The Debunker: Was Medieval Armor Incredibly Heavy?

by Ken Jennings

On May 11, 1963, a Los Angeles couple named Ron and Phyllis Patterson held a weekend-long radio station fundraiser they called a "Renaissance Pleasure Faire," giving birth to a whole new entertainment industry based on corsets, meat pies, and stilted faux-Shakespearean English. This month, to celebrate the 55th anniversary of Ye Olde Renaissance Festival, we've asked Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings to drop by and give us the scoop on what really went on during the Middle Ages. He's going to get medieval on your ass…umptions.

The Debunker: Was Medieval Armor Incredibly Heavy?

Medieval warfare was pretty hard on suits of armor, but Hollywood has been even worse. Agile swashbuckling heroes of the Errol Flynn variety generally have no problem disarming and capering around on-screen castle guards, who are next to useless in their cumbersome, unwieldy armor. Cartoon characters like Goofy and Bugs Bunny joust against armored opponents that are effectively giant clanking furnaces. And Laurence Olivier's Henry V cemented in our minds the "fact" that medieval knights used cranes to hoist themselves into the saddle—a silly notion for which there's no historical evidence, and which Olivier's historical advisors protested mightily.

The Debunker

Back in the day, a full set of plate armor did weigh around fifty pounds, which isn't nothing. But it's less, the Metropolitan Museum of Art points out, than firefighters with oxygen gear wear today as they run into burning buildings, and it's considerably less than modern soldiers carry into battle in modern times. Medieval armor didn't have to be bulletproof, so it was comparatively lightweight until the seventeenth century.

And its weight is distributed all over the body, unlike modern military equipment, which makes things easier on the wearer. A 2011 study done at Leeds University put subjects on treadmills wearing full suits of armor, and found that they did use twice as much energy to get around the battlefield. But because medieval knights were often in incredibly good shape (despite all the meat pies) that wasn't a huge problem. A 2015 study by Swiss historian Daniel Jaquet used 3-D kinematics to analyze the movements of modern athletes wearing replicas of full field armor, and found that they retained almost their full range of motion. The "knights" mounted fake horses, scaled fake castle walls (in a rock-climbing gym) and even tried somersaults and cartwheels. So much for the stupid old stereotypes about bulky, burdensome armor! I wouldn't try water sports wearing fifty pounds of plate-mail, though. As the old saying goes, knight-swimming deserves a quiet knight.

Quick Quiz: What part of a knight's body was protected by the armor called "greaves"?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.