Chain mail was a prominent piece of armor during the Middle Ages between the fifth and sixteenth centuries. European mail was generally manufactured through a process of drawing and coiling iron wire into links that were later flattened to create a mesh-like fabric. Research on chain mail suggests that manufacturers probably used simple tools, including pliers and a hammer to construct and flatten the links. The finished product was mostly metallic in color resulting from the iron used to form the links.
During the twelfth century, English knights implemented the use of chain mail as part of a piece of armor called the hauberk, which consisted of a chain mail shirt of mid-thigh length worn on top of a padded tunic. As the twelfth century progressed, chain mail began to cover more of the body, including chausses, or leggings, and sleeves that extended to the mittens used to protect one’s hands. The small, intricate fabric of iron coils helped deflect jabs from swords and even proved useful in battle when facing arrows from most longbows. The use of chain mail, however, had its drawbacks. It might have been ineffective in providing sufficient protection when facing blows from large, heavy weapons like an axe or lance. In fact, chain mail could sometimes exacerbate injuries if the lacerated coils of iron pierced a wound after a blow.
This particular piece of chain mail is 900 mm in length by 600 mm in width, weighing approximately 14 kg. This mail shirt has sleeves that extend about halfway down the forearm and slightly below the torso. It dates to the late medieval period, from approximately 1300-1485, and may very well have been used to protect a knight in battle during England’s Hundred Years’ War with France. According to Matthew Strickland’s War and Chivalry, dismounted knights fighting on foot were characteristic of English military tactics used during the Hundred Years’ War. A knight’s chain mail would have given him great protection for close combat fighting, and its mesh-like consistency allowed for greater flexibility in terms of his mobility during battle.
Considering the military context in which it was used and the intricate, labor-intensive process that was needed in order to create it, chain mail was probably a luxury only a knight higher up in the ranks of the English army could afford. In fact, a knight’s advantage fighting alongside his more poorly armored sergeants and infantry was acknowledged in the Rule of Temple, which allowed those without mail to withdraw from battle if injured while not permitting those with mail to do the same. Perhaps the best indicator of chain mail’s high cost and value can be found in the royal transaction accounts. In his description of military equipment made and used in medieval England, Michael Prestwich explains that, in London, Henry III once bought two surcoats, two corslets (made of mail), and two pairs of iron boots for sixteen marks, which amounts to $64, or approximately £42, in today’s currency.
Prestwich, Michael. Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages the English Experience. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.
Smith, Cyril. “Methods of Making Chain Mail (14th to 18th Centuries): A Metallographic Note.” Technology and Culture 1, no. 1 (1959): 60-67.
Strickland, Matthew. War and Chivalry: The Conduct and Perception of War in England and Normandy, 1066-1217. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.