Knights in Shining Armor Probably Had Terrible BO

By Valerie Ross | July 21, 2011 10:07 am

A knightly stroll, with treadmill and respiration mask

Medieval knighthood was physically grueling work: Jousting with massive lances. Charging into battle. Jogging on a treadmill in a full suit of armor. You know how it is.

It’s no surprise that beneath their shining armor, knights shimmered with sweat. Running around in up to 110 pounds of armor, or even advancing at a stately walk, would take a whole lot of effort. But, a team of scientists wondered, just how exhausting was it?

Since the researchers had missed their chance to track exertion on the jousting pitch by several hundred years, they recruited four modern volunteers, historical re-enactors from the Royal Armories in London. These guys had ample experience wearing armor, making them better proxies for knightly exertion than volunteers who wouldn’t know a culet from a cuirass. Each man donned a replica 15th-century suit of armor and hopped on a treadmill. As the volunteers walked and ran, the researchers kept tabs on their heart rate, their respiration rate, how much oxygen they used, and how long their strides were.

Sure enough, the researchers found, armor was exhausting. The men used 2.3 times as much energy to walk while wearing the armor than without it, and 1.9 times as much to run. Being outfitted for battle turned out to be even more tiring than hauling around a backpack of the same weight would’ve been. As it turns out, covering your legs with enormous, heavy metal plates makes moving around a lot harder.

What we’re really wondering is, how many extra lamb joints (or flagons of ale) would you have to consume per day to haul this carapace around? With accurate counts of energy spent wearing armor, one could perhaps gain insight into medieval knights’ calorie counts.

Image: Askew, Formenti & Minetti, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 2011

  • Zucchi

    That’s why they make horses.

    I have to question the assertion of this (very small) study that walking in armour is more tiring than walking with the same amount of weight in a backpack. I’ve done both, and have found it less tiring to wear the armour.

    Now, with articulated plate, it is absolutely essential that it be precisely fitted to the individual wearer, especially on the limbs. The Leeds Royal Armories guys have beautiful stuff, but I don’t know how well it was fitted on these four individuals.

  • Cathy

    So maybe a modern weight loss program should incorporate plate mail.

  • Henry VIII

    Four people doesn’t sound like a very good sample size.

  • RichieP

    I think the French men-at-arms at Agincourt might be seen as a possible control group. There seems to be reasonable grounds to believe that they were hugely hindered, exhausted and disadvantaged by having to plough through mud in full plate before fighting and were certainly unable to move like the English archers. Modern histories make much of the idea that many were suffocated in the press (including perhaps the English Duke of York).

  • Jeff

    I think the thing they’re overlooking is that a knight fully decked out in armor wasn’t mean to be infantry. They were meant to be on horseback, the medieval equivalent of a tank. The extent of their walking would be from the dressing tent to the horse, with the return trip at the end of the joust/battle.

  • Anton Gully

    @Jeff it depended on any particular day. Once the war bow became a prevalent weapon in conflict with the English, tactics had to change. The cavalry charge was, obviously, preferred but knights and men-at-arms would fight on foot if circumstances demanded it which was, increasingly, the case. Lighter cavalry became the norm, because lumbering destriers burdened with 3-400 pounds of knight were easily picked off.

    I think a man who wore armour from his teens, until it was like a second skin, would have been an extraordinary person. It’s no wonder that Henry the Eighth wrote Greensleeves and was an accomplished dancer. Bereft of armour he must have felt like he was floating on clouds.

    Great post.

  • WmBlackstone

    I think an important question is what were they wearing beneath the armor? If it was neither wool nor silk, you have a heat dispersal problem. Modern fabrics don’t aerate as well. Most knights would have worn quilted clothing — also factor in the period weather conditions. Medieval Europe was quite colder as was the Renaissance. Too many presumptions here I think for a “real test”.

  • Umbriel

    Even if one was naked under the armor, with limited ventilation the airspace within the armor itself would quickly reach 100% humidity. I’d expect armor inherently to inhibit evaporation and bodily temperature control. My guess is that that’s the major reason why it would be more exhausting than carrying the equivalent weight in a backpack.

  • Kalmar Unionist

    What psychical shape where those reenactors in? If they were the typical chubby, wannabe crusader/knight, then the “study” isn’t worth crap?

  • Ryan

    A man who had rose up from squire to knighthood would be incredibly strong. It brings to mind a story I read about a King of France (sorry, forget which) being able to hold a shovel at arms length that had a small boy sitting on it. The arm, shoulder, back and core strength to do that is quite impressive.

  • Deana

    Their whole way of life was lifting, doing chores, all hard labor. Squire dressed their knights lifting the armor or carrying it. We really can’t compare for we are a lot softer then men of their time. Small boys probably were trying to pick up swords which were heavy depending on the steel. I agree to the armor being like second skin along with the skin being toughen from the conditions of their time.

  • Rick Mayall

    What about the codpiece?

  • Sapo Mal

    I remember reading that the beginning of training for an ten year old page was to give him a helmet and require him to wear it anytime he wasn’t polishing it, or eating. Sleeping, chores, etc, he wore it. Eventually he was also given a shield which he also had to carry almost all the time, including to bed. More bits of armor would be added as they got older. They would run, wrestle, ride, do gymnastics, etc, in full armor for several hours a day.

    The Spartan training began with carrying the 20 pound Spartan shield, again, except for bathing and eating. I think that was at eight years old. Roman soldiers carried an 80 pound pack, plus a ten foot wooden post that was part of the camp wall. Camp was erected every night without fail when in enemy territory. The Romans weighed about 120 pounds, so their equipment weighed about what they weighed.

    Most people have no idea what they are capable of on a day to day basis. It is NORMAL for a human being to be able to chase down a deer or a horse. Primitive hunters in South Africa regularly chase game for days. The Tarahumara tribe in Mexico regularly walk 20+ miles a day in leather sandals or even barefoot, 24 hour 50 miles+ are not uncommon. Pheidippides ran 175 miles in less than two days before dying, Daniel Boone ran 200 miles in two days without dying.

    And YOU can barely run around the block.

  • Baker

    The idea that Henry VIII wrote Greensleeves is arguable. Note the reference source in the article:

    No doubt men wearing armor were very strong. And the idea that they had pretty bad B.O. is not a stretch, either….since bathing was less frequent than today’s Americans and they didn’t have Old Spice & Secret to help, either. Why do you think they waived so much incense around in churches where masses (no pun intended) of people congregated in closed spaces?

    I think modern day humans underestimate our forbears. Pyramids, Stonehenge, Moai….why not running around in armor all day? We don’t have grit in our bread & we have better medicine and more advance technologies to make our days easier & lives longer. But we waste a lot of time in front of computers & TVs in stead of practicing wearing armor or building monuments.

    We still fight wars, though. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  • J.K. White

    Speak for yourself, Presumption Man.

  • Liris S.

    To J.K.W.: Attacking others by words is war by other means, as you just did. What does change is the means. En garde for your own presumption.

  • Tom L

    Now, be nice, fellas.
    “Pretty bad B. O.” is a modern idea. When I was a boy 70 years ago, the men worked hard all day on their farms in long johns (long underwear to you kids out there), trousers, shirts, and bib overalls. We bathed once a week and some didn’t bathe that often. We just washed our hands and faces before dinner. I guess we all stank to high heaven but nobody noticed because that was the way things were. Until some time in the late forties or early fifties, I never heard anyone mention body odor in a negative fashion.

  • Bill McVea

    I see pictures of our modern day Knights in body armor, helmits and Camo BDU’s doing extraordinary physical things on a daily basis in Afghanastan and Iraq, not to mention Army Rangers and Navy Seals doing unbelieveable physical missions.
    It is amzing what extremely motivated and highly trained warriors do.

    Cold War Veteren,

  • MJ Raichyk

    There’s a vegan secret that seems to never be allowed to be spoken. When the human body processes easy foods like veggies, greens and fruits, or at least nearly vegetarian, the body’s gases and sweat is NOT OFFENSIVE. It’s when the proportion of meat exceeds about 10% of the calorie intake that the body odors begin to be noticeably off-putting. In the gut, it’s the difference between rotting (like walking in the woods) and putrescible (like sewage) materials.

    Lamb joints were quite likely still supper fair with the buik of day’s diets being largely vegetarian or at least to listen to the bragging about the Western ‘progress’ in agriculture over past methods.

    Let’s look at diet first before denigrating the body performance of previous generations. The appearance of deodorants on the commercial scene in the recent memory could be reflective of Western-wealth ‘improvements’ in diet, so-called.

  • Jason

    @ Sapo Mal – modern warriors routinely carry 35 to 50 pounds of armor plus radios, weapons, ammunition, water, food etcetera. Things haven’t changed that much.

    @ MJ Raichyk – flaw in your theory is that it was routine for nobility to carry oranges, satchels of potpourri, or the like to hide the smell of their “lowers”. Doubt that had anything to do with excess meat in their diet as the folks in this station were pretty limited in their meat consumption.


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