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Armor during the Hundred Year’s War was going through some remarkable changes. At the beginning of the 14th century, men at arms would be using mail (aka “Chain Mail”) as their primary defense, with reinforcement pieces added to help combat the new terror weapon: the crossbow.
The fighting man had been wearing mail and a helmet since Roman times. Mail was good protection on its own, being cut-proof from all but the stoutest of blows. It also had the advantage of being able to be produced from small bits of iron; as the smelting furnaces of the dark and middle ages were too small to produce large sheets. Another limiting factor of the furnaces was that at that size, silica contaminants from the linings of the furnace would prevent the crystals of iron from bonding homogeneously. This introduced weaknesses in the iron which could somewhat be corrected by working the metal repeatedly.
The weakness of mail was thrusts. By focusing a lot of force on only one or two links, a small point could break a link and penetrate. Even if the links did not break, it was possible to drive the links into the flesh, compressing it, and allowing the point to wound an opponent. For crossbows and longbows, the amount of power focused on the point would allow the arrows to break mail regularly. So during the mid 13th century, mail started to be reinforced as the crossbow became more prevalent.
By the beginning of the Hundred Year’s War, most of the knight’s body was covered with three layers of a heavily padded arming garment, called a gambeson, mail, and reinforcement pieces of hardened leather and/or iron.
By the end of the Hundred Year’s War, most of the knight’s body was covered with arming clothes, hardened plate steel, and mail to fill in the gaps of the plate.
While some of the details are a bit sketchy, we do have a general idea about what men at arms wore under their armor.
Linen braies, or underwear would be put on first. Over these, a pair of hose would be worn. These could be of linen or more commonly wool. These could be padded, and in some cases actually had pieces of mail attached to them to cover the back of the knee and leg.
The hose would be either attached to a belt in the braies, or later they would be attached by points, (small cords), to a pourpoint, (vest). Linen shirts could be worn, but apparently were recommended against by at least one author as being potentially binding.
Turnshoes would be worn over the hose, and the sole could have a knotted cord sewn to it to give traction.
An arming cote could be worn as a base layer, to which mail voiders (pieces of mail to cover areas not covered by plate armor such as the arm pits and inside of the elbows) could be attached.
A coif would be worn to protect the hair from the armor. This could be a single layer of linen, or padded.
Sabatons (armored foot coverings) were sometimes worn to protect the feet. A point could be used through the shoe to attach the sabatons, or foot armor. Sabatons could be made of scales, mail, or plates. Armored turnshoes were also an uncommon option; which primarily consisted of studs attached to turnshoes.
Schynbalds were coverings for the front half of the lower legs. Greaves were coverings for the entire lower leg. These could be made of iron or, less commonly, hardened leather.
Poleyns were coverings for the knees. They were usually iron, but could be made of latten (brass-like alloy) or hardened leather. They could be free floating (buckled on and possibly attached to other pieces to keep them from sliding down) or they could be articulated (small pivoting plates that covered the gaps around the poleyn).
Cuisses were coverings for the upper leg. They were originally tubes of fabric with plates riveted inside, and supported the poleyn. By the end of the war, they were steel with articulated poleyns.
The universal protection of the neck worn by armored men was the mail standard. This was a padded collar of mail that extended down over the collar bones, thus protecting the join of the neck to the breast plate or mail shirt. In addition to the standard and the aforementioned aventail, other defenses were used after 1380 as well. A bevor was a plate worn over the neck, and would cover just the front (where it was attached to the helmet) or it could go all the way around like a collar. Generally speaking, foot troops that did not wear visors were more likely to wear a bevor, though small bevors were worn with visors after 1400.
The head was protected by a small, open-faced helmet called a bascinet,which had a drape of mail that protected the neck and shoulders called an aventail.
Over the bascinet a larger, great helm was worn that covered the face and reenforced the bascinet. The great helm would be discarded after an initial clash, leaving the smaller bascinet in place. Apparently, the great helm was a bit too much protection, as it became less popular as the war went on, with a visor being added to the bascinet.
Visors on bascinets came in many shapes. The pointed visor, called a “Hounskul” due to the similarity to a dog’s head, was the most popular and had many variations. In Italy, the visor tended to be more round in cross section like a cone, and was often concave along the sides. In Germany, there were many visors that had triangular or rhomboid cross sections. In France, many variations existed. In addition to the previously mentioned variations, rounded visors were increasingly prevalent after 1380, eventually becoming the most popular type after 1400. Also, flat visors similar in appearance to great helms were used, though were never common.
The method of attachment of the visor to the bascinet was usually two hinged, side pivots. A single, central pivot called a klappvisor was used early in the war, but fell out of favor in all places except Germany, where it was used along with side-pivots until the bascinet was supplanted by the sallet.
The aventail was initially made only of mail, and would likely have a padded liner. As armor became heavier, other variations were used such as cloth covered mail, padding to supplement or replace the mail, metal scales, and eventually solid plates. By 1415, the mail aventail was old-fashioned, but still in use.