In A Nutshell
Many movies and TV shows incorrectly depict armored knights shambling around awkwardly like metal-encased zombies. Worse, even the most heavily armored troops are often just slow-moving kill-count fodder for any hero (or heroine) with a sword or a bow. But real armor wasn’t as heavy or cumbersome as is imagined, and it was incredibly difficult to pierce or cut.
The Whole Bushel
Even the heaviest plate armor, typically weighing about 23 kilograms (50 lb), wasn’t much heavier than a modern soldier’s rucksack. Knights and men-at-arms were just as mobile as their modern counterparts (if not even more mobile). Armorers were exceptionally good at their jobs; the steel plates or chain mail they ensconced their customers in allowed for surprising mobility. Medieval chroniclers wrote about fully armored men-at-arms scaling siege ladders like sets of monkey bars.
In a number of modern tests, a wearer, obviously not trained as a knight, was able to perform somersaults and cartwheels. In the videos below, you can watch an old, armor-wearing Medievalist throw himself off a horse and pop back up with little difficulty. No doubt a trained soldier, accustomed to wearing armor regularly, would perform even better.
And unlike the previously mentioned rucksack, a knight’s armor made him almost impervious to the most common weapons of his era.
Swords? Essentially useless when swung. A simple suit of chain-mail could blunt most sword slashes. And combined with the padded fabric or leather worn underneath, mail was enough to dampen hits which otherwise would kill a man. Slashing wildly with a sword at plate armor was a complete exercise in futility. The best bet was stabbing one’s armored opponent in the eye slit or hopefully puncturing his suit with two-handed jabs. No sword, not even a katana, could cut through plate armor.
Though the bow has been much mythologized, taking a knight down with arrows took a lot of ammunition. It also helped to have a significant terrain advantage, like the one the English bowmen held over the French cavalry at Agincourt. That’s because most bows couldn’t even punch through mail. Medieval writers noted knights coming out of battle so absurdly covered with arrows that they looked like porcupines, but were unwounded. During the later Middle Ages, the typical bow’s arrows literally bounced off plate armor wearers.
Knights weren’t slicing through each other like human-shaped sticks of butter. But they were bashing one another with maces and other blunt weapons hoping to cripple or immobilize the other. Failing that, knights in battle resembled mixed martial arts fighters whose finishing move is a dagger to the face (or armpit). During the Middle Ages, it was often easier (and more profitable) to capture an enemy knight rather than find a can opener and kill him.
By the 16th century, armor was so protective—it completely enclosed the wearer—yet flexible and mobile, NASA would later emulate armor construction they observed in British museums to create the Apollo spacesuits. Previously, NASA’s idea was basically a box with sleeves. Medieval armor saved the first astronauts from landing on the Moon wearing something better suited as a Halloween costume.
Show Me The Proof
The National Museum of the Middle Ages, Cluny: Armored combat in the 15th century (video)
Weapons That Made Britain: Armour (video)
Central European University: Arms and Armor
Spirit Of The Sword: A Celebration of Artistry and Craftsmanship, by Steve Shackleford
COSMonline: How Henry VIII helped put man on the moon