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Wearing quality armour might be crucial for many soldiers fighting in cruel battles through the world’s history. Introduced in ancient times, the armours passed a long development and were changing their forms until they eventually became obsolete and disappeared from the battlefields in late 17th century. At least the classic cuirasses did. This article is about mail armour which consisted from small rings connected together. Mail replaced scale armour (leather coat with sewn metal scales used until 11th – 13th century) and was followed by plate armour.
It is unsure by whom, when and where was made the first mail. It probably happened in present Iran. However, we certainly know that Celtic and Scythian warriors had already been using it in 4th century BC. Roman legionaries learned from the Celts and soon the armour, lorica hamata, was spread across the empire (and then abroad. However, Dark Ages Europe after the collapse of Rome returned back to the scale armours. Exception was Byzantine Empire from where it later came again to the rest of “the Old Continent” after it was imported by the merchants and when the local infrastructures and technologies were advanced enough to produce own mail armours. It experienced the biggest boom in 13th and 14th centuries.
The basic elements were riveted iron rings connected together. There were three main parts of the armour - head, torso (including or excluding the arms) and legs. The torso or more specifically most of the body was often protected by hauberk which was a tunic (cloth or leather) with the rings attached on its entire outer surface. Hauberk had sleeves covering whole arms and was long enough to reach the soldier’s knees. A split allowed spreading legs and riding a horse. Some of the hauberks were featured with a hood. There was also a lighter version which went only to the thighs and had shorter sleeves (or none at all) and it was known as haubergeon. Medieval fighters were wearing a gambeson underneath the hauberk. It was quilted woollen coat stuffed with old clothes or horse hair. Its function was to provide a better protection against those weapons which were not fully stopped by the mail and could cause injuries.
Knights were covering the hauberk with surcoat. Surcoat was a sleeveless tunic, basically a stripe of expensive cloth with a hole for the head which was tighten by a strap by the knight’s waist. Coat of arms was displayed there and identified the knight. Surcoats were probably invented primarily as prevention from overheating during the Crusades in Middle East. Local hot climate was very unfriendly to the soldiers covered in metal rings from heads to feet. From 13th century some of the surcoats were improved by adding metal plates. It was practically the first step to the plate armours which later replaced the mail.
The other parts of the body were of course well protected too. The head was covered with a mail coif which was under the knight’s helmet. Neck and shoulders were often shielded by extra mail collar. A pair of mail gloves on the hands was also necessary. Soldiers wore trousers covered by mail armour leg protection although earlier versions were protected only from the front. Sabatons were mail armour worn on the feet (at first metatarsus only, later the whole sabaton boots were made).
The mail armour was very effective against sword attacks but weak against arrows, spears or pikes. Therefore it was disappearing from the battlefields of west Europe (late 14th and 15th century) and later from the other countries as well.
Source: illumination of the Morgan Bible, 13th century
Production of fine mail armour required handy and thorough armourer and plenty of time. Single craftsman needed up to one year. No wonder it was high valued commodity and especially in early medieval period only the richest noblemen could afford to equip their units with it.
First of all the armourer had to make himself a round wire as thick as he needed the future rings to be, usually between 1 and 1.5 mm in diameter. Each mail consumed approximately 600 meters of such wire. The wires were wound onto the rods so the spirals were created. Various rods were used to create spirals with different inner diameters because some parts of the armour like neck, shoulders or chest needed smaller rings to secure better protection. After removing the rods, the spirals were cut with a chisel in order to create the rings (about 16 000 pieces per one armour) with overlapping ends.
The overlapping ends were flattened and little holes were punched though them. That was where a rivet went after the ring was connected with its four neighbours. The mesh from the rings could be woven into a tunic to create hauberk. The quality (and price) level was controlled by the guilds.
Illustration at the top of this article displays knights in their mail armours and it originally comes from Codex Mannese or Große Heidelberger Liederhandschrift (Great songs manuscript of Heidelberg) from early 14th centrury.
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