Event Report: Armour Research Society
Practical Workshop, 2006

An article by Jonathon Janusz

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In recent years there has been an explosion of popularity regarding swords and western medieval arms. Following closely on the heels of this explosion is the rising interest in medieval armour. The Armour Research Society (ARS) is a non-profit organization dedicated to the research of and education about historical armour, both the study of antiques and the expansion of the art of the modern armour craftsman. The ARS is based out of the Chicago area, with members and interests on both sides of the Atlantic. I had the opportunity to attend their spring seminar in Schaumburg, Illinois, in the suburbs of Chicago. The Schaumburg Township Library played host to the event with a well-equipped, modern facility, an excellent little coffee and sandwich shop onsite for lunch, and plenty of room in the conference hall even for the hafted weapons used during a western martial arts demonstration. I would also like to note that the ARS has video of the event available to their members should anyone wish to pursue the subjects presented further.

Meet and Greet
My trip to the seminar, scheduled on Saturday, actually began the Friday evening before. As has become tradition with these events, Brian Rainey and Doug Strong, directors of the ARS, hosted a small informal get-together at Brian's home the evening before the event. Over a backyard grill, a small group of the seminar attendees and I had the opportunity to meet, relax, and chat with Brian, Doug, Mac, and two fine gentlemen from the Chicago Swordplay Guild. Conversation wandered among subjects both social and armour-related, most of which is now lost to me in memories of a pleasant, quiet evening that brought a welcome personal touch to what otherwise could be seen at first glance as a dry and formal meeting of academics. This was a great way to meet some new friends and was a warm welcome from the ARS to any for which this was their first impression of what the society has to offer. To anyone considering attendance at future events, adding a day to your schedule to make it to town early is well worth the effort.

Armoured Combat Techniques
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The seminar Saturday started with Greg Mele of the Chicago Swordplay Guild (CSG) greeting us with a bit of background in what the CSG is all about and introducing the subject of his discussion—armoured combat techniques in the style of Fiore dei Liberi. This was particularly exciting for me because I had been observing a local class in this style for a few weeks before the event, focusing on unarmoured techniques. This was the first exposure I had to seeing how the system applied specifically to armoured combat. I was looking forward to seeing the rest of the system, which, due to the logistics of supplying armour to students, is sadly a fairly underrepresented area of western martial training.

In Greg's words, Fiore's treatises focused on both instruction in unarmoured combat and in armoured combat. In many cases, the term "unarmoured" was meant to be understood as "lightly armoured" to account for quilted and padded armours. Greg finished his speech with, "To defeat the armour you must go around it," and then the Chicago Swordplay Guild demonstrated armoured combat in the style of Fiore dei Liberi with sword, spear, dagger, and poleaxe.

The highlight of the demonstration for me was the poleaxe. As an aside, there was a beautiful example produced by Arms & Armor that I wish I would have had more time to examine.

One of the defining points in working the poleaxe against armour is that most striking is done by thrusts with the points on the axe. Described by Fiore dei Liberi as "cruel, ponderous, and mortal", the poleaxe is comparatively slow when used to cut. It was taught that nearly any swing with a poleaxe is meant not to stop part-way, but to follow through completely to the ground. So, unless one wishes to use the haft of the weapon as a lever or tool for wrestling or throws, it is more effective to remain fast with the weapon and use it more in the fashion of a short spear. Admittedly, I was the most entertained by the precarious situations caused when the poleaxe was used in its most brutal fashion, reaching conclusions such as, "Where a man's chin leads, the body will follow." The poleaxe also included the only real discussion among the weapons demonstrated about physically overpowering the armour by way of mass and force, described in part: "In a swing, focus on attacking the armour. Strike at the gauntlets; if the hand doesn't break, the gauntlet will."

This last bit sums up the only real answer the masters came up with directly defeating armour—mangle it so horribly by way of blows that the ability of the armoured man to move or function within the armour is defeated. Then, although at the moment uninjured, the man will be forced to negotiate terms (very commonly done) or concede to his opponent that he chooses to leave the field of battle in death rather than defeat.

Armour Design
Next on the schedule of events was Robert MacPherson's "Introduction to Armour Design". This and his following presentation were intended to be the beginning of a series of discussions on the recreation of historical armour, focusing on the perspective of Mac's specialties—15th and 16th century plate armours. The introduction to armour design centered around four pillars: understanding, planning, construction, and evaluation.

The first pillar, understanding, is broken into three areas of focus. Armour, by design, must be protective, convenient to wear, and look good. Protection being discussed as a function of what Mac called "the weight budget", which is the relation between protection and weight and how that translates to the convenience of wear. The convenience of wearing armour was described as including the concept of "armoured anatomy". This describes the idea of joints being correctly designed and placed over the normal and intended range of motion, keeping in mind not what is considered normal in the modern sense, but rather what is normal from the perspective of the period the armour represents. Lastly in looking at the understanding of armour design, armour needs to look good. Specifically, it doesn't need to look good to the modern eye but, again, rather to the eye of someone contemporary to the time period the armour represents.

Mac described the second pillar of armour design, planning, as a list of tips and techniques to keep in mind during the process. Two of these points include first to make your mistakes in sketches. Begin to establish the lines that define the style of the piece being made, make notes and small scale details. It is quicker and easier to play with the little things on pencil and paper than ruining in steel a piece you spent time and effort working into just the right shape. Second, drawing plans to full scale is to your advantage, with a reminder to keep perspective in photographs and dimensional accuracy in your own drawings top of mind throughout the process.

As construction will be addressed in later discussions, Mac concluded with the fourth pillar of armour design: evaluation. In short, compare the finished piece to a picture. Set yourself at the position and angle of the camera in the picture used for comparison and check. Does the piece look the same? The more test fittings you can have when making an armour for someone, the better. If all else fails, try it on yourself, but keep in mind the differences between you and the eventual wearer. Lastly, be honest. Sometimes something just doesn't come out. Don't be afraid to throw something that isn't right onto the junk pile. Mac had a great slide of the scrap pile of armour pieces (some very lovely and in a nearly finished state) in his own shop that, in his mind, just didn't quite make the grade. He said to keep this stuff around because it is a great place to go to experiment with new techniques without risking them on a project piece. Half-finished work is still work, so it's best not to let it go to waste even if it is used for nothing more than the important pursuit of practice and learning.

After his introduction to armour design, Mac moved on to "The Defense of the Head", a look into the design of hats and helms. The basic function of the helmet, whether achieved through shape, mass, or elasticity of the metal, is protection from lacerations, punctures, and impact. The "space you don't see", meaning the space between helmet and head provides for both padding and impact resistance. How that space is used is critical, as Mac described in detail how the helmet design was influenced by the physical dimensions and requirements of vision, air, and mobility of the human head. One point that was interesting to me was how little padding was to be found in some antique helms, with the neck area often lined but unpadded. The padding that was present was described as being very thin: in Mac's words, "not even a good pot holder."

In the planning and design of a helm, Mac noted that the key to understanding the helmet form lies in understanding the human head, which directly relates to the human head from the top profile view: what the human head looks like in cross section when seen from the top, looking down. A few other tips in planning a helm included conforming the design to a "general head shape" rather than trying to overcompensate for perceived differences between individual heads, using full scale templates of the wearer's head and shoulders to check against size and fit, and a reminder to use photographs to evaluate work. The best evaluation lies not just in, "Is it like the picture?" but more importantly, "Where does it not look like the picture?"

The Oakeshott Institute
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The seminar concluded with a presentation and display of artifacts by The Oakeshott Institute. First we were given a slide show sneak preview of a museum exhibit of arms and armour put together by the Oakeshott Institute soon to be at The Minneapolis Institute of Art featuring fifteen artifacts on long-term loan from the Met, along with pieces from various Minnesota collections. If anyone has the chance to visit Minneapolis, the amazing display the Oakeshott Institute has created will feature very small cases around each piece that you can walk completely around. As far as museum exhibits go, this looks to be the best thing short of holding the artifacts in hand that could be made. It looks like a spectacular opportunity for those of us in the Midwest who don't often get to New York.

Craig Johnson and Christopher Poor then walked us through a collection of helms, mail, gauntlets, and other armour pieces they brought along not only to display, but to allow us excited participants the opportunity to handle and examine up close under white glove. I was particularly interested in a nearly complete 14th century arm and a collection of mail that I first got to see behind glass in a museum exhibit in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, last year.

We all scurried about the lecture hall playing with armour. I would feel bad not mentioning a beautiful sallet and bevor created by Patrick Thaden that one of the swordsmen of the Chicago Swordplay Guild brought along in his duffle bag. The clean lines and crisp execution Patrick is known for were all there, but what took my breath away was the deep iridescent purple finish on the piece and the meticulously hand crafted quilted padding and suspension in both the helm and the bevor.

So, with the rain coming down over Chicago, I headed northward for home. I had a great time, met a wonderful group of people, and learned more than these few paragraphs can begin to scratch the surface of. For those who haven't had the chance to see what the Armour Research Society has to offer, this is my second encounter with these fine folks, and I can assure you they bring a wealth of value to the arms and armour enthusiast both in depth of knowledge and passionate, friendly character.

About the Author
Jonathon Janusz is a copier technician in Wisconsin with a degree in computer electronics. His interest in the medieval started in kindergarten playing with a set of plastic knights and a castle, and a decorative sword-like object on the family's bar room wall. Supportive parents in the antiques business started his collection many years ago with period Japanese artifacts, and it has evolved to include and focus on recreations of 14th and 15th century European arms and armour.

Additional Information
At Robert MacPherson's request, we are not able to bring you photographs of Mr. MacPherson's contributions to the workshop..

Photographer: Jonathon Janusz


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