What is research?
Research at its core is critically examining what was done before. This lets you benefit from the successes and mistakes of hundreds of years of experimentation, deepens your understanding of the topic, and gives you a foundation for credibility in a more academic setting like a competition. What is research in the context of medieval armour construction?
1. Looking at medieval stuff! It’s not necessarily spending hours digging through obscure libraries or visiting armouries in castles in Europe, though it can be. Research is growing a deeper understanding of how they did things, the tools they used and why. Understanding the context- wars, trade, technology, philosophical advancements, literature, and religion are great additions, though you can make good armour without knowing all of that.
2. Research first! If you’re not starting with looking at medieval stuff, you’re not recreating anything and you’re probably not doing anything medieval. You may create something that protects you, you may be doing something creative, and if that’s what you want to do, great! You may also be reinventing the wheel, since there were thousands of people whose lives depended on armour for millennia, and they figured a lot of stuff out. Building something and then trying to justify it with an obscure reference to a picture is a path of heartache. There’s nothing wrong with creating something fanciful and novel, just know that doing so is not creating a medieval thing, so using it in a medieval group, or entering it into a competition is unlikely to go as well as you might want.
3. Surviving pieces of armour (you'll hear them called "extant") are excellent, though effigies (you’ll find a ton on effigiesandbrasses.com) manuscripts, tapestries and sculptures all help fill in gaps. It’s important to get a feel for what’s common, and what the typical shapes of things really were. Details vary, within a range. You know how you can sometimes tell that someone is foreign simply by the cut of their jeans? They’re still wearing jeans, but the details are subtly different. You want to get that kind of feel for medieval armour, so you know which decade and country it’s from.
4. Pinterest is awesome and terrible for this process. There are frequently pictures of pieces from multiple angles, and different lighting. There’s also a flood of modern stuff that draws your eye in not quite the right directions, fantasy stuff (some is quite cool, though some isn’t functional in the slightest) and outright forgeries. So use the site with caution. It can be powerful to make a board and seed it with a couple good images that you know are well vetted, they appeal to you, and they’re from the right time and place. Pinterest’s algorithms will then begin to send you links to related images that are hoarded by other armour nerds that you can consider and maybe add to your page. Be judicious about what you allow in. It’s much better to have half a dozen well chosen images than a thousand generic “armour” pics. Having a board for each body part, and a board for whole kits both help. I have a board just for knee cops from the 1350s.
5. Context matters. Some things are very specific to a time, place or culture, and because of our distance from all three, the details are not obvious but they can be very important. The goal should be to create a complete look that fits together, that would be worn by a single person and be seen as appropriate by their friends. What you wear to go hunting may not be what you'd wear at a siege, or a tournament. Examine how social status effects how people are dressed and armoured. How can you tell which man is the duke and which is his stable boy in an illumination? Details like hats, shoes, belt pouches, jewelry, fabric choices, and embellishments matter.
6. Aim small. If you try to make something generically medieval, you may dodge a glaringly modern look, but still not create an item that a medieval person would recognize. If you can focus in on something from a specific decade, or even reproducing a specific item, it’s going to look much more convincing. Location matters, but it’s easy to over emphasize it. Britain, France, Italy and the HRE had variations, but most armour looked largely the same until you get into the 15th century. If you want to look like you’re from a specific country, pick effigies, extant pieces and illuminations from those countries and the details will fall into place without you having to even know exactly what’s special about your region.
7. Draw it. Few things push your vision, forcing you to really observe what’s present like drawing. Keep a sketch book and draw whole harnesses, scenes and detailed views. Each can help you understand how things fit together, and appreciate the subtlety of various lines.
8. Books are still useful, particularly for soaking in the look of specific armouries, understanding the grand sweeping changes, and getting an understanding of inventories and context. This is a specialized enough area that most public libraries don’t excel at armour books, though you may have luck with Inter Library Loan or university libraries. There are other areas of research where libraries are fantastic, like music, sculpture and paintings.
9. One area to be careful about- looking at other people’s modern works is not research. It may inspire, or point you to the original pieces they’ve gotten ideas from. There are a number of unfortunate sins you’ll inherit if you copy other modern makers, so you’re better off copying from the original masters directly.
10. Materials- medieval armour was made of various grades of iron and steel, a little bit of copper alloys, a little leather, and a lot of fabric. You can get away with aluminum or titanium in some contexts. Depending on how it’s treated, stainless steel can look fine, and modern spring steels can work well as they still largely form and function like medieval steel. Medieval brass alloys had a range of metals in them, frequently including lead. Modern brass and bronze tends to look enough like it that you don't need to stress about creating your own copper-tin-zinc-lead soup. It can occasionally be hard to tell what’s leather and what’s steel, though be careful not to lie to yourself about what things are because one is easier for you to shape into something roughly right.