there was no such thing as an "off the rack" armour), but it had to fit its neighbouring pieces just as well, to ensure smooth and easy movement. Armourers used hammers and shaping "stakes" very similar to those of modern silversmiths, stretching and contouring the metal to conform to the body of the wearer. Each piece varied in thickness, with those pieces protecting a vital area of the body being thicker. The thickness also varied within the pieces themselves, for example, the helmet and breastplate would be thicker at the front than at the sides.

    Once the pieces were shaped, they were put together to check the fit, and the customer was called in for a try-on. Any necessary adjustments were then made, and the armour was sent out to be polished. When it returned, it was put together and checked again. It was vitally important to make sure armour fit and functioned properly. If it did not, it could act as a dangerous hindrance rather than protection.

    The next step was to attach buckles and straps, and any linings that were necessary. These were usually done outside the shop, by a locksmith and a tailor. If any decoration was requested, such as etching, gilt, blueing, or repousse' (embossing), this would be done by an artist commissioned by the armourer or the shop.

    When all the work was completed, it was inspected by the master and a representative of the guild. If it met with their approval, the appropriate stamps were applied, and the completed armour was delivered to the customer. The armour might also be tested, to ensure it would protect against the weapons used in battle. Any mark left by such a test was called a "proof" mark.

    Contrary to popular belief, medieval man was not an ignorant, unskilled simpleton. He was both intelligent and resourceful, capable of producing unparalleled works of art and architecture, in spite of a lack of science and technology. He lived in a world full of colour, beauty, and vibrancy, where crafts such as armour-making reached a level of proficiency unseen in any other age, including our own. The armour contained in collections such as Glenbow's remind us of this; the legacy of men who were not only craftsmen, but true artists.

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