Under cover of knight

From Gothic to Gotham, Dr. Grant Gearhart examines armor through the ages

WHEN FACING demonic evil and sociopathic villains, most superheroes have some sort of supernatural powers to give them a leg up.

Superman can fly and see through walls. Spidey can swing between buildings. Black Widow can take down men twice her size and never ages.

Not Batman. Sure, he’s got awesome gadgets and ninja moves, but underneath that sinewy breastplate, he’s all human. Batman without the Batsuit is just some guy named Bruce.

But the Batsuit serves as more than just a defense against bullets and fire. The snug black sheath is undeniably integral to Batman’s identity as a formidable warrior, just as chainmail and steel plates defined medieval knights of yore.

“The suit is this really important evolutionary piece between Bruce Wayne and Batman. It’s the main thing that transforms him, both physically and metaphorically,” explains Dr. Grant Gearhart, assistant professor at Armstrong State University.

“In a lot of ways, that parallels what happens with knights.”

click to enlarge Julian Russell Story’s The Black Prince at Crécy (above) helps illustrate how armor has evolved over the centures, culminating in the gear of everyone’s favorite caped crusader.
Julian Russell Story’s The Black Prince at Crécy (above) helps illustrate how armor has evolved over the centures, culminating in the gear of everyone’s favorite caped crusader.

An expert in chivalry and medieval warfare as well as a big fan of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight film trilogy, Dr. Gearhart knows something about how armor makes the man. He’ll present historic and modern examples at “Suiting up the Hero: Armor and Identity from the Black Prince to the Dark Knight,” this Thursday, Nov. 19 in the Rotunda at the Telfair Museum.

The event is the latest in Armstrong’s Moveable Feast lecture series celebrating the liberal arts and is free and open to the public.

While the traditional suits of clinking iron and steel weren’t exactly impenetrable, they signified a certain super-humanness that elevated the perception of its wearers.

“Armor is always present in anything chivalric with knights because it portrays this status as a warrior to onlookers and to the knight himself,” explains Dr. Gearhart of the heroes of 15th-century chronicles and stories.

“In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, they train all their lives as squires, and they finally get this suit of armor that implies that they’ve made this transition from a non-warrior to a warrior.”

click to enlarge Dr. Grant Gearhart
Dr. Grant Gearhart

Spotlighting the subject of one of the Telfair’s most famous paintings, Dr. Gearhart will begin his knight’s tale with Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales, better known as The Black Prince—some say for his dark-hued coat of arms, others for his cruel nature.

Though painted in thoughtful repose in The Black Prince at Crécy by 19th-century American artist Julian Russell Story, the British royal is best known for leading the massacre at Limoges in 1340 that led to the reported deaths of 4000 French civilians. New evidence suggests the young knight may have captured only a few hundred soldiers that day, but either way, history has written Edward as a deft military strategist and revered leader clad in chainmail.

“The Black Prince received his first suit of armor when he was 8 years old. That implies he was being groomed to be a warrior king,” says Gearhart, adding that the prince died before taking the throne.

As the centuries wore on, the role of armor on the battlefield diminished as weapons became more deadly but was no less essential to knighthood and male egos.

“We see how armor evolves to meet the weapons a knight would be fighting—until the early Renaissance, when gunpowder weapons had evolved enough to penetrate any kind of armor that was light enough to wear,” says the chivalric authority, who received his Ph.D. in Medieval and Early Modern Spanish Literature from the University of North Carolina.

“These new adaptations in warfare displaced the traditional knight and uprooted the traditional idea of medieval masculinity. Armor then takes on this aesthetic meaning, because even though it wasn’t used in battle, kings, princes and knights still put it on for parade purposes. We see how it’s developed to the point to evoke the classic, Adonis-type body.”

In the 16th century, the icon of “the knight in shining armor saving the damsel in distress” became folkloric in European culture and was the comic book hero of the age, even though such romantic characters no longer (and perhaps never really) existed. By the time Cervantes’ Don Quixote began circulating in 1605 with its famously delusional protagonist, such antiquated views of knighthood had become a distant myth.

“Cervantes said, ‘this is what it would really look like it you really did the things in these books,’” says Gearhart, adding that there was a sharp drop-off in chivalric romances after Don Quixote was published. “He lampoons it.”

Yet the image of the armored warrior hero persists in our collective consciousness, as illustrated by Batman’s ripped Kevlar abs in Christopher Nolan’s films. (With the exception of Michael Keaton’s performance, Gearhart’s eschews the Joel Schumacher-directed Batman movies of the 1990s, mostly because of the cheesy jokes.)

Gearhart also believes Nolan best captures the Batman’s transition from civilian to crimefighter and his difficulty in resolving these identities. When placed against history, Batman’s knightly struggle not only mirrors ancient archetypes but the conflict of modern combat as well.

“It goes back to the distinction between ‘warrior’ and ‘non-warrior.’ In ancient times, when you went on a campaign, when it was done you had weeks of marching after the battle was over with your comrades. You were able to make that transition back into society gradually,” he says.

“We’ve really blurred that line with our soldiers today. They can be in a firefight in the Middle East and back in their living room 48 hours later.”

Gearhart acknowledges that warfare continues to change as drones and other unmanned weapons are employed but champions the importance of bulletproof gear in the military for purposes of both protection and perception. However, he’s yet to see modern armor come close to superhero standards.

“As far as I know, there’s nothing as impenetrable as the Batsuit in real life,” he muses.

“But who knows what some of our Special Forces guys are wearing these days?”


About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.
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