Jiří Klepač Late-14th Century Hourglass Gauntlets
A hands-on review by Michael P. Smith
The 14th century is known as the transitional period in armour for good reason. At the beginning of the century, the elite soldiers of the knightly class were still primarily protected by mail. By the end of the century, the "White Harness" of completely integrated plate armour began to appear. Nowhere is this transition more evident than in the armour for the hand. Although separate gauntlets consisting of mittens covered with scales of whalebone or metal first appeared in the late 13th century, in 1300 the most dominant form of hand protection by far was the simple mail mitten attached to the sleeve of the hauberk. Separate gauntlets consisting of small plates riveted to the inside or outside of a glove appear in the second quarter of the century. The first early versions of the type that was to dominate the second half of the century, the so-called "hourglass" gauntlets, began to appear about 1350.
The hourglass gauntlet style is usually understood to mean a gauntlet with a single large plate covering the back of the hand, including the base of the thumb (called by modern scholars the "metacarpal plate"), and a rigid flaring cuff, giving the gauntlet its defining hourglass shape. It is likely that on early examples the metacarpal plate and the cuff were attached to the foundation glove separately. Gauntlet 10 from the Wisby finds is possibly the cuff of such an early example. Between 1350 and 1370 the hourglass design gradually developed. The fully developed form probably appeared in the 1360s and by about 1375 was almost universal. The gauntlets of Edward of Woodstock (commonly known as the Black Prince) in Canterbury Cathedral are an excellent example of this style from the late 1370s. These gauntlets are also important because they are the most complete extant, retaining most of their fingerplates.
Common features included spiked knuckle plates and protrusions over the third knuckle on the metacarpal plate, both referred to as "gadlings." Another very important feature on most, if not all, gauntlets of this style, is the so-called "knuckle-rider" plate. This is a plate between the metacarpal plate and the fingerplates. It is articulated with rivets to the metacarpal plate and is riveted to the finger leathers that the fingerplates are riveted to. This allows the plate to cover the gap between metacarpal plate and the fingerplates, while allowing the fingers to be fully extended.
The style continued to develop through the remainder of the century. The surviving examples at Churburg Castle represent the dominant style from about 1380-1400. The metacarpal plate and cuff were raised from a single piece of metal, though the gauntlets often have a decorative bracelet that may be a vestige of the time when the cuff and metacarpal plate were separate plates riveted together. The third knuckle area is usually well defined, and may include gadlings. The knuckle-rider plate, or evidence of it, is evident on virtually all surviving examples from this period. Only a few fingerplates survive, but those that do confirm the basic construction technique used on the Black Prince's gauntlets.
The style remained popular into the early 15th century and was probably the dominant style in use by the men-at-arms at Agincourt. Fairly quickly though, the cuff began to flare less and lames were added at the wrist to facilitate movement. The reign of the hourglass gauntlet was over.
Jiří Klepač, an armourer working in the Czech Republic, produced the pair reviewed here. Mr. Klepač is well known for producing armour for the well-developed reenactment and living history community in his home country. He has also developed an international reputation for producing well-made armour that is accurate in appearance and function. I contacted Klepač to produce a custom pair of 14th century gauntlets for me. We exchanged some ideas on the design, ultimately deciding on a classic hourglass design. I gave him several examples I wished to emulate, and ultimately he created a design based on the pair associated with the Churburg #13 harness. The design is based on this pair, but it is not quite an exact copy. The brass decoration is somewhat different, while remaining consistent with period. The original gauntlets have only bits of the fingerplates surviving, so the fingerplates are based on the construction method used in the Black Prince's gauntlets.
The gauntlets include the important knuckle-rider plate, which affects not only their appearance, but also significantly aid in their performance. They are constructed of 16 gauge mild steel and brass. The gauntlets came fitted with the proper finger leathers and a leather strip riveted to the cuff to attach gloves to. The leather was left its natural color and untreated so that it could be dyed to match the gloves the user chose. I selected a pair of buff colored cowhide gloves of simple cut, though not 100% historically accurate. The gloves were stitched into the gauntlets using heavy linen thread that was treated with bee's wax. A layer of wool felt is sandwiched between the glove and the gauntlet for some padding. Both the gloves and finger leathers were dyed a very dark brown using an oil-based dye made from oak galls, though for illustrative purposes, the finger leathers were left undyed for the photographs.
Measurements and Specifications:
Replica created by Jiří Klepač of the Czech Republic.
Fit and Finish
The quality of workmanship is remarkable. The shape is well defined and smoothly executed. The flutes on the back of the metacarpal plates are distinct, cleanly finished, and consistent. An example of the fine workmanship can be seen in the knuckle-rider plate. When the hand is fully extended, the plate disappears, fitting exactly up against the underside of the metacarpal plate. With the fingers clenched, the plate neatly extends to cover the gap between the fingerplates and the metacarpal plate. Every edge is finished well and, most importantly, the gauntlets function perfectly. The hand maintains almost complete flexibility, while being able to accept very sharp raps from a waster with very little sensation of impact. In all, the gauntlets feel very protective, without sacrificing feel. I was able to easily maneuver my Albion Prince through all my accustomed moves without discomfort or awkwardness.
Special mention needs to be made of the brass work on these gauntlets. The work is stunningly produced. The engraving is subtle, but well marked. The edge work, both the scalloping on the cuff and the file work on the knuckles, is tremendous. Finally, the embossing on the cuff adds a dimensionality often missing from modern reproductions.
The gauntlets are finished to a fine satin. The finish as delivered was even and attractive.
From first communication to the last, it was a pleasure to work with Mr. Klepač. He offered many ideas for designs and variations. He made his schedule clear, and when he felt it wasn't possible for him to meet that schedule he informed me before my commission was scheduled to commence. He gave me a revised schedule, which he met. He sent progress pictures throughout the construction, always eliciting feedback. Delivery was very prompt following payment via Western Union. Many English speakers might feel nervous about ordering from an armourer in the Czech Republic, fearing communications problems, but Mr. Klepač's English is excellent and he is used to dealing with foreign clients.
The 14th century is a bit of a passion of mine, and the hourglass gauntlet is one of the more iconic pieces of harness from this era. There is a certain elegant brutality to the design. They are also one of the more difficult pieces of a harness to have reproduced with quality. There are many subtleties in design and construction often lost in modern reproductions. These gauntlets, however, fit the bill very nicely indeed. The combination of the quality execution, excellent fit, and wonderful customer service means that I have the gauntlets of my dreams. The best recommendation I can give to Jiří Klepač is that I am already in his commission queue for another piece.
About the Author
Michael is a systems engineer living in Muncie, Indiana with his wife and daughter. Since childhood, he has had a keen interest in the Middle Ages, from music and literature to, of course, arms and armour. Currently, his collection is focused on the arms and armour of England in the 14th and 15th centuries.
Photographer: Michael P. Smith