Body-armour of glued linen?

The origin of the idea of glued linen armour

Many people believe that the ancient Greeks used, among other things, armour that was made of layers of linen cloth glued together. But there is no ancient text linking linen armour and glue. No other culture made armour this way. So where does this idea come from?

Written by Sean Manning on

Most people interested in the ancient world have heard that ancient Greek warriors wore armour of layers of linen cloth glued together. In 2013, a group of researchers in the United States (Aldrete et al.) showed that there was no known archaeological or written evidence for this.

When Peter Connolly promoted the theory in the 1970s, there was no published fragment of glued linen armour, no ancient text linking linen armour and glue, and no other culture which made armour that way. So where did the theory come from? To answer that question, we need to trace a crooked path which began in the early days of classical scholarship.

Around 1595, the famous classicists Justus Lipsius and Isaac Casubon were collecting references to linen armour in ancient Greek and Latin texts. They did not have photo libraries or textile archaeology, so they turned to a medieval text to to understand the ancient writers.

In Casaubon’s commentary to Suetonius, and Lipsius’ book on Roman armies, they cited an East Roman chronicler named Niketas Akominatos. Akominatos described the armour of Conrad of Montferrat, an adventurer from Piedmont who died in 1192, as follows:

Conrad himself was fighting without a shield, but instead of body armour he was wearing a certain textile, made from linen, macerated in sour wine well salted, folded (or layered) many times, which after having been fulled with the salt and wine was so resistant to blows that it could not be penetrated by any weapon. There were eighteen or more layers (or folds) of this textile.

Any elderly tailor could have told Casaubon and Lipsius how to make linen armour by quilting many layers of cloth together or quilting scraps of linen or raw silk or raw cotton between cloth.

The pourpointiers of Paris confirmed their medieval rule with descriptions of this technique in 1547 and 1588, and this type of armour had still been popular in Europe in the early sixteenth century. Quilted cloth armour was also made in the New World and India.

But for some reason, Casaubon and Lipsius cited this medieval Greek text rather than medieval French and Latin texts or a chat with one of their neighbours.

Ever since 1595, a few learned classicists have cited this text. But it does not mention glue.

The next step was when scholars started to cite the same text to explain other references to linen armour such as Herodotus’ statement that the Assyrians in Xerxes’ army wore linen cuirasses (Herodotus 7.63).

One of these was French scholar Paul Lacombe who published a book on arms and armour in 1868. The key passage goes as follows when translated into English (Lacombe 1868, p. 48):

The Assyrians were distinguished by their helmets of woven and interlaced bronze and by their cuirasses of linen. It is difficult to form a precise image of these helmets of woven bronze: perhaps they were simply formed of interlaced metal strips. As for the cuirass of linen, Herodotus informs us that they were the armour of the Egyptians [not in book 7, and Herodotus 2.47 just says that Pharaoh Amasis dedicated a linen cuirass at Delphi]. They were composed of many folds of linen, up to eighteen, applied and stuck (collées) to one another after having undergone a long soak in salted wine. They resisted, so it appears (à ce qu’il parait), a blow with the edge, but not a good thrust [= Pausanias 1.21.7]. Despite this, these cuirasses found favour amongst the nations of antiquity. The Greeks themselves adopted them, and wore them much later, at the same time as the thorax.

Lacombe did not name Akominatos, or say that the method he described was only recorded in one medieval text. Akominatos never claims that the method he describes was ancient. But Lacombe still gave an accurate summary.

The third essential step was when Lacombe’s book was translated into English by a certain Charles Boutell. Because Lacombe did not quote or cite his Greek sources, the translator, Charles Boutell, had to retranslate the French translations. And he made a fateful choice in describing the cuirasses:

they were formed of several strips or layers of woven flax, sometimes as many as eighteen, which were glued together one above another, after they had undergone a long maceration in a composition of wine and salt.

“Glued together” or “stuck together” are both reasonable translations of the French, but in the original Greek text there is no hint of a sticky substance other than sour wine. But now English readers had a reason to associate linen armour with glue, but not to connect it to the original medieval source.

After the translation of Lacombe’s book appeared in 1869, books in English such as the seventh (1875) edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica began to say that ancient linen armour was glued together. These later writers often said that Greek and Roman linen armour was made this way, whereas Lacombe had focused on Assyrian and Egyptian armour.

Novelist and amateur classicist L. Sprague de Camp, for example, describes one of Dionysios of Syracuse’s engineers wearing such a cuirass around 400 BCE:

Since much of Zopyros’ work was done on horseback, he wore a horseman’s high leather boots. His cuirass, worn over a padded tunic, was made up of several layers of linen canvas, molded on a form and glued together. If less effective in stopping spears and arrows, such a defence was much lighter than a foot soldier’s bronze corselet. His sword was longer than a foot soldier’s, too. Behind him cantered two mules, one of them bearing a hired servant and the other his shield and baggage.

He and Peter Connolly were just repeating a theory which appeared in earlier books that seemed scholarly. They had no way of knowing that glue came from a bad English translation of a French summary of a medieval chronicle that describes medieval armour, not ancient armour.

Since Peter Connolly in the 1970s, some researchers argue that glued linen looks like the smooth white armour in Attic Red Figure vase paintings. Researchers up to 1875 do not cite art from the Aegean to support this theory. The first researcher I can find who says that a particular ancient painting or sculpture shows linen armour is Prussian scholar Max Jähns in 1880, and it is not clear to me that Jähns means the armour with the yoke over the shoulders and a skirt of flaps.

It is disturbing to learn that such a famous theory was never based on an ancient text or an ancient artefact, just a third-hand summary of a medieval chronicle. Sometimes, an argument which cites no evidence is more convincing than an argument which cites weak evidence. People who want to believe challenge critics to prove them wrong, even though logically it is the believers’ responsibility to support their claims.

Further reading

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