Chainmail

"David rejects the unaccustomed armour" (detail of fol. 28r of the 13th century Morgan Bible).
"David rejects the unaccustomed armour" (detail of fol. 28r of the 13th century Morgan Bible).

Mail (also maille, often given as chain mail or chain maille, though this is a modern usage) is a type of armour or jewelry that consists of small metal rings linked together in a pattern to form a mesh. Mail can sometimes be punctured by a spear or shorn by the blow from a heavy axe or sword and its flexibility means that its wearer is still somewhat vulnerable to blunt weapons. Nevertheless, it was an effective and popular defense for its ability to stop cutting weapons from piercing the skin. Medieval physicians could usually set broken bones, but when it came to preventing infection they were woefully inadequate. Thus the mail was weak in defending against wounds which could be more easily mended but strong against those to which the soldier was most vulnerable. The word chainmail is of relatively recent coinage, having been in use only since the 1700s, prior to this it was referred to simply as mail.

The word itself refers to the armour material, not the garment made from it. A shirt made from mail is a hauberk or byrnie, if knee-length; haubergeon if waist-length. Mail leggings are called chausses, mail hoods coif and mail mittens mitons. A mail collar hanging from a helmet is camail or aventail. A mail collar worn strapped around the neck was called a pixane or standard.

History

Statue of a Gallic warrior. Note the highly unusual vertical orientation of the rings.
Statue of a Gallic warrior. Note the highly unusual vertical orientation of the rings.

Mail was invented some time in the mid 1st millennium BC, but it is unknown where and by whom it was first used. It may have been invented independently in Japan and in Europe. The earliest finds are from a 5th century BC [citations needed] Celtic chieftain's burial located in Ciumesti, Romania. The Greek term, cataphract, came to be associated with heavy cavalry (as opposed to light mounted archers). The Roman Republic first came into contact with mail fighting the Gauls in Cisalpine Gaul, now Northern Italy. The Roman army adopted the technology for their troops in the form of the lorica hamata which was used as a primary form of armour, through the Imperial period where it was used alongside the lorica segmentata.

The use of mail was prominent throughout the High Middle Ages, and reached its apex in the 13th century, when full body suits of mail armour were developed.

In the 14th century, plate armour began to supplement mail. Eventually mail was supplanted by plate for the most part. However, mail was still widely used by many soldiers as well as brignadines and padded jacks. These three types of armour made up the bulk of the equipment used by soldiers with mail being the most expensive. It was quite often more expensive than plate armour.

Extant mail is common, but it is not proportionately represented in museum collections.

The Japanese used chainmail in a limited fashion in armor beginning during the Nambokucho period (1336-1392). Two primary weave methods were used: a square 4-in-1 pattern (so gusari) and a hexagonal 6-in-1 pattern (hana gusari). Kusari was typically made with rings that were much smaller than their European counterparts, and on a much smaller scale - rather than creating full garments of mail, small sections were used to link together plates and to drape over vulnerable areas such as the underarm. The rings were not welded shut, though some pieces were constructed of rings that consisted of two or more turns, similar to the modern split ring commonly used on keychains. The rings were lacquered to prevent rusting, and was always stitched onto a backing of cloth or leather. The kusari was sometimes concealed entirely between layers of cloth or leather.

Etymology

The word chainmail is a pleonasm and a neologism: in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, "mail", "mayle" or chain was the English name for it, while maille was the common French name for it. This—and the alternative spellings "maile" and "maille"—derive through the Italian maglia, from the Latin macula, meaning "mesh of a net".

Many modern chainmaillers prefer the French spelling "Maille" in order to avoid confusion with the term chain letter.

Manufacture

Detail closeup of 1-to-4 chainmail material
Detail closeup of 1-to-4 chainmail material

Several patterns of linking the rings together have been known since ancient times, with the most common being the 1-to-4 pattern (where each ring is linked with four others). In Europe, the 1-to-4 pattern was completely dominant. Mail was also common In East Asia, primarily Japan, but here several more patterns were utilized and an entire nomenclature developed around them. 1-to-4 is commonly referred to as 4 in 1, or 4-1.

Modern mail being made by hand. The coif is worn as a fashion statement and is not required as job-related protective gear.
Modern mail being made by hand. The coif is worn as a fashion statement and is not required as job-related protective gear.

Historically, in Europe, from the pre-Roman period on, the rings composing a piece of mail would be riveted shut, to reduce the chance of the rings splitting open when subjected to a thrusting attack or a hit by an arrow. Due to the triangular points of the rivet heads, many armorers designed their mail with the pointed sides out, thus creating a very distinct "inside" and "outside".

Up until the 14th century mail was made of alternating rows of both riveted rings and solid rings. Both would have been made using wrought iron. Wire for the riveted rings was formed by either of two methods. One was to hammer out wrought iron to roughly the correct size. The other, more labor-intensive method was to draw a thin piece of it through a metal cone, reducing it in diameter, lengthening it, and forming it into a round shape. This was done repeatedly until the desired gauge was achieved. The solid links would have been made by punching from a sheet. Forge welding was also used to create solid links, but the only known example from Europe is that of the 7th century Coppergate mail drape. Outside of Europe this practice was more common such as the well known "theta" links from India.

In modern re-enactment societies (such as the Society for Creative Anachronism and Regia Anglorum) and live action role-playing games (LARPs), suits of mail and mail jewelry are handmade from rings of wire. They may or may not be welded or soldered but are rarely riveted. They may also be made of split sprung steel washers. Usually two pairs of pliers are used to bend the washers open and closed while "knitting" the mail. Many makers may have an apprentice, or in a more modern term, a ringmonkey, to pre-open or close rings for faster and easier weaving. The resulting mail is usually heavier than traditional wire-wound mail, but very durable. When not used for combat, aluminium is sometimes used to reduce the garment's weight by as much two thirds, with a proportional decrease in strength.

Modern mail makers often refer to the size of rings they are working with by the inner diameter, which is approximately equal to the diameter of the rod around which the wire was wrapped to create the rings. Wire thickness is measured in either American Wire Gauge or Standard Wire Gauge, or in decimals of an inch to avoid confusion. In modern mail-makers' terms, mail made of rings with an inner diameter larger than about 3/8" are known as "macromaille," whereas mail with rings with an inner diameter smaller than 1/8" are known as "micromaille."

Wire coils, rings, and tools of the trade
Wire coils, rings, and tools of the trade

Probably the easiest means of producing maille is to wrap wire around a rod, also called a mandrel, to produce a coil of uniform size and shape. The mandrel may be turned by hand or driven by a power tool, such as a drill. The coil is then cut into rings. Depending on the material, rings may be cut with a jeweler's saw, a rotary tool with a cut-off blade, mini-bolt cutters, diagonal cutters, aviation or tin snips, or a hack saw. Stretching the coil slightly before cutting is an easy means of opening a gap in the rings for assembly. (With practice, deformation of rings resulting from this stretching can be eliminated.)

Protective mail for industrial or other practical applications is knit and welded by machine from wire.

Modern uses

Practical uses

A woman models a haubergeon and coif of modern make.
A woman models a haubergeon and coif of modern make.

Mail is now used in protective clothing for butchers (against meat-packing equipment), scuba divers (against shark teeth) and animal control officers (against animal teeth). The British police use mail gloves for dealing with knife-armed aggressors. The military also uses mail vests for the same reason. Modern re-enactors of medieval battles and living history also use mail in combat.

During World War I, mail was evaluated as a material for bullet proof vests, but results were unsatisfactory as the rings would fragment and further aggravate the damage. A mail fringe, designed by Captain Cruise of the British Infantry, was added to helmets to protect the face but this proved unpopular with soldiers, in spite of being proven to defend against a three-ounce shrapnel round fired at a distance of one hundred yards (92.3m).

Mail suits are also used as protection from high voltages - they form a faraday cage around the wearer.

There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that mail is a viable alternative to heavy leather for protecting motorcyclists from injury should they be thrown from their motorcycles.

Decorative uses

Major's shoulder chains
Major's shoulder chains

Chainmail remained in use as a decorative and possibly high-status symbol with military overtones long after its practical usefulness had passed. It was frequently used for the epaulets of military uniforms. It is still used in this form by the British Territorial Army.

Mail also has applications in sculpture and jewelry, especially when made out of precious metals or colorful anodized metals. Recent trends in mail artwork include headdresses, Christmas ornaments, chess sets, and all manner of jewelry. For these non-traditional applications, hundreds of new weaves or patterns have been invented.

In film

In many films, knitted string spray-painted with a metallic paint is used instead of actual mail in order to cut down on cost (a notable example being Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which was filmed on a very small budget). Films more dedicated to costume accuracy often use ABS plastic rings, for the lower cost and weight. Thousands of such ABS mail coats were made for the film of The Lord of the Rings. In Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Tina Turner wore a real metal mail shirt.

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