The quintessential image of a medieval knight is a gracious, horse-mounted warrior, clad in shining plate armour. It cannot be denied that this idol is spectacular, but it is unrealistic and implies the use of plate armour as the most common form of defensive clothing in the Middle Ages. This is, in fact, untrue. Throughout the medieval period, especially the Early Middle Ages, chainmail was the best, most practical armour available.
The term “chainmail” only came into use in the 1800s, after Sir Walter Scott coined the name in his 1812 book “The Fortunes of Nigel”. During medieval times it was simply referred to by the material is was made from, maille.
Chainmail armour has existed in Europe since at least 300 BC, and it is believed that the Celts of North West Europe, specifically Britain, first started using shirts of interlocked metal rings as defensive clothing for combat. This armour was also used by Germanic foe-de-rarti in the Roman army for a substantial period. The Romans also produced a type of plate armour called Lorica Segmentata, but plate armour was abandoned for centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. At the Museum of Denmark there is the oldest preserved chainmail shirt in Northern Europe, and it weighs just eight kilograms, a far lighter load than the plate armour of the Late Middle Ages.
Chainmail was invented based on ancient scale armour, which was often uncomfortable and restricted mobility. Brass and iron were frequently used in the production of chainmail, but steel quickly became the most popular material by far. It was more flexible, stronger, and easier to work with. While scale armour was easier to make, chainmail offered a more fluid protective layer. It made long sword slices close to impossible, as well as allowing foot soldiers to spend more time on the field facing multiple opponents. In a heated early medieval battle, this simple metal vest could be a literal lifesaver.
Despite its protective capabilities against sword slashes, chainmail was still partially vulnerable to stabs, especially in areas where the metal rings were badly linked. A poorly made chainmail shirt could mean death for a soldier in an intense combat situation. Additionally, chainmail did very little to protect its wearer against blunt impacts. To improve protection against powerful blunt blows delivered by clubs or the backs of axes, a padded layer called a gambeson or aketon was worn beneath the mail. This thick layer would absorb a lot of the kinetic energy of a strong smash.
Another obvious disadvantage of chainmail was its poor performance against medium and short-range arrows strikes. Arrows fired from longbows, which often had enormous draw weights of over a hundred pounds, could amass such kinetic energy that they’d easily penetrate the steel vest and the gambeson beneath. When crossbows became popular in Europe during the High and Late Middle Ages, chainmail was nearly useless against bolts travelling with immense power. This is one of many reasons why plate armour became popular in later medieval times.
However, in the Early Middle Ages, the first knights usually wore a leather or cloth tunic over which metal scales or rings were laid. At first, chainmail only covered the torso, but it was gradually extended to shield the legs, arms and hands, and hoods were added later. The term given to a chainmail shirt stretching knee-length was a hauberk, while a mid-thigh-length shirt was a haubergeon, and a burnie measured waist-length. In the twelfth century – the height of medieval times – chainmail coifs came into common use, particularly due to combat in the Middle East, while in Scandinavia, only the most elite Norse military leaders wore chainmail.
Chainmail rings were either made by stamping circular shapes out of a thin sheet of iron, or by cutting steel into wire then bending cut-off sections to bring the ends together. Steel wire was produced by shaping a rod in the forgery and stretching it out through several wooden holes before slicing it into equal lengths. Once the wire sections were bent into their circular shapes, they would be hammered flat. Ring sizes in chainmail shirts varied greatly, the smallest being about 5mm in diameter from a find at Hedegard, compared to the 12.5mm diameter of chainmail found at Thorsbjerg. Modern research into chainmail manufacturing techniques suggests that after producing the steel wire, basic tools like pliers and hammers were used to bend the rings into place and connect up the mesh.
Even though connecting the chainmail rings was a painstakingly slow process, the weaves were relatively simple, and a blacksmith did not need extraordinary training to achieve a chainmail vest. Guild books from medieval Germany indicate that a blacksmith would take on average six months to finish making a shirt of mail, which is why only the nobility could afford chainmail armour. Chainmail was used for an exceptionally long time and was the dominant form of versatile full-body armour for almost the entire Middle Ages. It was most necessary, however, during the 5th and 6th centuries, during which time the mythological King Arthur came to rule over the legendary Kingdom of Camelot and huge swathes of Western Europe.