Leather armour as a concept
The concept of "leather armour" seems to owe more to modern perceptions (and Hollywood) than to early medieval evidence. Maille is expensive, runs the argument, while leather is cheap; ergo, leather armour makes sense. Sadly, the medieval economics are rather different to those today. The resources required to produce leather were considerable (raising animals, and then a lengthy and very pungent tanning process) and expensive, especially since the climate of western Europe means leather will perish within twenty years. By contrast, maille (if cared for) is very hard to destroy, and a much better long-term investment. Given the number of maille shirts produced in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries which were finally retired from service in the sixteenth century, it is perfectly likely that many of the hauberks in use in the eleventh century were several hundred years old.
There *is* a cheap, widely available and wholly authentic alternative to maille body armour - the shield. However useful body armour is, it's much better if the enemy can't hit you in the first place.
Visible armour made from leather should not be worn.
Evidence for leather armour
There is no evidence (documentary or archaeological) for leather armour in western Europe in the early medieval period, despite the range of surviving leather goods from water-logged sites such as York, Dublin and Novgorod. Significantly, there is no word in Old English or Old Norse to describe an armour made from leather. By contrast, there is a wealth of documentary and pictorial evidence for maille body armour.
The 'cuirie' / 'cuirass' ("cured thing" / leather torso protection) appears in southern Europe in the fourteenth century as part of the development of the coat of plates and armoured surcoats. Initially it proved easier to work large pieces of leather before making a rapid transition to using large sheets of metal (perfected in the late fourteenth century and heading to the full harness of the Wars of the Roses), but the name "cuirie" stuck.
The only reference to leather armour being used in Anglo-Saxon England comes from the late twelfth-century author John of Salisbury. He expanded the short description of Harold Godwineson's campaigns on the Welsh borders in 1062-3 with detail that is likely to owe more to perceptions of twelfth-century Welsh warfare:
"When, therefore, he discovered the nimbleness of the nation he had to deal with, he selected light-armed soldiers so that he might meet them on equal terms. He decided, in other words, to campaign with a light armament shod with boots, their chests protected with straps of very tough hide, carrying small round shields to ward off missiles, and using as offensive weapons javelins and a pointed sword. Thus he was able to cling to their heels as they fled and pressed them so hard that "foot repulsed foot and spear repulsed spear," and the boss of one shield that of another."
There is limited evidence for conical helmets of spangenhelm design with leather segments.
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