The Color of Armor
The ever present image of the knight in popular imagination is the mounted warrior in shining armor. If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you may know that I’m fond of taking popular misconceptions of the middle ages and dashing them to the ground, however you can rest assured that this particular trope isn’t inaccurate. Not entirely.
But what color was armor? We certainly have innumerable artifacts
(Milan, ca. 1400, KHM)
and period depictions of fighting men wearing brilliant polished steel,
(France, 1350-1355, Works of Guillaume de Machaut)
more than enough to say for certain that people in the middle ages did wear polished steel on the field of battle, however this wasn’t the only color represented.
Delving into the manuscripts and looking at extant pieces, we see a wealth of colors available, from bluing
(Augsburg, before 1560, KHM)
(Milan, 1495, KHM)
(Dutch, 1490-1495, KHM)
In manuscripts, russeting
(France, 1350, Roman de la Rose)
(Vienna, 1448, Bibelparaphrase)
seem to be particularly prevalent.
However, one must be cautious when dealing with manuscripts. In particular, there was a convention in illuminated manuscripts of using silver leaf to make metallic weapons pop and shine brightly. Given time however, this silver will tarnish, and turn black, giving the appearance of black armor to what was originally meant to be bright and shiny, as illustrated below.
(France, 1350-1360, Roman de la Rose)
It is often easy to distinguish if this is the case if the weapons in the scene also appear black, or if the black armor appears smudged and blurry, both as in the above image.
Gilding is another particularly popular style of armor decoration, most often used as a form of accent to white or black armor in the middle ages.
(Hagenau, 1443-1446, Parzival)
Dr. Tobias Capwell gives us an excellent example of this in the form of a reproduction with his black harness,
and we see gilding to the extreme in the Renaissance.
(Arbois, 1508, KHM)
The final common option was painting. Less expensive than the others above, this was likely an option for poorer soldiers who wanted to look fancy, and give their armor a measure of protection from the weather. There are numerous extant pieces of painted armor in various musea, such as these Sallets,
(German or Austrian, 1505-1510, Philadelphia Museum of Art)
(Germany, 1490-1510, Royal Armouries)
(German or Austrian, 1470-1490, Philadelphia Museum of Art)
and this breastplate and helmet for the Gioco del Ponte.
(Italy, 17th century, The Met)
The final point to consider is how much extant armor there is that may have been blued or gilt when it was made, but is no longer. Bluing and gilding will fade with time,
(Germany, early 16th century, Swedish Royal Armouries)
and many pieces were polished clean in the name of “conservation” by their housing institutions.
I hope this has been entertaining and informative. Cheers!