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Since the beginning of the Dark Ages in European history until the Gothic period, it has been one of man's foremost priorities to protect his body as best he could. Yet actual progress from its evolutionary beginnings until the latter part of the 13th century was only marginal, making for the most part a knee-length (chain) mail shirt made of interlocking iron rings with three quarter sleeves, a conical helmet with a nasal, and a kite-shaped shield the order of the day throughout most of Europe.
Of course, this kind of armor, though effective against the thrust of a sword, offered little protection when the cross- or longbow became popular, for these weapons could easily penetrate chain mail. Also, the force of a blow to a mail-covered body could easily cause massive hemorrhaging, leaving many a warrior...if not for dead, then gravely injured. Numerous depictions in the Bayeux Tapestry bare witness to this ineffective early type of armor.
The late 12th century finally brought a turning point in the evolution of armor, with individual parts of the body, such as the chest, shoulders and elbows, etc., being covered--first with hardened leather and later with strips of plate. It took another 200 years until German plattners had covered the whole body from head to toe with iron, and though the first suits of armor were still of simple designs made of less than high quality iron ore, by the latter part of the 15th century the plattners had perfected a quality of steel unsurpassed by any other country in Europe. This lead can be pinpointed with accuracy to the iron-bearing regions in central and southern Germany, specifically to cities such as Augsburg, Nuremberg, Landshut and Innsbruck.
Whither the Brits?
It may come as a shock to Americans that neither England nor Spain was ever celebrated at any age for the output of reliable high quality armor, and those who could afford it procured the German article, which provided a minimum of weight with the same or even better protection because of superior tempering. Some may ask, "But what about the famous Greenwich armors made for individuals such as Sir Henry Lee, George Clifford, the Earl of Cumberland and William Somerset Earl of Worcester? They are English!" Indeed they are, but their armor was made under the direction of German plattner Jakob Halder, who apprenticed in Augsburg. Halder was a contemporary and pupil of famed etcher Jörg Sorg, who was later recruited to the Greenwich school in London, where he worked his way up to head of the school until his death in 1607. Along the way, he earned the title, "The Queen's Armourer."
Jakob Halder is better known for his Jacobe Album, containing 30 colored drawings (the earliest made in the 1550's when he was not yet a master workman), also known as the Musterbuch der Almain Armoury (viewable now in London's Victoria & Albert Museum). Numerous other plattners were recruited and worked in England. Along the way, some of them changed their names, such as Augsburg plattner, Dyonis Holzmann, who was later known as Denyse Holtyman.
Noble Roots in Bavaria
Since the full plate Harnisch (armored suit) had its beginnings in the second half of the 15th century, it is understandable that the oldest names of the makers are found in records dating only to the early 16th century. It is also no accident that particularly in Landshut, the plattner profession found its roots in the glorious peaks of Bavarian history, where royalty and nobility aspired to strengthen their reign by discouraging citizens from seeking more freedom and autonomy. At the same time, they were seeking territorial expansion. This demanded a build-up of military power, with its strength fortified by armor.
The first Landshut Harnische (plural) were still of a plain, unsophisticated, boiler-plate type made for regular warfare by Thoman, Erhard the Elder, Heinrich Ortlein, and Ulrich and Werhard Werntzl, who were regular craftsmen. Under the reign of Duke Ludwig the Rich (1450-1479), plattners like Pangraz, Ulrich Rambs and the somewhat better known Konrad Weiss (1459-1493), the profession flourished, although by no means reaching the high recognition that followed until the reign of Duke George the Rich (1479-1503). His son's wedding to Edwiga (Hedwig), a Polish princess, may be considered a catalyst that turned a once common craft into art. The attendance of European royalty from near and far (including the emperor-to-be, Maximilian) started a flurry of activities to produce the most impressive armor of its time, turning a once common article into showpieces for the rich. Naturally, only royalty, nobility and patricians, the upper crust of 15th and16th century high society, were financially able to commission armor of such high style and quality. This type of Harnisch almost immediately became the object of prestige, and today is better known as prunk, or parade armor.
Toward the end of the 15th century, armor was still very much decorated with oil paints and lacquers, but since this type of decoration was of non-lasting quality, etching soon became the standard practice in Germany. Conveniently, and just in time, Gutenberg's 16th century invention of the printing press offered a tremendous boost, in as much that graphic arts from well-known artists of the time--and especially designed for armor---could now be widely distributed to etchers and other artisans of these specialty items. It must not be overlooked, of course, that German parade armor was also in strong competition with that produced in Milan, and though Germans had become extremely skilled in the art of metal etching, they could hardly compete with the embossing skills of their southern brethren.
A Century of High Quality Armor
In spite of this, by the end of the century German plattners had produced some of the most luxurious Harnische of the era. The high Gothic style of armor started in Germany around 1460 and continued until the beginning of the 16th century, when it was succeeded by the Riefelharnisch of the Renaissance period. This type of Harnisch was named after Maximilian I (son of Friederich III). Maximilian succeeded his father as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, reigning from 1493-1519. His influence in the development of high quality armor, the kind seen displayed in major museums around the world, was of great significance. Having gained vast personal knowledge and experience in the making and use of armor since earliest childhood, he even advised and helped his Hofplattner, Conrad Seusenhofer, in the re-discovery of a long lost hardening (tempering) process. Keeping this kunstreiche Härtungstechnik secret, he would present gifts of expensive armor to Europe's reigning royalty and nobility--armor of such unsurpassed quality that no one was ever able to duplicate it. During the 16th century, the art of metal forming, combined with visual arts such as etching and embossing, and designs of gold and silver inlays and enameling, had reached its peak. After the death of leading craftsmen like Helmschmied, Grosschedel, Lochner, etc., the craft regressed to producing once again the common article for primary use in warfare.
Timewise prior to Landshut, which since around 1480 (with plattners like Mathes Deutsch, and since 1521 until the middle of the century, Wolfgang and Franz Grosschedel, had gained great recognition throughout Europe, only the Missaglia family in Milan, succeeded by the Negrolis) earned an equally well known name for themselves in the making of high quality armor for the elite. During the 15th century, Innsbruck plattners like Kaspar Rieder, Christian Treytz (1485-1490), Hans Prunner and Jorg Wagner were recognized widely for their superior skills. Since the founding of the Imperial Armory in 1504, Konrad Seusenhofer and his son, Hans, and nephew, Jörg, also were well established in the profession, as were Michael Witz and Jacob Topf (died 1597).
Nuremberg's plattners, including Hans Grünwald, Valentin Siebenbürger and Kunz Lochner (1510-1567) among the more well known, and an Augsburg contingent that included Lorenz Helmschmied and sons, as well as Matheus Frauenpreis (died 1549) and Anton Pfeffenhäuser (1525-1603), produced some of the highest quality armor the world has ever known.
As mentioned earlier, armor made expressly for the occasion of attending the Landshut wedding to Hedwig, princess of Poland in 1475, is generally recognized as the beginning for ostentatious, high quality parade armor, taking a course that would run well through the next century. This prunk armor commanded attention, and shortly after the wedding, large incoming orders demanded plattners to place no hold on their creativity.
By 1500, German plattners like Kunz Lochner, Lorenz Helmschmied and the aforementioned Mathes Deutsch, had honed their skills into a fine art, crafting articles that can still be seen in museums around the world as the "Cadillacs" of armor. By no means, however, was this the result of only a few individual plattners. Rather, it was the outcome of a well-orchestrated effort by all members of the profession who saw a need to set standards and rules that would solve social and economic problems for all concerned. In Landshut, the plattner guild was chartered in 1479 (officially stricken from the records only in 1973) as an indentured profession during the reign of George the Rich, and records show that during this time more plattners practiced than at any other time before or after. It was this guild and its concomitant structure and standards, together with the agreement and commitment of the plattners themselves, which was in great part responsible for the flowering and success of the profession.
The Importance of the Guild
The Landshut guild was founded in 1479 and its hand-written constitution still exists in the city archives today. The text of the guild's laws and by-laws was written jointly by members of the plattner profession and city council members of the city to insure superior craftsmanship and that each and every member of the profession would be provided with plenty of work. These laws decreed that a jury consisting of two plattners, one to be replaced annually, would oversee compliance of all rules and regulations. The rules described requirements:
"Anyone who wishes to become a master plattner, he has to produce in his master's
workshop products of the type that he was trained for, i.e., helmets,
breast- and back plates, arm- and leg protection, as well as
gauntlets and everything included. And if he then can produce a
complete Harnisch that will withstand and pass examination by the
jury, he then may claim the right to produce Harnische of all types.
Also his work must be of quality and produced of steel without
impurities. The jury then may present the work to the council, where
it again has to pass examination by each council member. Now, if the
jury and the council approves his work, he may proudly call himself
"Maister" henceforth, providing he can prove by signed and sealed
letter of certification that he was born within wedlock, completed
his apprenticeship, and religiously and righteously supports the
Annotation (even for Germans) not familiar with the Plattner guild. The book 'LANDSHUTER PLATTNERKUNST' issued in 1975 by: Stadtmuseum-Landshut on page 19 carries the expressed following statement:
Die Stiftung der 'Dreiviertelhämmerlzunft' wurde erst 1973 auf Beschluβ der immer weniger werdenden Mitglieder offiziell aufgelöst und ihr reiches Archivmaterial ins Stadtarchiev Landshut überführt (direct quote)
Frateritas Malleatorum, -Plattnerordnung- von 1479 has existed since 1518 as a lawful entity of the city of Landshut, instituted by the mayor and city council and recognized by the Brotherhood of Plattners, Masters and Journeymen. By the end of the 16th century changed into a Foundation, it was dissolved in 1973.
Similar regulations existed in other German cities known for armor production, creating a fairly uniform standard of quality throughout. Upon passing his Maisters exam, a plattner was granted the right to hallmark his product by stamping it with an identifying mark of his own design, together with a mark identifying the city of origin. These marks can usually be found on breastplates, helmets and upper legs, though it is not uncommon to find armor produced in later centuries which show engraved text, stating for example: "Delivered to the armory in Freistritz by Joseph Dietrich in the year of 1816." It is worth a mention, that armor--if not in panoply fashion--was still heavily used during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, and to this very day may be seen as part of a uniform during ceremonial processions by various royal honor guards throughout the world.
Renaissance and Royalty
The beginning of the new century brought changes that influenced the entire profession greatly. After the death of George the Rich, who had no male heir, combined with the eventual death of his daughter and much family infighting throughout the whole Duchy of Bavaria, Landshut was left in the hands of the Wittelsbach'er of Munich. After further family feuding, he divided it among brothers, and in 1516, Ludwig X moved to Landshut (Duchy Niederbayern) to begin his reign in the new spirit of the Renaissance. At this time, the fluted Maximilian Harnisch became fashionable. A new generation of artisans saw this fashion as an opportunity for economic success, principally to the advantage of well-recognized plattners such as Landshut's Erhart (whose many Maximilian armors are still in existence) and Hans Schmidt, who eventually became an honorary citizen and received the key to the city in 1518. It didn't take long for word to spread that the profession again was flourishing, bringing back to Landshut the young Wolfgang Grosschedel, who earlier in 1514 established the Armouries of Henry VIII in Greenwich, England. In 1521, he too was awarded the title of an honorary citizen of Landshut.
Under Ludwig X, armor production slackened considerably overall, with even the number of plattners decreasing to just a few well-known names who continued the profession. Yet at the same time, product quality increased to such a degree to have never been equaled before or since. Quickly, the Grosschedel Plattnerworks, operated by Wolfgang and Franz Grosschedel, took the lead, persuading such talent as the etcher Ambrosius Gemlich to move to Landshut. Clientele of considerable means, such as the dukes of Wittelsbach; the duke of Württemberg; Christian I, the Elector of Saxony; the Imperial Fieldmarschall, Konrad Bemelberg; and the lords of Freyberg auf Hohenaschau became regular patrons at the Grosschedel workshop. Eventually, even King Philip II of Spain and his cousin Maximilian II, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, followed suit by commissioning armor more exquisite than any before. So fine was Franz Grosschedel's craftsmanship and execution of detail that he was honored with knighthood by the emperor in 1566. In the meantime, Kunz Lochner of Nuremberg also was catering to royalty, having completed the famous garniture for prince Nikolaus IV in 1555.
While most of the larger orders for Landshut plattners originated then in Vienna, the Bavarian prince, William V, preferred to commission his armor from Anton Pfeffenhäuser* in Augsburg. His style did not follow the sleek, conservative lines of the Rosenblattgarniture, completed in 1571, but instead crafted a more fashionable, wildly ornamented armor in blue and gold. On the whole, Augsburg plattners also produced embossed armors in moderate quantities. Even as late as 1599, an armor was made with low relief embossing all over, and with applied pierced and embossed gilt copper plates illustrating equestrian combats amid complex scrolling foliage. This Harnisch was eventually purchased in 1602 for the elector Christian II of Saxony.
Jörg Sorg, Daniel Höpfer, Hans Burgkmair, Conrad Spörl, Ambrosius Gemlich and Albrecht Dürer comprise only a few of the many established and important artists, painters and print makers of the German-speaking world of the Renaissance who also supplied armor workshops with etched designs that turned polished steel into magnificent pieces of art. In contrast to other artists, Ambrosius Gemlich, already an established print-maker and regarded as father of the etching process, was also a permanent in-house artist at the Grosschedel Plattnerworks, whereas many other artists were working independently for various plattners at given times. In collector and museum circles, such names fare equally in prominence with that of the plattners, yet only Albrecht Dürer rides the crest of lasting international fame. If not for his many other works, most everyone seems to be familiar with Dürer's famous charcoal drawing of the raised hands, folded in prayer.
Generally, of course, German plattners failed to break a monopoly in embossed decoration, which was led for decades by the Negroli family in Milan. In spite of this, it may still be said that the high demand for German armor was never in question due to its quality of tempered steel and superior craftsmanship, but even then, it lasted only for little more than a century, or barely more than a man's lifetime. With the passing of the masters who lived during this period, the need for full armor diminished in general and the profession regressed to once again producing the common field armor, now scaled down to protect mainly the upper body.
History of Arms and Armour. Published 1988 by Wordsworth 1988,
Unvergängliche Harnischkunst, by George Spitzelberger. Landshut 1985
Der Weiss Kunig, by Max Treitzsaurwein, woodcuts by Hannsen Burgmair
* contrary to the widely accepted spelling PEFFENHAUSER ( apparrently named after a village and supposedly his place of origin), used by most every museum, I prefere a spelling more in line with the colloquial use of the German language and in this case especially pointing to the spelling found on a German armor made for 'Fernando' -Duke of Alba, showing an inscription as followes:
I etched this jousting armor for Antoni Pfeffenhäuser (who made it)
speaking militaria curators are more apt to repeat an already
established standard -instead of making new personal observations- it
is my firm believe that the use of an UMLAUT in the
original inscription is far from a mistake, but quite deliberate,
giving moreso credence to the rest of the spelling, being with a"PF"
instead of a "PE", as is also more in line with the common use of the
German language. After an extensive search, I have been unable to
locate a town of Peffenhauser in Germany, but various towns such as
Pfeffenhausen and Pfaffenhausen instead.
The reasoning of` German scholars towards the more popular spelling of 'PEFFENHAUSER' does not make sense and is beyond my comprehension.