Now, as much fun as the image of a man in 15th century harness on a treadmill might be, the summary of the test’s conclusions was rather fascinating:
Medieval suits of armour were so exhausting to wear that they could have affected the outcomes of famous battles, a study suggests.
Full disclosure: when we first heard about this study, it was from a link to a short article on the History Channel’s webpage. Knowing the HC’s policy of only basing its article and programs on carefully considered historiography, archaeological sources, scientifically rigorous data gathering and a strict avoidance of sensationalism (you know, like Ancient Aliens, Ice Truckers or that show about the guys running a pawn shop)…oh, yes, that was why we never followed up on it!
But it turns out that this was a serious study done at the University of Leeds, by real scientists. So how is it that their study found that armoured combatants of the late Middle Ages were hampered to the point of exhaustion by their armour? Especially when so many demonstrations of men in harness – including at the Royal Armouries, who provided the test subjects and armour, make note of how relatively easily an armoured man can run, climb, roll, mount a horse, and so forth?
Well, the first problem might be with what the researchers considered field armour:
Lead researcher Dr Graham Askew, from the University of Leeds, said: “You look at these suits of armour, and they weigh between 30 and 50kg, so it is a huge fraction of the wearer’s body weight.”
Really? While 30kg, or approximately 66 lbs is a fair approximation of a late 14th century harness, 15th century field armours – as opposed to jousting armour – generally got lighter. And 110lbs of harness? Where does this figure come from?
The data sample for the study is freely available on the Royal Society’s website: http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2011/07/15/rspb.2011.0816/suppl/DC1 Unfortunately, it is quite problematic. Firstly, there are only nine sample harnesses. Of these, one is the Churburg 19 harness, an armour made for a man who would be a giant by modern standards, at nearly 7′ tall. This is the 53 kg harness; all of the others are between 25 and 34 kg. Of course, two of those are the modern reproductions, one of which was a pretty good average at 30 kg, the other which was on a par with the heaviest armour (except for Churburg 19) at 38 kg. Fair enough, but this means the data sample is really five armours (all composites). That isn’t a very large data set, especially only one of the armours is contemporary with Agincourt, the battle to which the researchers applied their conclusions.
Regardless, the data set, small as it is, points to something that arms and armour scholars have noted for years: the average harness weight is approximately 60 – 70 lbs; about equivalent to the load of a modern soldier in full gear, or the heavy infantry of Rome and Greece, likely because that is what a man can carry and still fight effectively. So it is even more interesting the the study concluded that soldiers in modern field gear felt far less encumbered with their weapons, armour and field packs. Considering the number of modern soldiers who seem to enjoy reenactment combat, one would assume that this conclusion was based on both subjective and objective findings, right? You know, what do the guys who actually experience strenuous activity in the gear think? Surely this was noted as well?
Not so much. Apparently, a treadmill was as high-tech as this got:
To study this, researchers asked four participants, who regularly re-enact battles for the Royal Armouries in Leeds, to don their exact-replica armour from England, Gothic Germany and Italy and get onto a treadmill.
By recording how much oxygen they took in and carbon dioxide they produced, the team was able to calculate how much energy they were using. High-speed cameras also helped the researchers to study how the volunteers were using their limbs.
Of course, walking and running a treadmill does not use the same sort of motions or mechanics as fighting, it does not produce endorphins and adrenaline in the same way that combat does.
So, does this test really simulate anything besides…well…using a treadmill in armour? We can’t really say, but certainly it doesn’t match the subjective experience of people who wear and fight in harness, while it certainly seems to be a throwback to the notion of armour as impossibly ponderous and awkward. It is probably best to keep the comments of Thom Richardson, keeper of armours, from the Royal Armouries in mind as a caveat:
“It is interesting to use scientific method to answer these questions, and it confirms what we have always suspected – heavy armour would very much reduce your ability to run around.
“But no-one wears stuff on the battlefield if it isn’t useful.”
And certainly, the University of Leeds has proven one thing: don’t wear your armour on a treadmill!