Although today appreciated as works of art or as examples of historical technology, it must be noted that all armor, whether used in warfare, tournaments, or parades, once had a “working lifetime.” Often these objects have been subjected, literally, to extreme “wear and tear.” Therefore, no matter how well armor may be displayed in museums today, its original use and function can be difficult to convey.
European warriors of the early Middle Ages used both indigenous forms of military equipment and arms and armor derived from late Roman types. One of the most widely used types of helmet was the Spangenhelm. Body armor was usually either a short-sleeved mail shirt (byrnie), made up of interlocking iron rings, or a garment of overlapping scales of iron, bronze, or horn. Shields were oval or round and made of light, tough wood covered with leather. Metallic mountings lined the rims. A hole in the center of each shield was bridged by a hand grip inside and a shield boss outside. Weapons were the spear, sword, ax, and the bow and arrow.
At the beginning of this period, by about 1420, the development of full plate armor—a defense enclosing almost the entire body with a system of steel plates articulated by rivets and leather straps—was complete. Regional and national fashions in civilian costume had been developing and noted long before this period. In armor, however, it is during the fifteenth century that certain characteristics in form, construction, and decoration can be seen, which are typical for different regions of Europe. Since the larger surfaces afforded by plate armor now allowed for an entire harness and its elements to be more individually shaped and decorated than armor of previous periods, such characteristics gave rise to distinctive styles and fashions of certain nationalities.