Maille, or mail as it is anglicized, is a type of armor made of small interlinked metal (iron, steel, brass…) rings. It is also sometimes referred to as chainmail, which is a neologism dating back at least to the 19th century, mistakenly using mail to mean armor as a whole.

A reenactor wears the equipment of a 11th/12th century knight, featuring complete maille armor under a tabard and a nasal helmet.

Maille armor was likely invented in several different locations in History, with the Celts usually being credited with creating it as far as Europe is concerned. It is one of longest lived types of armor and was used as early as the Iron Age all the way to the modern day, where it has been used as anti-shark armor by divers, and by specialty police units in France and England as a defense against Muslims, wielding knives (some things never change).

It was historically worn alone or as a complement to various types of plate armor. It was reliable against melee blows and projectiles, but with a distinct advantage when dealing with slashes from an edged weapons. Due to its flexibility however it did not do well against blunt weapons.

With each ring being linked to about half a dozen other, maille acted in all intent and purpose like a very heavy sword-proof fabric, making it very useful to protect the joints of a rigid suit of armor. When used as a full suit or shirt, the weight of maille armor would be carried on the shoulder and at the waist by using a belt. It was usually worn over at least a fabric garment and more usually some kind of padded armor like a gambeson.

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Related Vocabulary

  • Butted Mail: Maille where each individual link is not actually closed, with both ends of the wire forming it simply touching each other. This was mostly used in Japan with finer maille made of smaller rings.
  • Riveted Mail: Maille as found commonly in History, where each link is closed around its neighbors using a single rivet.
  • Welded Mail: Maille where each link is welded or soldered shut, which is an historically rare method, used primarily by the Romans for their Lorica Hamata.
  • Hauberk: Western name used for a maille shirt, usually covering the thighs as well.
  • Camail: Head protection made entirely of maille.
  • Aventail: Neck and shoulder protection made of maille and attached to a helmet.

 

 

19 COMMENTS

  1. There’s also the ventail, which is a flap of maille with padding that hangs off the hood of a hooded hauberk. You literally wrap it around your lower face, providing protection to your cheeks, mouth and neck. And had the advantage of being able to be unhooked for breathing and for shouting out commands.

    This is seen in the Bayeaux Tapestry when William the Conqueror removes his nasal helm (a conical cap with a rigid nasal piece and undoes his ventail, thus proving that he was, in fact, alive and not injured or dead as rumor had it. This was the turning point at the Battle of Hastings.

    And, surprisingly, European maille is rather resistant to broadhead arrows and only piles and bodkins (armor piercing needle points) work on maille.

    Good stuff. Still used as late as WWII in French tanker armor to protect against spalling (mostly by hanging off the tanker helmet.

    • Draping it over the belt helps a great deal. If you were a man-at-arms or a knight, wearing it daily would help you become strong enough that you wouldn’t be fatigued by it.

      • If it’s properly strapped, it’s no more annoying than wearing winter gear. And a darn sight better than some modern armor arrangements. Why? Because it flexes.

    • Sentence above: ” It was usually worn over at least a fabric garment and more usually some kind of padded armor like a gambeson.” The surcoat goes over the mail to identify the wearer. Sometimes worn and sometimes not.

      Not mentioned above was the provenance of mail. The dead were stripped of boiled leather curasses and mail and it was re-used, often mended if it had been pierced somewhere critical. Some chainmail was quite old, drug behind a horse along the seashore to polish it when it rusted, and reused.

    • Titanium, while strong, has a brittle property (like a ceramic) that might make it lighter to wear for reenactments, but would you want to wear it in a genuine Medieval melee?

      • Titanium would be fine if backed by something to help suck up the blow.

        But, as said above, a nice stainless welded/riveted suit will work dandy.

        Both will stop an edge cut or slice, and help spread the blow. But stainless or regular steel has more mass behind it to help suck up the hurt.

        Carbon Fiber is best used like silk, to help stop punctures. You can beat the heck out of the matrix that carbon fibers are in and that would destroy the matrix and expose all of that carbon fiber which isn’t really good for one’s longterm health.

      • It’s all part of that Napoleonic based cloth armor with all of the ribbon work and stuffed or padded decorative stuff that actually works to serve as armor from slashes. Easier to replace the ribbons or stuffed parts than the whole thing.

        And the chainmail epaulettes are to protect the shoulder from slashes and cuts. Sabers are a slashing weapon, especially when on horseback. Slash and hack. Which maille is an excellent guard against. And when fighting man on man in a charge, downward strokes are what you mostly get.

  2. A properly made gambeson is actually fairly decent armour in its own right and when covered in mail is very effective armour. One does notice its weight at the shoulders but a proper belt and arming points do help quite a bit.
    I still have my hauberk but once I switched to plate I modified it to cover only the areas it didn’t cover.
    Chain was not as popular in the SCA as their swords and weapons, which are simulated by the use of rattan, basically makes them blunt force weapons.
    Thus Brigantine and Coat of Plates are much more common amongst that organizations combatants. They are also easier to manufacture, knitting mail is tedious, time-consuming work.

    • We’re starting to see a lot more maille in the SCA as long as it’s backed up with a gambeson and some hidden chicken-plates under the maille covering the kidneys and lower spine (which a weightlifter’s belt works quite well.

      And I fought in a full length gambeson (from neck to below knees with long sleeves, with the skirt split in quarters) in Florida for years until it finally died. Was great armor for fighting in, supplemented with a simple hardened leather breast and back (which got replaced by pickle barrel armor because the pb plastic armor doesn’t rot like leather.)

  3. There is a tail told of a chain mail curtain, made in Scotland 20 ft x 12 . It was hanging on the wall of a restaurant in the Biloxi Hard Rock Cafe. The night before the soft opening of the Biloxi Hard Rock , hurricane Katrina came ashore. This curtain is somewhere in the MS sound. With the proper equipment it could probably be found. Not many people knew it was there or how much it cost.

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