Ethnographic Arms & Armour

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-   -   Cuir Boulli armour, production and surviving examples (

Jim McDougall 16th November 2009 11:23 PM

Cuir Boulli armour, production and surviving examples
I am wondering about surviving examples of this leather armour from Europe and its use in the Middle Ages through Renaissance period.

I'd like to open some discussion about the variations of this type of armour in cuirasses (which I believe the term 'cuir' has its root in the leather), and to see examples known to survive as well as the varying forms.

It seems to have been generally held that such leatherwork has typically not survived, however I believe examples of Roman leather breastplates have been found (though not sure if they were cuir boulli) and I also wonder if saddles etc. (again, not cuir boulli)being have been preserved from Europe from 16th century to 18th.

How was cuir boulli processed, was it really boiled, or was this just a term for the tanning process?

I'd really appreciate your input guys.

Best regards,

fearn 17th November 2009 01:06 AM

Hi Jim,

Have you seen this link yet? Scanning through it, aside from armor, cuir bouillii was used much as plastic is today, so there were canteens, knife and sword sheaths, jack boots, boxes, and such made out of various versions of boiled leather.

Apparently, it's a common armor material in SCA, so there actually is a living community out there who knows something about how it works for armor. Good stuff.



Jim McDougall 17th November 2009 03:42 AM

Hi Fearn,
Excellent info on that link, thank you so much!
It really sounds pretty effective in producing all this leatherwork. I've tried to find histories of how this leather was produced, especially in frontier regions, such as in Spanish colonial America's.
The terminology gets confusing as well, terms like jerkin; gambeson; doublet etc. in the body defense categories.
The buff coat comes to mind in England well into the 18th century, but this was simply rawhide or tanned material I think.

I think it would be good to get the terminology and distinctions straight, as well as what materials were used...bullhide, rawhide, cowhide etc.

Calling all leather experts!!! :) A lot of attention is given to chain mail and plate armour, but we need to give some to the leather.

Thanks again Fearn,
All the best,

fearn 17th November 2009 04:10 AM

My thought on reading that was "Dude, I could actually make this!" Thanks for bringing up the topic, Jim. I hadn't thought much of it.



katana 17th November 2009 12:32 PM

1 Attachment(s)
Hi Jim,
examples are indeed very difficult to find but found this..........

Defense for the right upper arm, second half of 14th century
Inv.No. MLA 56,7-1,1665
The British Museum, London

This arm defense was probably found in London and is the only extant example of its kind. It is made of leather, which was presumably hardened by boiling it in wax or oil. It would have been strapped around the biceps on top of a mail shirt or protective undergarment to which it would have been laced at the top. It is decorated in cut and stamped relief with foliage and grotesque beasts.

Best regards David

Jim McDougall 18th November 2009 12:20 AM

Nice work David! I knew there had to be something out there, but this is great, a really early example, and thanks for noting the resource. It truly is amazing how little there is on this well established type of body armor.
This piece looks remarkably well preserved with great detail still discernible.

All the best,

kronckew 18th November 2009 07:57 AM

i remember reading somewhere that the cataphracti of justinian in the eastern empire experimented with bovine leather armour for the men & horses, hardened by heat and soaking in boiling beeswax. it appeared to work well, until the summer heat hit it. they decided to stay with steel lamellar.

Jim McDougall 19th November 2009 05:08 AM

Thats interesting Kronckew! and would indeed be a pretty big mess in the heat. It seems that there are varying versions of producing this type of leather armor, certainly in different cultures and periods. I believe the 'lorica' forms were boiled in oil and water, then actually molded to the anatomical section to be covered, and hardened on drying ( my lay version of what I have understood so far).

We have had some interesting discussions on the situational impact of armor in weather, such as in extreme heat as you described. It seems that even the 'heat of battle' in extreme exertion and intense combat could have dramatic effect on the combatants in armor, let alone the obvious problems with melting wax! hadn't even thought of that one :)

In the Spanish Southwest, the conquistadors must have faced disturbing discomfort with the armor worn in the oppressive heat that they faced as they were in summer months in the deserts of Mexico and regions to the north. It seems they soon discovered that leather was more feasible in those climates, though other reasons were surely involved as well.

I believe that the many of the American Indian tribes of Plains and Southwest had already established the use of leather as well as the cotton padded forms of armor even before the Spanish arrived. The Spanish presumably also wore jerkins or doublet type garments made of leather as well as assorted mail and plate armor.

Aiontay......need your help here :) Could the Indian tribes have known of a process for hardening leather in the manner of cuir boulli in these pre contact times ?

Best regards,

fearn 19th November 2009 07:08 PM

Hi Jim,

At a guess, I'd say that the "rawhide" armor was (or is) similar to cuir bouilli. I'm guessing because rawhide is something I've seen mentioned as a splinting material for broken bones (i.e. take a piece of rawhide, wet it, wrap it around the set broken bones, and wait for it to dry hard), so I'd guess that people would figure out that they could mold rawhide into armor.

As for the wax...I think it depends on what you're doing. It seems that there are a number of different formulations for cuir bouilli, and if you didn't make it right, it could get messy. Since people used it all over the place for utensils, scabbards, boots, and such, I'd guess that craftsmen who knew what they were doing could make cuir bouilli that wouldn't melt in the sun. Someone who's working from hearsay might have more problems.

As for armor heating up, I'm beginning to wonder if the key is conductance. Metal conducts heat quite well, and if it warms up in the sun, you're going to feel it underneath quickly. Leather has a much lower conductance, so if the surface heats up, it takes longer for the heat to get through. Plus, of course, leather is lighter. So, if you don't need metal armor to keep weapons out, leather is a good choice. I'll bet that it's not much different than the plastic armor people use today for various applications.

my 0.000002 cents,


A Senefelder 20th November 2009 03:05 AM

Rawhide and cuir boulli can end up with somehwta similar results but are worked differently. Raw hide is exactly that, raw hide which dries out and is hard as all get out. Its miserable to work with in its natural state, even cutting it ( as I have to do to get strips to use for trimming shields ) involves using Wise tin snips ( i've also used a bandsaw ) as nothing less will touch it. THe rawhide than needs to be soaked to achieve pliability, cold water takes longer than hot water ( not boiling water, boiling water turns it into a pork rind ). I use warm water and give it about 2-2.5 hours to become really easilly workable. After aplication you simply allow it to dry and it becomes as hard as it was to begin with.

With cuir boulli tanned leather, which is workable, is treated with water/wax ( i've heard both and variations ) and moulded to allow it to dry into the desired shape that is rigid/hard. I just did some rehab on a set of legs and arms for a guy who's elbows and knees were steel but the cuisses, rebraces and bracers were all cuir boulli and the material, while not as spriningy hard as rawhide was quite stiff, and I could redilly see the defensive potential.

Jim McDougall 20th November 2009 03:08 AM

Hi Fearn,
All excellent points, and interesting about leather in general when drying it contracts tightly, so those notes for use make sense. There indeed must have been a number of processes known for cuir boulli, probably depending on materials and preferences, but the wax must have been a challenge.

A number of months ago we discussed the cuera used on the Spanish frontiers in the latter 18th century, and these seem to have been fashioned of multiple layers of rawhide, I think as many as 6 or 7. Therefore thier resilience as a defensive armor depended more on layering than the type of processing in cuir boulli. I am not sure if the various Indian tribes might have used leather hardened in these processes, though certainly rawhide was used in clothing etc.

Well said on the effects of heat on metal vs.leather in hot sun.....and I sure wouldn't want metal on in those conditions!! :)

All the best,

aiontay 20th November 2009 11:46 AM

I don't think too many Indians boiled hide, but rather use hides to boil things (stone boiling). Some tribes steamed buffalo hide over pits as part of a shrinking/thickening process for shields. On the Southern Plains shield were made with to thicknesses of rawhide molded to curve and between the layers was some sort of filler. On some long raid, some guys stored extra moccassins between the two pieces of rawhide.

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