The high regard accorded arms and armor throughout history also reflected on their origin of manufacture and their makers. In medieval and early modern Europe, numerous regions and cities consolidated and expanded their age-old standing and reputation as centers for the production of arms and armor. Critical factors in the establishment and success of any such center were proximity to water (which would provide energy as well as transport routes) and the availability of metal either from nearby natural supplies or through trade. In these centers, which included Paris, Nuremberg, and London, there was often a close relationship between arms makers, armorers, and other related craftsmen such as gold- or silversmiths.
The earliest references to both armorers and famous regions of manufacture occur in myths and legend, such as the famed Hephaistos, armorer to the Greek gods, or Wieland, the smith from Germanic mythology. During the eighth century, Ingelri and Ulfberht, two blade smiths (or their workshops) from the Rhine region, apparently produced such high-quality sword blades that their names are found inscribed on swords produced over the following two centuries. Indeed, makers of arms and armor appear to have been among the first craftsmen to “sign” their works, and some of the later court armorers were as highly esteemed as any of the celebrated court painters.
Despite the fame of their legendary predecessors, as well as many Far Eastern counterparts, comparatively little is known about European makers of arms and armor. The names of a few fourteenth-century armorers have come down to us, but substantial documentation begins only in the fifteenth century. The same holds true for the manufacture of sword blades, staff weapons, bows and crossbows, firearms, and ordinance (cannon founding), where famous names rarely appear before the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The modern concept of the individual artist begins to emerge only from the late fourteenth century onward, which may explain why, in the manufacture of arms and armor, cities and regions of origin often take precedence over the craftsman/artist.
By far the most important regions of armor production in Renaissance Europe were northern Italy and southern Germany, with workshops from both regions exporting their products throughout Europe. Probably the most dynamic center of armor manufacture during the fifteenth century was the Italian city of Milan, home to the earliest comparatively well-documented family of armorers, the Missaglias. This prominent family produced at least four known armorers—Tomaso (recorded 1430, died 1452), Antonio (recorded 1441, died 1496), Giovanni Angelo (recorded 1496–1529), and Damiano (recorded 1514)—and their workshop appears to have exported armor all over Europe. During the sixteenth century, Milan housed the workshop of the Missaglia descendant Filippo Negroli (ca. 1510–1579), who may be regarded as the most skilled, esteemed, and famous armorer of his age, perhaps of all time. Together with his relatives Francesco (ca. 1522–1600), Giovan Battista (ca. 1511–1591), Alessandro (ca. 1528–1573) and Giovan Paolo (ca. 1513–1569), the Negrolis produced sumptuously decorated parade armor for the Holy Roman Emperor, the dukes of Urbino, as well as the French and Spanish royal courts. At the same time, however, the urban and courtly workshops of Brescia and a number of southern German cities had successfully challenged Milan’s dominance.
Armor production in the German-speaking countries centered on several hubs: the imperial cities of Augsburg, Basel (Swiss after 1501), Landshut, and Nuremberg, as well as the court workshop of the Holy Roman Emperors in Innsbruck. All were famous for their plate armor, produced by renowned armorers or armorer families. In Augsburg, the Helmschmied family, with its most prominent members Lorenz (active 1467, died 1515), Kolman (1471–1532), and Desiderius (1513–1579) worked for the archdukes of Austria and Tyrol, the Holy Roman Emperor, and other wealthy clients. Equally prominent was the Seusenhofer family, particularly the brothers Konrad (active 1500, died 1517) and Hans (active 1514, died 1555), who in turn controlled the newly established imperial workshop at Innsbruck, producing armor for the emperor and his court. Wolf(gang) Großschedel (1517–1562) of Landshut received the patronage of King Philip II of Spain and his court. And in Nuremberg, Kunz Lochner (ca. 1510–1567) acquired an international reputation and included among his clients Emperor Charles V, the dukes of Saxony, and the kings of Poland.
In addition to the workshops of famous makers of plate armor, various cities specialized in certain types of production. Nuremberg had long earned a reputation for its mail armor and, moreover, in the later sixteenth century became a center for the production of wheel-lock firearms. Cologne was known for the manufacture of fine swords and mail armor from at least the twelfth century. The names of Passau and Solingen were synonymous with sword blades: the famous Passau “trademark”—a running wolf incised on the blade—signified such exceptional quality, that during the fifteenth century, Solingen blade smiths began to copy the mark and apply it to their own blades.
Although England, France and the Netherlands imported a large portion of their arms and armor from Italy and Germany, there is evidence that they had thriving national production centers. The sole English center of any importance for the production of armor appears to have been London, which was supplanted after 1515/17, when Henry VIII established his Royal Workshops at Greenwich, then just outside the city. In France the most important centers were Paris, Tours, and Lyon, as well as Beauvais and Chartres; the latter specialized in mail armor. In addition to importing German and Italian armor, many cities or rulers simply ‘imported’ the Italian or German armorers. For example, Tours and Lyon brought in Italians, while the Royal Workshops at Greenwich employed Flemish, Italian, German, and Dutch makers.
Little detailed information exists about the production of arms and armor in the Netherlands or Spain. Burgos, Sevilla, Calatayud and Castejón de las Armas are all recorded as centers of armor production, while blades from Toledo were highly regarded throughout Europe. Most major cities of Flanders—Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent and Tournai—are known to have had active armorer’s guilds, and there is also documentation of an important workshop in Brussels catering to the Habsburg-Burgundian court.
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Breiding, Dirk H. “Arms and Armor—Common Misconceptions and Frequently Asked Questions.” (October 2004)
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Breiding, Dirk H. “The Function of Armor in Medieval and Renaissance Europe.” (October 2002)
Breiding, Dirk H. “Horse Armor in Europe.” (March 2010)
Breiding, Dirk H. “Techniques of Decoration on Arms and Armor.” (October 2003)