The manufacture of chain-mail
Early Iron, The Network for early Iron Technology (1996)
Chain-mail is known in Europe as far back as around 300 BC. The method of manufacture is believed to have been discovered by the Celts, but the oldest remains discovered (in Denmark) are from the Hjortespring find on the island of Als, dated to around 350 BC . This find was excavated by Gustav Rosenberg in 1921-22 and today, there is almost nothing remaining of the material deemed to be chain-mail. Rosenberg describes several square meters covered with heavily corroded material. But there is doubt as to whether this was chain-mail, or a layer of natural iron separation formed around plant roots, the occurrence of which can often be in the form of rings.
The Romans adopted shirts of mail and they were subsequently used throughout the Middle Ages most often in the 12th and 13th centuries but small pieces of mail were used right up until the 17th century as a part of armor. Although shirts of chain-mail were used for nearly 2000 years, there has been surprisingly little interest in the manufacture of them. Since they are a very fine and without doubt a highly specialized craft, carried out over a very long period of time, they are an excellent object for studying technological development from the Iron Age to the Middle Ages.
A shirt of mail is a form of armor, made up of rings. As the rings can move in relation to each other mail is far more supple in relation to plate armor. Chain-mail is also lighter – the almost complete shirt from Vimose, displayed in the Danish National Museum weighs only 8 kg. But a shirt of mail represents much more work than sheet armor, such as the well-known ‘Lorica segmentata’. In the Roman army, only the better-off legionnaires were able to afford a shirt of mail. We do not know how long it took to make a shirt of mail. In medieval German guild books we can see that a mail-maker’s masterpiece was a shirt that would take him 6 months.