The importance of the craft of the armourer in the Middle Ages can hardly be overestimated, for it is, to a large extent, to the excellence of defensive armour and weapons that we owe much of the development of art and craftsmanship all over Europe. The reason for this somewhat sweeping statement is to be found in the fact that up to the sixteenth century the individual and the personal factor were of supreme importance in war, and it was the individual whose needs the armourer studied. In the days when military organization was in its infancy, and the leader was endowed by his followers with almost supernatural qualities, the battle was often won by the prowess of the commander, or lost by his death or disablement. It would be tedious to quote more than a few instances of this importance of the individual in war, but the following are typical of the spirit which pervaded the medieval army.
At the battle of Hastings, when William was supposed to have been killed he rallied his followers by lifting his helmet and riding through the host crying, “I am here and by God’s grace I shall conquer!” The success of Joan of Arc need hardly be mentioned, as it is an obvious example of the change which could be effected in the spirit of an army by a popular leader. This importance of the individual was realized by the leaders themselves, and, as a safeguard, it was often the custom to dress one or more knights like the sovereign or commander to draw off the attack. At Bosworth field Richmond had more than one knight who personated him; Shakespeare gives the number as five, for Richard says, “There be six Richmonds in the field; five have I slain instead of him.”
When the importance of the leader is realized it will be obvious that the craft of the man who protected him in battle was of the utmost importance to the State; and when once this is admitted, we may fairly consider that, in an age of ceaseless wars and private raids, the importance of all the other applied arts which followed in the train of a victorious leader depended to a very great extent on the protection afforded him by his armourer.
It would be indeed superfluous to dwell upon the artistic influences which may be traced directly to the military operations of the Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, and at a later date the Northern tribes of Europe, for every writer on the subject bases his opinions upon this foundation. In more modern periods the conquest of Spain by the Moors introduced a type of design which has never been wholly eradicated from Spanish Art, and in our own country the Norman Conquest gave us a dignified strength of architecture which would never have been established as a national phase of art if the victory had been to Harold and the English. The improvements in the equipment and military organization of the foot-soldier in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries necessitated a more complete style of defensive armour for the mounted man, and the elaborate leg armour of plate may be directly traced to the improvement in the weapons of the former. As is the case at the present day in the navy, the race between weapon and defence was ceaseless, each improvement of the one being met by a corresponding improvement in the other, till the perfection of the firearm ruled any form of defence out of the competition. More peaceful influences were at work, however, due to the interchange of visits between European princes; and German and Italian fashions of armour, as well as of the other applied arts, competed with each other all over Europe, though their adoption may generally be traced to a ruler of note like Maximilian or Charles V.
So without undue exaggeration we may fairly claim for the craft of the armourer a foremost place as one of the chief influences in the evolution of modern art and, as such, an important factor in the development of all the arts which follow in the train of conquest.
There are certain essential rules which must be observed in the practice of every craft; but in most cases only one or two are necessary for the production of good work, because of the limitations either of the craft or of the needs of those for whom it is practised. It would be out of place to go through the various applied arts and to consider the rules which guide them; but, on examination of these rules as they apply to the craft of the armourer, it will be seen how each and all are essential for the production of satisfactory work.
The rules are these:
2. Convenience in use.
3. Recognition of material.
4. Soundness of constructional methods.
5. Subservience of decoration to the preceding rules.
It may be advantageous to examine these rules one by one and see how they are observed to the full in the best specimens of armour and how their neglect produced inferior work. To continue, please download this free book.