BLACKMAILLE
Part 2 - A Brief History of Mail
by Lord Thomas the Black
 


BLACKMAILLE

A BRIEF HISTORY OF MAIL

            Welcome back to another month of Blackmaille! This month, I thought we'd look into the background of this art/science, and examine
some of its long history.
            To begin with, the term "chainmail" is a misnomer dating to Victorian literature
[1]. The term "mail" by itself means "chain", so "chainmail"
is just redundant
[2]. "Mail" is derived from the French "maille", which in turn comes from the Latin "macula" meaning "mesh" or "mesh of a net"
due to its resemblance to a fishing net
[3].
            To date, the oldest piece of mail found has been dated to around 300 BC, and was found in a Celtic gravesite
[4]. While no one knows
for sure, it is widely accepted that mail was first invented by the ancient Celts, and quickly adopted by the Roman Legions
[5]. From there, it
spread to the rest of the known world as the Romans conquered lands for the glory of the Empire.
            Throughout much of the Middle Ages, mail was the dominant armor on the battlefield
[6]. As common as it was, however, mail wasn't
cheap. A full suit of mail consisting of coif, hauberk, and chausses could cost as much as the rest of a knight's equipment combined
[7]. This
limited mail mostly to the nobility, with peasants scavenging what they could from the bodies of the slain. Still, the manufacture and repair of
mail was a growth industry in the Middle Ages, and in some countries such as Germany and Italy, whole towns were built around the manufacture
and export of mail on a large scale
[8].
            Sometime in the 13th century, mail began to be replaced by plate armor
[9]. The reasons for this are varied. One reason may be the
advance of technology, making plate steel more easily available to armorers
[10]. Another reason may be sociological. As mail-making and
other guilds sprang up, the merchant/artisan class began to gain more political power in their towns. With political power came wealth, and
with wealth came the means to afford better armor than they'd had before. Now, with their underlings better armored, it became necessary
for the nobility to increase their own protection, so as to avoid an uprising
[11]. Yet another reason may well be the medieval "arms race".
Swords were made that could pierce mail. Armor was made to protect against these swords. Hammers, maces, and other blunt weapons
were made to defeat that armor. Mail, being useless against blunt weapons, fell by the wayside
[12]. I suspect the truth is it was probably a
combination of all these factors and more.
            Still, even with plate taking over the battlefield, mail still had its place. "Voiders" were pieces of mail constructed to cover the gaps
in a knight's armor. These were commonly made for the underarms and insides of the elbows, with a "fauld" or skirt tied around the waist
to help protect the groin area. These voiders were often stitched right to the gambeson worn under the armor
[13].
            Continuing on up to the Renaissance, mail still proved itself useful in places. As plate armor fell before the musket and cannon,
and maces, axes, and broadswords gave way to the civilian-carried rapier and small-sword, mail stitched to the palm of a heavy glove
became a surprisingly effective off-hand parry weapon. A tight enough weave of small enough rings, sewn to a heavy leather gauntlet
enabled its wearer to grab their opponent's blade, giving them enough time to deliver a mortal thrust while their opponent is tied up
[14].
            Even today, mail has its uses. Machine-made stainless steel mail is being used for such diverse purposes as butchers' gloves
and divers' shark-proof suits (which, oddly enough, bear a striking resemblance to knights' armor at the height of mail's use!)
[15].
            So now that you have an idea of the background and history of mail, you're welcome to study more on your own. I have
included a bibliography for your perusal, and as the commercials said, "Your local librarian will help you Read More About It!"
As always, any mail-related questions should be sent to:

                                    Blackmaille
                                    c/o Tom Beckett
                                    6522 E 125th St, Apt 2
                                    Grandview, MO 64030
 

            Next month: "Materials and Their Uses"

            See you next month!


[1] Baron Barok Baran  "Compleat Anachronist #23: Arms & Armor III, 400 A.D. to 750 A.D."  Pg, 24-25
[2] Ewart Oakeshotte  "The archaeology of weapons: Arms and Armor From Prehistory to the Age of Chivalry" Pg. 90
[3] Ibid
[4] David Edge  "The Construction and Metallurgy of Mail Armor in the Wallace Collection"  Para. 2  www.the-wallace-collection.org.uk
[5] Ibid
[6] Christopher Gravett "The World of the Medieval Knight" Pg. 16-17
[7] Charles Henry Ashdown  "European Arms and Armor" Pg. 86
[8] Higgins Armory Museum "The Evolution of Plate Armor" Pg. 4  http://users.wpi.edu
[9] Ibid  "A General History of Armor" Pg. 4  http://users.wpi.edu
[10] Ibid  "Economic and Technological Evolution of Europe Relating to the Development of Plate Armor"  Pg. 3   http://users.wpi.edu
[11] Ibid
[12] George Cameron Stone "A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration, and Use of Arms and Armor in All Countries and in All Times"  Pg. 430
[13] Higgins Armory Museum "A General History of Armor" Pg. 8  http://users.wpi.edu
[14] George Silver  "Paradoxes of Defence"  Pg. 27
[15] Paul B. Newman  "Daily Life in the Middle Ages"  Pg. 197



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