Higgins Armory Museum

Solely dedicated to arms and armor

Higgins Museum

The Evolution of European Armor

Ancient (2000 B.C.E. to 500 C.E.)

Plate body armor first appeared in the late Bronze Age, at about the time of the legendary Trojan War (c.1200 B.C.E.). The subsequent evolution of arms and tactics in the Greek world contributed to the rise of new ways of thinking about people and society in the Classical period, after around 500 B.C.E., and helped the Greeks defeat the invasion forces of the massive Persian Empire. For both the Greeks and the later Romans, armor also had a strong mythic dimension, reflected in elaborate designs that transformed the wearer into something superhuman, alien, or exotic.

Middle Ages (500 to 1500)

The armored knight was the lynchpin of feudal society and warfare. Specializing in hand-to-hand combat on foot and on horseback, he was equipped with the most advanced military equipment of his day and the training to use it, giving rise to the mystique of chivalry both on and off the battlefield. By 1300, mail armor was being supplemented by plates of iron, and by the end of the Middle Ages, the well equipped knight wore a head-to-toe suit of articulated plate steel.


Renaissance (1500 to 1700)

Gunpowder had found its way to Europe by the 1300s, and by the 1500s firearms were beginning to play a decisive role in the outcome of battle. Armor was at first made heavier to withstand the bullets, but by 1600 armor was losing the arms race. Effective armor was becoming too heavy to wear, and by 1700s armor had all but disappeared from the battlefield.

After 1700

Old armor lay forgotten in old mansions and castles, but by 1800 a revived interest in the medieval past led scholars, collectors, and art-dealers on a hunt for surviving examples of knightly arms. Lost artifacts were rediscovered, and new ones were created to satisfy the burgeoning market. By the late 1800s, American collectors had joined their European counterparts in seeking out these forgotten treasures. Only a handful ever acquired substantial collections. Among them was John Woodman Higgins, the Worcester industrialist who founded the Higgins Armory Museum.