Researching and Commissioning a New Arm Harness

– 24 minute read, 4,800 words

As I design my dream armor and the elements I want to appear in it, as I suspect everyone does, I have dived into researching the armor, its components, and its features. Before I go further it is important to acknowledge the motivations behind a project such as this. If we, as medieval enthusiasts doing living history and reenactment are going to sink years of our lives in research and development and spend thousands of dollars on solid-steel dress up, we owe it to ourselves not to lose sight of the “why” behind doing it. A resounding love for history and interpreting it is my fundamental motivation to do reenactment and living history generally, and a variety of periods catch my interest. I got my start in 19th-century maritime living history, but I’ve also dabbled in and had exposure to SCA style medieval, 18th century British Fusiliers, WWI, and 16th-century colonialists.

In the context of this project, it is important to be honest with one’s self about why you choose a particular period. The medieval period covers a thousand years of time and three continents. The available choices for impressions are dizzying. Some people have a personal attachment to a certain time and place, perhaps because they can trace their genealogy back to a particular medieval noble. Or, they have a particular skill or craft they love which was especially prominent at one point in time in a specific area. It could be because they’re uncertain and the local group already has an established time they conform to. No motivation is too small, if it resonates with you on any level it is important to identify it and own it. What narrows the time frame down for me is not any specific social or cultural reason, it boils down to aesthetics. I love the way the clothes and armor of the turn of the 15th century look, especially in England. I admire the aesthetics of other periods of history, but none as much as this time. Spoken or unspoken, the visual appeal of armor and the emotional gratification wearing a good looking suit of plate brings motivates a larger percentage of the community than I suspect we give it credit for. I base this conclusion on the prevalence of historically accurate but incoherent suits lacking in continuity out there, many of which cannot be chalked up to ignorance.

A notorious example.

It is possible to take aesthetics too far, as choosing elements based on what looks best to the wearer leads to frankensuits where armor components which would not have coexisted are present in the same suit because the designer assembled the suit to appeal to visual pleasure, instead of following the constraints of historical accuracy. I’m not dressing to look good for its own sake, there’s room for that in Fantasy LARPs and Halloween costumes; I am dressing to look good in an authentic and accurate historical context. To do so I have to temper my visual interests so I design an internally consistent suit of armor comporting with the reality we find in the historical record. As I have explained in greater detail in a previous article, I aim for the “Could it” factor. Even if my suit does not match a specific piece of artwork or an effigy, it is designed and built in a way if it were transported back in time the people of the time and place I am reenacting would accept it as a believable contemporary piece.

To this end, I have started to work with Josh Davis of Davis Reproductions to have a set of arms constructed for me and will be documenting the entire process. Though this is a specific example of a specific harness, my goal is to present what I regard as the best methodology for designing a unique suit of armor. By sharing this process in rigorous detail it can serve in reducing the uncertainty for someone interested in building a custom harness but have not gone through this process. This article represents the concept and research phase and will continue later with articles on other parts of the process, such as consulting, fittings, and the final completed piece. Mr. Davis has agreed to participate in the process and allow me to document my experiences.

Every piece of my current harness has always been a “placeholder” element which I have had the goal of replacing with something bespoke. I chose to replace the arms first because I have been unable to get my current arm harness to function, and I find it difficult to train or present when I cannot move my arms (as I wrote about in my Good Enough for Now article.) Their replacement will be English arms of a fit, function, and quality for a man-at-arms or knight of the early 15th century in the years leading up to and on the battlefield at Agincourt. The primary element which makes them identifiable as English in style is the characteristic fully articulated construction from the top of the shoulder down to the wrist. As we will see further on, many nuances remain throughout the entire arm which allows for customization.

I want these arms, like the rest of the harness, to be believable and authentic, but also individual and unique. Unlike reproducing a specific harness, my goal is for my harness to both pass for an authentic contemporary harness and be identifiable as me. We see variation from one harness to another within the same cultural construction, outside of technological and technique changes. Armors conform to a specific design based on ethnicity, such as Italian and German and English armors, but I speculate variations within an armor’s cultural style serve to signal both identity and status. With the visor down, a suit of armor distinct from the armor of people around them aids other visual cues, such as heraldry, to identify the wearer. I also suspect it displayed wealth in the same way ornamentation and decoration did, signaling the wearer had the wealth to be able to afford custom gear and not munitions grade. I intend to convey these sub-textual messages with my finished harness.

Caveats

Before I delve into the research I did, I want to make it clear the intentions of this article, and the limitations it presents. The fundamental purpose of this article is to establish the look and style of the desired armor and to understand why I choose design elements the way they are. Outlining this process creates a framework for what I picture as a sound and reliable method for making design decisions. Others can then apply these strategies when they are looking to design their own custom harnesses from any culture and period. This article also intends only to develop the aesthetics of the armor, but in no way is a reliable method for establishing the technical construction of armor. This article is not a study of English armors, I am not a historian and superior historical resources exist (have I mentioned my resource lists before?), this is a detailed documentation of a system of analysis of existing resources of armor to develop a living history impression for education and reenactment purposes. The fundamental purpose of this essay is to explain the process so it may guide future members of the community.

The primary sources for visuals are effigies and brasses from the ever-useful Effigies and Brasses website, supplemented by available artwork online and a copy of the book Armour of the English Knight 1400 – 1450 by Dr. Tobias Capwell. Visual sources, such as brasses or effigies, are some of my favorite resources since they are detailed, in comparison to art or written accounts. On the hierarchy of useful tools, a good effigy is second to an extant piece of armor itself. This does not mean effigies and brasses do not have their intrinsic flaws when used for research, especially when using the Effigies and Brasses website to make your observations. Everything, from manuscript illuminations to effigies introduces artifacts to be aware of, and a full discussion of them are the purview of many books and articles. Suffice to say it is important to be cognizant of a few major key issues. First, effigies are statues sculpted over time. Some are made before the person’s death, some contemporary with it, and others are finished and erected long after the person’s death and while we have a year attributed to the effigy… without researching each one we cannot (from the website) know how close to the person’s death they commissioned the effigy. Even if we know, for instance, an effigy’s completion was long after the person’s death there may never be a way to know if the sculptor attempted to replicate the armor of the knight at his death, or if the sculptor used contemporary armors since it was what the artist knew. The same way living history presentations are most accurate when they address a narrow time frame, but have difficulty maintaining integrity when they try to address too specific a date, effigies and brasses may have a specific year attached to it, but as a research tool represent a time range more than a specific day. Also, many of the images on the Effigies and Brasses websites are not the effigies or the brasses themselves, but hand drawings and these drawings are not always faithful, digital scan level reproductions and are subject to the detail or omission of detail the artist applied to their drawing.

It is mindful of these caveats I stress how improper it would be to use this article, and the entire conception phase of building a harness, as an attempt to manufacture functional and accurate physical pieces of armor. The number of high resolution, multi-angle photographs one would need of, if not an actual physical inspection of, an effigy and then the subsequent experience with similarly shaped and constructed pieces required to build an authentic piece of armor is not something one can develop by cruising Effigies and Brasses. Those are far outside my skill set and are the types of decisions I will work with, and rely on the expertise of, my armorer during the construction phase. I do not attempt to suggest anything mechanical about the shaping of plates, the feasible proportions of elements, or anything of an armor construction nature. In this article I strive only to illustrate the visual shape and style of armor in a way I conclude is reliable, accurate, and coherent. How to make them, and make them work, and how they look in physical form as compared to an artist’s rendition of an artist’s sculpture of a piece of armor are the purview of the armoring community. Though I expect to learn more about how building and proportioning armor works through the process, I make no illusions about making accurate reconstructions based on the research in this article, regardless of what website or book used to make my stylistic decisions.

The Inspiration: Unique Couters

In a previous article I discussed the effigies I am using to design a unique, but authentic, harness. To recap, I chose fifty effigies from the period of 1400 – 1420 which I found had visual appeal and had elements of armor I liked. The research done for this project is not a comprehensive examination of every variation on English arm harness in this time frame and does not examine the entirety of available effigies except in a few instances where a broader comprehension helps guide decisions. While artwork can provide helpful context, the mechanical detail in effigies, brasses, and the artistic renderings of them make them my most comfortable and reliable resource in this project.

Besides the foundational construction elements which differentiate English arms from continental style arm harness, the effigies chosen offer a variety of aesthetic choices when it comes to the presence or absence of besagews, cased vs open upper cannon, the shape of the couter, elements of trim, number of lames in various joints, etc. I can then choose from among these design elements and mechanical features, both functional and ornamental, with an eye towards authenticity and coherency with the rest of the arm harness and the suit. One design element caught my attention and will be the focal point of my arm harness: couters with a fan styled with a sharp dentate edge reminiscent of grape leaves or seashells.

Of the fifty effigies I fancied most, seven display armored men who have this distinct design:

  • South Kelsey Knight c. 1410 located at St. Mary’s Church, South Kelsey, Lincolnshire, England
  • Sir John Drayton c. 1411 located at Dorchester Abbey, Dorchester, Oxfordshire, England
  • John Cressy, Esquire c.1413 located at Chruch of St. Mary the Virgin, Dodford, Northamptonshire, England
  • Galfridus Fransham c. 1414 located at All Saints Church, Great Fransham, Norfolk, England
  • Sir Robert Suckling c. 1415 located at Holy Trinity Church, Barsham, Suffolk, England
  • Robert de Tye c. 1415 located at Most Holy Trinity Church, Barsham, Suffolk, England
  • Sir Symon de Felbrigge c. 1416 located at St Margaret’s Church, Felbrigg, Norfolk, England

For context, when expanding the search perimeters to include all English effigies and brasses from 1400 – 1420 the dentate couter appears nineteen times out of one hundred thirty-six available images and drawings. I make no illusions about how niche this style of couter was, though it grows more popular as time progresses. Keeping this level of specificity in mind is important, and requires us to be diligent about possible purposes or provenances of the design. Using a more universal shape does not require as much scrutiny as when a less frequent element is chosen. Material culture items unique, niche, or underrepresented in the historical record deserve heightened scrutiny when incorporated into a living history impression. Questions abound with rare design elements… why was it unpopular in comparison, but still popular enough to have the record we have? Did it carry a special significance which limited its use? To avoid plucking an item out of context we should conduct further research to identify if this style of couter carried special significance we should be aware of. Did it signal meaning about the knights who wore it, or was it was the affectation of a specific armor in one region of England? Was it an experiment or fad which did not survive a brief attempt in a narrow range of history, or did it signify some unspoken meaning? Though it may not have any real impact on the analysis, I am intrigued by how this style of couter represents about thirteen percent of available images and about fourteen percent of the fifty harnesses I chose to be the core of my build.

Though more than seven images are available which indicate dentate couters, even among my favorite harnesses, I exclude some from this article for various reasons; most of them because the image available on the website is poor resolution, small, or otherwise difficult to study or are unappealing. In regards to timeline, an example appears as early as 1410 and they continue to appear through to the end of the selected timeline of 1420. Any appearance after 1420 is outside the scope of this article, save to note they continue to appear. Dentate couters do not appear to have been some isolated anomaly confined to a corner of England.

When using effigies and brasses we are only looking at the locations where the examples were interred. This does not always correlate to where they lived. However, considering the wide dispersal of locations it is not as important to confirm if their burial site was where they lived. Instances of dentate couters are present as far north as Yorkshire, as far south as Sussex, west to Worcestershire, and east to Norfolk; effectively the entirety of non-Welsh, non-Scottish England. If it were an affectation of a single armorer, he was sought out by knights from the entire nation. It is more likely dentate couters are a niche but prevalent aesthetic choice appropriate for an English harness anywhere in England in the second decade of the 15th century.

I have not been able to find any arm harness of this style in any artwork or manuscript illuminations. Artwork, except of individual people, tends to follow generalities for ease of comprehension. Such an obscure design, it follows there would be less representation in the available artwork. Even still, the narrow selection of references I have among the effigies, brasses, and illustrations exceeds my “triangulation” rule wherein I try to have at least three sources for something before incorporating it into my kit.

As alluded to above, considering how rare it appears to be in English harness in this period, it is important to ensure this element is not plucked from the historical record and used in a manner unrepresentative of the time. Expanding our view from the couter to the entire arm harness as a unit, I took all seven effigies and noted commonalities which may indicate construction requirements concurrent with dentate couters. While English arm harnesses have variation in the rerebrace (cased as opposed to open) and in armpit protection (besagews or not) in my small sample size of seven arm harnesses with dentate couters they all appear on arm harnesses with closed rerebraces and they all appear on arm harnesses with besagews. In my mind’s eye, I always expected to wear a fully enclosed rerebrace, but I had an (inaccurate) mental picture excluding besagews. English harnesses seem to vary in regards to besagews, but even opening it up to all nineteen examples which show dentate couters all but one are paired with besagews. It cannot be ignored when something happens every time among the examples in the historical record.

Besagews

I could not help but ponder why the dentate couter was paired exclusively with besagews. I cannot think of a functional reason they would operate together in any superior way to any other couter shape. Doubly so since besagews are found on other styles and shapes, both the round and the lobed style of couter. Of the nineteen examples only a single example deviated from the trend; Johes de Boys who wears a style of arm harness inconsistent with the rest of English arm harnesses. Examples displaying harnesses without besagews only represent a segment in history starting at 1400 (and before, but how far is outside the scope of this article) and decline into obscurity by 1410, only showing up a few times before the 1420 end of my research timeline. On the other end of the spectrum, the use of besagews in this timeline begins at about 1410 and becomes popular over time until it is almost the exclusive method (among the small sample size of effigies I found attractive) by 1420.

Pure intellectual curiosity led me to expand my research, as I did not want to make conclusions about the progression of English shoulder defense from a small sample size of fifty armors chosen at whim. When I compared how many armors had besagews in 1420 compared to 1410 or 1400 using only my original fifty I was also not putting those numbers in perspective, about 20 available effigies were present from 1420, but only 11 available from 1410. I went back through Effigies and Brasses and looked at all available English martial effigies from 1400 to 1420 (136 total) and tallied them based on their use of besagew shoulder defense as a percentage of the total effigies available for that year. I have also declined to “judge” in situations where the effigy is indecipherable, many are so damaged it is impossible to tell how the shoulder was defended, or the photography is ill-suited to a concrete decision.

What I found is, armors without besagews do not appear in effigies and brasses until 1410, where the use of besegews gains instantaneous parity with its competitor. From 1410 on, the use of besegews dominates and does not go below fifty percent of available, identifiable examples. While this does not include any hard data points from illumination or artwork, the findings are not inconsistent with the trends I have observed in those mediums and reflects Dr. Capwell’s research. Dentate couters show up during a time when English harnesses were in transition and besagews appear to have been taking over as the majority choice for armpit defense. If dentate couters were a progressive style I suspect men of a more progressive persuasion chose them and as such tended toward a progressive form of armpit defense as well. If dentate couters were to have shown up earlier, they may have appeared on harnesses without besegews. This is, of course, pure speculation. Even though both armor with besagews and without appears with each other during the time dentate couters show up on the timeline, I reaffirm my original stance to use besagews on my armor to comport with and be consistent with what is available in the historical record.

Moving On: Joint Nuance

Elbow

The detail on how the lower canon closes is rare on these effigies, however, it appears they are closed, a typical feature for the time. Sir Robert Suckling and Robert de Tye’s harnesses show a seam running down the outside of the arm, another feature consistent with most lower arm harnesses of this era, hinging on the outside and fastening on the inside. I intend to have my vambrace function in this manner. As for the elbow, all the harnesses display some articulation of the elbow using several smaller lames extending from the elbow cop to join the vambrace and rerebrace above and below the joint. Except for the Kelsey Knight, two lames appears to be the standard across all these armors and will be the number of lames I will request on the exterior of the articulation. Except for Lord Thomas de Camoys, all these illustrations are of the men in a reverent position and the interior of their elbows is not visible. In de Camoy’s effigy, his right arm is extended outward. Not only does de Camoy’s arm harness include two lames top and bottom, but it shows no internal articulation and the ending of the upper and lower canon at the elbow to allow the elbow to flex; consistent with armor technology and style of the time and region. It also shows how the couter wraps all the way and extends on the outside of the elbow, functioning as a smaller ‘internal couter,’ a design feature common to English arm harness of the time. My arm harness will not include any internal articulation at the elbow joint but will include the internal couter feature, squared off, and not round in the fashion of Lord Thomas de Camoys.

Shoulder

The upper canon and rerebrace of English armor, based on the examples, have more variation as to their construction than the lower canon and vambrace area. In type one, the upper arm is covered in larger, but fewer, shoulder plates and overlapping or segmented pper arm defense. In type two, the upper arm is covered in one single large piece and many smaller lames cover the shoulder. Both styles appear throughout the observed timeline.

Type 1

What I am calling, for this narrow analysis, as type one upper arm defense comes up from the elbow and goes to about mid-bicep covering the plate above it. The second plate goes up from this point and either on top of or under the lames at the deltoid. Except for one, there appear to be three lames on the shoulder. These images are unclear as to whether they are cased or not and could be interpreted both ways. They show no buckles. I am also unclear as to how these various arm plates interact with each other, or how they are assembled.

Type 2

The other primary style appears to be a solid piece covering the entirety of the upper arm from the elbow to the shoulder assembly. This second style appears more frequent not just among my narrow selection, but is more representative of the standard English style arm harness construction. The typical shoulder defense for English armors of the early 1400s consisted of multiple lames above a solid closed rerebrace, two to four lames representing the average including the (sometimes) larger top ‘spaulder’ piece. I was surprised to observe how the shoulder design of many of the arm assemblies with dentate couters deviates from the norm for English arm harness. Of the nineteen arm harnesses with this couter style mentioned above, excluding Johes de Boys, fifteen had representations on Effigies and Brasses which were of sufficient quality to count the shoulder lames (the eight already referenced in this article, plus Matthew Swetenham Esquire, Sir John Hadresham, John Hervey, Sir John Routh, Sir William Calthorpe, Sir Arnold Savage, and Lord Bartholomew Bourchier.) Of these representations nearly half (seven of the fifteen) of them have a shoulder architecture of five or more lames to include any shaped ‘spaulder’ type lames or projecting ‘demi-spaulder’ type plate (one has five, one has six, three have seven and two have nine) compared to eight of the fifteen which have three or four lames, spaulders, demi-spaulder type plates over the shoulder (split half and half between three and four.)

Conclusions

For my arms, my harness represents the time around the battle of Agincourt and I intend to have the upper arm constructed in type two style with a higher than average number of lames than is customarily seen on English arm harnesses. I find the type two style arm harness with the tall, solid rerebrace more visually appealing and am intrigued by the disproportionate preference for a multitude of smaller lames over the shoulder on harnesses with dentate couters. It also creates aesthetic consistency in design, wherein the fluting on the dentate couters creates a visual of a multitude of small lines pairing with the actual multitude of small lines with multiple shoulder lames. It also matches the series of lines created by the cuff of the articulated gauntlets I want to commission later. Quintessentially English in style, they act as a visual shorthand to display the intended culture and time-frame of my harness. To summarize, from top to bottom, based on this research I will be commissioning an arm harness which will have:

  • Solid construction from the top of the shoulder to the wrist
  • Seven shoulder lames in the spaulder area, including one demi-rerebrace
  • A closed rerebrace covering the entirety of the upper arm
  • Round Besagews
  • English style couters which extend out on both sides of the elbow
  • The primary, inside elbow, fan of the couter will have the dentate, fluted design
  • The secondary, outside the elbow, fan of the couter will be squared off and not rounded
  • An elbow which articulates with two lames above and below the couter
  • Closed vambraces
  • Internally riveted hardware for hinges, straps, and buckles*

*This final detail comes from Armour of the English Knight 1400 – 1450 and is not something drawings and pictures of effigies and brasses on the website show in a reliable way. In his study of the effigies up close he illustrates and explains at multiple points how on the arms the hinge plates were internal and the straps for buckling closed the upper and lower cannons were passed through slots in the plate and riveted to the inside of the rerebrace and vambrace. Such a small detail is easily missed when simply browsing images online. Which reaffirms my earlier caution against using online images to create functional pieces of armor without collaborating with skilled armorers and researchers who have had access to the primary source material.

Though cost is a major factor, in the interest of continuity I have elected to omit decoration on the arms at this time, such as gilding the couter or applying latten to the arms. In the historical record, we tend to see suits ornamented in their entirety or left plain. Since the rest of the armor I own is unadorned it would be most appropriate either to commission an entire suit suitably ornamented in a complete way (which I cannot afford) or forego ornamentation. Perhaps in the future, as an upgrade, once the harness is functionally complete and has all the pieces made in the manner I want all those pieces can be ornamented uniformly. This is also why I have not evaluated ornamentation in this research process despite its appearance in many of the references used.

As an aside, these arms will be worn over mail to protect the armpit and the inside of the elbow in English tradition. It is my hope by detailing this process in such detail it will provide others with sufficient guidance to feel confident in designing an accurate and authentic harness of their own and serve as a template for those intrepid harness folks who strive for an internally coherent and consistent suit corresponding with the period portrayed.

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