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William Aers

Location: England
Joined: 29 Jul 2019

Posts: 7

PostPosted: Wed 31 Jul, 2019 12:44 pm    Post subject: Why were Medieval knights so small?         Reply with quote

Hi all,

This is my first post on these venerable forums, I've been lurking for a few months after stumbling here from a google search about Medieval armour. I read one particularly erudite and well informed post so I looked to see who wrote it and immediately recognised the avatar from elsewhere. Some of you may also recognise my own avatar from 'another place' and as everyone seems so well informed I thought I'd hang around, and now I've joined!

With regards to my OP, I've been fortunate enough to see a few Medieval knight statues and armour IRL with the Black Knight at Canterbury Cathedral and a few other places. One thing that has recently left my mystified is their small stature. The obvious answer is that Medieval people had a poor diet, but I was under the impression from my reading around the topic that noblemen were actually quite well fed compared to the peasantry, and it was also seen to be polite to leave food left over for the poor to eat. If that was the case then why were Medieval knights so slender and svelte?

One would have thought, with a fairly robust diet and presumably non-stop combat sports with the weight of heavy armour/padding/whatnot that your average knight would resemble something off the Gladiators TV series or a gym queen, but instead they come across as very skinny, even when padded out in their armour.

What are your thoughts, ladies and gentlemen?

Yours &c,


For where thou art, there is the world itself.
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Hector A.

Joined: 22 Dec 2013

Posts: 143

PostPosted: Wed 31 Jul, 2019 3:27 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

No steroids and no hormone laden food makes for athletic and slender humans with far more endurance and strength than modern humans.
Big muscles are not a competitive advantage, they consume more oxygen, are less flexible (which in turn makes for less explosive movements) and what is required to sustain* them makes them close to useless unless your juicing.

*Long heavy exhaustion based workouts that leave your knotted up and cramped for days, along with a heavy sustained diet that makes you tired and drowsy.

Try working out your gluts then riding a horse.
Try doing 3-4 hours of modern gym work then go fight the next day in an afternoon long battle in heavy armor.

Modern humans with our modern cushy life have completely lost it in terms of direction in regards to being fit, practical and being able to literally survive in a hostile environment, all that matters now is size and definition, both things that require you being exhausted and weakened daily to achieve.
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Anthony Clipsom

Joined: 27 Jul 2009

Posts: 155

PostPosted: Thu 01 Aug, 2019 1:38 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

We should be careful in addressing this one, to avoid the myth of all our ancestors being tiny . Look at any of Henry VIIIs armours, even before he ran to fat, and they show a big frame. But on average, people were a few inches smaller than the modern average and carried less surplus weight, at least in their younger, more active years.

In terms of armours we might also need to be aware of fashions. The Black Prince's effigy , for example, belongs to a period when an hour-glass figure was in fashion for men. So this was emphasised in armour styles as well as clothing.

From what I've read of the workouts of men-at-arms, they were often directly related to fighting, rather than on building certain muscles. So men ran and leapt and climbed in armour or fenced with heavy practice weapons.

Anthony Clipsom
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Mikko Kuusirati

Location: Finland
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PostPosted: Thu 01 Aug, 2019 2:07 am    Post subject: Re: Why were Medieval knights so small?         Reply with quote

Look at, say, Thai boxers and MMA fighters rather than body builders. The good ones tend to be quite slender and svelte, indeed.
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Rush in and die, dogs -- I was a man before I was a king.
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Matthew Amt

Location: Laurel, MD, USA
Joined: 17 Sep 2003

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PostPosted: Thu 01 Aug, 2019 7:00 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Also, armor is often displayed not quite realistically, with too much overlap between the pieces, so it may very well fit someone taller than it looks.

In addition, we may have more small-size armor surviving today because it *was* too small for many men to wear! There was a lot of recycling and upgrading done to armor while it was in use, and pieces that fit were used and reused, often to death. Pieces that were too small were more likely to end up shoved aside. So it may be like getting to a shirt sale late--all that's left is "small" and a couple of "extra-large".

Bottom line, they weren't midgets!

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Graham Shearlaw

Joined: 24 Oct 2011
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PostPosted: Thu 01 Aug, 2019 7:41 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Armours can be misleading there not a body in side it to spread it out.
There certainly no major height loss during the period, a few inches at most from modern height, the average of 173cm

They were certainly training more towards actually fighting then training for raw strength, six pack abs or bulging biceps.
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William Aers

Location: England
Joined: 29 Jul 2019

Posts: 7

PostPosted: Fri 02 Aug, 2019 5:30 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thanks, I'm most obliged by your well thought out and informed replies. One can't help but wonder how a medieval knight world fare against a modern boxer or MMA fighter. The modern counterparts still look large and bulky compared to most 12thC knights.

I imagine you've all seen this image a million times, his armour appears quite slight IRL too.

Mind you, the MMA fighters are far less bulky than professional body builders.


This also raises the curious question about modern body image, I wonder why Hollywood insists on muscle bound heroes when the real fighting men had a more lithe and agile appearance? Presumably it also helped with the speed of attack too.

For where thou art, there is the world itself.
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T. Kew

Location: London, UK
Joined: 21 Apr 2012

Posts: 201

PostPosted: Sat 03 Aug, 2019 6:37 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

"Hulking and muscle-bound" is the modern shorthand for what a strong fighter looks like. That's the visual expectation people have, it's the way movie stars tend to be built, so it's what gets shown on screen.

Additionally, it's important to be clear that being strong does not make you a bad fighter. If you're so overbuilt and inflexible you can't move, that makes you a bad fighter, but there's a reason most serious HEMA fencers these days do at least some weightlifting as part of their training programme. Being stronger lets you train harder for longer, get injured less, move faster, etc. Maintaining excess muscle development requires specific training and diet, though - maintaining a slighter but still athletic figure is generally sufficient and much easier if you're on campaign or similar.

HEMA fencer and coach, New Cross Historical Fencing
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Perry L. Goss

Location: Missouri
Joined: 15 May 2004
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Posts: 110

PostPosted: Thu 08 Aug, 2019 2:27 pm    Post subject: Well take a look at         Reply with quote

Have not posted in a while, but do browse.

Take a look at WW2 "GI" pictures. Especially those in the SoPac theater. Since they had their shirts off due to the heat. And I must say that these young the job done.

None of them look like some of the pics above.

Also good comments on the type of muscle needed.

I also recall a picture of my ggrandfather's brothers. All Union Cav Civil War. Big German boys, but not bulked up.

There was also a History Channel show on a Confederate sub crew. The researchers determined that the average prson of the day was about 25% stronger than today. They worked physically and did not sit in an AC office in front of a laptop for a living. Just saying, as I type this in my home office, AC is on using my new laptop! Worried

Another and last comment. Cannot recall the source but when the Brits got here. Red Coats. They were amazed at the overall height and frame of their recent cousins who served in the Patriot army. Being taller by enough to notice. The reason More protein here in the USA compared to downtown Liverpool.

Sorry, surly wish I had the sources. Apologies tendered.

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Swiss: Goss von Rothenfluh, Naff von Zurich und Solland von Appenzel
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Anthony Clipsom

Joined: 27 Jul 2009

Posts: 155

PostPosted: Fri 09 Aug, 2019 1:02 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

We should be cautious with 18th - early 20th century comparisons. Urbanisation and associated stresses of poverty and disease had dropped the average height of soldiers considerably since the Middle Ages. We might note that the British army in WWI had to introduce "bantam" battalions for men between 4ft 10ins and 5ft 3 ins. Over that height they were eligible for normal units. These men would have been considered poor stuff by our medieval ancestors. As we read in the Paston Letters , Norfolk wrote to John Paston just before Bosworth and asked him to "brynge with yow seche company of tall men as ye may goodly make ". Even in a crisis, Norfolk could be selective about the soldiers he wanted.
Anthony Clipsom
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Mike Janis

Location: Atlanta GA
Joined: 26 Feb 2007

Posts: 30

PostPosted: Fri 09 Aug, 2019 12:13 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Our concepts of what is normal have evolved. We think of historical figures in terms of the Rock, Arnold or NFL/NBA players. We think of Daniel Boone as being: "a man, yes a BIG man...with an eye like an eagle" Actually, he was, by today's standards, short slender and wirey. He made his own casket, kept it under his bed and tried it on every birthday. When a poor woman died, he donated his casket which fit her, and made a new one for himself. As someone said, think of a Thi kick boxer, not a Mike Tyson.
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Karl G

Location: Australia
Joined: 25 Apr 2016

Posts: 66

PostPosted: Fri 27 Sep, 2019 9:35 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

A lot of the size gains are also in the latter half of the 20th century. I think just Japans average height increased a full 4". Nutrition, possibly steroid fed food, Im not big on conspiracies but its possible. People have gotten larger again just in my generation too.

Regards fighting sizes a distinction needs to be drawn between fighters and soldiers. A fighter can be bulkier to a degree if his sport has a greater reliance on strength techniques, he is closer to the upper weight divisions, or the contests are short.

Modern soldiers primary physical trait is not hand to hand, its foot endurance, followed by cardio capacity. Different body type to be elite at this. its interesting though, you will see special forces guys like the SAS, who are the worlds SF endurance champions, while not body builder physiques, often a lot of quite well muscled guys in the mix. Steroid use? No idea. I was Australian army but never got the chance to ask them Happy

The advent of steroids changed fighter physiques from the early 70's onwards. I would say most pro's have been on them for at least the last 35 years. The latest generation of performance enhancing drugs can increase muscle, bone densities, muscle density, cardio capacity, capilarity( blood perfusion) etc. You can be on the gear to increase size as well as strength or the gear that increases strength without adding weight. Most fighters prefer this as getting stronger whilst being able to stay in the same division is obviously the best idea. Its also why fighters are lasting a lot longer in the game. Prior to steroids your power was pretty well declining through early 30's and you were usually competely shot by your late 30's. Not a lot of people maintained elite level that long. Now you can be competitive past 40.
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Benjamin H. Abbott

Location: New Mexico
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PostPosted: Fri 27 Sep, 2019 2:18 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Judging by period texts ranging from eyewitness accounts to fiction, medieval & Renaissance Europeans valued brawn extremely highly. Feats of strength appear frequently in purportedly factual accounts as well as in chivalric romances & the like. As mentioned, military commanders typically favored tall men at least to serve as pikers, halberdiers, & other heavy infantry. While this evidence doesn't tell us exactly what historical warriors/soldiers looked like, it makes me suspect that a number of them would have appeared large & muscular by contemporary standards.
Out of doubt, out of dark to the day's rising
I came singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
To hope's end I rode and to heart's breaking:
Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall!
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Tyler Jordan

Joined: 15 Mar 2004

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PostPosted: Sat 28 Sep, 2019 7:48 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Also, armor is often displayed not quite realistically, with too much overlap between the pieces, so it may very well fit someone taller than it looks.

I feel like this is a bigger factor than some give credit for.
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J.D. Crawford

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PostPosted: Sat 28 Sep, 2019 8:01 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

This topic seems to come up every once in a while and there is always anecdotal evidence for both short and tall medieval European warriors. Why?

First, the problem with averages is that most people are not average. Here are some percentiles I just pulled off the web for current young US men:

1% 51.54"; 10% 55.2″; 25% 57.01"; 50% 59.17″; 75% 511.02″; 90% 60.64"; 99% 63.57″

It's pretty safe to assume Medieval folks were just as variable. Now lets suppose that on average, across the board, medieval folks were a few inches shorter. That might be offset in upper class individuals due to height correlating with social status for various reasons. It might (maybe) turn out that the Knightly class would be similar to these modern US values.

So lots of folks in the 5'7"-5'11" range, but some shorter fellows and some big guys.

The other factor is, which time and country are we talking about? Even today, where nutrition standards are presumably fairly similar across Europe, there is a lot of diversity in average height. For example Netherlands 6' vs. Spain 5'7" for average adult male height. As we all know, there was a lot of migration and conquest going on across modern borders throughout the medieval period, and they carried different genes with them as the went, thus interacting with time and place.

And one other thing: height varies with age, peaking at young adulthood and then dropping off later on. (I was shocked recently to find out I'm an inch shorter than I used to be!!!).

Overall point being, one likely cannot say medieval knights were X tall and Y weight. They likely varied just like modern people.
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Jean Henri Chandler

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PostPosted: Sun 06 Oct, 2019 4:10 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

When it comes to figuring out why medieval knights were a certain height, it helps as a starting point to determine how tall they actually were.

"Medieval" covers quite a long period of time, I'm personally somewhat knowledgable about the late medieval period, the 14th and 15th Centuries. During that time, there are several mass graves on battlefields, and also cemetaries which have been excavated and studied. Two of the most detailed are the mass graves from the Battle of Visby on Gotland in the 14th Century and the Battle of Towton in England in 1461.

Visby was a battle largely between non-nobles - armed peasants on the one hand vs mercenaries (many of them also peasants by estate, along with some burghers and probably a few low ranking nobles) on the other. Most of the casualties hastily buried on-site were the Gotland peasants. But they were a fairly warlike bunch, pretty well equipped and if you track down some of those studies, you'll find not that short particularly. Actually pretty muscular and healthy and of fairly good stature.

Towton is a more properly knightly battle, though the graves (mostly filled with the losing Lancastrian faction) would be a mix of common soldiers (for the most part yeoman peasants and probably some burghers by estate) with at least a score or so nobles falling in the battle if I remember correctly. Maybe more than that. Anyway once again you'll find these guys were not that short.

This article gets into specifics, noting that of 31 bodies excavated in the grave, heights ranged from 158.5 cm (5' 3") to 183.5 cm (6 foot) with a mean stature of 5' 7". Given that the army and very likely the grave almost certainly included some young teenagers, we can I think assume that Englishmen from this period were only an inch or two shorter than today's average (which for the US is 5' 9"). If you consider that average includes everybody, and nobles among some other estates tended to be better fed and therefore larger, the difference in height is probably negligible.

When they excavated the Mary Rose wreck (which sunk about 100 years later) the results were very similar.

This is a reconstruction of the face of a body found probably from the 14th Century in Sterling Castle.

There have also been some studies on graves from Saxon times and I remember a couple of the remains of huskarls were believed to be quite burly based on the way their skeletons were built up to support muscle.

Many nobles were considerably taller. The King of the Yorkists at Towton by comparison was 6' 4". It's also the case that in the 15th Century England was not one of the most prosperous regions in Europe, in fact you would probably find healthier people in Northern Italy, what is now Belgium, and parts of Germany.

It is also worth pointing out that average height was considerably lower in the 18th and 19th Century than it is today or than it was in the 1400's. There seems to have been a dramatic post-medieval dip in average human height which becomes pronounced in the 17th Century, continues to plummet in the 18th and early 19th, then gradually recovers in the later 19th Century into the 20th. In modern times we tend to assume the trends we can detect from the 18th and 19th Century continued going backward more or less at an even rate but that is not the case. Average human height (a function of average health and nutrition) has gone up and down across the centuries but the early modern to early industrial periods (say 1600-1800) were among the lowest/ worst recorded.

Generally speaking I agree with the others who commented, you wouldn't expect a medieval knight to be roided out like a pro rasslin' character or somebody from Conan or "Spartacus blood and iron". You should keep in mind that different modern athletic sports are known for different body types. American football linebackers are huge, wide receivers are more slim, and basketball players are tall (except for point guards) while baseball pitchers and soccer strikers all have different typical physiques. Modern soldiers also kind of have a 'type', if you look at SAS soldiers or Green Berets etc. they are not invariably huge buffed out dudes. Medieval literature on knighthood almost always advocates a slim and athletic physique. (Roman Gladiators by contrast seem to have been sometimes rather fat).

For a knight you might want to look at the physique of a professional rodeo cowboy as a point of comparison, since knights were mainly horsemen. A rodeo champion is probably pretty close to the physique of a knight if you want a good basis for guessing. But if you really want to know more you should probably look at historical sources and the archeological record.

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