Like many of you, I’ve been a fan of fantasy fiction for years. While I love Larry Correia and Jim Butcher’s urban fantasy, I’m still partial to the old heroic and epic varieties as well. There’s just something about dwarves in armor with their mighty axes, elves with their bows, and evil just beyond the horizon.
Unfortunately, a while back, I started actually studying medieval armor. I won’t say it made it impossible for me to enjoy fantasy fiction, because that would be untrue, but I will say it gets annoying when writers make some of these mistakes.
So, if you’re writing some good, old fashioned fantasy, then maybe knowing these misconceptions are actually misconceptions will make your writing that much stronger and reduce if fewer headaches from readers who know a little something about armor.
1. There’s no such thing as chain mail.
I see you scratching your head now. I mean, you’ve seen it in museums, right?
Well, not really. You see, the term “chain mail” is a creation of the Victorian era. In period documents, they would come across the word “maille” and it was believed that the term was synonymous with “armor”. Well, during the era of maille, it really was. You either wore interlocking rings of steel, or you were probably running an awful lot. That was just the nature of the beast.
However, during that Victorian era, they began to use the word “mail” to mean armor. However, they were wrong. Later scholars realized the mistake, but by then a lot had been written about “chain mail” and the term had wormed its way in.
Similarly, there’s also no such thing as “plate mail” or other “mail” type armors.
2. Plate armor is too clunky to move easily
This misconception’s been around for a long, long time. While plate armor is heavy, all things considered, it’s not nearly as clunky as people think. Back in the day, plate armors were properly fitted to the person wearing it. Plus, it was attached to an arming jacket which distributed the weight far more evenly than many people realize.
There are medieval depictions of soldiers doing handstands in plate armor, and some people have replicated it with reproduction suits as well.
Personally, I never did any such thing, but mostly because I can’t do a handstand for crap out of armor.
3. Armor was so heavy, the warrior needed help to mount their horse
Yes, the armor was heavy. I’ll acknowledge that, and I’ve said so before in this very post. However, we’re not talking about the weight of another person on your back. In fact, modern combat troops carry heavier loads into battle than the medieval knight.
Somewhere along the way, a popular myth evolved that knights had to be lifted into the saddle. This may come from heavier jousting armors in later period, though I’ll admit that I’m not sure. What I do know is that the armor worn in combat wasn’t an issue.
4. Vikings had horns in their helmets
Oh, how I hate this one.
Somehow, people got the idea that the Vikings had horns on their helmets. Personally, I blame Minnesota for this, but whatever.
I’ve looked at a lot of Norse helmets through the years. I’ve looked at a lot of helmets for people who predated the Norse. You know what I’ve never seen? Horns.
Not. A. One.
They sound fierce, but if you’re a writer wanting to use this to make your barbarian look scary, keep something in mind. Horns stick out, which means a sword hitting it is likely to do some interesting things to the helmet. Since helmets weren’t necessarily tied in place, well…let’s just say there’s a really good reason we don’t find Norse helmets with horns on them.
5. All armors at all times and all places
I blame Dungeons & Dragons for this one. Their arms and equipment section has all these different armors your character can buy. For simplicity sake, they’re all in there together, and players can pick and choose to their heart’s content.
However, armor isn’t that simple.
You see, if you use a generic late medieval/early Renaissance Western European setting for your world, scale armor isn’t really as likely to show up on a knight as plate armor. Scale’s hay day was really during the Roman Empire, while plate armors first started showing up during the 14th Century.
Meanwhile, if your world is based on the Middle East, plate armor as we typically think of it is unlikely to ever show up. This is due to a lot of factors, ranging from technology (in the case of scale) to environmental (such as the Middle Eastern armors).
So, there you have it. Five common armor misconceptions that have shown up in a lot of fantasy fiction through the years. However, there are hundreds of such misconceptions that we have only recently begun to understand. What are some of your favorite misconceptions?