Scale armour

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Scale armour

Armour made up of scales sewn or riveted onto a ‘backing’ garment of cloth or leather was used across Europe and Asia through the Classical and Late Antique periods (1st-7th centuries). It continued to be used in the Byzantine empire into the eleventh century, and may have been used in the Frankish world at least into the ninth century.

There is no evidence (linguistic, pictorial or archaeological) for scale armour in the British Isles, and no evidence to suggest that it was produced and used in Scandinavia.

Logo.gif Use of scale armour in the Vikings Society

  • Scale armour may only be used in the Vikings Society as part of Frankish or Byzantine kit at events where it has been specifically permitted.

Evidence for scale armour

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).

  • Under the Roman empire, scale armour was widely used, referred to as lorica squamata.
  • During the 'migration period' (4th-6th centuries), scale armour seems to have been used by both Hunnic and barbarian tribes, and late Roman armies - though it would often be difficult to distinguish between them.
  • 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. Textual sources usually refer to lorikon ("armour"), though the lorikion folidoton seems to have been made from scales, while the ambiguous zava may well also have been scale.
  • 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.
  • Two fragments of scale armour were found alongside fragments of lamellar armour in Birka, Sweden, dated to c.900-950. There is otherwise no evidence to suggest that scale armour was used or made in Scandinavia.

Carolingian scale armour

The Frankish author Notker the Stammerer wrote of Charlemagne: Coxarum exteriora, quae propter faciliorem ascensum in aliis solent lorica nudari, in eo ferretis ambiebantur bratteolis ("the outside of his hips, which on others are usually bare of armour for easier mounting, were covered by iron plates") (Notkeri Gesta Karoli Magni 2.17, ed. H. F. Haefele, Notker der Stammler: Taten Kaiser Karls des Grossen, MGH Scriptores rerum Germanicarum n.s. 12 (Berlin 1959; rev. 1962) pp.83-84, p.84).

The Stuttgart Psalter (c.830, produced at St-Germain-des-Pres near Paris, now Württembergische Landesbibliothek Stuttgart, Bibl. fol. 23) includes a number of realistic depictions of warriors in scale armour.

Three Frankish warriors. The left-most appears to wear scale armour on his torso; the two on the right only wear scales on their thighs, with the strapping clearly shown. Stuttgart Psalter - scale armour.jpg

Goliath (below) is shown wearing scale armour; his sword-belt vanishes at the waist, as one would expect if the armour around his legs was separate to that on the torso. Stuttgart Psalter - David and Goliath.jpg

Based on this evidence, | Simon Coupland concludes:

  • "No ninth-century pictorial source appears to portray mail, and no other contemporary written source confirms that lorica or brunia could denote a mailcoat. Instead, contemporary miniatures and ivories depict two forms of body armor, although the two types are not normally portrayed in a single source. The Romanic cuirass, with pteryges forming a skirt and covering the upper arms, is found in works such as the Utrecht Psalter, the Milan diptych, and illuminated Bibles from Tours. Scale armor, apparently composed of small overlapping metal plates attached to a jerkin or skirt, can be seen in for instance the Stuttgart Psalter, the Psalterium aureum, or on an ivory now in Florence. Historians and art historians who have discussed Carolingian military dress have consistently stated that scale armor was genuinely worn by Frankish troops. However, the passage from Notker quoted earlier casts doubt on this theory, since although much of the account was exaggerated, the statement that Frankish troops did not normally wear armor on their hips seems to have been included to lend credibility to a somewhat unbelievable story, and is thus presumably reliable. Yet the illustrations of scale armor invariably show the skirt covering the hips. Furthermore, soldiers wearing a very similar type of scale armor to that portrayed in Carolingian illustrations can be seen both in contemporary Byzantine miniatures and in late antique manuscripts. In particular, an unusual costume in the Stuttgart Psalter, consisting of a mixture of scale armor and plate, is virtually identical to the armor portrayed in a contemporary Byzantine manuscript. Although it is possible that Carolingian armor was similar to that worn in contemporary Byzantium, these parallels, Notker's statement, and the lack of positive evidence for scale armor in Frankish written sources all suggest that Carolingian artists were probably copying from external pictorial traditions rather than life."

By contrast, Timothy Dawson argues (pp.39-43):

  • "In the centuries following the migration period, Carolingian art showed very well rendered depictions of scale armour. Whether they are representations of real objects or not, the forms of armour shown are manifestly derived from a Roman tradition, rather than that of the migratory tribes… The artists of the Stuttgart Psalter clearly understood how this armour functioned and, as noted above, seem not to have had a Byzantine artistic precedent for the separation of chest and skirt. Thus, the conclusion is inescapable that scale armour was in use amongst the Carolingian Franks."

Constructing scale armour

Scales should be made of metal, horn or leather and were typically quite small, often rectangular (portrait) with a flat base and rounded bottom. They should be sewn or riveted onto a backing garment so that they overlap downwards (i.e. starting from the top), so that the top third of the lowest scale is covered by the bottom third of the next scale up, with the second row up set so that each scale overlapped two in the row below. Each scale normally had six small holes, two set vertically in the centre at the top and two more vertical pairs immediately below, on the left and right edges. The two lower pairs of holes were used to hold the scale to the backing garment; the upper pair of holes was used to tie a strip of thicker leather lacing in place – which lifted the scales above slightly, preventing them from cutting through the stitching and requiring regular repairs.

Scale armour should typically come to belt length for cavalry, and between mid-thigh and knee-length for infantry. Alternatively, belt-length scale armour may be worn over a longer akheton. Scale armour should generally include short sleeves (no more than elbow length).

Credits: this section draws heavily on the articles cited. Thanks are also due to Dr. Timothy Dawson.