Arms and Armour in Renaissance Europe
- by Dirk H. Breiding (Department of Arms and Armor, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Although arms and armour are most commonly associated with warfare, both were used in other contexts, including hunting, tournaments, and as parade costume.
For warfare, arms and armour must, above all, be practical, affording the utmost protection and functionality without impairing body movement because of excess weight or inflexible material. Even such practical equipment, however, was often decorated, care being taken that the decoration would not impede its function.
Early forms of the tournament were little different from military exercises, with combatants using the same equipment that they would have used in warfare. The first objects specifically for use in tournaments - such as extra plates for the protection of the throat and hands, or blunted lance heads - were introduced around 1300.
During the late fourteenth century, equipment such as the shield and Great Helm were superceded on the battlefield by more sophisticated gear, but continued to be used in tournaments. This development ultimately led to the creation of specialized armour designed exclusively for certain types of tournament.
Also important was the invention of the garniture, a basic suit of armour that, through the addition of further pieces and plates, could be adapted for various purposes both on the battlefield and in different types of tournament. The idea of highly specialized tournament armour lives on in some of today’s sports equipment.
The symbolic value of arms and armour was reflected in their use as display objects in tournaments, parades, and triumphal entries, and as funerary achievements (for instance, a grouping of weapons and armour hung over a knight’s tomb). During the Renaissance, some of the most sumptuous swords, maces, firearms, shields, and armour were made specifically for ceremonial purposes.
Such armour was sometimes referred to as "armour all’antica" or “alla romana.” These objects were intended to imitate arms and armour of the style used by the heroes of classical antiquity and medieval chivalry. Worn or carried in processions or at court, they were designed to bestow upon the wearer the glory and fame, virtues and achievements of those antique military leaders, who Renaissance princes and commanders sought to emulate.
Since these accoutrements were not intended to face the risk of damage or loss in battle, many of the functional and protective qualities of “normal” arms and armour - lightness, practicality, and the “glancing surface” - had been abandoned in favor of theatrical and symbolical effect.
Finally, mention must also be made of armour for horses and dogs. Whereas horses could be protected by or adorned with armour for most of the above occasions, armour for dogs was rare and only used - if at all - for hunting and warfare.
- German Hand-and-half sword
- Rapier of Prince-Elector Christian II of Saxony
- Hunting Sword with ivory grip attributed to Joseph Deutschmann
- Pages from a German Tournament book