This question is inspired by a comment in this video that the official war historian of the Battle of Cresson describing 140 knights attacking an army of 7,000 as "an experience that will turn black hair grey" FOR THE ARMY OF 7,000! (the knights were defeated, but in the eyes of the commanders that outcome had not been certain)

Or this video explaining how 400 knights and some rounded-up peasants slaughter 90 PERCENT of an armed force of 20,000 soldiers.

It seems to me that if you're getting 70:1 or 50:1 force multipliers for these kinds of soldiers in historic combat, then I need to re-assess what made this kind of amazing effectiveness possible.

I feel like D&D may have spoiled my understanding of fantasy adventure settings because it blends in several centuries of technology into the same setting.

How feasible is chain armor at it's peak (early 12th century before custom anti-chain weapons are developed in the 13th century)? What other misunderstandings might the average consumer of fantasy literature have about 12th century combat?

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ For the record, the way you slaughter 18,000 people on a medieval battlefield is not face to face. Instead, you break their morale, cause them to rout, and then the majority of casualties come when their fleeing peasants get run down from behind. It isn't as though each knight was besting 50 guys in one-on-one fights, or worse, 50 guys all at once. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 18:02
  • $\begingroup$ "How feasible" mean "how protective", "how affordable", "how well-made" or what? $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 20:16
  • $\begingroup$ How protective, how practical, how affordable, how available? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 20:50

3 Answers 3


You Have to Basically Hold a Knight or Squire in Chain Down While You and Your Buddies Stab Him Repeatedly for a Few Dozen Minutes to Hope to Kill the Knight Inside

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There is butted chain, and there is riveted chain. Per the research I've done, nearly all chain actually recovered that is believed to have seen real warfare is riveted chain.

Here is a video of someone testing riveted chainmail against a variety of 12th and 13th century weapons, including towards the end weapons custom-built to defeat riveted chains. As you'll see in the video, nearly every weapon is ineffective. Even spears basically required multiple hard stabs to create the tiniest cut. This means, against an armored knight in combat, in order to kill someone wearing this kind of protection, you needed to hold them down and stab them repeatedly... like an awful lot.

Chain Mail is Prohibitively Expensive for the Poor Adventurer

According to some other articles, squires and knights alike (full time soldiers) wore the same level of protection. According to the Medieval Price List, a suit of chain cost between 1,200 pence (100 shillings / 5 pounds) to 1,920 pence (160 shillings / 8 pounds). This was equal to between 4 and 6 years wages for the common field hand!

Cheap weapons, at a few pence, were much easier to provide than good armor.

Veterancy Was Important

Per several stories, not the least being the Battle of Hastings, the way in which temporary troops were rallied is informative: a king would literally go into the local pubs and recruit. Or, the king would send messengers to their nobles who would go into local pubs and recruit.

Your average "infantryman", then, has maybe held a sword once in a county fair. Maybe he bought one. He may know how to throw a punch or use a knife or bow to kill game. He's is unarmored, barely armed, and as far as morale goes only around for as long as he stays motivated to hang around.

There were other types of armor around in the 12th century: like scale mail which was tougher than chain head-on, but if you were trained, could be defeated easily with upward strikes only. Or lamellar armor of tiny plates all stitched very close together, which was best attacked in-between plates.

A professional soldier likely knew these things.

An army of 20 thousand hastily recruited volunteers who'd been assembled so quickly that you couldn't feed them very likely did not know these things. Or, even if instructed, probably had not really internalized what they needed to do when a certain kind of technology was up against them on the battlefield.

Oh, By the Way, There was No Special Stroke for Chain

Until specialized weapons were invented with long narrow points to go inside the rings, there was no up-stroke, or between-the-joints stroke to defeat chain.

In the 12th century most European soldiers that were provided it wore long waist-length and arm covering sheets. The legs and hands were unprotected on the average soldier, although some spared no expense to cover hands, feet, and legs.

As the chain mail hit its sunset (because special weapons were being created to defeat it) plate began to roll out to defeat the new special weapons.

  • $\begingroup$ And this is why war hammers are a thing (although again, not something your average peasant is going to have available). Even with a helmet, if you manage a good hit to the head their bell is going to be rung, after all, regardless of padding that force has to go somewhere. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 17:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ note you can drive a spear through chain on someone who is PRONE, the ability to sway back with the impact is important it puts an upper limit on the force on mail, far less the then the total force the spear is generating. or of course you can uses axes and maces and rely on blunt force trauma. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Jul 3, 2021 at 16:23

Tactics and Armor

In a short to not re-tread

The Simple Answer: Yes. First any armor is better than none. Second, it isn't just chainmail, it is chainmail with a padded gambeson giving two layers of armor (that was custom and well fitted), and Finally, if it wasn't feasible they would have not continued it. The reward was greater than the cost so it was well worth it, you could die.

  • And it is important to remember chainmail could not be worn without a gambeson (padded cloth armor). Without that you're missing half your armor.

The important thing to mention in Medieval warfare life this is that the vast majority were killed while fleeing. The side that broke first would take massive casualties afterwards. Hence a small disciplined force with good morale will always beat a bigger, undisciplined for with poor morale.

The killing might go on for some time after the 'battle' is over.

The weapons and armour count for much less than people think.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Do you have anything to support the initial claim? It's a very interesting argument $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 5, 2021 at 20:12
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, I'm not free to dig up historical references, but this is based on some years and ancient/medieval wargaming a while back which I believe were broadly historically accurate. Morale failure was what got units wiped out because they were not able to defend themselves and were especially vulnerably to pursuing cavalry $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 7, 2021 at 7:30
  • $\begingroup$ Have done a bit of Googling around, andf there are lots of comment like "The consensus of recent writers on Greek warfare is that casualties were light unless and until one side retreated." (grbs.library.duke.edu/article/viewFile/5321/5325) and observations of the disproportionate ratio of winner/loser casualties, but no great sources so far. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 8, 2021 at 19:25

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