There are pictures of them everywhere, many drawn by the great Frank Frazetta, many others by Boris. They are beautiful renditions of brawny barbarians with only a loin cloth and boots, facing a demonic creature with sword in hand, while an almost nude woman cowers behind them. Almost all of the books involving Conan of Cimmeria have pictures like this on the cover. Not all. Some actually show him wearing chain mail, a helm on his head, and a shield on his arm. The way he is described in most of the stories. I recently read a collection of Conan stories as written by Robert Jordan in which he is always described as wearing a chain hauberk. But the cover picture shows him in loin cloth and fur cloak, with nary a bit of armor to protect his hide. I guess because barbarians are supposed to be masses of muscle the illustrations are supposed to focus on their marvelous physiognomy, and not so much on their martial equipment. But what about the real barbarians that these fictional characters emulate?
Most barbarians did wear some kind of armor, if only a helm and shield. Vikings wore scale mail that covered most of their bodies, if available. Mongols wore boiled leather, chain, or lamellar armors depending on their role within the army. Gauls, Germans, Goths, Vandals, whatever, almost all at least had a shield to hide behind and a helmet to protect their brain boxes. Of all the barbarians I read about, only the Celts would go into battle without some kind of protection. In fact, they would often go into battle naked with the exception of the blue paint they coated their bodies with, a sign of their courage. And they died in great numbers at the hands of the armored and disciplined Romans. So most barbarians wore some kind of armor, even if only quilted or leather. Now really good armor, scale, chain or plate mail, was expensive, and normally only worn by a chief or some other leader. The barbarians of fiction though always seemed to come by some money, from stealing, being a mercenary, raiding the tomb of some ancient god or whatever. They could always afford the good equipment. As said earlier, Conan almost always had at least a chain hauberk, having discovered early on that fighting without armor was a good way to get hurt.
I still remember the old Savage Sword of Conan black and white comics, and the Conan the Barbarian color comics, both from Marvel. I loved these comics for their artwork, and in the case of the Savage Sword pulp mags, their true to the original retellings of many of the Conan tales I had already read in the paperbacks. And I hated that they almost always showed Conan without armor. In one story I remembered that the Turanian army was being showered with arrows, men were falling transfixed on every side, and Conan was talking about getting some armor to protect himself. One guy, wearing a leather vest, was killed in Conan’s arms. In a later panel Conan is wearing the same type of ineffective leather vest that others were killed in. I thought, I don’t think so. In the books he would have been wearing a chain hauberk and carrying a round shield at the least. But as that didn’t look as good in the panels of the comic as the brawny arms of the Cimmerian, they went with the almost naked look. So much for any stab at reality.