Guide to Leather Armor of the Renaissance [Myth or Fact?]

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Guide to Leather Armor of the Renaissance: Myths, Facts, and Uses

Online history buffs debate the existence and uses of leather armor in medieval and Renaissance Europe. The rise in popularity of LARP (live action role play), history interpretations, and other real-life events have fueled online discussions and debates regarding the historical accuracy of some armor types. 

There are many misconceptions about European plate armor in general, but leather armor in particular continues to be a controversial topic. 

Some hardcore history fans have diminished the role of leather protection in medieval and Renaissance eras in an attempt to prioritize accuracy above aesthetics. 

Others enjoy the blending of history and fantasy and invest much time, money, and energy into researching and acquiring detailed pieces of reproduction leather armor. They may rely too heavily on leather components when recreating a medieval or Renaissance look.

leather armor reproduction
A common representation of reproduction leather armor. This set includes a leather shirt and arm bands combined with metal components. stephanemat, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

So who is correct? Was leather a common material used for armor? Where did leather armor exist, if it existed at all? How should we think of leather armor when studying the history of armor, warfare, and other closely related aspects of medieval and Renaissance history? 

This article aims to shed some light on the realities of leather armor. We intend to summarize the opinions of historians, arms experts, and reputable online sources to provide a fair and well-rounded overview of this debate. 

Leather Armor Evidence: Archaeology vs. Primary Sources

When placing the use of leather into its historical context, we can see that leather did have a place in some suits of armor, at some times, and in some places.

This may sound overly generalized, but the truth is we really do not know much about the role of leather in suits of Renaissance armor.

This is because of the organic nature of leather. Unlike inorganic and hardier materials that lack carbon, leather is made from animal hide and therefore breaks down faster.

viking reenactor
A Viking reenactor wearing leather torso and shoulder armor. In reality, experts doubt the use of armor by Viking warriors, at least like this. Guillermo Fuertes <[email protected]>, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There are two major categories of historical source material that tell us whether or not Renaissance armorers crafted with leather. They are archaeological evidence and written primary sources. 

When it comes to Renaissance leather armor, the archaeological evidence is scant. This has led many to throw away the theory of leather armor as fantasy. 

However, from archaeological evidence we do know that leather armor existed before the Renaissance. The oldest known leather scale armor was discovered in 2013. The armor dates to the 6th to 8th centuries BC and is crafted in the Neo-Assyrian style. 

Leather scale armor has a long history in Central Asia. Other styles of leather armor appear in ancient Europe, with artifacts preserved in peat bogs. 

Leather armor “plates” did not exist before the 11th century in Europe. We do know from literary sources that leather armor was in use in the 1200s and onwards. Illuminated manuscripts are some of the best evidence we have of leather armor during the Middle Ages, while the small number of archaeological artifacts suggest leather’s continued use during the Renaissance period. 

Uses of Medieval & Renaissance Armor

Most experts today agree that knights and other soldiers wore leather armor in some instances. The main debate is now to what extent this material was used, how it was used, and where. 

Former arms curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and current Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Dirk H. Breiding affirms that: 

“Aside from steel, plate armor was also made of leather, some of which was hardened by boiling in wax or oil.” 

While leather armor did exist during the medieval and Renaissance periods, it is important to understand how it was used. Soldiers did not ride off to battle in full leather plate armor, as suggested by more than one movie or tv show. 

Instead, it is better to think of leather armor, in most cases, as a complement to other types of metal or fabric protection. 

renaissance leather armor
Leather leg guards combined with a standard suit of metal armor. Notice too the leather straps holding the armor in place. Rama, CC BY-SA 2.0 FR, via Wikimedia Commons

Leather was an important material for hard wearing clothing items like boots. Hardened leather arm and leg protection is considered a common way boiled leather was used for battle. 

There is some evidence of leather gorgets. Gorgets are pieces of armor that protect the neck. They sit between the helmet and breastplate. In some cases, this piece was crafted from leather. Assumably, a leather gorget provided more maneuverability and some protection. 

Leather brigandines may also have been worn by select soldiers. This piece of body armor resembled a civilian vest and could be worn over a gambeson coat for extra protection. Gambeson was a type of quilted armor made of many layers of linen. 

Leather Armor Distribution 

It has already been suggested that leather armor components were worn by some soldiers, but likely not all. Who were the men who wore leather armor, and why? 

According to The Historian’s Craft, leather armor pieces were reserved for soldiers of a specific class. Knights did not need to use leather, as they could afford the very best metal plate armor.

Leather would have been more appropriate for lower townspeople and others of a similar status. Compared to other materials like gambeson, leather was actually cheaper and easier to produce. 

Gambeson was made of linen, which was made of flax. Flax was a generally non-essential crop in Europe, meaning that the cost and sacrifice of dedicating land to a crop that couldn’t be eaten made this product more expensive. 

After harvesting the flax, it required further processing to become linen fabric. The fabric would then be layered, meaning that a good deal of linen was required for each gambeson piece. 

reenactment fighting
Leather armor components were not common across Europe at all times and in all places. Аимаина хикари, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

It is clear to see then why leather armor would have been a more reasonable choice for a lower-middle class soldier. Leather provided some protection while also being lightweight and maneuverable. 

Because of its maneuverability and affordability, leather was a good material for infantry uniforms. It was even used for horse armor. 

The final question of who wore leather armor is a bit tricky to answer with confidence. Most experts understand that leather armor had an uneven distribution across Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods.  

Places where leather armor was most commonly found include Wales, England, and the Low Countries of the Netherlands and Belgium. It was, of course, used in other places in Europe, but these were the most prevalent. 

In Summary 

Leather armor did exist during the European Renaissance. While ancient forms of leather scale armor existed in Asia, European leather armor as we think of it today first appeared in the 11th century. 

Examples of leather being used for armor include actual leather artifacts (although these are rare) and art work found in illuminated manuscripts. 

The best way to think of leather armor is as a complement to other forms of protection. While full suits of leather armor are works of fantasy, actual Renaissance leather armor worked synergistically with metal and fabric. Common pieces included arm and leg braces, vests, and horse armor. 

Not all Europeans used leather armor. Middle class soldiers living in Wales, England, and the Low Countries were most likely to sport leather protection.

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