Saturday, December 10, 2011

Pract Ical vs. S'Wag

Long time no post!

This one will be a (not so) short meditation on the practicalness of ancient and medieval armour.
(there's art at the end too)

Some time ago this Tumblr post was put together as a reaction to the "Women in Reasonable Armour" thing. I don't understand Tumblr, so I have no idea who actually wrote it, sorry.

As the author states, this "counter-point" was meant to show that:

"... practicality isn’t the end-all and be-all of military costume. In some cases though, you have to wonder if it was given any thought at all."

Do the sample images support this wild hypothesis? Leeeeeeet's FIND OUT! Raise the gates!

1.) First image are the La Tene Gallic warriors masterfully illustrated by Angus McBride. What is the weird impractical element here?
  • The eagle helmet?   - as much as I respect McBride, he made the helmet look much heavier than the original piece suggests. We have no idea if it was a real helmet meant for battle, or if it was a ceremonial object. If it was used in battle, it probably wasn't as obstructive as we may think.
  • The naked guy?   - a more likely complaint. Did celts fight naked? Period sources suggest some of them might have. Why on Earth would anyone do that? There are many theories. It might've been a religious thing, for morale improvement, or it simply felt better for the warriors to fight without clothing constraining their manly bodies. There is a relevant anecdote by a Roman writer (whose name escapes me now) describing how units of naked warriors suffered considerably larger casualties in a missile skirmish than their clothed allies. A simple cloak apparently makes a difference. So why didn't they wear more armour? Mail was incredibly rare and expensive in this period, leather armour would've been much more common. It's not exactly clear how widespread and how commonly used armour was. Organic armour has the unfortunate tendency of disappearing completely without a trace. How common were these naked "barbarians"? We don't know. 
2.) Celtiberians! So what's so wacky about these guys?
  • The helmet crests? Helmet crests seem to have been rather popular through human history. The exact purpose we can't be sure of, but it's probably something to do with recognizing your allies by the colours and shapes of their silhouette. That's very importand on the battlefield. Sure, the impractical reason would be to show off how much of a cock you are. (you know, how birds have these colourful crests)  Were they so obstructive that it became impractical? Maybe. Would they have been used if they were that impractical? No. Ancient people weren't stupid.
  • The lack of metal armour? See answer above. Armour was rare, difficult to make. Hence the large shields. This type of attire also allowed for unrestricted mobility and no doubt allowed them to fight easier in warm climate. We also have to keep in mind that these are reconstructions mainly done from vase paintings. It's the artists job to make them look interesting, it's an illustration. A thing odd to our eye and sense of "normality" is not necessarily impractical.
3.)  A Libyan. He DOES look weird, right? RIGHT?
  • Does he though? If you go through historical and archaeological sources, armour in general wasn't a big thing in 13th century BC. Just like any other human invention armour underwent an evolutionary process. We can't point fingers at Libyans who lived 3300 years ago and laugh at them for not wearing something more reasonable. Hey Libyans, why don't you just use machine guns?! I'm sure a cloak of thick hide was quite the shit 1300 BC.
4.) and 5.) Spartans.
  • Not much to be added here. Crests - check. Half-naked with large shields - check. Metal breastplates and greaves though! Really, no impracticalness here. And they're not wearing pants? So what? Trousers were considered weak and womanly by the Greeks. Take that, feminism!
6.) The Maya. Oh yes, we're definitely getting into the wacky territory.
  • I think the correctness of the reconstruction is the most crucial issue here. We're using rock carvings of mythical heroes and gods to reconstruct what real warriors used. Is it a wrong approach? Not necessarily. We can be quite sure that many things in these reconstructions are wrong though.
  • I think the Maya and other American cultures' battle gear like them are a product of isolation and lack of metals. A ritual nature of battles probably also played a role. These Mayans aren't all that different to the half naked Libyan archer up there, except for all the jewelry and feather plumes. Were those really used in battle? I don't think we can say either way for sure.
 7.) IIRC this is an Aztec warrior.
  • All of the above written about the Maya applies here as well.
  • We can't underestimate the effect such gear had on the opponents visually. Similarly to the winged Polish hussars, it may have been quite intimidating for the people at that time. (which is certainly practical)
 8.) Persian soldiers.
  • I don't see anything impractical here. Yes, they're colourful, but they're not guerilla warriors who need to hide. They're soldiers of the largest empire of its time, they're displaying the wealth and power of their faction. And they wear pants.
9.) Egyptians
  • See the Libyan above, all that applies here as well. 
10.) Thracian peltast.
  • I have no idea what the impractical parts of his gear were supposed to be. He's lightly armed and armoured, because he's supposed to be a light infantryman, a mobile skirmisher.


I'm not a fan of generalizations. Quite obviously, saying that all battle gear was always practical is wrong. I don't think the Tumblr post tried to be controversial, but something about that "In some cases though, you have to wonder if it was given any thought at all." sentence rubbed me the wrong way.

Of course it was given thought. A lot of thought, no doubt. Ancient people weren't stupid. They didn't want to die. They protected themselves as well as they could.

Not to be all boring and historical, here's a recent cover painting I did! \o/ Details are on my DeviantArt gallery.

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