Medieval Arms and Armour: a Sourcebook

To say it was strange to find myself carefully picking my way over a forest of sharp spurs gripping a medieval helmet would be somewhat of an understatement. I was not dreaming myself to be the knight errant of some medieval romance. I was, in fact, in a large glass display case at the Royal Armouries in Leeds. As part of a doctoral studentship I was undertaking an internship at the museum that holds the UK’s national collection of arms and armour. To my great delight this placement soon developed into a full-blown apprenticeship under the tutelage of the Senior Curator of Armour. Clambering into cases to retrieve objects was one of the many fantastic tasks allotted to me. It was whilst undertaking such activities that my curiosity would be piqued. Why was this piece of armour called this? Why did that weapon have such an odd name? What was the evidence for the appearance and use of this one type of helmet rather than that one? My ever-patient superiors would generously answer their novice’s relentless barrage of questions. Nevertheless, there were times when I received such curt replies as: “I don’t know,” “No one is certain,” and, with increasing frequency, “Why don’t you find out for yourself?!” A gauntlet thrown down in such a manner had to be taken up. Thus I found myself consulting one historical glossary here or a specialist reference book there and repeatedly asking myself and others this one same question: why was there no one place that I could turn to to find the answers?

It was this combination of curiosity and frustration that proved to be the driving force behind producing this sourcebook. Decades of absorbing information orally, chasing down footnotes, squirreling away notes and references, and the ruthless plundering of these from the works of scholars past, means that I have amassed a veritable treasure trove of primary sources. Being the pedantic Doubting Thomas that I am, I was not content to rely on the transcriptions and translations of others when it came to original documents. Whenever and wherever I could, I made my own. My hope is that the sourcebook will become a go-to for anyone with a passion for all things medieval such as scholars, museum professionals, and living history practitioners who find themself scratching their heads over some enigmatic term or looking for solid evidence for the introduction of a particular body defence.    

By presenting these original primary sources such as inventories, wills, treatises, and (of course) material culture, the inquisitive will not have to rely on my interpretation alone. Indeed, from my ceaseless badgering of experienced colleagues it soon became evident that building up one’s own knowledge is as important, in fact much more so, than relying on that of others. I readily admit that many of my own interpretations will be demonstrated to be misconstrued or clearly shown to be plain wrong by the future research of others. An armourer to kings Henry IV and V – John Hill – wrote his treatise on arming for single combat ‘vnder supportacion and fauour of alle the Reders to correcte adde and amenuse where nede is’. I likewise have done the same. The sources are presented as close to their original form as possible in order that they can be better interrogated.

It heartens me to know that when future apprentices find themselves navigating a dangerous forest of sharp spurs with an armoury of questions ready to be deployed, they can be safe in the knowledge that their curious minds can turn to this sourcebook (and the subsequent volumes) to find many of the answers that had so often eluded me.  

RALPH MOFFAT has the great privilege to be Curator of European Arms and Armour at Glasgow Museums.

Medieval Arms and Armour: a Sourcebook. Volume I: The Fourteenth Century
Ralph Moffat
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