|Here is some helpful information as well as links to other related
sources. If you have any suggestions of things to be added here, let me
know, and I'll see what I can do.
Medieval Barding, Armor, Colours, and Heraldry for
As any student of the period knows, the Medieval era covers a little over 500
years. This means that there is quite a lot of difference between the customs
and costumes of the first part of the era, 950 AD - 1200 AD to the second part
of the era, 1200- 1550 AD. Changes were gradual, and in some areas little
change occurred over the entire time. The kind of materials used to make the
equipment varied depending upon money, resources, location, rank and purpose.
Purpose and money would probably be the two greatest influences. Below is
some very general information. I will be the first to admit that I am not a scholar
on the subject, but I have a pretty good working knowledge of what is
appropriate for the time period, the purpose of the item, and rank of the
individual using the item.
Definitions of Leather Barding, Equestrian Armor, Colours and Heraldry.
For all intensive purposes, leather barding and equestrian armor are one in the
same. They served up to three purposes. The first purpose was to offer some
protection to the horse. The second purpose was to support the saddle on the
horse during the rigors of war. The third was to help identify the rider and the
group he represented. The sole purpose of colours and heraldry was to denote
the identity of the individual or the house/army with whom one was affiliated.
Protection of the horse is probably what most people think of when considering
the use of barding/armor. Some of the earliest examples of this can be found in
pottery art and tapestries. Horses are seen covered in animal furs and skins.
These skins offered an extra layer of protection from the sharp edges of swords,
sticks and picks that the opposing army would use in combat. It also helped to
protect the horse from other horses teeth and hooves. The added visual image
of a horse draped in a predators skin did wonders on the opposing armies morale.
These simple skins eventually developed into multi-layered cloth and leather
garments worn by the horse. Felt, matted horse hair, leather, wool fabric, and
eventually even small metal disks or plates were incorporated into the blankets.
Though very heavy and hot, they served their purpose well and protected the
In those climes where full blankets were impractical because of the heat, open
lace or woven leather barding was more popular. These open patterns provide
protection from swords, but allowed air circulation. This type of barding became
fairly popular with coursers and light Calvary. Heavy Calvary moved toward the
metal armor plate that most people remember when thinking of equestrian
armor. This type of leather barding/armor was also less expensive than the metal
armor, so those that could not afford metal would often use leather with the
occasional metal piece or plating.
The open lace or woven barding was also often seen in images with horses that
have nothing to do with war. These images, of ladies riding or ladies and nights
hunting, show elaborately decorated leather barding used to help support the
saddles. Breast straps, breaching, and croupiers can be seen incorporated into
the leather barding and supporting the saddles on the horses.
As the medieval period came to a close, the leather and fabric barding moved
more and more toward a padding function. The barding became smaller and
would protect the horse from the metal armor or hold the armor and tack in
Colours and heraldry generally denote the costumes, coverings and decorations
which had the sole purpose of designating the ownership of the horse and/or the
army/house with which one was affiliated. Examples of these can be found
fairly early. They can be as simple as a tassel tied under the horses throat or as
complex as a head to tail silk embroidered ensemble. The complexity was
determined by rank, period and culture.
The material used for Heraldry tended to be linen or wool. Silk and cotton were
very expensive fabrics and were generally not used except in ceremonial
occasions or by the very rich to show off their personal wealth. Colours and
heraldry can be found worn both on top of and beneath metal and leather
armor. Occasionally, heraldry would be combined with barding in one piece and
serve a dual purpose of proclaiming one's identity and protecting one's horse.
This was more common prior to the heavy use of metal armor for horses. As
metal armor for horses became more common, the combined use of barding and
heraldry fell out of favor and was generally used only by those who could not
afford the metal armor.
Heraldry was also used to decorate both metal and leather armor. In these
cases, the heraldry was incorporated into the armor either by etching, tooling,
metal or jewel inlay or painting. These pieces of armor were more valuable as
the amount of work and craftsmanship going into the pieces was immense.
Your average warrior could not afford much, if any, of the more labor intensive
decorations. It was only the very rich who could afford to commission such
Generally speaking, the simpler the barding, the earlier the period. The more
complex the barding, the later the period. Full metal armor on a horse was
generally reserved for the very rich, and used only in the late medieval period.
Combinations of leather barding and metal armor were common as individual
warriors did what they could to protect their horses. It was not uncommon to
find odd looking combinations of armor as warriors would pick up on piece from
one location, win another in a contest, and be awarded yet another piece by his
liege lord. Usefulness and expediency was far more important than style.
Matching armor was for the rich or the well connected.
Uses in Costuming, SCA and Reenacting today: Medieval look vs.
There are three basic camps of folks us use barding, armor and heraldry today.
The first are the costuming professionals who look for appropriate costumes for
movies, plays and television show. The second camp are the folks from the
Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) and the Renn Fairs. These two groups
of folks generally want something that looks period or close to period, that is
functional, and fairly easy to maintain. The last are the Reenactors. Reenactors
look for items that are as authentic as possible. They want original historical
designs based upon documented sources (books and art generally) that are also
functional. Each group requires different standards and different materials to
make the items.
For instance, period tack did not use synthetic materials of any type. Which
means fake furs, polyester, etc. would not be appropriate in period garb. Several
fabrics which we take for granted now, such as brocades and laces, did not
appear on the scene until the after the Medieval period. Trims of the Medieval
period includes woven and braided trims, but no lace. Cut jewels as we know
them today were not common. Jewels that were well polished and shaped were
available. Certain color fabrics were not common as the dyes needed were either
not known or so rare that they were very expensive. Vermilion blue is one such
color, as was a deep purple. Royal purple was actually more of a red-purple
instead of the blue purple we associate with the color today. The end result of
all of this is that creating authentic, period pieces is far more complicated and
labor intensive than most people might believe. Be prepared to pay a premium
for authenticity. It will be more expensive.
There are some really nice modern materials which can be used to create
authentic looking pieces without the expense of authenticity. Many of the trims
used in upholstery are appropriate for the Medieval look. Duck cloth, synthetic
felt, wool blends, heavy cotton blends and rayon velvets all work well for the
Medieval look. Other items, such as clips, Chicago screws, and snap closures,
Velcro, zippers, etc. can be used in these Medieval pieces if these items are
carefully hidden. This has some advantages and they provide for ease of use and
offer some safety. Obviously, none of the above can be used in authentic garb.
For authentic garb, only natural fabrics can be used. The preference is for wool
or linen. Silk and cotton are reserved for those portraying the very rich. Earth
tone colors, bright reds, picks, light purples, greens, yellows, whites and blacks
are all appropriate. Generally speaking, if the dye could comes from plants, dirt,
flowers or shells, the color can be used. Actually finding such cloth which has
been dyed with natural dyes is very difficult and very expensive. It can be done,
but not easily. Most Reenactors would be willing to settle for natural fabrics
dyed the appropriate color without questioning the source of the fabric. There
are exceptions to every rule, but such exceptions expect to pay for the
difference. Closures and attachments for authentic garb include pins, buttons,
belts, buckles, lacings and ties.
As for design, the medieval look allows quite a bit of leeway. As long as the
general shape and purpose is met, the medieval look items can come in many
different forms which include fantasy to fairly authentic. The Reenactors insist
that medieval pieces look, feel and act like medieval pieces.