By Danièle Cybulskie
If you’ve spent any time reading this blog in the past, you’ve no doubt noticed that, when it comes to the Middle Ages, I like to get my hands involved in my learning. Recently, I picked up a new hobby in this vein: making chain mail. Besides keeping my hands busy during these long winter nights, making my own chain mail creations has helped me learn a little bit more about chain mail in general, and why it was so widely used.
Like so many ancient inventions, the beauty of chain mail is in its simplicity. Although making chain mail was (and is!) a painstaking process (click here for a great article on the historical process), the weaves are relatively simple. There are many different types, but here are a few I’ve worked with, pictured from the top down: helm (I’ve also seen this called “Celtic”), Byzantine, Persian, and Japanese.
Given that chain mail is a whole bunch of metal rings tightly woven together, I thought that it would be much stiffer to move. In reality, chain mail is very flexible by nature; in order for the rings to fit through each other, there is usually space left over for them to move and turn. This makes it ideal for shaping around a human body, especially one that needs to be in constant motion, as in battle. Depending on the tightness of the weave, chain mail can expand and contract, as well as bend. Sometimes, it moves like water. When I finished a complicated weave and passed it around to a few people, the brightness of the silver and the watery movement of the mail prompted them to compare it to Bilbo’s mithril shirt in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Here is my “mithril” bracelet, using a vertical Byzantine weave in the middle, surrounded by a helm weave on the top and bottom (I learned this design from Rebeca Mojica’s book: Chained. She calls it “Rondo a la Byzantine”).
The other wonderful thing about chain mail is the physics of using many small pieces for a larger construction. The weave distributes the weight of the mail over the body, and also distributes the impact from a weapon, reducing its force. This doesn’t mean that wearing chain mail would keep you from getting hurt – a hefty sword swing could still break bones – but it would give you a lesser bruise than if you were using leather armour, and also save you pain and dismemberment from slashing or stabbing.
Chain mail can be penetrated by crossbow bolts and by arrows, especially if they’re shot from a longbow, so plate was added to counter those threats around the 13th century (as mentioned in Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World). Both chain and plate mail could be used in combination so that the chain mail could protect the bendy parts of the body that may have been vulnerable between plates. A full chain mail shirt would be too expensive for peasantry, but worth the money to the nobility who found themselves frequently in battle.
While you wouldn’t see people going to dinner in their chain mail in the Middle Ages (despite what some novelists and movie-makers may suggest), there is a whole range of chain mail jewellery you can find on the Internet, or make yourself, for your own dinner dates. I’ve even seen a chain mail tie. A quick search will get you going, but be warned: this stuff is so beautiful and interesting that it’s all too easy to find yourself getting lost in the mail.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist