Long before chain letters, there was chain mail

Chain mail (or maille) is a form of body armor worn by European knights and other medieval warriors. It was certainly the most popular form of body armor for the factions facing off at Hastings in 1066 (the stage for our fair this year).

Small, riveted steel rings afforded great protection for the medieval knight.

Small, riveted steel rings afforded great protection for the medieval knight.

An early form of mail, made by sewing iron rings to fabric or leather, was worn in late Roman times and may have originated in Asia. Medieval armorers interlaced the rings, which were closed by welding or riveting. In the 8th century, mail was a short coat with a separate sleeve for the sword arm. By the Norman Conquest (1066), the coat was long and fully sleeved; a hood (also known as a coif) , usually fitting under a helmet, covered the head and neck. By the 12th century, mail was fitted to hands, feet, and legs. The addition of plates to increase chest and back protection gradually evolved in the 14th century into complete plate armour, displacing mail.

Though a good mail shirt might weigh in at more than 60 pounds, it was surprisingly flexible and easy to move in. As with all forms of armor, though, each individual had to find his own balance between weight/flexibility and protection. Smaller rings meant better protection, but that also meant more rings were needed which increased cost and weight while decreasing maneuverability.

Though mail was worn by infantry and calvary alike, the finest mail almost always was displayed on horseback, since knights and lords were the ones who could afford the fine work, as well as the horses. If a mail shirt passes the waist, you will typically see a slit up either the front/back or along each side so the wearer may have better use of his legs. If the slits run front and back, the wearer was calvary as he needed the ability to straddle the horse in relative comfort. Side slits belonged to infantry as the foot soldier also needed the mobility, but needed the direct protection in the front more than the mounted soldier.

A modern reproduction of helm, coif and shirt. Modern reproductions are generally given away by a shinier, lighter color from aluminum, or zinc-plating to prevent steel rusting.

A modern reproduction of helm, coif and shirt. Modern reproductions are generally given away by a shinier, lighter color from aluminum, or zinc-plating to prevent steel rusting.

Some of the finest modern chain mail can be seen at this year’s Sarasota Medieval Fair, worn by our cast members and guests, and sold by our fine merchants. While much of today’s mail is aluminum and not welded or riveted (in order to save on weight, cost, and time), steel mail is still widely made. If one is willing to pay the extra price, riveted or welded suits are still available as well. Come see some of this medieval heavy metal at this year’s fair!

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Published in: on July 18, 2009 at 7:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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