Armour Research Society Conference; Chicago 2005

Report by Shane Smith
ARMA Virginia Beach, VA
ARS Member

This gathering of some of the world's finest minds in the field of arms and armour collecting and restoration was truly a first of its kind. I would almost say “once in a lifetime” if I weren’t hoping so firmly that that will not be the case. The depth and breadth of collective knowledge brought to the table by the various speakers is unprecedented in my experience and the extreme efforts put forth by the Armour Research Society and its Board of Directors is both highly commendable and worthy in every respect. The excitement in the room before the event began in earnest was palpable and anticipation was high. We weren’t let down in the least by the organizational efforts of ARS President Brian Rainey and Vice President Douglas Strong. It is obvious to me that a great deal of passion for the subject matter was the driving force behind their effort to bring this all-star cast of learned gentlemen together for the benefit of all. When we were all finally seated and able to settle in, Douglas gave the opening remarks and welcomed both we ARS members and visiting guests warmly and set the stage for the speakers to follow…

Walter Karcheski of the Frazier Historical Arms Museum; “The good, the bad and the ugly in collecting”

Karcheski presented on the history of Western European armour collection and provided the modern day collector with much needed and valuable insight into the various perils and pitfalls into which an unwary purchaser may stumble. From the earliest known origins of active collecting for collecting's sake of authentic medieval armours in the 15th century, the speaker led us all on a path of discovery that led us through the Tower of London, where once upon a time unknowing conservators “cleaned” armours with brick dust paste, compromising the historical value of many period pieces, through the uncaring profiteers in the 19th century peddling outright fakes as authentic, and to the 20th century where men such as Ernst Shmidt and his fellow German armourers made fairly convincing reproduction armours into the 1930’s to feed rising Nazi Germany’s national pride in its knightly past.

ARS-002.jpg (189580 bytes)All of the above armours have a place in history certainly, but the big question is how does the collector determine exactly what he’s looking at and considering purchasing and/or displaying? Karcheski provided much needed answers to that question. He discussed the various problems caused by past collectors and sellers haphazardly mixing and matching components from separate armours of sometimes different vintages and even nationalities to make a full harness to increase marketability of their wares. He spoke of the restoration of period armours by the replacing of missing bits with modern reproduction pieces, yet passed off as “all original” to the unknowing. More frightening yet is his assertion that many a museum currently still unknowingly displays many such pieces as original. Indeed, he stressed that metallurgical evidence is often the only way to be relatively sure of the pre-modern status of many pieces as archaic bloomery steel is noticeably at odds with modern product. Even then, such does not prove that a piece remains in its original configuration.

Mr. Karcheski pointed out that the supply of original period harness is fairly limited and indeed, asserted that any full harness found outside the displays of a major museum is almost certainly a composite of various period pieces or perhaps even fakes. In fact, fewer than a dozen complete 15th century harnesses are known to exist worldwide.

Walter expressed concern that as time passes, the ability of future collectors to distinguish between original pieces and fakes may diminish as we move ever further from the age of its use. To help us avoid this, he offered the following items for consideration to the modern collector:

  1. Does the piece seem useful and functional for the purpose for which it was intended?
  2. What inspired its form culturally or martially? Is it fanciful in appearance or execution?
  3. How does it compare to known originals of the same pattern and vintage?
  4. Are any occurring decorations or definable patterns consistent?
  5. Is the metal old or reworked? It isn’t cast is it?
  6. Is the degree of patination right for such a piece with an appropriate history?

Even with the above insights, Mr Karcheski disclosed that many fakes are discovered only by mistake by curators, conservators, etc. or the maker discloses his work out of pride for having “fooled the experts”. If one could sum up the main idea of informative speech given, perhaps the operative thing to take away is simply “buyer beware”…at least that’s what I took away along with five pages of invaluable notes.

Tobias Capwell Phd., of the Glasgow Museums; “The real fighting stuff!”

Toby delivered an insightful and very interesting presentation on the expansive armour collection in his care at Glasgow Museums in Scotland. The armour collection is largely made up of pieces collected by the Scottish shipbuilder Robert Lyons Scott and bequeathed to Glasgow upon his death in 1939. Scott prided himself upon collecting working armours that had seen use and had a bit of “character” about them, as opposed to some of the more garish parade and ceremonial harnesses that some prefer. As a practitioner and researcher of period armoured combat that spends a great deal of time in harness myself, I can fully appreciate this focus on practicality. The collection contains a number of fine 15th century pieces, from the mundane to the unique.

ARS-023.jpg (163782 bytes)The armour most often associated with Glasgow Museums is the “Avant” armour circa 1440. This piece is a gorgeous harness and Toby was kind enough to share a bit of its history with us. The dating is achieved by considering the style of the left gardbrace (the right reinforce is missing), which is fairly early, and a number of other stylistic, constructional, and documentary clues. The original left gauntlet was lost long before the armour left its original home at Churburg Castle in Northern Italy. In 1928 a reproduction, a mirror of the right, was made to replace it and so complete the armour. . This addition draws some level of debate among scholars as some feel that the left gauntlet should not be articulated at the wrist as is the right. During the question and answer period following the presentation, I had the opportunity to share my observations on this issue as a martial artist working intently with the Italian armoured fencing methods of the early 15th century as typified by Fiore de Liberi’s work “Flos Duelatorum” circa 1409-1410. It is my experience that the techniques described in the period Italian source-texts on foot combat in armour are very much more readily performed with a well articulated wrist at the left and I shared this thought with the group and followed by asking if curators look to practitioners and the period source-texts on armoured combat to aid them in filling in the gaps when a determination such as the likely original configuration of a now missing part arises in their collections. Tobias answered that such considerations were valid and that it is something that should be looked into more fully in order to ensure a fuller understanding of the piece's probable form and function when in service.

Only later in an informal discussion with Tobias did I learn that he is an avid jouster… so he’s spent his time in harness and this is a definite asset for a man in his position in my opinion. Tobias has a great collection there in Scotland it seems… How good is it? Good enough that I’m going to make a special trip there this December to see for myself from the point of view of a guy, like Scott and Capwell, who appreciates “The Real Working Stuff”!

Alan Williams PhD, of the University of Reading; “Renaissance Milan - Capitalism and the metallurgy of armour”

Dr. Williams spoke on the rise of the Milanese armour trade and the technological innovations in metallurgy that made the peculiarly Western European penchant for large-plate armours a possibility. He fascinated the audience with a discussion of early civilizations that went straight from the stone age to the iron-age, as copper and bronze were much less common in ores in many places in Europe. That was a revelation for me and was quite at odds with what is generally accepted and taught as “common knowledge”. This wasn’t to be the last eye-opener of the speech however. Williams spoke of the probable recycling of the iron Roman armours in the former empire into such things as cooking pots, and even pointed to one piece known as the Coppergate Helm, which he argues is probably made of five recycled lorica segmentata lames of equal size. His reasoning in this instance is sound, as there are few other explanations that make sense in light of the seeming absurdity of building a helm in this manner if you had new plate to work with. I will point out that I have also personally examined a helm in the British Museum that had been modified with the addition of a few chains to make a cooking pot, apparently in period.

He also helped us understand that the early method of making helms from several pieces riveted together was largely a reality of the early bloomeries (iron extraction furnaces) only being capable of turning out solid lumps of iron of about 1 pound. As you need at least double the weight of the item you are crafting in iron, it is clear to see that technology simply left no other choices for many years until the bloomeries became much more efficient through increased size and innovation.

ARS-027.jpg (139757 bytes)Bloomeries of such size required capital investment, and this was one of the mechanisms that drove Milan to prominence in the field. It was likewise learned that as carbon content is increased, slag inclusions are greatly reduced, creating a substantially stronger and less brittle armour. Heat treatment also became a reality, and while much armour in period remained of relatively soft iron (Henry VIII armoured his own men in iron , not steel according to Doctor Williams), good heat treated pieces were being turned out at this time and plate became much more affordable. Indeed, the cost of plate in 1437 was about 4.3 guilders as opposed to a maille shirt at 4.6 guilders in 1388.

By the 1600s, large blast furnaces were in use and the inclusion of carbon to create steel was more well understood and controllable. Eventually as furnaces grew ever larger and carbon content increased, the melting point of the iron was finally reached and cast iron became a reality, and while cast iron is useless for armour, it could be used to cast cannon. Dr. Williams maintains that the quality of German steel never equaled the Milanese product in period and for that reason, Milanese armour was superior in protective quality.

All in all, a vast amount of good information was presented and I have almost a half-dozen pages of notes to digest. Great, thought provoking stuff!

David Edge B.A., Dip, Cons., of the Wallace Collection in London; “Preservation and conservation”

David Edge presented a very riveting and informative talk on the preservation and conservation of period pieces based upon his years maintaining and displaying the treasures held by the Wallace Collection, as originally held by Sir Richard Wallace circa 1890. The amount of valuable hands-on experience Mr. Edge has in this field of research and application makes him perhaps uniquely qualified to help modern collectors and enthusiasts understand what to do, but just as importantly, based on past “conservation” mistakes of others as observed by himself, he was able to tell us just what “not” to do.

ARS-006.jpg (177853 bytes)First of all, he made it frightfully clear that improper attempts at conservation can be extremely dangerous to both the nature of the piece in question and the health of the conservator. It drew much laughter from the gathered listeners when David would good-naturedly mention of one compound after another…We used “X” to remove “Y” from armours for years…until it was found to be highly volatile and carcinogenic!!!…It seems though that at this point, “White Spirits” is the cleaner of choice. The best part? It has yet to be shown to be highly volatile and carcinogenic!

Kidding aside, Mr. Edge shared a wealth of information as well as cautionary tales and examples. He showed us a beautifully engraved ivory archer’s bracer circa 1608 that someone had hopelessly stained via a sloppy “oiling” job on the rivets, along with a French or maybe Dutch iron shield circa 1600 which was backed with vegetable tanned leather that was being steadily devoured by a bacterial infestation known as “Red Rot”. He also expressed his dismay at the damage that improper and careless exhibit mounting can and has caused throughout the history of many pieces. Some of the insights passed along?

  1. Dust is mostly human skin(!) and acidic, so the control of such contaminants is a must.
  2. Silver is protected from tarnish by laquer after cleaning (Silver will still tarnish under wax).
  3. Armour was once cleaned with a mixture of Vaseline and three-in-one oil.
  4. Greases and oils can cause staining and a yellow laquer-like deposit as they age.
  5. Acetone will remove the yellow laquer-like deposits left by grease.
  6. Microcrystaline wax is used to preserve plate armours.
  7. White Spirits is used to clean armour.
  8. Parker Hale cold gun blue is okay to touch up minor scratches of patina.
  9. Always consider the ethical ramifications of a particular conservative act.
  10. Never polish items which exhibit a stable, if somewhat corroded surface. Wax them and be content!
  11. Benzene and White Spirits clean leather well… pat dry.
  12. Never replace anything unless absolutely necessary.
  13. Do replace strapping and other structural elements if doing so will preclude further damage.
  14. Modern polypropylene makes an excellent alternative to leather strapping for displays.

In all, David really provided the kind of authoritative look at this subject that only someone in his position can offer and his work with the Wallace Collection is something to be admired and commended. We all learned a lot from this one.

Jiri Hosek PhD, of the Institute of Archaeology CAS, Prague; “Contributions of Metallographic examinations of Bohemia”

Mr. Hosek spoke on the metallurgical properties of the weapons in use circa 14th-16th century in what is modern-day Czechoslovakia.

We were first shown slides of a 14th century longsword that under scientific examination demonstrated a considerably higher degree of hardening from the mid-point to the tip than it did from the midpoint to the shoulder. This sword was largely made of iron according to Hosek, and this pattern of hardening is not unduly uncommon in many period pieces as the tang is often left quite soft to add toughness and prevent its fracturing under the stress of parrying and reversing while maintaining a comparatively stiff business end. This stiffness from midpoint to tip was presumably done to allow the sword to retain its edge and bite into softer materials with authority. We were also shown a sword circa 16th century made of steel and a cut and thrust sword of the 16th century that was made of alternating low and high carbon steels. A rapier of low carbon steel was also discussed and it was shown to possess relatively low hardness under examination by a metallurgist. A soft, less than stiff blade is not what is generally sought in the realm of sharp and pointies (read "rapiers"). It would appear that even at this late date, the quality of an individual sword blade was likely to be fairly inconsistent as the technologies involved were not necessarily fully understood by all makers.

ARS-004.jpg (290085 bytes)Some of the more fascinating things presented were the form and metallurgical qualities of the Bohemian “war knives” that may have fulfilled the same role as the earlier Anglo-Saxon seax, as the similarities in form are too obvious to miss. The war knife was used as early as the 14th century but really gained in popularity in the 15th century. These war knives typically were either of machete or even butcher knife proportion and were single-edged as a matter of course. The edges were shown to be hardened under metallurgical examination while the spines, or backs of the blades, remained relatively soft. Many incorporate a side guard on a single side (somewhat messer-like in that respect as seen in the German tradition I thought), yet cross guards are not seen. Quality ran from quite good to atrocious in the sample reviewed, so then as now, you presumably got what you paid for. All in all, an interesting weapon that gets little mention but seemingly deserves much.

Hosek's speech covered so much fertile ground that space precludes a full accounting, yet we were shown examples and data ranging from tiny crossbow bolt tips of extreme hardness to large, and sometimes brittle, carriage guns (one with a removable and re-loadable breach!!), some of which had a tendency to rupture when fired in cold weather and were therefore initially “warmed up” by firing lighter loads until operating temperatures were reached.

One particular thing I thought exceptionally noteworthy was the data presented concerning several 14th century maille samples wherein some individual rings were made of two vastly different pieces of metal from the metallurgical point of view! Two different qualities of steel/iron in one maille ring is astounding to my mind. Why on earth would this be done commonly? I’m not sure but it is startling if the several samples discussed and examined could be taken to suggest a relative normalcy of this practice. This presentation was thought-provoking indeed.

Pierre Terjanian of the Philadelphia Museum of Art; “Armour making in Germany”

Terjanian spoke on the nature of the armour-making centers of Germany as well as its controlling structure circa 14th to 17th century. He spoke first of the largest of these centers, the big five of which included Nuremberg, Cologne, Innsbruck, Augsberg and Landshut. These big five weren’t alone however and quality armours were being crafted in Dresden, Ulm and Strasburg besides. Indeed, Terjanian argues that there was a very widespread tradition and active engagement in armour smithing all across Germany in this time.

ARS-016.jpg (179890 bytes)With such widely scattered production, one may expect many variations in quality and style to be seen from Germany. Pierre explained that this was not the case however, as the armourers were self regulating in the form of regulatory bodies known as “handicrafts” that were overseen by Master Armourers and fell under the umbrella of the guilds, yet maintained a degree of regulatory autonomy. The handicrafts made certain that all armourers under their care adhered strictly to common practices and thus the inherent quality and even the form of German armours in period was well preserved. In essence, peer pressure kept all of the various handicrafts on task. If an armourer began making sub-standard product or those beyond his certification, he was immediately ostracized by his peers and his workforce would leave as a matter of course to allow their own careers to move forward under a respected Master. Many such dishonorable Masters lived their days out in poverty still plying their trade in the countryside as far as possible from the reach or notice of the handicraft Masters.

The handicraft structure was interesting in that a Master had to prove mastery in each facet of harness making and would only be certified to make those types of pieces he was deemed qualified to create after he submitted his sample work to the Masters of the handicrafts. Thus, many Masters and the apprentices and journeymen in his shop may turn out only helms or maybe breastplates as their Masters certification would allow. We were all startled to hear that between 1496 and 1577 only 165 makers were granted certification under the handicrafts, and of those only 8 were entitled to turn out an entirely complete harness! For this reason, Terjanian says that the vast majority of German armours, even in original configuration, are almost certainly composites made of various components being crafted after a common form by various subcontracted Masters who each contributed their own specialty to the armour in question. Indeed in this time, in order to assure such consistency in the works, the importation and exportation of armour from the Country was expressly forbidden in many German armour-making centers.

All in all, Pierre offered a fascinating introduction to the arms making industry in medieval and renaissance Germany and when taken in contrast to the earlier speech on Milanese armour presented by Dr. Williams, much valuable insight into the similarities and differences between the rise and development of both traditions is possible.

Jeffrey Forgeng, PhD, of the Higgins Armoury Museum: “The cautionary tale of Paulus Hector Mair”

Doctor Forgeng presented on the commonality of the various German source-texts, specifically focusing on both those collected, and commissioned by 16th century martial arts enthusiast and apparent practioner Paulus Hector Mair, and discussed the interrelations and connections to be found between the earliest words of MS 1-33 through German Master Liethenhauer c. 1370 and forward. Jeffrey really tied all of the various German manuscripts together and demonstrated the existence and development of a cohesive German tradition of combat arts in startling clarity, and demonstrated the inherent consistency to be found among the content and application as realized in Mair’s work through reasoned argument and the presentation of considerable corroborating evidence from the source-texts themselves.

ARS-013.jpg (172086 bytes)Forgeng also introduced Mair the man to those present not already in the know… warts and all. Mair (circa 1517-1579) commissioned the writing of no less than three extensive manuscripts (1200 pages of beautifully illustrated plates each!) on the fighting arts of Western Europe and held no less than seven original works of previous Masters in his own collection and was an avid collector of period muskets and crossbows besides. He was truly a man intent on understanding and seemingly even recreating these combat methods (Jeffrey brought to light seeming misunderstandings of the MS I-33 on Mair’s part among Mair’s own sword and buckler plates that suggests that some application of the medieval works was perhaps lost by this time… at least to Paulus) and put his money where his heart was… not unlike many of we modern researchers in that sense maybe. Jeffrey also shared an exciting new piece of information: there is a high probability that a manuscript he has examined recently is an early rough-draft of Mair’s manual heretofore unknown as such. His evidence for this was most convincing, and I await further development on this point eagerly.

Now for the warts… As a public official in the employ of the Treasury, Mair came under suspicion of pilfering funds from the public coffers for his own, highly unauthorized uses (perhaps to fund his passionate collecting and commissioning of manuscripts?). He was ultimately hanged for this crime in 1579. The good news is that his life’s work survives and one of each of his three manuscripts currently reside in Vienna, Dresden and Munich. The fourth possible work mentioned above is as yet not fully proven. Dr. Forgeng is also currently working on a translation of all 1200 pages of one of Mair's manuscripts for publication and the boon that this will represent to the WMA community is beyond any adjective available to me. His previous work on I-33 is still being mined avidly by practitioner-researchers such as ARMA’s own Stewart Feil and Brian Hunt, to name the most notable that come to mind. ARMA also has several members working on translating portions of Mair's manuscripts for publication, which we expect will provide a great opportunity for cross-comparison with Forgeng's translation, one we can hardly await.

Dr. Forgeng’s speech was both engagingly delivered and insightfully reasoned . Whether it be his wielding of sword and buckler to illustrate a point, or his advocation of a holistic approach to understanding and interpreting the German source-texts (an approach we in ARMA have always taken as well), he definitely grabbed and kept everyone’s attention!

Oakeshotte Institute Display as presented by Christopher Poor and Craig Johnson

ARS-022.jpg (180897 bytes)The Oakeshotte viewing proper followed the conclusion of the speakers' presentations; however, Christopher Poor and Craig Johnson were kind enough to allow me to personally handle the various pieces earlier in the day and discuss their historical significance and the qualities of each of the beautiful swords brought courtesy of the Oakeshotte Institute for display in turn. As a Swordsman first and foremost, I took great pleasure in examining these treasures. From the wonderfully quick handling French single-hander with the beautiful hilt and interesting hollow ground risered blade circa 1450-1460, to the gorgeous and sinuous 17th century rapier that was no less deadly-feeling in the hand, the quality and workmanlike feel of these pieces was not to be missed by anyone with even a mild attraction to period weaponry, much less a hopelessly passionate Swordsman such as myself and my fellow ARMA members.

The great value of the Oakeshotte Institute as I see it lies in their willingness to allow those with a sincere interest in the martial heritage of Western Europe to literally get their hands on a piece of that history, be it through hands-on examination of the weapons and armours themselves, or thumbing through the written works of its namesake, Mr. Ewart Oakeshotte whose own passion drove him to collect and catalog the many forms and patterns of the sword. In fact, it is he who originated the standard nomenclature used by modern collectors to identify the various blade and hilt types. If this were his only contribution, his place in history is assured, yet his legacy lives on with the Oakeshotte Institute and the efforts of Christopher and Craig to bring his life’s work to the forefront through educational displays abroad, and this will continue in the the new Oakeshotte Institute Museum which is planned once a suitable location and funds become available.

ARS-017.jpg (158160 bytes)We also discussed the needs of modern day practitioners concerning quality replicas, and it was a pleasure for me to hear that Craig at the least is a knowledgable fellow on the German tradition of longsword combat . This revelation came about during my handling and commenting on a very manly 15th century German longsword with particularly nice figuring of the pommel and cross guard accompanying a heavy-duty, full-length risered tapering blade that had a nice nose-heavy-ish chopper feel about it due to the blade being of substantial width from shoulder to well into the weak of the blade. We discussed how such a weapon may be just what’s called for to set aside another blade in the application of the nearly single-time master cuts of the German tradition (In period, this piece may have been a bit tough to twitch a flurry of zwerchauen with though) and it was a treat to hear that degree of martial understanding from a maker of replicas or a caretaker of a very impressive arms collection.

Craig had a replica of the period rapier discussed earlier made by Arms and Armour on hand for direct comparison and while it wasn’t a perfect match in feel or form (and I myself will readily concede that I am more of a medieval cut and thrust researcher and practitioner), it felt pretty darn close and the blade seemed quite stiff. A very nice effort it seems. I am now anxious to get my hands on Arms and Armour’s replica of that lovely, slightly nose-heavy German longsword.

Christopher Poor and Craig Johnson were definitely top-notch guys as representatives of the Oakeshott Institute and it seemed to me that with them at the helm, the Oakeshotte Collection has a bright future and is certainly in capable hands. Thanks for the hospitality gentlemen!

In closing, let me simply say that this was a wonderful opportunity to meet and learn from some of the most influential arms and armour collectors and caretakers to be found. I think it was very worthwhile that we practitioners and our thoughts and input on martial practicality were welcomed by these researchers as valid sources of information to further everyone’s understanding of Medieval/Renaissance arms and armours and the manner of using them in period. This concept of a holistic approach to understanding is what makes the participation of the practitioners of period fighting methods within the worldwide armour collecting community a must in my opinion. Simply put, once collectors and restorers have access to skilled men with first-hand knowledge of how the man and his armour interacts when put to use in authentic historical combat methods, they have one more valuable source of data and experience to draw from when a piece of armour throws them a loop in the form of an unknown characteristic. Is this characteristic an original job that makes life easier for the fighting man or is it a 19th century add-on that was done simply to appeal to the warped fashion sense of some incompetent "restorer"? Only through studious comparison of the piece in question with other pieces of similar style and vintage, along with pictorial evidence combined with input from hands-on experimentation in the fighting arts for which such armours were originally designed, does a more accurate picture emerge. For this reason, I maintain that the fields of study represented by both collectors and practitioners are not two separate endeavors, but rather two wings of the same bird and imminently complementary of one-another. This “New Renaissance” in vintage arms and armour is very much in its infancy and much hard work remains yet to be done. I call on martial artists and collectors alike to work together closely to the benefit of both fields. Only by working together can we achieve maximum results and find the answers we’re all after as researchers of the Western European military heritage.


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