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Turn on virtually any historical documentary or fantasy medieval film, and you’ll inevitably see hundreds of big burly chaps dripping with shiny chainmail to their knees and beyond. But, realistically, this was never the case anywhere in the medieval period. It’s estimated that a chainmail byrnie (a waist-length shirt of mail) represented around 750 labouring hours of work. Even when we account for division of labour and the shortcuts of the armorer’s trade, there was no way that you could have made enough chainmail to outfit the whole of the defenders of Helm’s Deep or the attackers of Acre in Kingdom of God. For your common-or-garden man-at-arms, medieval armor was a hodge-podge of padded cloth, leather, the odd bit of chainmail, and, if you’d gutted a well-equipped unfortunate, a couple of pieces of dented metal plate. Granted, this doesn’t look as sexy on film, but it’s truer: the stratification of armor along lines of wealth, social class and status can begin to allow us to bring much greater depth to our re-enactment or LARP portrayals once we understand medieval chainmail armor as a rare and expensive object for much of the medieval period.
Chain mail at heart is a simple idea: a series of interconnected metal rings, closed, riveted or welded together, in order to create a highly flexible shaped garment capable of turning aside or lessening the threat posed by slashing weaponry. When met edge-on, chainmail distributes the impact efficiently by absorbing the blow and preventing slashing wounds, and when thrust against with a sword- or spear-point, properly riveted rings can contain all but the most forceful of stabs. As a means of not getting killed, chainmail was virtually the zenith from late Antiquity, through to the high-medieval period, but it increasingly became victim to the ceaseless arms-race between those seeking to keep living, and those with other ideas in mind. The perfection of extremely powerful bows paired with needle-like bodkin points capable of threading through mail rings showed chainmail armor’s limitations, most spectacularly during the bloodbath caused by English and Welsh longbowmen against French noble knights at the Battle of Crécy. Chainmail suffered a rapid decline after around 1550 with the increasing deployment of firearms, and by the English Civil War it had almost completely vanished from military use – although in places where firearms were less widespread or different in tactical use, chainmail continued an alternate path of development, as seen in this spectacular Mughal hybrid mail outfit from the 17th century.
The Pre-History of Medieval Chainmail
Dating the origins of chainmail is incredibly tricky, partly because we have so few surviving sources, and partly because working out exactly what ancient authors writing in reconstructed long-dead languages were trying to say is hard! The earliest concrete mention we have of the idea of armor made from interlocking metal rings is – we think – in the Avesta, a 6th-century BCE text from the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. Herodotus, an ancient historian writing not long after the Zoroastrian canon, refers to Persian warriors clad in “coats of iron scales resembling fish scales”, so it seems likely that a sort of proto-chainmail or similar riveted scale armor was in use in Xerxes’ Persia. Beyond that, the vast silence of unwritten history reigns – though we can be certain that the Hellenic and Roman worlds were very late to the chainmail party; it was certainly already widespread in Europe by the time they’d got their sandals on in the 3rd-century BCE.
In Northern Europe, the earliest chainmail armor is often dated to the c. 350 BCE Hjortespring find on the Danish island of Als, where a patch of corroded iron has been tentatively theorised as the remains of a chainmail shirt belonging to the owner of the magnificent Hjortespring Boat – or it might be merely a natural patch of iron separated by tree roots into ring shapes. Ah, the joys of archaeology. Nevertheless, it’s certain that when the early Roman Republic began expanding its borders from its Tiberian hinterland, they discovered that the Celtic peoples of northern Italy and Gaul already wore shimmering suits of finely interwoven rings – and the Romans thought, ‘Great, we’ll have those!’ The most effective empires in history seem to be those who shamelessly stole the culture and innovations of their neighbours, and the Romans are no different: from the 2nd-century BCE, Roman auxiliary units were outfitted with a short chainmail vest called a lorica hamata (literally, ‘body armor with hooks’, possibly referring to the hooks which attached the chainmail to leather over-armor). They improved on the original early Celtic designs, making them from alternating rows of riveted and solid rings, with each ring connecting to four others (‘one-in-four’ pattern chain mail), a blueprint which would last throughout the medieval period. These rings would be made from iron or bronze, the riveted rings being made from extruded metal wire, and the solid rings being stamped whole from thin sheet-metal to halve the need for time-consuming and difficult manual wiremaking. A suit of lorica hamata would weigh roughly 11kg, and would contain around 40,000 individual rings. This represented two months of hard work done by slaves at the state-run Republican (and later, Imperial) armories. We can immediately see that the production of chainmail on a large scale was an enormous investment of time, labour and materials, even for a highly-organised and interconnected society like Rome. Chainmail was therefore extremely precious: a well-maintained and properly repaired Roman chainmail shirt would last for several decades of use.
Having taken chainmail from the Celts, we can see that the Romans graciously gave it back to them. One of the earliest complete surviving chainmail shirts was a bog offering in Vimose, Denmark - it’s astonishingly uncorroded and complete, having been deposited at some point in the 3rd-century CE. It is clearly of the Roman type, but it is somewhat less refined than most Roman lorica hamata, being made from 20,000 larger rings and weighing only 8kg – it seems likely that the design or the chainmail shirts themselves spread northwards, and were then meticulously copied by early Nordic smiths. However, as will become the case for most of the medieval period, these suits of mail could not have been mass-produced by slave labour in workshops with high degrees of division of labour and excellent trade links and a mass market: instead, chainmail became rarer, the work of small groups of smiths and labourers working with limited resources, and a mark of status and wealth. Only with the re-emergence of wealthy interconnected kingdoms in the high-medieval period would a sea of chain mail (and metal armor more generally) become a common sight on the battlefield.
Charlemagne: History’s Fanciest Chainmail Wearer
Possibly the greatest of medieval kings was the Frankish noble Charles, King of the Franks, better known by his later moniker Charles the Great or, simply, Charlemagne. Big Charlie ruled on the cusp of the 9th-century, and of all the early-medieval fighting forces there can be no doubt that Charlemagne’s military was amongst the most richly equipped and fearsome of its age. The texts that have survived can tell us an enormous amount about how chainmail should be thought of and understood in this period – yet frustratingly, sources are often unclear: for example, one of our only sources to give detailed military information about this period, written by the incredibly-named Notker the Stammerer not long after Charlemagne’s death, frustratingly includes anachronistic arms and armor, as well of those that must have been far too grand for even the wealthiest military to have in any great number. Furthermore, much of the devotional art of the period, though detailed, allowed artistic license and their veneration of Rome to creep in, plagiarising Byzantine figures that include armor that didn’t exist in the period.
The Frankish army was made up by individual lords and vassals providing and equipping troops to be put under the command of the King. The most useful sources we have to divine the nature of this equipment are the contemporary ‘capitularies’ which record some of the governmental decisions made by Charlemagne from his seat at Aachen, and these show us chainmail as a highly prized and elite tool. One issued in 792 refers to church officials who were able to afford a chainmail hauberk (a long, knee-length chainmail shirt) and a horse – but their infantry were only required to be provided with a spear and shield and would likely have provided their own padded cloth or leather armor, demonstrating the distinction in armor along lines of social class. For every twelve households they owned, each royal vassal was required to provide one suit of chainmail on campaign, and would be stripped of his title if he failed to do so. Most strikingly, Charlemagne forbade the selling of chainmail to foreigners.
We can see here how, in the early-medieval period, chainmail was a complex object: both a symbol of high status and wealth for the elite, tied directly and legally to their feudal status as overlords, but also a vital military tool, the maintenance of which was an important part of Frankish comparative advantage. Think of this when creating your own impression of an early-medieval nobleman: what does your chainmail armor say about you?
Choosing Your Own Chainmail
Reproduction chainmail has its own fascinating history – but fortunately nowadays you can be more convincing than this somewhat-doubtful 20th-century knitted faux-chainmail, the likes of which you might well have seen lurking in the background of Ben Hur or Jason and the Argonauts. There is a bewildering amount of medieval chainmail for sale – but working out which chainmail armor to buy is not difficult when you know the different needs which the different types are designed to fulfill.
Modern reproduction chainmail armor will come in a variety of metals, and may be either butted, or riveted in various styles. There are generally three metals used in modern reproduction metal chainmail: spring steel, mild steel, and aluminium. We’ll take a look at what each of these terms means, so you can get a better picture of which combination is right for you.
Spring steel is the type of steel used in the highest-quality reproduction chainmail – it is a high-carbon steel which would not have been available to medieval armorsmiths. When it was first made in the early-modern period, it would have had to have been heated to extremely high temperatures and worked with hammers for a long period in order to create a resilient steel that ‘springs’ back into shape when bent or impacted - modern spring steels re-create this through compression at high temperatures or ‘hot-rolling’. Modern spring steel is generally alloyed with other hard metals, such as chromium, to increase ease of maintenance and durability. As such, mass-produced spring steel is generally considered an excellent ‘re-enactment grade’ chainmail that balances historical accuracy with usability, although it is generally the most expensive. Broadly, this type of chainmail tends to be chosen by those requiring tough, functional armor for use in combat, physical re-enactment, horse-riding etc.
Mild steel is a general name for steel with a low carbon content, and would have been the best steel available to medieval smiths. It is much heavier than modern spring steel, and is often advertised with the incredibly cool moniker ‘cold-rolled steel’ – this alludes to the modern industrial process of cold-rolling. Putting steel that is below the temperature of recrystallisation (ie. less than white-hot) through rollers deforms the grain of the steel resulting in ‘work-hardening’, mimicking the effects of a blacksmith working the metal. Mild steel is the usually the most affordable steel chainmail, and arguably the most historically faithful – although this does come at the cost of both weight and relative fragility in ‘heavy-wear situations’ (ie. if a large bearded gentleman is trying to smack you with a warhammer in the interests of replicating ‘the authentic medieval experience’).
Unsurprisingly, medieval armor-makers did not have access to aluminium, which only became a common metal in the 20th-century – otherwise we’d have had Richard the Lionheart in a 747 drinking Ye Olde Tinne Canne O’ Sevenne-Uppe. Fortunately, aluminium is extremely lightweight, comparatively hardwearing and cheap: it is therefore absolutely perfect for roleplay and LARP costumes where to-the-smallest-detail historical accuracy is less important than mobility and ease of wear.
Types of Rivets
Modern chainmail still has to be assembled by hand, but the different types of riveting options available allow a high degree of control over the balance you strike between historical accuracy and cost. For example, a lot of budget chain mail is simply ‘butted’ – simple flat-ended wire rings closed shut with pliers. This is generally more than good enough for LARP and roleplay, but is likely not going to pass muster for a more faithful re-enactment, and definitely would not withstand any serious punishment. As we have seen, medieval mail was made from individually riveted rings, which inevitably require more work than merely closing shut blank rings. Depending on the period portrayed, dome-shaped and wedge-shaped rivets are commonly available in modern reproduction chainmail – although this extra finish will obviously be reflected in the price.
The Mail Man Always Knocks Twice
You now have your arsenal laid out before you: what to look for when looking at chainmail for sale, what your mail says about your station in medieval society, and how we got from mystical Celtic craftsmen riveting mail shirts in a turf-roofed hall, to dodgy woolly chainmail-a-likes in cheesy 1960s action movies. Happy mail hunting!