Lamellar armour – a suit of metal plates thonged together, giving a similar appearance to roofing tiles (viewed from upside down) - is widely regarded as an alternative to maille body armour.
There is no evidence for lamellar armour in western Europe after the seventh century. Lamellar armour was used by the steppe tribes of Russia, Siberia and Central Asia, and (through their influence) the Byzantine empire.
Lamellar armour was adopted by the elites of the Rus principalities in the later tenth and eleventh centuries, as they increasingly took on the fashions and military traditions of the powerful steppe tribes on their borders (notably the Khazar khaganate).
Evidence of lamellar armour in early medieval Europe
An excellent catalogue of examples is available thanks to Jennifer Baker of the New Varangian Guard.
Anyone interested in lamellar armour should read Timothy Dawson's 'Armour Never Wearies': Scale and Lamellar Armour in the West, from the the Bronze Age to the 19th Century (History Press, 2013).
- Lamellar and scale armours were used across Europe and Asia through the Classical and Late Antique periods (1st-7th centuries). They were used by Hunnic and Avar cavalry elites, and in turn influenced Byzantine, Sassanid Persian and Arab military equipment. Examples are found in sixth-century Frankia and the seventh-century Vendel and Valsgarde burials in Sweden.
- Scale armour was widely used under the Roman empire. Scale armour was widely used through the 'middle Byzantine period' (c.888-1204), when frequent depictions of warrior-saints show that earlier varieties of scale armour continued unchanged.
- Lamellar was used by Byzantine heavy cavalry (though limited to the heaviest-armoured elites kataphraktoi, even during the tenth-century revival).
- Lamellar was used by steppe tribes such as the Khazar khaganate, and the Turkic warrior-elites who came to dominate the Islamic states of Syria in the eleventh century. There is a common tradition of steppe lamellar across Siberia, central Asia and into China.
- A number of lamellar plates were found in a the "garrison" at Birka, Sweden, dated to c.900-950. A re-examination and study of lames is discussed by Niklas Stjerna in 'Steppe nomadic armour from Birka', Fornvannien 99 (2004). Stjerna concludes that the style of the armour is wholly in line with Turkic steppe models, with parallels to depictions from East Turkestan; the lacing system is similar to a burial from Balyk-Sook, Altai, dated c.700-1000. A complete suit of lamellar has been found on Gotland, in the Baltic.
- There is considerable scholarly debate over the use of scale armour in the ninth-century Frankish world. Simon Coupland's article | 'Carolingian Arms and Armor in the Ninth Century' (Viator 21, 1990) provides one perspective, while Dawson's 'Armour Never Wearies' takes a differing view. The case in favour rests on artistic depictions, which closely copy earlier Byzantine artistic traditions; many (eg the Stuttgart Psalter, c.830) show accurate and life-like scale armour. There is no definitive archaeological or linguistic evidence. Given the strong continuity of late Roman traditions in many parts of the Frankish world, it seems plausible that scale armour was used in the Carolingian world.
- A small metal plate from south-central France, tentatively dated to the 10th/11th century, has been speculatively reconstructed as part of scale armour or a coat of plates, though the interpretation is very contentions.
- There are depictions of Sicilo-Normans wearing lamellar in the late eleventh and twelfth century, under heavy Islamic cultural and military influence. This should be seen as an extension of the Byzantine and middle Eastern world and does not provide useful evidence for western Europe.
- In the later medieval period (13th-14th centuries), scale armour was widely used among the Rus. Lamellar appears to have been much less common.
There is no evidence for lamellar armour in western Europe after the seventh century.
Significantly, western Europe had plenty of opportunity to get to know the technology behind lamellar armour (over several centuries, including through the crusades) and never adopted it. The majority of depictions of warriors from western Europe show them either unarmoured or wearing mail shirts – though artists’ attempts to represent ring-mail can be rather stylised and open to other interpretation. A number of depictions, mainly from Ottonian Germany, show forms of armour matching that used by the Byzantine empire. This appears to be more than simply the artistic style consciously imitating Byzantine art; scale armour seems to have been used in the Carolingian world. Whether this reflects parallel survival of an armour common in the Roman empire or deliberate reintroduction modelled on Byzantine practice is a matter for debate.
To address the question of "viking lamellar armour", it may be easiest to quote Timothy Dawson's 'Armour Never Wearies': Scale and Lamellar Armour in the West, from the the Bronze Age to the 19th Century (History Press, 2013), pp.93-4:
- "A certain coterie of re-enactors is very keenly committed to the notion that there was such a thing as 'Viking lamellar'; that is to say, lamellar that was made by, and used widely by, the Norse. The evidence by no means supports this idea. It is true that a small quantity of lamellar was found on the island of Birka in modern-day Sweden, which had been a major town prior to its destruction around 970. This find was, however, very scanty and fragmentary, and has been misrepresented. Insofar as more or less complete plates could be identified from Birka, there are five types of significantly differing sizes, shapes and hole patterns. Only three are actually lames. The other two are clearly scales rather than lames, contrary to Thordeman's classification. While substantially differing plate forms can very occasionally be found in a single corselet, it is more likely that the three types of lamellar plates were from disparate armours. The total quantity, even if one makes the rash assumption that every fragment represents an entire plate, irrespective of plate type, is not sufficient to make even half a basic chest-plate. The pieces were found in the remains of a burned building which the archaeologists dubbed 'the armoury', for no reason other than the presence of this armour. It cannot be assumed that such a portion would be left behind in the final cataclysm if it had been in anything like a functional state. It is far more likely that this was a collection of scrap metal for recycling. No other Scandinavian archaeology of the Viking era (793-1066) has yielded anything to corroborate this find."
Why was lamellar armour not used?
This deliberate rejection of an entire tradition of armouring appears puzzling. Lamellar seems easier to make and potentially cheaper (if leather lames were used). However, lamellar requires much more maintenance than chainmail – damage to the thonging needs to be repaired quickly or else whole sections of the armour can loosen or fall apart. The drier climate of the eastern Mediterranean is much kinder to the leather straps holding the lames together than the damp of northern Europe. Furthermore, the Byzantine and Syrian worlds had professional armies supported by state armouries, where equipment could be cared for when not in use, while well-trained soldiers were expected to look after their kit on campaign.
In the west, mail shirts were valuable and desirable, and therefore constantly recycled. At the end of any battle, the winning side took possession of their defeated enemies’ arms and armour; mail was too important to be thrown away in a burial. The only complete Anglo-Saxon mail shirt comes from Sutton Hoo, underlining the exceptional nature of the quantity of wealth in the ship-burial. Chainmail was hard to damage, easy to repair and likely to last for a very long time – examples found in Renaissance armours are frequently several centuries old.
It is interesting to speculate whether the protection offered by lamellar armour was not ideally suited to the prevalent weapons of the medieval west. The areas where lamellar was most widely used also saw extensive use of archery. Western Europe adopted armour not dissimilar to lamellar in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (the ‘pair of plates’, initially made from hard leather and rapidly metal, and then the widely-used coat of plates) in a period where missile weapons became extremely important. Hard, solid armours (lamellar and coats of plates) were usually worn on top of padding and frequently also chainmail, offering layers of protection against different types of attack, similar to modern body armour. The ‘hard’ armour stopped the points of spears and arrows, the mail resisted slashing blows and the padding cushioned against forceful impacts. Given that archery was relatively unimportant in the early medieval west, ‘hard’ armour was supplied by what one Old English poet described as the ‘net [catcher] of spears’ – the shield.
Constructing lamellar armour
A picture really does save a thousand words, especially with something as complicated as lamellar armour!
- Robert L. Coleman (SCA) has written a guide to making steppe lamellar, including a useful bibliography and list of archaeological examples. Note that this shows the conventional steppe lamellar, not the distinctive Byzantine method.
- An article by Peter Beatson of the New Varangian Guard describesa reconstruction of the distinctive Byzantine lamellar.
Credits: this section draws heavily on the articles cited. Thanks are also due to Dr. Timothy Dawson.