The Armorer’s Craft

Maximilian I on Horseback, Hans Burgkmair the Elder (1473-1531), German, 1508. Modern arms scholars have named a characteristic form of sixteenth-century armor after Maximilian I, which appears in Hans Burgkmair’s masterful engraving of the emperor. This armor combines the smooth, round shapes of Ifalian armor with the rippled flutes of Germanic armor. The culmination of a transition that began late in the fifteenth century, Maximilian armors typically have crisply defined vertical fluting on their major components, except for the lower leg defenses. This fluting corresponds to the style of civilian male fashion, mimicking in steel the effect of a cloth outer garment cinched by a waist belt-just as the long, pointed foot defenses of Gothic armor copied contemporary footwear. The breastplate itself is well rounded, like the civilian cloth doublet, and the foot defenses are broad-toed in the manner of early sixteenth-century shoes. Like corrugation, the fluting added rigidity without increased weight. This fluted fashion was, however, more complicated to produce, and was generally not popular outside of German lands. It peaked around 1525 and was rarely seen by the late 1530s, although it occasionally resurfaced after that time.

Mail shirt, Western European, sixteenth century. The most common form of metal body armor during the medieval period was mail, an interlocking, closely spaced network of riveted and solid rings, usually of iron, although brass was occasionally employed for decorative effect along the bortiers. Used in the Battle of Hastings and the Crusades, its name is derived from the Old French word maille, meaning “mesh.” Worn over a cushioned undergarment known as an aketon or haqueton, mail provided a reasonably effective defense against lighter cutting weapons, but offered little resistance to the crushing blows of heavier arms such as clubs and axes. To defend himself against such blows, the warrior carried a wooden, leather-covered shield on his nonsword arm. Other disadvantages of mail included its tendency to bunch up at the joints and the heavy weight it placed on the shoulders. The mail shirt shown here weighs approximately seventeen pounds.

Mail was replaced by plate armor as the primary form of European body defense during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but continued to serve as secondary protection for areas like the armpits and groin. It was also used by foot soldiers, who could not afford, or did not wish to use, a more expensive, restrictive plate harness.

Detail of mail shirt. Western European, sixteenth century. Mail is a network of interlocking iron or steel and occasionally brass rings whose density and tight construction created a surface quite resistant to the sharp edges of cutting weapons. The flexible nature of mail, however, meant that it offered little protection from the impact of crushing blows, a problem only satisfactorily addressed by the adoption of plate defenses.

Detail of a sabaton, possibly by Wolfgang Großschedel of Landshut (active c. 1521-1563), German, 1550/60. Tills foot defense is believed to be part of an armor belonging to Wilhelm V, Duke of Jülich, Cleve, and Berg (1516-1592). This sabaton, which mimics the shape of contemporary shoe styles, would have been worn over leather footwear.

Detail (proof mark) of three-quarter cuirassier armor, Italian, 1605/10. Generally speaking, elements of battlefield armor underwent strenuous testing with weapons. If a breastplate, for example, were meant to resist bullets, it would be shot at from close range. The resulting dent, or “proof mark, demonstrated that an armor was of high quality.

During the Middle Ages, armor production became an important and rapidly growing facet of European trade and commerce. Armorers were members of craftsmen’s guilds, which set very rigid standards to insure a high-quality product. The guilds also enforced regulations to control the work environment; these rules, however, varied across Europe and even from city to city.

Much of what we know about the working life and craft techniques of the armorer has been gleaned from surviving objects, documentary references, inventories of tools and appliances, and a handful of pattern-books and design drawings. Most of this material concerns a rather small number of makers and shops in Germany and Italy.

The heart of armor manufacture for much of the fifteenth century was Italy, particularly Milan, whose armorers were highly regarded throughout Europe. While a great deal of material was produced at other centers across the continent, it paled in comparison to the quantity and quality of pieces coming from the Italian workshops. Individual Italian armorers specialized in certain components of body armor and provided these prefabricated items under contract to others who would assemble the final products.

Brescia was also a major center of Italian arms production. Indeed, at one point Brescia had some two hundred workshops (botteghe), each with a master and three or four assistants. Furthermore, colonies of Italian armorers existed in France and the Low Countries. The armor ordered by the dauphin Charles (later Charles VII) of France for Joan of Arc is said to have been made by a Milanese armorer in Tours. Italianate style was widely imitated throughout fifteenth-century Europe, and much material was exported from Italy to England, Spain, and Germany.

By the end of the fifteenth century, German armorers began to cut into Italy’s near monopoly, and for the next century and beyond they more or less dominated the industry. Important centers were located in Augsburg, Cologne, Landshut, and Nuremberg.

Nuremberg provides a good case study for understanding the relationship between the individual armorer, his trade, his city, and commerce. Unlike their counterparts elsewhere, Nuremberg’s armorers did not belong to a trade guild, having lost this privilege following a general revolt of craftsmen in 1348-49. As a result, they had to select “small masters” to represent them on the city council and to inspect their manufactured goods. Further, the armorers were classified as those who worked with plate armor (Plattner) or mail (Panzermacher). Each master was permitted two journeymen and four apprentices, whose numbers could be increased only with the approval of the city council.

To reach the status of complete master armorer, an applicant had to prepare four ”masterpieces” (Meisterstiicke) upon finishing his apprenticeship, which five designated masters reviewed. Further, he had to provide an item for each area of armor making in which he wished to produce objects-for example, helmet, cuirass, arm and leg defenses, and gauntlet. Unlike in some other cities, in Nuremberg the applicant could not fashion a single armor containing the prerequisite pieces, but had to make each element separately. Following the masters’ evaluation, the armorer could only produce armor in those areas in which his masterpieces had passed inspection. If less than totally qualified, he would have to work in concert with other qualified masters to fill orders for full armors. If he passed the exam, however, the new master had his personal maker s mark recorded by the city. The city did permit some less-exacting production, but such materials were specially identified so they would not diminish the high production standards of first-rate Nuremberg output.

It is noteworthy that Nuremberg long recognized the great commercial potential of a thriving arms industry. The greater part of the makers’ output was in “munitions-quality” material (what today we would probably refer to as government-issue), a designated amount of which went to the city’s garrison.

The reputation of European armorers for high-quality, reliable production was affected not only by their expertise and standards, but also by the raw materials they used. At great expense, many armorers sought iron from the finest ore reserves in Europe, located in Austria around Innsbruck and the southeastern province of Styria. After being extracted, iron was transformed into thick plates called blooms, which the armorers then imported.

Tailor-made, high-quality armors required the client’s dimensions, which could be obtained from his clothing, or an existing arming doublet-the wearer’s padded textile “undergarment.” The armorer might also obtain wax casts of the limbs, or, ideally, take the client’s measurements directly. While no actual patterns for armors appear to have survived, scholars presume that they did exist. Indeed, to prepare for the production of large munitions-quality orders of nearly identical elements, an armorer probably made templates in varying sizes.

The raw plates were cut to shape with huge shears, heated, and roughly formed by hammermen. The actual armorers then received these plates, shaping them into elements with hammers, anvil irons, stakes, and other tools. Throughout the process, the armorer had to remain alert to the physical changes taking place in the piece he was crafting. Because hammering often made the metal brittle, the piece was heated, or annealed, from time to time, and was sometimes treated with chemicals. Annealing was done sparingly, for too much heat tended to weaken the plates. The armorer had to constantly bear in mind each element’s function and placement in order to insure that it was adequately thick where necessary and thinned out wherever possible to reduce weight. The finished element had an extremely hard surface with a more malleable interior. Throughout manufacture, pieces were examined, test- fitted, and, in some cases, viewed by outside inspectors.

Many decorative techniques were available for ornamenting arms and armor. These skills were often passed from one family member to another, as armorers and decorators wanted to keep their lucrative trade secrets in the family. Virtually all of the methods employed in the manufacture of contemporary European decorative arts were practiced by armorers at one time or another. Surfaces were fire-blued and gilded, painted, alternately decorated with black-painted surfaces and polished sections (to produce “black-and-white” armor), enameled, chased and engraved, embossed, fitted with applique, damascened, and encrusted with precious metals and gems. The most typical decorative technique was acid-etching, since it facilitated the transfer of finely rendered designs to the surface of the armor. This technique was then enhanced by the gilding or blackening of etched surfaces.

Goldsmiths embellished arms and armor with sumptuous precious metal for use in pageants. They also probably produced and attached cloth-of-gold coverings to extremely fine brigandines. The virtuoso goldsmith Wenzel Jamnitzer of Nuremberg made a set of silver saddle plates for Emperor Maximilian II, using motifs from the decorative arts objects made in his workshop. Generally speaking, no artist viewed the decoration of arms and weaponry as unworthy of his skills. As a result, the designs incorporated in arms and armor often display great creativity and finesse.

Once all armor elements were decorated, armor assembly entered its final phase, which involved the work of locksmiths. These men fitted the strapping, buckles, hinges, and other parts. After it was inspected and accepted, the armor was often stamped with the mark of its maker. In addition, the mark of the city where the armor was made was often punched into the surface, indicating that the piece met local standards for quality. Several additional types of markings appear on armors, including those of the mills that provided the rough plates, assembly marks, external serial marks to prevent the mix-up of very similar pieces, and arsenal numbers.

The true test of an armor of course was how successfully it functioned and how pleased the new owner was with his purchase. Only the most fortunate armorers found their clients as satisfied as Emperor Charles V was after trying on an armor made by Caremolo Modrone of Mantua: “His Majesty said that they [his armor elements] were more precious to him than a city. He then embraced Master Caremolo warmly … and said they were so excellent that… if he had taken the measurement a thousand times they could not fit better…. Caremolo is more beloved and revered than a member of the court.”


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