The First Braveheart Brigandine
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Categories: Ancient

The First Braveheart Brigandine

a fanciful colour painting of Cú Chulainn riding a galloping chariot loaded with weapons and brandishing a red spear and a round shield
Cú Chulainn in battle, from T. W. Rolleston, Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race (New York, 1911). The painting is signed by J.C. Leyendecker

Film and TV costumers love to give extras vests with random pieces of metal or leather laced or riveted to them separated by gaps. Traditional armour was meant to stop spears and arrows, so all armour like this would do would be cause the points to slide into the gaps between the plates and go through. The late Tony Bryant says that some of the very cheapest Japanese tatami-do armours were made like this, but it was never common. On the Internet we often call these Braveheart brigandines after the infamous 1995 Mel Gibson film. But the trope is older!

The above illustration by the New York City commercial artist J.C. Leyendecker already shows armour made this way. Its just as vague about physical reality as any anime or Marvel film, from the heavy frame of the chariot to the giant brooch. The style has the exuberant energy of Howard Pyle (and the same gloomy yellow-brown tone as Pyle’s paintings). But its much older than Braveheart. Now I want to know more about the history of this trope, and which depths it emerged from to torment us. Nothing can be done about it since the people who design costumes don’t know or care about what works or what was done back in the day, but knowing is a pleasure. When Cú Chulainn is done with Queen Medb of Connacht, maybe he can help?

a crowd of men with facepaint brandishing assorted edged weapons and holding small round centergrip shields
A battle scene from Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995) with the infamous brigandines (and blue facepaint, and brown-black tones) care of Like Theosophy, this film’s nonsense has a long afterlife

Do any of my gentle readers know of pictures of this type of ‘armour’ before 1911? In the days when more people slaughtered their own chickens and sharpened their own butcher’s knives and hatchets, I would think more of them knew that a layer of flexible leather won’t do anything to stop a sharp blade.

I talk about Cú Chulainn in an article in Medieval Clothing and Textiles 18 which is now in press.

(scheduled 28 December 2023, added second picture 17 January)

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11 thoughts on “The First Braveheart Brigandine

    1. Sean says:

      That is interesting! It could be inspired by Samuel Rush Meyrick’s theories which interpreted High Medieval art in a very literal way and imagined all kinds of mail and scale armour that have never turned up in a museum back room or an archaeological dig.

  1. Ryan says:

    This is actually something that has interested me for a while. In Albrechtsburg in Meißen, there is a wall painting with this type of armour: It is painted by Anton Dietrich and dated 1878-1881. I think this is considered Historismus. Some of the costume designs for Wagner’s Ring cycle also have similar armour.

    1. Sean says:

      There is a series in Ancient Warfare (Karwansaray) tracing tropes in the costuming of ancient films such as leather bracers from the silent film era to the present. Its like tracing how later Imperial Roman propaganda sculptures are copies of copies of Trajan’s column.

    2. Sean says:

      People talk about how Valkyries with winged helmets in Wagner operas influenced ideas about Viking helmets, but I had not thought that Historismus paintings or armour in Wagner operas might lie behind the ‘Braveheart brigandine’!

      1. Anthony Clipsom says:

        19th century images of Wotan from the Ring cycle might be an inspiration (see ,for example, those for Bayreuth in 1876), I think what we are seeing is more of an interpretation of a Wisby coat-of-plates. The designer has not fully understood it (rivetting the plates on top of the of the coat) and has made it with leather, rather than metal, either for cheapness or to be less fatiguing for Mel to wear on a long days shoot.

        1. Sean says:

          I think you are way way too optimistic to assume that the costume designers for Braveheart ever looked at a scholarly book or an object in a museum! Costumers copy earlier costumers and paintings.

        2. Sean says:

          I like the late Will McLean’s essay on William Wallasky “really, Braveheart is patriotic epic of defense of motherland from foreigners that come to rape our women and mince about in crushed velvet. … Is movie that could have been made by Eisenstein for Lochnessfilm if he had had color stock and less talent.” So I think that any chance influence from the fourteenth century was drowned out by concerns like “how do we get Americans who think their ancestors were Scots in theatres without annoying them that their favourite clan sided with the English in 1299 for forty pounds sterling and some pastures?”

  2. Anthony Clipsom says:

    While in the mood for Braveheart kicking, I think the prize for least convincing armour must go to the English infantry
    A mirrored trouser suit. Reminds me of those jade suits found in Chinese tombs in construction rather than anything European, medieval or later.

    1. Sean says:

      It does remind me of the ancient Chinese jade suits to preserve the body for eternity (narrator: they did not preserve the body for a year) That was before you could buy Indian/Pakistani mail but there was the good old spray-painted sweater.

    2. Sean says:

      What I and folks like Matthew Amt suspect is that copying what your friends are making or wearing is easy and natural. Going back to historical art and artifacts and deliberately adopting their visual culture seems harder for many people than film costumers copying other film costumers, or SCA members copying other SCA members, or cartoonists copying other cartoonists. So asking for “what painting, stage costume, or film costume is this based on?” is more fruitful than asking “what historical artifact is this based on?”

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