📸 The Battle of Mühldorf, 1322.
Bookended by the collapse of the western Roman Empire in 476 and the beginnings of the Renaissance a millennia later, Europe’s Medieval Period bore witness to centuries of military conflict, augmented by advancements in weapons and armor technology. Chain mail was the perfect armor to protect against this arsenal of battle axes and spiked flails. It was flexible and light enough to keep a warrior unencumbered (though not exactly comfortable), but tough enough to fend off blows from enemies.
📸 A closeup of chainmail
Valued for flexibility in combat, chain mail was the primary defensive armor in Europe for more than one thousand years, through the entirety of the Medieval Period. To create a 'chain mail' or 'maille' garment, thousands of rings would be punched out whole or riveted from strands of wire. A blacksmith would weave the rings into sheets using a pattern of interlocking rings. Patterns varied by region, dictated by armaments and fighting styles. Given the labor-intensive process of weaving, chain mail garments were costly to purchase but relatively simple to repair.
After being built, chain mail would go through a process called proofing to assure it could stand up to blows during battle. “Armour of proof” or specifically “mail of proof” was chain mail that had been found to survive shots from arrows or jabs from swords. Of course, the very existence of this designation suggests that plenty of chain mail was not strong enough to handle tough blows, especially as weapons became more advanced, like the rise of the longbow in the 14th century. For all its benefits, chain mail was no guaranteed protection against attack.
📸 A full-length hauberk.
While the design of chain mail provided good protection from edged blades, it did little to ease the force of the blow. For this reason, knights would also wear quilted jackets beneath and over the mail. For the thousand or so years that chain mail dominated, different industries used different innovations to augment their mail. The earliest chain mail dates to the Etruscans, but the Celts are usually credited with creating the industry of chain mail in the 5th century with their 4-in-1 pattern that came to dominate designs.
No matter the adaptation, chain mail was always uncomfortable. These garments were heavy— a hood of mail for the head could weigh as much as 11kg (25lbs) and mailshirts in excess of 27kg (60lbs). In European armor, there are two main types of mailshirts: the hauberk (a shirt of mail that covered the arms) and the habergeon (a sleeveless garment). Quilted jackets worn beneath the mail is referred to as a gambeson. While these jackets softened blows, they only made the experience of wearing chainmail all the more uncomfortable.
Chain mail was expensive, but its cost was nothing compared to a complete plate armor set. Poorer knights who could not afford full armor often made use of a hauberk augmented by a few stray pieces of plate. Beginning in the late 12th century, leather torso armor called a cuirasse would also be used to absorb blows. This in turn was supplanted by the surcoat, an outer garment that covered armor and also indicated allegiance and rank to others on the battlefield. These materials were no substitute for proper armor but they were cheaper and provided better agility and thus remained popular.
📸 a knight adorned in chainmail.
This style of armor eventually fell out of favor in the 15th century, as advanced plate armor completely supplanted mail. This armor provided better protection against the crossbow, which could shoot with enough force to cut through mail entirely. With the rise of firearms, chain mail’s use in battle died out completely.
Chain mail’s popularity arose after the collapse of Rome and its plate-manufacturing industry. Through chain mail’s use we can track the beginnings and end of the entire Medieval Period, a millennia-long period of conflict and upheaval between the end of Rome and the beginning of the Renaissance.
📸 A piece of chain mail jewelry.
Chain mail is sturdy enough that plenty of it survives into the modern day. These pieces preserve because of the careful craftsmanship of artisans from hundreds of years ago. At Mini Museum, we are excited to offer chain mail that has been fashioned into necklaces and bracelets.
This material dates to the 15th century, right at the end of the era of chain mail. Though this is a more advanced form of the armor, it maintains the 4-in-1 design pioneered by the Celts in the 5th century. That's how ubiquitous and useful chain mail was, that it remained much unchanged for over one thousand years.
Arthur, Harold, and Viscount Dillon. “III.—On a MS. Collection of Ordinances of Chivalry of the Fifteenth Century, Belonging to Lord Hastings.” Archaeologia (Second Series) 57.01 (1900): 29-Gorsline, Douglas W. What People Wore: 1,800 Illustrations from Ancient Times to the Early Twentieth Century. Courier Corporation, 1994.70.
Edge, David, and John Miles Paddock. Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight : an Illustrated History of Weaponry in the Middle Ages / David Edge and John Miles Paddock. Crescent Books, 1988.
Gorsline, Douglas W. What People Wore: 1,800 Illustrations from Ancient Times to the Early Twentieth Century. Courier Corporation, 1994.
Jones, Terry. Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1980.