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Case for a book, with fittings for a carrying-cord, 15th century. The coat of arms (on the other side) suggest it was made for a bishop.

Cuir bouilli or cuir-bouilli (pronounced "queer boowi"), meaning boiled leather, but often left in the French in English, was a historical material for various uses common in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period. It was leather that had been treated so that it became tough and rigid, as well as able to hold moulded decoration. It was the usual material for the robust carrying-cases that were made for important pieces of metalwork, instruments such as astrolabes, personal sets of cutlery, books, pens and the like.[1] It was used for some armour, being both much cheaper and much lighter than plate armour, but could not withstand a direct blow from a blade, nor a gunshot.[2]

Alternative names are "moulded leather" and "hardened leather". In the course of making the material it becomes very soft, and can be impressed into a mould, to give it the desired shape and also decoration, which most surviving examples have. Pieces such as chests and coffers also usually have a wooden inner core.[3]


Military useEdit

German pickelhaube, c. 1860

It was used for cheap and light armour, although it was much less effective than plate armour, which was extremely expensive, and too heavy for much to be worn by infantry. However, cuir bouilli could be reinforced against slashing blows by the addition of metal bands or strips, especially in helmets. Modern experiments on simple cuir bouilli have shown that it can reduce the depth of an arrow wound considerably, especially if coated with a mineral facing mixed with glue, as one medieval Arab author recommended.[4]

Versions of it were used since ancient times, especially for shields, in many parts of the world;[5] an Irish shield, with wooden formers, deposited in a peat bog has survived for some 2,500 years.[6] It was common in the Western world for helmets; the pickelhaube, the standard German helmet, was not replaced by a steel stahlhelm until 1916, in the middle of World War I.[7] As leather does not conduct heat as metal does, firemen continued to use boiled leather until WW2, or the invention of strong plastics.[8]

The word cuirass for a breastplate shows that these were originally of leather.[9] In the later Middle Ages, the heyday of plate armour, it continued to be used even by the rich for horse armour and often for tournament armour,[10] as well as by ordinary infantry soldiers. It was also very common for scabbards. But survivals of leather armour are rare, more so than the various types of civilian containers. It is believed that many leather pieces are depicted in sculpted tomb monuments, where they are more highly decorated than metal pieces would have been.[11] It was also often used for the elaborate figurative crests on some helmets.

It is mentioned in Froissart's Chronicles of the Hundred Years' War,[12] and Geoffrey Chaucer, in his Canterbury Tales, written in the late 1300s, says of the knight Sir Thopas:[13]

Hise jambeux were of quyrboilly,
His swerdes shethe of yvory,
His helm of laton bright,
His sadel was of rewel-boon,
His brydel as the sonne shoon,
Or as the moone light.

His jambeaux were of cuir-bouilli,
His sword sheath was of ivory,
His helm of latten bright,
His saddle was of rewel bone,
And as the sun his bridle shone,
Or as the full moonlight.

(Note: jambeaux are greaves – shin armour).


Various recipes for making cuir bouilli survive, and do not agree with each other; probably there were a range of recipes, partly reflecting different final uses. The subject has been the subject of much recent discussion, and attempts to recreate the historical material. Many, but not all, sources agree that actual boiling of the leather was not part of the process, but immersion in water, cold or hot, was.[14]

Examples of useEdit

Cuir bouilli has also been employed to bind books, mainly between the 9th and 14th centuries.[15] As with the book cases, the binding was tough, and allowed decoration.


  1. ^ Davies, 94; 24 items in the British Museum
  2. ^ Ffoulkes, 97-99; Cheshire, 42; Abse; Loades, 10
  3. ^ Davies, 94; Abse
  4. ^ Cheshire, 41-44, 51-53; Loades, 10; Bradbury, 10
  5. ^ Ffoulkes, 97-100; Cheshire, 43 (Sioux)
  6. ^ Davies, 94-95
  7. ^ Ward, Arthur, A Guide to Wartime Collectables, 2013, Pen and Sword, ISBN 1473831067, 9781473831063, google books
  8. ^ Davies, 95
  9. ^ Loades, 10
  10. ^ Ffoulkes, 97-98
  11. ^ Ffoulkes, 97-99; Williams, 54
  12. ^ Cheshire, 42
  13. ^ Ffoulkes, 97-98; "The Tale of Sir Thopas". Librarius. Retrieved 5 July 2017. 
  14. ^ Davies, 94-98; Cheshire, 42-53; Loades, 10; Abse; Bradbury, 10
  15. ^ Wijnekus, 170


  • Abse, Bathsheba, in Abse, Bathsheba and Calnan, Christopher, "Leather, 2. iii, Moulding", Grove Art Online, Oxford Art Online, Oxford University Press. Web. 13 Oct. 2017, subscription required
  • Bradbury, Jim, The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare, 2004, Routledge, IBSN 1134598475, 9781134598472, google books
  • Cheshire, Edward, "Cuir bouilli armour", in Why Leather?: The Material and Cultural Dimensions of Leather, ed. Harris, Susanna, 2014, Sidestone Press, ISBN 978-9088904707, google books
  • Davies, Laura, "Cuir bouilli", Chapter 10 in Conservation of Leather and Related Materials, Eds. Marion Kite, Roy Thomson, 2006, Routledge, ISBN 1136415238, 9781136415234, google books
  • Ffoulkes, Charles John, The Armourer and His Craft, 2008 (reprint), Cosimo, Inc., ISBN 1605204110, 9781605204116, google books
  • Loades, Mike, The Longbow, 2013, Bloomsbury Publishing, ISBN 1782000860, 9781782000860, google books
  • Wijnekus, F.J.M., and Wijnekus, E.F.P.H., Dictionary of the Printing and Allied Industries, 2013 (2nd edn.), Elsevier, ISBN 1483289842, 9781483289847, google books
  • Williams, Alan R, The Knight and the Blast Furnace: A History of the Metallurgy of Armour in the Middle Ages & the Early Modern Period, 2003, BRILL, ISBN 9004124985, 9789004124981, google books
  • Wright, Thomas, The Archaeological Album; Or Museum of National Antiquities, 1845, Chapman & Hall, google books

External linksEdit