In the pursuit of a high-quality commoner impression of an authentic, accurate, and gossip-worthy yeoman it is conservative to say one could spend many thousands of dollars to achieve the look, fit, and feel desired. From there it spirals when one looks into the costs of equipping one’s self in the martial accouterments of well-equipped archer or man at arms. Even barring the idea of filling up an entire encampment if one then looks into a minor gentry or even noble impression and the costs of custom harnesses made my preeminent armorers, horses and their tack, sumptuous soft kit with all the fur-trimmed and gilded extravagances imaginable the sum of tens of thousands of dollars can be spent in the reenactment of medieval living history. Some never spend this much. Few drop this much cash from the start. For most this is an investment accruing in smaller purchases over a lifetime of enjoyment in the hobby. Which means for most of us purchase decisions are either long saved for items, concessions, or placeholders for future upgrades. This article addresses the latter and to some extent its preceding, option.
Years ago I bought a set of English style, articulated arm harness as seen in effigies, brass-work, and artwork where the entire arm harness from the shoulder lames of the spaulder to the end of the vambrace is a single connected piece. It was an exciting purchase for a number of reasons. Articulated arm harness are difficult to find “off the rack.” What I find for sale most often are “continental” style arm harness where the lower arm from above the elbow is of separate construction from the spaulders and rerebrace. Even if this style of arm harness were ubiquitous among retailers I would have the same issue I have with all my other clothing purchases: I have obnoxious proportions. Even in my modern clothing, it is a lifelong struggle to find shirts with an acceptable sleeve length. So when I tried these on and found they fit my proportions well, I jumped at purchasing them. They needed work. They were missing some buckles, had rust to remove. The largest flaw I found at the time was the reproduction error wherein the spaulder was too large proportionally to the rerebrace (a tidbit explained more thoroughly in Ian’s video on the subject).
But, this excitement needs to be tempered with the understanding they were purchased out of order. I did not have mail to wear under them. In English style, I should have had either a full-sleeved hauberk or full-length separate sleeves on underneath them. They did not come with and I did not have any besagews for my armpits. At the time I bought them I lacked a sufficient number of arming points to don them without using leather cord and shoelaces. Also, though they fit me (which is still a major stroke of luck) they were not made to me. As I learned after some use they also had construction errors in the shoulders in addition to the visual reproduction error which imparted severe limitation on my arm motion exceeding what well-made arm harness would. However, when I wasn’t moving too much, they gave the correct regional style for a martial impression of the late 14th and early 15th century England. They did not have the exact look and shape I envision in my “idealized” suit of armor and none of the decorations I want to put on my final kit.
I am a strong proponent of the conservative methodology of constructing a living history kit, saving up and buying quality. As with car parts, or tools, or footwear the idea of “Buy nice or buy twice” applies to living history. I would rather go without for a while and wait to buy something, even if it is expensive, which ensures I am buying correct and accurate equipment; and it only has to be purchased once. As I prepare to have a more accurate set of arms made for me by a talented armorer I regard these arms I have been wearing and it grows easier to see the flaws. Even from the beginning, I bought them knowing I would be replacing them; the question I have for myself is: did I break my own rule? Did I waste money? Would I have been preferable to save the cash for them and hire an armorer a month or two earlier than I have had the resources to do now? Or is there room for middle ground purchases, ones good enough for now, even if they’re destined to be replaced? Everything I spent on them, assuming I do not or cannot sell them when I’m done with them, is money I cannot spend on a different upgrade. More so, the money currently in them is money not available to be spent on anything else, be it encampment, soft kit, or the other elements of armor which I should purchase before the arms themselves (points, chain, besagews, etc.)
Or, have these arms been a beneficial addition to my kit working as a valuable tool to achieve living history goals along the way? I receive positive benefits to owning and wearing these arms, foremost among them wearing armor. Wearing armor is one of the major draws for me and the more armor I get to wear sooner, the happier I am. And, there is the cool-factor, I can wear them while practicing combat in harness which achieves a number of martial goals to include more than familiarization with the equipment, but participation in partner drills and sparring. I can further acclimate myself to the rigors of wearing armor and increase my endurance through armored walks, or other fitness activities such as chopping wood or climbing ladders and monkey bars a la Boucicaut’s fitness regimen. Multiple years of use is a considerable benefit for a placeholder item, but as Kryštof Šámal points out, production time on well made armor by a professional armor can take months or years on its own. If I had the resources at the time and bought these arms at the same time I contracted an armorer to make their replacement, I would still be gaining months of proactive use out of them. But I could achieve a number of these goals with any arm harness of the late 14th and early 15th century, be it French style, or German, or Italian. A point comes at which, even achieving these goals, one has settled. In my estimation, when you settle you are wasting your money while good-enough-for-now purchases provide a valuable positive benefit while on the long and slow path of conservative kit building. Both types of purchases are money spent on something less than the ideal for their function, however, their impact are not exactly equal.
When someone settles, they are purchasing something they would never want… well, more importantly, something which fills a functional void in their kit without being so egregious a violation of one’s own standards or betraying the continuity of the kit to such an extent it would be absurd to put on. Though we see people wear things incongruous with the rest of their kit, it is rarely (though sometimes) due to financial concerns. Those are other problems worth addressing under a Different in what way?different topic. We still see others, and find ourselves, doing versions of this anyway by purchasing a knife or a pouch or a pair of shoes fitting the ensemble when not scrutinized, but under closer observation stand out. In this example, suppose a burning desire for arm harness lead me to purchase a set of continental style arms where the upper cannon is a separate piece than the lower cannon and couter, even if it wasn’t French and was faux English in aesthetic. I’m certain out there is an arm harness built extra-long to accommodate my long arms. Wearing them would achieve most, if not all, of the positive attributes I listed above. I could exercise, train, and fight in them. They could have been cheaper to buy, and they may have needed less repair to get started.
But, the hypothetical French arm harness would not fit my kit. They would be academically dishonest, and they would look wrong in comparison to other English pieces I am now and will be wearing as the harness develops. This issue is what tips the scale toward a purchase which I would classify as “settling”. In contrast, even though they needed work and are not perfect, the arms I purchased are good-enough-for-now. While they fit well, they won’t fit as well as the ones I am having commissioned to my measurements and sized in the armorer’s workshop. While they have the correct regional style and form, they lack fundamental aesthetic features I will have in the next arms. Meanwhile, they look right, work well enough, feel right, and allow me to do everything the fictional French arms would while also preserving the cultural identity of my historical impression. That’s what makes them a worthwhile purchase. They were never meant to wear forever but were good enough until I afforded the ideal arm harness.
I didn’t settle, and I didn’t waste money on them. Though the money I spent on them is money I could not spend on my forever-arms, they have purchased me more time in armor than my forever-arms will. I have bought experience wearing armor, fighting in armor, and becoming comfortable with the physical dynamics they place on the body. And I did it while maintaining a coherent and cohesive historical impression through the entire evolution of my kit. This conversation is an important one to have with yourself next time a great deal comes across the Classifieds or Facebook market of your choice: are you settling or is the piece good enough for now? A confident answer to this question makes or breaks an otherwise difficult decision.