From the ninth to the early eleventh centuries, invasions of the Magyars from the east, Muslims from the south, and Vikings from the north struck western Europe. This unrest ultimately spurred greater unity in England and Germany, but in northern France centralized authority broke down and the region split into smaller and smaller political units. By the ninth century, many knights and nobles held estates (fiefs) granted by greater lords in return for military and other service. This feudal system (from the medieval Latin feodum or feudum, fee or fief) enabled a cash-poor but land-rich lord to support a military force. But this was not the only way that land was held, knights maintained, and loyalty to a lord retained. Lands could be held unconditionally, landless knights could be sheltered in noble households, and loyalties could be maintained through kinship, friendship, or wages.
Although today appreciated as works of art or as examples of historical technology, it must be noted that all armor, whether used in warfare, tournaments, or parades, once had a “working lifetime.” Often these objects have been subjected, literally, to extreme “wear and tear.” Therefore, no matter how well armor may be displayed in museums today, its original use and function can be difficult to convey.
European warriors of the early Middle Ages used both indigenous forms of military equipment and arms and armor derived from late Roman types. One of the most widely used types of helmet was the Spangenhelm. Body armor was usually either a short-sleeved mail shirt (byrnie), made up of interlocking iron rings, or a garment of overlapping scales of iron, bronze, or horn. Shields were oval or round and made of light, tough wood covered with leather. Metallic mountings lined the rims. A hole in the center of each shield was bridged by a hand grip inside and a shield boss outside. Weapons were the spear, sword, ax, and the bow and arrow.