The fine collection of fifteenth to seventeenth century Western European weapons in the Hermitage comprises several thousand items. The exhibition is divided into two sections: along the wall opposite the windows and in the centre of the room are different pieces of arms which illustrate the evolution of weaponry; beside the windows on display boards and in horizontal cases are concentrated the examples of weaponry, made in France, Italy, Spain and Germany, most perfect from the point of view of artistic decoration.

At the beginning of the first section is displayed a stand of arms of knight – a sword, spear, dagger, chainmail, and the plate-armour which replaced it in the early fifteenth century. Fifteenth century Gothic armour, with pointed contours, consisted of separate metal plates fastened together by straps. Such a suit of armour would number up to one hundred and sixty plates, and its weight ranged between sixteen and twenty kilograms (35 to 44 lbs). Sixteenth century armour, the appearance of which is associated with the name of the German emperor Maximilian, was lighter than the Gothic, more comfortable and affording greater freedom of movement, and the corrugated surface, by causing the opponent’s sword to glide off, softened the blow.

In the middle of the room are mounted suits of war harness for man and horse dating back to the sixteenth century. This cavalcade re-creates the appearance of a company of knights ready for battle or for a tournament.

The invention of firearms brought about the attempt, by making it thicker, to create armour of reinforced strength, the weight of which now came to forty kilograms. Such armour was delivered to the customer by the gunsmith after a trial shooting with a musket at a distance of one hundred paces (see the breastplate with the bullet mark, the sign that it has been tested). However, troops of knights could not withstand the guns of the townspeople, and together with feudal knighthood their armour too disappeared from the historical scene. The forerunner of the musket was the arbalest, a variety of cross-bow, the string of which was pulled by means of a special screw mechanism (cabinet 17). The bolt, a short, heavy arrow, when shot from the arbalest would pierce a knight’s armour at a distance of seventy-five paces.

Very interesting are the peasant weapons, the shape of which goes back to the simplest working tools. These include the fighting scythe, whip and flail known as the Morgenstern. The name “morning star” is apparently explained by the fact that frequently insurgent peasants would attack the enemy camp at dawn, giving a terrible beating to the drowsy knights they caught unawares.

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3 May 2007