Saturday, February 14, 2009

Dark Roasted Weirdsville

Here we go again: another article for the always-great Dark Roasted Blend. This time it's on suits of armor. Enjoy!

Back in the good old days -- which everyone pretty much agrees were pretty damned rotten -- what you wore was a matter of life and death: simple rotting cloth was common, leather was rare, but for the gentleman of standing, it was armor or nothing.

The first appearance of armor is a matter of much debate. Some say forged metal is key, in which case the toga-wearing crowd would be the first. Others insist that even wood worn as protection could count, in which case you'd have to go as far back as the sticks and stones brigade.

But most everyone agrees that back in those rotten times, when men were knights and women were damsels in distress, armor was at its height.

The first armors were life-and-death simple: crudely formed metal plates designed to keep spears and swords out and the knight inside them safe. But as weapons got more sophisticated during this Middle Ages arms race, smiths had to keep up, making their suits stronger, lighter, and more flexible until they'd reached the pinnacle of defense as well as offense.

One of their brilliant innovations was perfecting mail ... and, no, I'm not talking about the 'rain nor sleet' variety. Rumored to have been first created by the Celts many centuries before, it was a process that worked its way up through the ages until it reached armorers who took the basic idea to new heights. The idea is astoundingly counter-intuitive: instead of making your armor out of slabs of sturdy and very protective metal, why not make it out of thousands and thousands and thousands of carefully connected rings? It worked remarkably well: light as well as strong, it gave the wearer flexibility -- often the key factor between leaving a battle on horseback or on a stretcher. When plate armor was added to mail the result was the classic -- and devastating -- armor of the Middle Ages.

It's hard to imagine now, but for a long time a knight on horseback was the terror weapon of the age: galloping into battle on monstrous war horses, often also well-armored, they were as terrifying as they were indestructible. Nothing could touch them but they, with sword and lance, could pretty much take on anything and anyone -- except for maybe another knight.

As battle became more and more ritualized -- leading up to jousting, which we all know and love from the movies -- these metallic behemoths became less utilitarian tanks and more statements of rank and wealth. Only the rich or the nobility could afford armor, but only a really rich man or very wealthy Baron, Duke, Prince, or King could afford a fancy set.

And, Lordy, did they get fancy. After a point, armors began to look more like dinner services than battle gear: immaculate metal work, precious metals, often comically flamboyant crests and standards, useless -- though striking -- flairs and sculpted forms, and the gleaming reflections of meticulously polished metals.

Just take a look at the armor belonging to that spokesman for restraint and modesty, Henry the 8th: not only was it state-of-the-art for its day, but it was designed and built -- as was most armor of the day -- to the wearer's dimensions. In the case of Henry, though, his personal suit looked like it was more portly battleship than streamlined destroyer. And who can forget the Royal ... um, 'staff' shall we say? Looking at a set of his armor, the question becomes was it designed to protect or brag? But, to be honest, we can't fault Henry for his choice: his armor was never really designed for war -- mainly because the suit of armor's time had passed.

Absolutely, the suit of armor was the terror weapon of its day. But every day ends, and in the case of the classic suit of armor, its end was just about as bad as it can get.

1415, Northern France: on that side, the French; on the other side, the English. Although the numbers are a matter of much debate, it's commonly believed that the French outnumbered the English something like 10 to 1. For the English, under Henry (the 5th, forefather of the afore-mentioned 8th), it wasn't looking at all well. The likelihood was that they were going to be, to use a military term, 'slaughtered.' But then something happened that didn't just determine the outcome of the war but also changed Europe forever, as well as doomed the standing of the suit of armor as the ultimate weapon.

The French didn't know what hit them. Well, actually they did, which made their defeat so much more hideous: there they were, the cream of French soldiery, marching to seemingly certain victory, their mail and plate glistening in the sun, their monstrous metal weapons and protection the best of the best of the best.

Then the arrows started to fall, shot by Henry's secret weapon: the English (technically Welch) longbow. In one horrifying volley after another, the French were cut down by an enemy they couldn't even reach, their precious armor pin-cushioned, their army pinned to the muddy ground.

Clothes make the man, yes. And for a very long time armor was the end-all, be-all, go-getter power suit of the time. But times change -- and all it took was some people with a few bows and arrows to point that out.

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