Medieval men may have not yet known the delights of a double cheeseburger, but they managed to find an equally thrilling item to make from their cows: Leather armor!
Leather is likely the earliest material used to craft personal armor, a stepping stone to the development of stronger forms of protective covering. This armor was primarily used between about 800-1100 A.D. During the Middle Ages, leather would have been fairly cheap and easily accessible. By the late Middle Ages, purely leather armor was no longer used, but leather still formed the foundation of new armor styles, such as lamellar (where small metal plates are sewn into a leather base).
Early leatherworkers formulated several techniques to strengthen their armor:
Cuir Bouilli – A term for leather armor that’s boiled in water until it becomes tough and wood-like. The leather remains flexible for a short time after it’s boiled, so it can be molded into large “plates.” Boiling leather makes it harder but also more brittle. Cuir Bouilli is fairly effective protection against cuts and blows.
Waxed Leather – Coating armor in heated wax would’ve resulted in something similar to boiled leather. Wax would have increased the armor’s resilience against blunt weapons but would have made it more vulnerable to arrows and other piercing weapons.
Lacquered Leather – Lacquer was obtained from tree resin. Once applied to the armor, the lacquered leather would have been extremely strong, but it was also heavy and not particularly flexible. However, the lacquer itself was usually red or black, so it was excellent for making a statement in warrior style!
Because leather doesn’t preserve well over the ages, few relics of ancient leather armor remain. Most evidence is pictorial – decorative leather armor is depicted in effigy on knights’ tombs as late as the early 13th century.
Also, remember that “leather” isn’t all-cow, all-the-time! The types of leather used may have included deer, buffalo, bison, rhino, ostrich, zebra, antelope, cow, goat, sheep, and alligator. Is that a zoo or a leather factory… who can tell?! (Although, if there’s a double-decker bus with safari pictures on it, it’s probably a zoo…)
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