So You Want To Fight in Armour.....

Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts
January 2009
by Matthew Brundle, Scholler, AEMMA

As students of Western Historical Martial Arts it is, for many, a desirable extension, or sometimes the ultimate goal, to train and fight in an accurate, period appropriate medieval harness (suit of armour). I began training in armizare some years ago and the thought of fighting in harness was of immediate interest. Fighting in armour may very well be the hook which drags you into the study of Western Martial Arts. Our purpose academically is to study historical text to come to a more complete understanding of the medieval armoured fight. Training these techniques with historically accurate equipment is an essential part of this study. What follows are some thoughts on the acquisition of harness for the purpose of training for foot combat with steel blunts with reputable training partners and instructor/s. Below are several points which I believe to be salient pertaining to the process of putting together harness and to begin getting ready to train with it.

1. Be clear about your intent

Ask yourself some basic questions. What time period and geographical area exactly are you most interested in? How accurate do you want to be? For instance, do you want to have every single buckle, strap, rivet and stitch to be period accurate? Are you o.k. with some machine stitching and modern rivets? What are the safety requirements of the group/s you train with and are likely to play with? How regularly will you train? How much of this can project can you do yourself and how much should you contract out?

2. Develop a Vision

What exactly will your harness look like? Be as precise and detailed as possible. Your goal is to have a finished product that is safe and works. It is a wonderful thing to move, train and fight in harness which fits you properly and all works together. It is a very frustrating thing to fight your harness harder than your companion. It is a very good idea to peruse as many period images as you possibly can. There are several very good online collections which can be accessed. Also, visit whatever museums are available to you. Keep a notebook or journal. Visit groups with similar interests online and in person. Ask questions. To avoid frustration with progress, be realistic about a timeline. Typical time lines can range from as little as six months or as long as several years for a complete harness.

3. Research, Research, Research

Edward, Prince of Wales
(d. 1376)
Other than training, research may be the most time consuming part of this project. Many who develop harness do not, at first, realize how involved a project this can be. Consider for a moment the helmet. Let's say for instance you've decided on modeling your harness on a particular effigy and that effigy calls for a bascinet style helmet. You save your armour allowance for several months, contact a reputable armourer and get in line. His production back-up means that you'll be waiting four months for your new lid to arrive. This does not allow you to check "helmet" off your list. You still need to research and decide what type of suspension is most accurate and will work best for you. Then you will need to source this or do it yourself. What type of aventail? Where can this be had? Who can affix it and how? Each step must be tailored to fit you and work with the other components. Extensive research will make the process more rewarding academically and mechanically. It will also, in all likelihood, curb armour buying mistakes and save you money and time. When you are researching, ensure that your sources are reputable. There is copious amounts of misinformation out there that can lead you astray and waste valuable time. Armchair medieval experts are abundant and although they can be well meaning and passionate, your best resources will be primary sources in the form of effigies, period images and texts, published academic work, and discussion with the growing community of people who are currently training in harness with qualified instructors and of course the instructors themselves.

4. Budget

This is frequently a huge concern and one of the first questions many people ask (followed be the "How do you pee?" question). Many people look at martial artists in armour and think "wow, that must have been really, really expensive". All things are relative. If you compare it most other pursuits it actually quite inexpensive. Think in the $2500 for the Chevy to $6000 for the Lexus variety. This is much less expensive than snowmobiles or motorcycles, fast cars or even many electronic gadgets we currently spend untold of funds on. Golf clubs, skates, sticks and fishing tackle easily run into the thousands. At any rate, you will be acquiring items at separate times so you will not need to foot the whole bill all at once. If you can build an armour allowance into your monthly budget this might help. There are, of course, much more expensive options. However, you are not building this harness to stand around in and look pretty. It will get dented and scratched. rivets will be knocked loose. Straps will rip. Maille will be damaged. This are all things you should accept and even relish as part of the "Cool Factor".

5. Repair and the DIY of Armour

Because you will be training and fighting in harness it will need regular repair and maintenance. Unlike our medieval counterparts it is unlikely you will have staff, squires or others to look after these things for you. Professional armourers are available but are frequently too busy to deal with minor repairs. It is often easier, more time effective and cheaper to do some of these things yourself. Learn very basic leather work. Purchase a decent rotary punch, rivet set and some leather cutting tools. You will need to replace straps periodically and do basic repairs. A dishing hammer and a few bags to fill with sand are useful for removing dents. After every practice session, set aside a few minutes to clean the sweat off of your armour and oil what needs to be oiled. This will cut down the amount of time you will spend removing rust.

6. Avoid The Impulse Buys

I know several people who have made purchases, on impulse, and regretted it. Similarly, do not expect to buy items online or from a catalogue and have them fit you and the rest of your harness perfectly. Munitions grade and off the rack is, for many, a great option for various items but if you choose this route, accept that you will need someone to tailor these items for you. Patience is required for a fitted harness. The sacrifice and discipline is well worth it.

Some Initial Thoughts on Preparing to Train

click to view larger of the same image
Matt Brundle on the right engaged in an armoured bout with Scholler Aldo Valente, January 2009 at the FACT Open House

I am not an instructor by any standard and here is not the place to discuss technique. However, here are some basics which might help to get your head into the right space.

1. Conditioning

There's good news here. You need no armour at all to start getting ready for fighting in harness. You can start right after you finish reading this article. Physical conditioning is a basic and necessary building block in your training. Flexibility and strength training are important. Cardio and aerobic training are key. Breathing is the most difficult task and is of paramount importance. The nature of any fight is often short term exertion and solid decision making under physical and mental stress. Getting used to this mindset is a useful skill.

2. Helmet Time

Wearing a medieval helmet with a closed visor is probably the most difficult thing to get used to. If your arms, legs and body harness are fitted well, movement is relatively unrestricted and weight is not too much of an issue. However, the helmet with closed visor is much more difficult to grow accustomed to. Your centre of gravity is much higher. Visibility is restricted. Air movement is challenging. Your ability to move the good air in and the bad air out of your helmet is critical. Calm, controlled breathing is what is needed to make efficient use of your energy and make good decisions. Many people also experience some claustrophobia which can be more of an issue when your activity level goes up and adrenaline is added. Quite simply, helmet time is the answer.

Final Thoughts

If you do decide to embark on this journey good for you! You're about to enter a truly superb community of individuals. The demands, intellectual, academic and physical are substantial. However, the rewards are nothing short of awesome. It feels terrific to have assembled a complete, working harness. Training and fighting in armour with authentic medieval techniques and authentic equipment and weapons is a unique experience and adds another, truly excellent dimension to your study of the Historical Western Martial Arts.

For more information on armour requirements at AEMMA, click here.

About the author: joined AEMMA on November 9, 2003 and has trained regularly at AEMMA and successfully achieved his scholler rank on April 2, 2006. He is a school teacher by profession and has a great interest in medieval history which he shares with his students.

Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts
January 2009

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