As much as weapons—and possibly more—armor tends to be portrayed in an extremely stylized manner in medieval fantasy media. This can often be linked to the needs of visual storytelling, whether in video games, film or art. The desire to create a dynamic look or a stunning image often leads costume designers to portray armor as more of a metallic costume than a practical system of body defense. To refer to artist Boris Vallejo again, “armor” in some fantasy contexts can often consist of foil-thin bathing suits made of metal.
Of course, medieval armor smiths were often just as concerned with creating an attractive product as modern artists are with creating an interesting look for their medieval fantasy character, so finding highly ornamental or decorative armor that still retains its functionality isn’t difficult (although it can be expensive).
To exemplify the stylization of medieval fantasy armor, we will consider common images associated with the term “armor” in fantasy enthusiasts’ minds by looking at fantasy knights.
Two fantasy armor designs: Parn from Record of Lodoss War and Dragon Armor from World of Warcraft. Note that both feature exaggerated design for effect.
These two designs represent different ways in which armor design is skewed for the sake of visual impact. On one side is a fairly typical Japanese animation approach to European armor. On the other side is a pretty run-of-the-mill MMORPG armor design. Both share some common characteristics with one another, and with actual historical armor.
The Dungeons & Dragons-inspired anime design features some over-exaggerated shoulder-pieces, integral greaves and knee-plates (appropriate for Roman-era design, but not for medieval era), and a breastplate of curious design.
The MMORPG armor also features over-exaggerated shoulder pieces. The overall design probably wasn’t too outlandish to begin with until the stylized spikes, jags and pointy edges were added. Plates seems to float on the surface of other plates with no obvious method of connection, and there seems to be a lot of unnecessary overlapping (which looks cool, but is redundant and implies lots of extra weight concentrated in one place).
While it is not the intention of this article to revile the designs of fantasy artists (many of which are entertaining and inspiring) it is important to be able to recognize the parts of armor design that may be based on historical artifacts, and which parts are purely decorative fancy.
A good rule of thumb to keep in mind when imagining a historical counterpart to fantasy armors is to imagine how the fantasy armor would look without spikes, flanges, extra points and embossed skulls (another common theme in fantasy armor). Picture it in plain steel (or leather, as the case may be). This is not to say that all medieval armor is plain-looking; rather, it is easier to see the basic lines of a set of armor without all its embellishments.
Now, follow the same steps you would follow for converting a fantasy weapon.
Step 1: Look at the armor. Determine its defining features. Often, this can be as simple as “Which parts of the body does this armor protect?” Is the armor made of metal or leather? Is it mostly plate, or does it mix mail and plate? You can get as detailed in your examination as “How many lames make up the elbow joint armor?” if you wish. What is absolutely necessary for this armor to function, and what is pure decoration? From that, form some basic criteria to describe armor that is similar to its fantasy counterpart.
Step 2: Place the armor in cultural context. This can often be done by looking at the character wearing the armor in the game, movie, etc… from which your preferred design originates. But even without a character filling the armor, you can extrapolate some cultural context. Let’s consider the “dragon” armor from Azeroth above. It is obviously meant to be a full-plate harness, which historically doesn’t narrow the field a whole lot. However, Germany and Italy were the major producers of plate armor in the Middle Ages, so let’s start there. Which had a tendency to produce more angular, tapered armor that came to points? Generally, you can find more German armor that fits the profile (although there are always exceptions).
Also, Germany had those cool Siegfried legends about slaying the dragon.
Step 3: Now that you’ve eliminated unnecessary frills and matched real-world equivalents to the fantasy templates, narrow down your search by time period. With armor, this is fairly straightforward. The different types of armor that smiths developed through Europe’s history tended to see use in a fairly linear progression, so if your fantasy armor of choice is full plate, then you can narrow your time period to the 15th century and later (although the scope of the MMCG’s study ends at 1500 A.D., so the 15th century is really about as late as is necessary to look).
Having done that, let’s take a look at two armors that pretty decently match the two fantasy armors above in terms of form, protected areas and overall design aesthetic.
Two historical armor designs: "Black and White" armor worn by Landesknechts, and "Maximillian" armor from Germany. Note that both retain the overall protectiveness and look of the fantasy armor templates.
Both of these armors (available from Valentine Armories) are historically accurate, and with some color difference and personal customization could pass for real-world equivalents of the fantasy armors portrayed above. More importantly, they can convey the same feel and visual impact, yet still be appropriate for the scope of the MMCG’s activities.
Step 4: Find culturally appropriate decorations. As with weapon design, “medieval” doesn’t automatically equate to “austere”—quite the opposite in many cases. Medieval craftsmen and artisans were quite fond of adding flairs and flourishes to their work. Jewels, skull embossment, spikes and horns tend to be fantasy armor hallmarks, so try to avoid them. However, many interesting and stunning designs can be found in medieval armor decorations. See what you can find, and what appeals to you.
Example Fantasy Armor Conversion: Madmartigan’s Tir Asleen Armor
Willow was one of the movies that really got me out of the living room and into the woods, swinging around plastic swords and wooden broomsticks. Who wasn’t thrilled as a kid to see Madmartigan finally kill off evil General Kael? Of course, just as in any fantasy movie, the design of weapons and armor was geared more towards looking cool than reflecting functional historic design.
Madmartigan at the siege of Tir Asleen, wearing the King of Tir Asleen's armor. Helmet design inset.
Defining Features: The king’s armor (appropriated by Madmartigan for the siege) can be most quickly defined by material, and protective areas. Made from metal (in a real suit, we would presume steel) we have greaves, tassets, bracers, pauldrons, and helmet (inset). A mail skirt sits below the tassets, and the helmet is curiously covered in mail as well. The breastplate is made of leather and decorated with metal embellishments.
Narrow down the Culture: This is a difficult bit. Willow’s look was specifically engineered to appear familiar but exotic. The designers achieved this by mixing all sorts of cultural motifs and then covering them in a medieval-esque veneer. From the story, we know that the armor was made first for a king, so we can assume that the historical armor to which we would match this would be—if not of royal quality—at least for use by the nobility.
Based on the design of the armor, (conical helm with nosepiece, greaves, bracers, minimal plate protection for the torso), we could place this pretty much anywhere in Europe. The conical helm doesn’t narrow the field down a lot, although conical helms with nasal guards tend to be more associated with France and Italy. The greaves are of Roman design, and therefore not appropriate for medieval use—but we can assume that any culture that would produce a historical match for this armor would have been influenced by the Romans.
Each on its own, these cultural considerations don’t help a great deal. Together, however, they can begin to suggest a place or time or origin.
Narrow down the Time: So, what can we gather about the time period of a historical analogue to this fictional armor based on design and cultural context? Conical helms were used primarily in the earlier half of the Middle Ages, so that can be a factor. Greaves and bracers were some of the first pieces of armor to be made of plate, and the relative scarcity of plate in the rest of the armor design can help to further place Madmartigan’s armor.
What about the mail and leather? Leather saw limited use as armor in the first half of the Middle Ages, and mail was used throughout. Supposing that the mail in the armor design wasn’t restricted to merely a skirt, but was a full byrnie with shirt sleeves? Now we can start to place this armor more definitely.
Finally, we come to the hard-to-place items: the pauldrons. Plated shoulder protection (especially as pictured) wasn’t used until the Late Middle Ages (1300’s onward). At this point, one would need to decided whether to find armor that matched the basic design of the fantasy suit that included the shoulders, or without the shoulders.
Eventually, we can place the armor in one of two periods and places: without pauldrons, Madmartigan’s armor can be converted to that of a Frankish Knight circa 900. As seen below, this armor would consist of a short-sleeved mail byrnie, leather lamellar cuirass, iron greaves and half-bracers, and a conical spangenhelm with nasal guard and cheekplates.
Armor as might have been worn by a Frankish knight of the 10th century. All it's missing is the out-of-period pauldrons.
Decorations: With some customization on the wearer’s part, this historical armor could look very much indeed like Madmartigan’s. Pictorial evidence suggests that gilding armor was not unknown for rich patrons (and the fantasy armor converted here is meant to have belonged to a king). The leather lamellar could easily be made black and decorated with a period-appropriate eagle design. A horsehair crest on the helm would not be out of place. Strap on a black leather belt with gilded ornamentation, and the look you have will be both historically accurate and make people ask “Where have I seen that before?”
As an added historical note, Frankish nobles of this time period wore their hair long, so you can even get the “Val Kilmer gone wild” look as well (if you’re going that far).
One historical Madmartigan armor look-alike: check.
A few final notes concerning fantasy armor: avoid the muscle-cuirass made famous by Greek and Roman armor. Though you’ll see it in plenty of fantasy armors, it isn’t correct for any part of the Middle Ages.
And as far as armor designs for women go: there’s enough material there for an entirely separate article. Suffice it to say that any armor design should cover your vulnerable areas, not display them for crushing, stabbing, slicing and other painful mutilation.