Medieval History Term of the Week: Kettle Hat

Kettle Hat (*also known as chapel de fer in French)

Strong yet light open-faced helmet popular with both knights and infantry throughout the 1300-1500 period, having a conical crown and wide brim. (Wise, Terence. Medieval Warfare, 249)

*term definition retrieved from Netserf’s Medieval Glossary (

William of Tyre, the Archbishop of Tyre and Chancellor of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, references the chapel de fer in his “History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea.

Armez aloit de haubert le chapel de fer en la teste entour les engins et sovent estoit entre les assailleeurs; de paroles les amonestoit mout bien et donoit granz dons a ceus qui bien le fesoient.

Medieval History Term of the Week: Arbalest

Etymology: Middle English arblast, from Anglo-French arblaste, arcbaleste, from Late Latin arcuballista, from Latin arcus bow + ballista — more at arrow

1) A crossbow with a steel box stave. (Wise, Terence. Medieval Warfare, 246)

The arbalest was similar to the crossbow, but it was much larger and more powerful than the crossbow. It also had a greater range.

*term definitions retrieved from Netserf’s Medieval Glossary (

Medieval History Term of the Week: Basinet

Basinet or Bacinet
[bas-uh-nit, -net, bas-uh-net]
Etymology: Middle English bacinet, from Anglo-French, diminutive of bacin

Relatively light helmet with a rounded or pointed top. It might be fitted with a visor.
  (Prestwich, Michael. Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages: The English Experience, 347)

*term definition retrieved from Netserf’s Medieval Glossary (

Suits of Armor in Medieval History

Henry VIII - Horned Helmet - Medieval ArmorMetal Body Suits vs. Weapons of Medieval Destruction discusses the evolution of armor through the Middle Ages. While it is a very brief overview — focusing more on late medieval plate armor — the article does provide a host of images to supplement the text.

The focus of my studies tends be on medieval England and France during the High Middle Ages, before this type of plate armor even existed, but some of the pieces of armor shown here are so outrageous, I just had to share the link. I didn’t realize such decorative helms even existed. Were they actually worn into battle, or were they just show pieces? Maybe someone more knowledgeable on the late medieval period (particularly armor) can comment.

Any thoughts?

*the photo is of the armet of Henry VIII (Innsbruck, Austria); image retrieved from the site linked above

Medieval History Term of the Week: Heater Shield

William Longespee - Earl of Salisbury - Coat of Arms - Medieval England - NobilityHeater Shield

Semi-cylindrical shield with a flat top edge. The shield was about 95 cm. long in the first half of the fourteenth century but was shortened later in the century. (Wise, Terence. Medieval Warfare, 249)

*term definitions retrieved from Netserf’s Medieval Glossary (
**image retrieved from

The Medieval Warhorse

“Observing this, [Duke] William gave a signal to his troops, that, feigning flight, they should withdraw from the field. By means of this device the solid phalanx of the English opened for the purpose of cutting down the fleeing enemy and thus brought upon itself swift destruction; for the Normans, facing about, attacked them, thus disordered, and compelled them to fly. In this manner, deceived by a stratagem, they met an honorable death in avenging their enemy; nor indeed were they at all without their own revenge, for, by frequently making a stand, they slaughtered their pursuers in heaps.”

The above passage from William of Malmesbury on the Battle of Hastings in 1066 demonstrates the power of the medieval warhorse to its greatest effect. When an enemy had broken formation and scattered, it was then that the cavalry had its greatest advantage and the knights on their horses — the animals snorting and charging and hooves thundering against the earth — were the most terrifying.

Described by Andrew Ayton as “an equestrian age of war,” Western Europe during the Middle Ages saw a shift in warfare from the standardized foot infantry of the Roman army to the mounted warrior clad in mail and helm brandishing lance, sword, and shield.

While light cavalry had been used in battle for centuries, the rise of heavy cavalry and mounted shock combat came about during the medieval period, and though uncertain as to when the first actual use of mounted shock combat occurred, it was in wide use by the mid 12th century, and we also know from records of the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror employed heavy cavalry charges against Harold’s troops atop Senlac Hill.

So what exactly was a medieval warhorse? Often referred to as a “destrier,” the medieval warhorse cannot be confined to any one breed of horse today. True warhorses no longer exist, as they were specially bred during their time for a specific purpose and that purpose is no longer used in combat today. A common depiction of warhorses in movies is something of a draught horse type breed such as a Scotish Clydesdale or English Shire horse or French Percheron. While destriers were most certainly large — they were often referred to as “great” horses — for they needed to be large in order to carry a rider with his suit of armor and weapons, they were not bred to the size of draught horses, though Joseph and Frances Gies in Life in a Medieval Castle argue the later Percheron and Belgian draft horses were descended from these medieval destriers.

Excavations of armor, saddles, and other horse fittings indicate the medieval warhorse was comparable in size to a modern riding horse. Though bred to be stronger than a modern riding horse, they were probably no larger than fourteen to fifteen hands high, with one hand being equal to four inches. The idea of a medieval warhorse standing eighteen hands tall (nearly six feet tall at the shoulders) is what authors Christopher Harper-Bill, Ruth E. Harvey, and Stephen Church call a “myth.” In their book Ideals and Practice of Medieval Knighthood, they contend a horse of this size would have been very rare. Illustrations and carvings from the medieval period depict the destrier as a large and powerful horse, but not nearly as massive as a draught horse.

There are some breeds of horses, such as the Holstein in Germany and the Norman in France, that still retain very similar traits and attributes to the medieval destrier, but it is the Norman Cob, a sub-breed of the Norman, that is most likely the closest descendant.

As the usefulness of the knight began to decline, due in part to the proficiency of the English longbowmen and the development of gunpowder, the usefulness of breeding powerful warhorses also declined. With the ushering in of a new era, the medieval warhorse disappeared forever.


William of Malmesbury from the Medieval Sourcebook: The Battle of Hastings, 1143.

Ayton, Andrew. Knights and Warhorses. Woodbridge, Eng.: The Boydell Press, 1999.

Harper-Bill, Christopher and Ruth E. Harvey and Stephen Church. The Ideals and Practice of Medieval Knighthood. Boydell & Brewer, 1986.

Newman, Paul B. Daily Life in the Middle Ages. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2001.

Baker, Alan. The Knight. Hoboken, New Jersey. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003.

Gies, Joseph and Francis. Life in a Medieval Castle. Harper Perennial, 1979.

“Horses in the Middle Ages.” <>
*this wikipedia article is a good reference, as it cites many sources in its bibliography

The Making of Mail Armor

Mail, Armor, Armour, Chain Mail, MailleMail, often referred to as “chain mail” (a term later applied to this type of armor in the Victorian era), was the armor of choice worn by the medieval knight. Constructed of small rings of iron wire linked together, the mail coat formed a flexible metal mesh that was often worn over a padded tunic. The traditional image of the knight encased in a full suit of plate armor did not come about until the 1400s. Until then, the preferred armor was mail, and the use of mail can be dated all the way back to 400 – 500 B.C. in Asia Minor and Central Asia.

The extended use of mail over time is due, in part, to its technological simplicity and its ease of production, as the steps in the process are fairly straightforward, though it is still a labor intensive job. The first step involves the smelting of iron, and after that, one must make the wire. Making the wire requires the use of small, thin sheets of iron and then shearing thin strips off the sides of this sheet in order to form square wires, or using another method, one can repeadetly beat and shape small iron pieces into narrow rods in order to form the raw material needed for wire.

After making the rods, the armorer must reheat and draw the strips through conical holes in a metal block to form round wire, and if thinner wire is needed, he can repeat this step several times using narrower holes. Once the wire is reduced to the desired diameter, it is then wrapped around a metal rod to create long, spring-like coils. The armorer then cuts along the length of the coil, down one side with shears or hammer or cutting chisel, and this causes the coils to separate into individual rings. Each ring is then flattened with a tool called a die, or something similar, and while flattening, the die also punches holes in each end of the ring. The armorer then overlaps the ends of each ring and rivets them shut. This process of flattening, punching with a die, joining the rings together, and then riveting them might have to be repeated thousands of times in order to make a single shirt of mail.

A mail shirt was also known as a hauberk. A hauberk, according to Terrence Wise in Medieval Warfare, is a mail shirt covering the body as far as the knees, the arms ending in mittens, and with a hood for the head (249). A haubergeon, or habergeon, is “a shortened version of the hauberk, worn by both infantry and mounted men, those for the former usually having short sleeves” (Wise, 248). Only the wealthy — the nobles — could afford to purchase mail shirts, and so a hauberk became a symbol of rank for the warrior class of society.

 The iron links of the mail shirt provided a strong layer of protection and flexibility for the wearer. The overlapping rings allowed a slashing or cutting blow from a sword to glance off without penetrating into the skin; though a smashing blow from a club could still shatter or break or crush bones. For this reason — to prevent the breakage of bones — a knight would wear a layer of padded armor, or an aketon, underneath the mail. So the combined layers of padded tunic and mail gave the knight a suit of armor that was nearly impervious to cutting and slashing and also protective against the heavy, smashing blows often delivered on the medieval battlefield.


Newman, Paul B. Daily Life in the Middle Ages. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2001.

Baker, Alan. The Knight. Hoboken, New Jersey. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003.

Wise, Terrence. Medieval Warfare. Osprey Publishing, 1976.

*image retrieved from Wikipedia (

The Medieval Sword

For purposes of this post, I will focus on the medieval sword of Western Europe, namely England and France and Scandinavia, from the 10th to the 13th century.

medieval sword, diagram, medieval history, middle ages, weapons

The sword was an instrumental weapon for the knight during the Middle Ages. As most combat was conducted up close hand-to-hand, you did not go into battle without one. Since they were expensive — swordsmiths fabricated swords in the High Middle Ages entirely out of steel or with steel edges and an iron core — only the most wealthy could afford such weapons, and the wealthy were the nobles, the knights in society. Commoners, when the king raised the levies, carried whatever they could find into battle: spears, small axes, knives, sickles, scythes.

One typical sword in use during this period was a type based on “Viking” design. Ewart Oakeshott classified this sword as a Type X design. Oakeshott developed his classification system based on previous typology work done by Dr. Jan Peterson and Dr. R.E.M Wheeler in the early 20th century. In his book, The Sword in the Age of Chivalry, Oakeshott describes the Type X as:

A broad, flat blade of medium length (average 31″) with a fuller running the entire length and fading out an inch or so from the point, which is sometimes acute but more often rounded. This fuller is generally very wide and shallow, but in some cases may be narrower (about 1/3 of the blade’s width) and more clearly defined; a short grip, of the same average length (3 3/4″) as the Viking swords. The tang is usually very flat and broad, tapering sharply towards the pommel. The cross is narrower and longer than the more usual Viking kind–though the Vikings used it, calling it “Gaddjhalt” (spike-hilt) because of its spike-like shape. Generally of square section, about 7″ to 8″ long, tapering towards the tips. In rare cases curved. The pommel is commonly of one of the Brazil-nut forms, but may be of disk form.

This type of sword was well used throughout the Viking Age and remained in use until the 13th century.

Since steel was scarce in the early Middle Ages, swordsmiths made their swords mostly of iron. Northmen, for example, made the core of the sword by twisting iron rods and then hammer welding them together. This process is known as pattern welding. This gave the swords impressive flexibility and resiliency. After the swordsmiths had created a strong iron core, they then added strips of steel to give the blade a sharp edge. The swords from the 10th to the early 12th century were designed primary as cutting weapons. On both sides of the blade, a fuller ran down the center of the blade. While some people think of the fuller as a blood groove, to channel the blood off the blade, this idea is simply a myth. The primary purpose of the fuller was to make the blade lighter, easier to wield, and more flexible, so that it would bend and not break under impact. In the 13th century, swords were very similar to the blades from the previous three centuries, but they were made longer in order to extend the reach for knights on horseback.

Another important feature of the sword was the pommel. The pommel is a piece of metal attached to the end of the handle, which was often fashioned from wood that was bound with wire and then wrapped in leather (the crossguard was usually made of iron and could be decorated with silver inlay, for example) . Pommels came in all different shapes, but the most common forms were polygonal, disk-shaped, or Brazil-nut. Pommels made the blade easier to wield, as they served as a counterweight to help balance the blade. This counterweight at the end of the sword also produced more force and momentum for the swordsman when he drove his blade down into his target.

One other interesting note about the Type X classified sword: many of these swords bear an inscription denoting the maker of the blade. The most common name found is
ULFBERHT. This inscription first appears on swords in the Viking age and continues to be found on swords dating from the High Middle Ages. It’s possible the ULFBERHT constitutes one of the earliest forms of brand recognition.


Oakeshott, Ewart. The Sword in the Age of Chivalry. Boydell Press, 1994.

Newman, Paul B. Daily Life in the Middle Ages. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2001.

“An Introduction to the Sword.” <>.

“Arms and Armour – Part 5 – Swords.” Regia Anglorum <>.

“Oakeshott Typology.” <>.

*image retrieved from