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A folding slip of corrugated cardboard with a printed label carrying the address, over a green nylon bag a metre long and 50 cm wide labeled Swiss Post

Courier firms work in mysterious ways: Armour of the English Knight 1400-1450 in its double packaging

Tobias Capwell, Armour of the English Knight, 1400-1450 (Thomas Del Mar: London, 2015)
308 pages, 24 x 30 cm
All glossy paper, most pages contain at least one line drawing or colour photo
ISBN 978-0-9933246-0-4
GBP 54 (UK, France, Germany, Italy), 64 (other countries) including shipping and handling; I don’t see any reason to believe that it will ever be available from other sellers or in softcover.
Link to publisher’s online store

After five years of anticipation, the first volume of the results of the inquiries of Toby Capwell into English armour began to arrive at customers’ doors in the middle of October. For reasons which seem good to them, the publisher and author have made very little information about the book available on their website. For quite a few buyers, “a book on English armour by Toby Capwell with drawings by Mac and Jeff Wasson” was all they needed to know. But for those who are on the fence, or waiting for their copy to arrive, I thought it would be helpful to sketch out the sort of things which this volume contains.

This book has a diverse audience. I will do my best to say things which I think armourers and armoured fighters would like to know, then give my own academic thoughts. But this is definitely not a review, and I refuse to find something to quibble about. Since I do not even dabble in fifteenth-century history, there would not be much point. I also refuse to give a summary since this book is newly published.

This is a study of full harnesses in a distinctive style worn by extremely rich men in England and Wales in the early fifteenth century. The main source is effigy sculptures, but documents, literature, funerary brasses, manuscript illuminations, and other kinds of medieval evidence are used to supplement them. The author’s experience as a jouster, and his helpers’ experience making plate armour, are also used to help interpret the sources.

The contents are divided into four parts. First is an introduction which sets the effigies in context in fifteenth-century England and discusses the problems of studying a style of armour which has all been destroyed (52 pages long). Then there are two sections on armour in the periods 1400-1430 (136 pages long) and 1430-1450 (75 pages long), each broken down by part of the body (helmets, cuirasses, shoulder defenses, vambraces, gauntlets, leg armour, sabatons). Last comes a miscellaneous section with a conclusion, the author’s experiences wearing armour in the English style, a bibliography, a list of effigies divided into six styles, a glossary, and two short indices (total 45 pages).

This miscellaneous section contains 25 pages on the famous blackened and gilt harness which he commissioned from Mac, and his experiences planning it, having it built, jousting in it, and having it modified.

A photo of an open book with a photo of a statue of a recumbent man in armour on the verso and a group of pencil sketches, four photos of details, and a paragraph of commentary on the recto opposite

Pages 204 and 205 of Armour of the English Knight 1400-1450. Full-page colour photos of important sources, closeup colour photos of details, pencil sketches, written commentary. As always, click to enlarge.

All pages are glossy, and some contain double-page spreads of important manuscripts, effigies, paintings, etc. Many of these images are not available online, and all the photos are printed in higher resolution than normal computer screens can display.

There are a series of line drawings by Mac of six typical harnesses representing six styles of English armour. Each is sketched from front, side, and rear for maximum clarity, and each of these views fills half a page.

There are a number of comments by Mac on specific technical problems which armourers in the fifteenth century faced, and how this might have affected the armour that they built.

There are pages of pencil sketches by Jeff Wasson with structural diagrams of different styles of armour and details of motifs, borders, etc. Individual sketches are scattered throughout the book alongside the closeup photos of details.

So for armourers, this is 300 pages on the development of armour in England with photos and sketches of details and suggestions of how to reconstruct it. For armoured fighters, this is 300 pages on the development of armour in England with suggestions of the advantages and disadvantages of different choices. And for academics, this is 300 pages of analysis of armour in England as a social tool and as a martial tool. While the publishers could make it easier and cheaper to buy and quicker and cheaper to deliver, and while this is a specialized book, I think it does what it tries to do very well. Although the shipping is a bit slow and expensive, the basic book is quite cheap for its size and complexity, especially considering that it will not sell thousands of copies. And everything about the physical book is professional.

Now I will put my academic hat back on and say why I think this book is important. Even though I can’t really afford it, and even though my dabblings in medieval history focus on late 14th century Italy rather than early 15th century England, I pre-ordered a copy. This was because I knew two things about this book.

First, it has managed to overcome a series of obstacles which recall the ones which Caesar’s legions laid around Alesia. For some reason conventional publishers are very reluctant to take on serious books about arms and armour. While there is plenty of room for books for beginners, most publishers don’t believe that books capable of teaching knowledgeable people something new will sell enough copies for enough money. Since so few books like that are published by conventional publishers, its hard to know if they are right. So anyone who wants to see serious studies of arms and armour should consider supporting this project. (In the case of the hoplite controversy, one of the things which became obvious in the 1990s and 2000s was that little reliable information about Greek arms and armour which would help understand what they were meant to do was available).

Second, it also shows what is possible when people with different sets of skills, developed inside and outside the university, come together. Although there is one name on the cover, the acknowledgements and notes make it clear that the author has taken advice from armourers, artists, collectors, medievalists with a focus on texts, and people with many other perspectives. Doing that is always an uphill struggle, because people with different backgrounds have different interests and different ideas of how to know what is true, and it is always tempting to give up. So anyone who approves of true interdisciplinary research, where the tools and assumptions of different disciplines reinforce each other rather than being applied in parallel, should consider supporting this project. (Again, in the hoplite controversy, some of the participants are starting to comment that they don’t know enough about what fighting with edged weapons in a group is like, or about the practicalities of making, carrying, and using ancient kit, and some have started to call upon anthropological parallels or crowd dynamics to support the traditional vase paintings and histories).