Part 86 - Real Vs Costume Armor

by Lord Thomas the Black


Real Vs Costume Armor

            Welcome back to another month of Blackmaille!

            This month, I thought we’d discuss some of the various types of armor that aficionados of the Middle Ages are likely to come across in their studies, and how to tell them apart.

            There is much debate online as to what separates "real" armor from "costume" armor. Questions such as, "Will it protect you in a sword fight?", "When was it made?", "Why was it worn?" come up a lot. What these debates overlook is that armor, both maille and plate, can be classified into three categories, not just two. "Real" vs "costume" is an oversimplification. The three categories armor falls into are: 1.) war harness, 2.) tournament harness, and 3.) parade harness.          

            Understand that these terms can and will apply equally to both real medieval armor and to modern re-creationists’ armor, and the defining characteristics are mostly outlined by intent, I.E. for what purpose was the armor built. For example, there is some medieval armor that was made specifically for the tourney field, and because of the rules of the lists of the time, bears more resemblance to modern SCA-style armor than to medieval war harness. It can be a confusing subject, but we hope to clear up some of this confusion before we’re done here.

            War Harness -  Whether medieval or modern, war harness was intended for battle. Life-and-death, steel-on-steel WAR. As such, it was (is) generally of a medium-grade thickness (so as to be protective, but not too heavy), and covers most, if not all, of the body. This is evident not only in the romantic ideal of the "knight in shining armor", 16th C plate harness, covering the knight head-to-toe ("cap-a'-pie", it was called) in steel, with maille filling in the gaps (neck, armpits, and the insides of the elbows and knees), but also in the earlier "Age of Maille" harness of coif, hauberk, and chausses. War harness was designed and built for the brutal, bloody business of battle, and as such, sometimes suffered tremendous damage on the battlefield. As a result, little early-period war harness survives, and that which does is jealously hoarded by museums and private collectors. Modern re-creations of war harness differ from medieval war harness simply because modern re-enactors no longer rely on it to save their lives. Safety protocols and specialty weapons (rattan or rebated steel) largely negate the life-threatening aspects of the battlefield. Because of this, most modern re-creations (as accurate as they may be) more closely resemble our next category...

            Tournament Harness - Tourney armor is distinguished in three notable ways: 1.) It's generally made of thicker metal, designed to protect against different weapons, and withstand more punishment with less damage; 2.) It's generally less covering. With different rules on the list field than the battlefield, some targets are off-limits (or just worthless, points-wise), so no armor is necessary. For example, medieval jousting armor only covered the head, arms, and torso, since the legs were not considered a target. Likewise, modern SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) armor doesn't require coverings for the lower legs or feet, since such targets are off-limits; 3.) Because of the celebratory "sports arena" nature of the tourney field, much more tournament harness survives. A good deal of what you'll see in museums is tourney harness.

             Parade Harness -  Finally we come to the last category of armor: parade or "dress" armor. Parade armor is generally the thinnest, lightest type of armor, since it was never intended for combat, but merely to convey a warrior image to the wearer (think George W. Bush's flight suit). It's a symbol of strength and power more than of prowess, and was often a sign of wealth, as well. Parade armor is almost always highly decorated, with gilding, etched lettering, and elaborate embossed designs, and as such, is as much a testament to the armorer's skill as to their patron's wealth. The modern equivalent can be seen in both high-end (and expensive!) re-creations of medieval and renaissance armor, and in the plastic and leather armors worn by LARP (Live Action Role Playing) groups and fantasy cosplayers.

            Throughout this article, you'll notice I've used words and phrases such as "generally" or "almost all". This is because there are no real hard-and-fast rules when it comes to classifying armor. There are exceptions to every rule. The defining quality of armor is one of intent, and as no medieval armorers survive (and few kept notes), the intent must be derived from the form. A lot of crossover can be seen, with painted war harness, elaborately engraved jousting armor, and plastic lamellar that protects as well as any curboilli. It is this crossover that causes much of the confusion, and inspires much of the debate seen today.

            So where does maille fit into all of this? Like plate armor, maille can (and does) fall into all three categories. I've already mentioned the head-to-toe riveted war harness. Modern 14 gauge butted maille would fall into the "tourney harness" category, or, with an elaborate inlaid design (or lighter materials such as aluminum), as "parade" or "dress" armor. Again, a combination of construction and intent gives clues as to it's usage and classification.

            I strongly urge my readers who are interested to visit as many museums as you can. Study the armor. Check your local libraries for books on armor, and look online for your nearest SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) or LARP (Live Action Role Playing) group, and ask to take a look at their armor. The more you study, the more easily you can discern where the line between war, tournament, and parade armor is truly drawn.

            In the meantime, thank you for joining us for another edition of Blackmaille! As usual, any questions, comments, hate mail, or fan mail can be sent to:

                                    c/o Thomas Beckett
                                    13628 Belmead Ave
                                    Grandview, MO 64030 

Or email me at:

            See you next month!                                      







Running a Maille Guild

            Welcome back to another month of Blackmaille!

            A few years ago, I was talked into starting up the Baronial Maille Guild for our SCA Barony. I had a number of misgivings about this (past incarnations had broken up amidst lots of bad blood between their members, among other problems), but finally decided to give it a try. Long story short, I failed spectacularly! However, I’ve always prided myself on being someone who learns from their mistakes, so this month, we’re going to take a look at what I did wrong, and how you can avoid the same pitfalls.

            Understand that this is written from an SCA point-of-view, and applies mostly to SCA guilds. If you’re not in the SCA, but want to start a maille guild/interest group, then feel free to take or leave what you like, depending on your circumstances.


            First and foremost, advertise. If people don’t know about your fledgling guild, it’ll never take off. Check around your local group, and see what the interest level is in such a guild. See what the group as a whole would like to get out of your guild; it’ll help you set your goals later on.

Follow the rules

            Different kingdoms/baronies/shires, etc have different rules concerning guilds and interest groups. For example, in Calontir, the difference between a guild and an interest group is that guilds are expected to actually produce something in the way of largess for the kingdom. Interest groups are less formal. Find out what the rules are concerning guilds before starting yours, as it’ll save you damage control later.

Have a guild plan

            This is one point where I went wrong, I think. Your guild should have a common goal, a “mission statement”, so to speak. Something to unite all the members and point them in the direction of a common objective. It wouldn’t hurt to write out a mission statement for the guild, just so everyone’s on the same page. Ask prospective members what they hope to get out of the guild, and think about what you’d like the guild to get out of its membership. Think about your guild’s relationship with the local groups/kingdom, and what each party expects to get out of that relationship. Define the objectives of the guild. While we’re on the subject…

Centralize your meeting location

            This is another area I messed up on. If you want to hold the meetings in your home, that’s fine, but consider where your home is in relation to the rest of your group. For example, I live in Grandview, MO, which is on the far south-east corner of the Kansas City area. The rest of the Barony hails from further north. Plus, there’s a lot of turns involved in getting to my place. It’s not on the way to or from anything, so it was a bad location for the guild meetings. As a result, almost no one showed up.


            Tell everyone you think might be interested that you’re starting a guild. Then tell the ones you DON’T think will be interested, because they’ll tell others that you might not have thought about. Make announcements at your local group’s meetings. And don’t just show up once and announce the guild. Show up to EVERY meeting and make your announcement. Some people don’t go to all the meetings, and besides, the more times you tell people about it, the more the knowledge of your guild will stick in their minds.

Schedule meetings carefully

            Find out what other guilds/interest groups your local SCA group has, and when they meet. Try to schedule your meetings around other group’s meetings so that there are no conflicts. In my case, Monday was the only day not occupied by something else, so the guild meetings became “Mailler Mondays”. Try not to schedule for weekends, as that’s when most SCA events take place. If it comes down to your guild or an event, most SCAdians will run off to the event every time. Sorry, just the way it is. Also, ask around about people’s work schedules, and try to set up meeting times when most people will be off work. More people are likely to show up if they’re already out and about than if they’ve been home relaxing for a while, and have to go back out to attend your guild. Aim for a median time in people’s schedules. Not too early that they won’t be off work yet, but not so late that they won’t want to go back out.


            I can’t stress this enough. The local Baronage, Seneschal, or Minister of Arts & Sciences might say they’ll support your guild, and if you send them your info, they’ll make sure it gets into the newsletter, webpage, “Yahoo!” lists, whatever. Great. Do that, and thank them for their support. At the same time, though, assume they’re going to be too busy with other things to do any of that, and do it yourself. Send notices with all of the meeting info to your group’s webminister, chronicler (for the newsletter), and Minister of A&S (since you’ll have to report to them anyway). If there’s an online forum or newsgroup for your group, post a notice on that, too. If it’s an armoring guild, post notices on the fighters’ lists, too. They’re your “customers”, after all, and some fighters like making their own armor, so they might want to join the group.

Turn in reports

            It doesn’t matter if you’re a small shire interest group, or a full-blown Kingdom guild, turn in regular reports to your Minister of Arts & Sciences. They, in turn, have to turn in regular reports to the MoAS above them, and so on. The more people know about your guild, the better. The report doesn’t have to be formal minutes of the meetings, just a short account of the number of people who showed up, what each person was working on, any maille-related discussions that were brought up, future goals for the guild, etc. You may also want to include a cover letter with any questions, comments, or info you want to pass along to the MoAS themselves. These reports usually need to be turned in monthly, but check with your MoAS to find out when you should send them in. And (I can’t stress this enough) SEND THE REPORTS ON TIME! Nothing gets under the skin of admin people more than not being able to file their own reports on time because they’re waiting on YOU. Not to mention the fact that if you’re late with your reports, they may just skip over your guild, and you’ll lose out on advertising.


            Are you getting the idea that this is important? It is. This was my biggest failing. I assumed that if someone said they’d post a notice somewhere, then they’d do it, and I never followed up on any of them. As a result, the only people who showed up were the guys I worked with at the renfest demos, and even THEY didn’t know when the meetings were all the time (I kid you not, my own guild VICE-PRESIDENT didn’t show up for most of the meetings. When I called him once and he didn’t know we were even HAVING a meeting, I decided to call it quits). Don’t assume that if you told a group once, that everyone will remember, either. Show up to EVERY meeting, make an announcement about your guild at EVERY meeting. Bring handouts with dates, times, locations, directions, etc. Give one to EVERYONE. If they get sick of hearing about your guild, so be it, but at least they know about it.

Don’t be a slave-driver

            This should go without saying, but unfortunately, it doesn’t. This is one of the reasons I had misgivings about starting a maille guild here. The previous incarnation of the guild was many years ago, but people still had hard feeling about it. Apparently (from what I was able to find out), the guild-head back then was trying to launch his own maille-making business, and used the Baronial guild as an unpaid sweatshop. Members were told that what they were making would be given as largess, when in reality, it was sold through his store. People were led to believe that he made everything he sold, when in fact it was made by the baronial guild. A lot of people got really upset by this practice, and it left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. To this day, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who had anything good to say about that guild-master. Don’t be that guy. Work with your membership to set goals and come up with group projects that everyone can get behind, but let them work on their own projects as well. Keep in mind, membership is voluntary, and if they’re not having fun, they can just say “Bye!” and walk, so treat them well.


            There’s no reason membership in your guild needs to be restricted to members of your SCA group! There’s a ton of maille-, armor- and metalwork-related online bulletin boards out there. Sign up and post on all of them. Look for BBS having to do with maille, medieval armor, medieval history, LARP (Live Action Role Playing), living history groups, etc. Tell them all about your guild. Post with all the information, meeting place, times, dates, etc. don’t just leave it at that, either. Every so often, go back and check the boards for replies, or post one yourself! Post about the fun you had at the last meeting. Post pictures of members’ projects. Post about upcoming meetings or events. Post about upcoming SCA meetings or events where you can be found if people want more information.

Attitude is everything

            This may be the most important one of all. People can tell if you’re enthusiastic about your guild or not. Even if you are, if you don’t ACT like it, people will think you’re not into it. I messed this up BIG TIME. I didn’t go to the meetings to talk about it. When I did, I was usually tired, and I came across as not being that enthusiastic about the subject. It didn’t help that I don’t like public speaking (so making the announcements was a chore), or that I wasn’t wild about starting up a guild that had ended with a train wreck. I’m kind of a negative person anyway (ignore the collective “no duh!” from those that know me), so a lot of the time, I had a defeatist attitude about the guild, thinking it was going to fail before it even started. And guess what? IT DID! Obviously, if you’re thinking about starting a guild, you’re interested in the subject matter, so show it! If it’s something you really enjoy, try to convey just what it is that interests you. Maybe other people haven’t thought about it that way, and may become interested because of your enthusiasm for the subject. Be happy three people showed up instead of bummed that thirty didn’t. Talk about the guild until people are begging you to shut up already. Be enthusiastic about the guild, its membership, its projects, and all the friends you’ll make because of it. Enthusiasm is infectious, and if you’re happy about it, others will be, too.

            So there you have it. I’m sure there’s more, but that’s what I learned. Your mileage may vary, but this should provide a starting point, at least. I did a lot of things wrong, but if you learn from my mistakes, you should do fine. Understand that I don't harbor any ill-will toward anyone or anything involved with the failure of my guild. It was an experiment that could have gone better had I known what I know now, but I didn't, so it didn't. I don't blame anyone but myself for the way it all went. If I had the time to try it again, I probably would. If anyone else in the KC area wants to start it up again, good for you! Let me know, and I will do whatever I can to help.

            Thanks for joining us for another month of Blackmaille! As usual, any questions, comments, hate mail, or fan mail can be sent to:

Tom Beckett
13628 Belmead Ave
Grandview, MO 64030

Or you can email me at:

            See you next month!


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