Review: Medieval Armour from Rhodes

Walter J. Karcheski, Jr.
Thom Richardson
Published jointly by the Royal Armouries & the Higgins Armoury
March, 2000

Review by Brian R. Price

As Guy Wilson observes in this long-awaited book’s forward, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

This compact, yet informative book is the first armour book of the new millenium, and it is indeed a truly fine effort by two scholars working in two different museums. Walter J. Karcheski, Jr., now curator of the Higgens and Thom Richardson, affiliated with the Royal Armouries (and a frequent contributor to the Royal Armouries Yearbooks) have done something unique in the history of the literature of arms and armour–they have ‘virtually’ reassembled an important collection of arms and armour dispersed in the early part of this century.

The armour at Rhodes, chiefly 15th century equipment held by the Knights of Saint John at the time of their fotresses capture in 1522, is a diverse collection of munitions and medium-grade equipment important precisely because of its common nature. Much of the armour preserved (and an even greater percentage of that which is displayed) is of the finest manufacture, princely armour intended for use by high-ranking nobles.

But what of the armour in use by the middle-class knight? As expensive as a complete harness was likely to be from the middle of the 14th century onwards, most knights could ill-afford the coherent and carefully engineered harnesses available to the more wealthy members of the chivalry. It is likely that their equipment was obtained in a more haphazard way, as funds were available or as pieces were captured in tournament or on campaign–not unlike modern-day re-enactors.

The armour at Rhodes, dispersed at the end of the 19th century and into the early part of the 20th, was a cache of equipment dating for the second quarter of the 15th century up to the fortresses capture in 1522. As each individual piece was less than the highest quality, many of the pieces quickly found their way into private collections, and since a photographic record was never kept, the important nature of the original cache was lost.

The book features a single photograph of each piece, a blessing since many of these examples remain in private hands still. Exhaustive text descriptions of each piece accompany the photograph, including dating estimates and notes on construction tha are difficult to see in the provided photographs.

If there is a criticism of the book, it is perhaps that there could be more study photographs (as Boccia did for Italian armour), but even more importantly, weights are sometimes ommitted. I would have used some of the book’s precious space to say with a few more photographs what the text endeavors to do, but it is likely that the publishers placed strict limitations on the quantity of photos reproduced. Likewise I would have been much happier to see more notes regarding the weights and thicknesses of each piece, although Dr. Alan Williams, Archeometallurgist at the Wallace Collection, does provide some fine metallurgical analysis. I hope this kind of cataloguing becomes standard, and that weights and thicknesses accompany it.

The authors have harnessed their passion for this fine equipment and brought this collection (or much of it) back together. Taken as a whole, a new picture emerges of the knight on campaign, dressed not in the fine cohesiveness of a custom-tailored harness, but in an array of ‘composite’ equipment.

I highly recommend the work, and it’s $75.00 retail price will make it a welcome and necessary addition to any armourer’s or collector’s bookshelf. Copies are available from only two sources, however, the Royal Armouries in Leeds and at the Higgins Armoury in Worchester, MA.

The Medieval Armour from Rhodes
Walter J. Karcheski Jr. and Thom Richardson
Co-published by the Royal Armouries and the Higgins Armouries
ISBN 0-948092-27-X

Royal Armouries Bookshop: Armouries Drive, Leeds, LS10 1LT UK
+44 113 220 1863

Higgins Armory Museum, 100 Barber Avenue, Worcester, MA 01606-2444 USA
(508) 853-6015

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