Part 28 - "Theta" Rings, Part One
by Lord Thomas the Black



             Welcome back to another edition of Blackmaille!

             This month (and next) I thought I’d document a recent experiment tried by myself and some of my students at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival earlier this year. It involves a seldom-seen type of ring found in some extant examples of medieval maille, known among scholars as a “theta” rings. This is a long, picture-heavy article, and may take some time to load. The length of this documentary also necessitated splitting it into two separate articles, with the history, theory, and beginning of the experiment this month, and the results next month.

History of Theta rings in maille

            Theta rings are typically riveted rings, woven into the maille as usual, with a bar through the middle of the ring. They’re called theta rings for their resemblance to the Greek letter Theta. They’re usually found in examples of pre-14th century Persian maille armor, with upwards of 20-30 such rings appearing in a typical hauberk.

(photo courtesy of Forth Armory)

Scholars disagree on the whys and wherefores of the appearance of theta rings, but I believe I’ve discovered not only why they were used, but also how they were made, and why they appear so infrequently.

Theta ring theory

            My theory is based on the fact that theta rings appear mostly in maille dated to before the 14th century, and in Persian maille, and has to do with the tools used in the manufacture of maille. In early 14th century Europe, we find references to what would appear to be a floor- or table-mounted crank-style mandrel used to coil wire into rings[1]. The reason for this is advances in technology that allowed much longer lengths of wire to be drawn consistently. In Persia, and in Europe prior to the 14th century, maillers would use a hand-mandrel to coil their rings. E. Martin Burgess, in his treatise “The Maille-maker’s Technique”[2] depicts a hand mandrel as a short length of round bar-stock set into a handle, with a hole drilled in one end in which to insert the end of the wire and thus start the coil (Fig 1). The hand mandrel I use (and which I have seen other examples of), on the other hand, uses a short notch in the end of the bar stock (Fig. 2).

                                                Fig 1 
                                     E. M. Burgess’ mandrel           


                                                Fig. 2
                                    My hand mandrel

            The upside to the slot instead of the hole is two-fold: 1.) The coil is easier to remove from the mandrel, as it can simply be slid off the end, instead of needing to be cut from the hole. 2.) It wastes less wire, as there is no cut-off short piece left after cutting the coil from the mandrel. Instead, that short piece, where the wire is inserted into the slot to start the coil, is bent at an angle across the coil. This is the point where I realized that the end of the coil, with the starter bar across it, looked like the theta rings in medieval maille.

Theta ring practical experiment, part one

            My experiment, then, was to see if I could produce a riveted theta ring, similar to those found in extant examples of medieval maille, using similar tools and techniques to those used in the manufacture of medieval maille (at least, to the degree that we could do so safely). I’ve documented each step in the process of both the theta ring manufacture, as well as the subsequent steps involved in incorporating the resultant ring into a riveted maille project.  

            The first step in this experiment was to create a reasonable facsimile of a theta ring. We start by coiling wire into rings using our hand mandrel. First, the end of the wire is inserted into the slot in the mandrel (Fig 3), and then the mandrel is twisted, coiling the wire around it (Fig. 4).


                       Fig. 3                                                                Fig. 4
               Starting the coil                                                 Coiling the wire 

            The resulting coil has a theta-ring appearance to the end, thanks to the short end with which it was started (Fig. 5). When the rings are cut from the coil, the leftover ring with the starter end closely resembles a theta ring (Fig. 6).


                      Fig 5                                                                  Fig 6
                 Finished coil                                                    Cut theta ring  

            Next, the rings are annealed (Fig. 7). This is a normal step in the riveted maille process. In this case, I used a MAPP gas blowtorch, instead of a forge as would have been used in period. This deviation from period tools/methods was made for safety reasons. The annealed theta ring, once cooled, is now ready for the next step (Fig 8).


                       Fig. 7                                                                Fig. 8
                Annealing rings                                             Annealed theta ring 

            The next step in the riveted maille process involves flattening the rings so that the overlapped area can be punched for the rivet. In my case, I use a ring flattener, for its ease in use. The flattener is set on the anvil, then the ring is placed in the chamber (Fig. 9). Then the piston is inserted on top, and the ring is struck with the hammer (Fig. 10).


                       Fig. 9                                                                Fig. 10
              Flattener set up                                                  Striking flattener 

Usually this results in a flat, even ring that can then be punched for the rivet. In this case, with two separate attempts, it resulted in the overlap mashing to the sides, and two unuseable rings (Fig. 11). Bummer. Then, it occurred to me that the ring flattener is a modern concession to convenience. It wasn’t used in period. In medieval maille manufacture, each ring was simply placed on the anvil and flattened with a hammer. With practice, one can produce many good rings this way. Sadly, I do not possess such skill. In an attempt to avoid a horrible missed hammer blow, we used the two-hammer method. We placed the ring on the anvil (Fig. 12), then I set my small ball-pien hammer on top of the ring, and we struck the back side of the hammer with our cross-pien hammer (Fig. 13). The result of this method still skipped, but not near as much (Fig. 14). I may be on to something!


                      Fig. 11                                                               Fig. 12
         Flattener-flattened rings                                              Ring on anvil                                               


                        Fig 13                                                              Fig 14
        Hammer-on-hammer action                                  Hammer-flattened ring 

            After much debate, it was determined that the reason it still skipped was because the ball-pien hammer’s rounded back face made striking a solid, direct blow impossible. It was decided that we would need a flat-faced hammer, like a baby sledge. Unfortunately, none of us was in possession of one at the time. So, further experimentation was postponed until such a tool could be procured…

            Thus ends part one of our two-part experimentation. Stay tuned next month for part two, wherein we’ll cover the results of the baby sledge trial, and weave our new theta ring into an ongoing maille project. Thank you for joining me for another edition of “Blackmaille”! As usual, any questions, concerns, rebuttals, or praise can be sent to me at:

                        Thomas Beckett
                        Attn: Blackmaille
                        13628 Belmead Ave
                        Grandview, MO 64030

            See you all next month! 

[1] A. J. Arkell,  “The making of maille at Omdurman”  KUSH, vol IV, pg 83-85, 1956

[2] E. Martin Burgess, “The Maille-maker’s Technique”  Reprinted from The Antiquaries’ Journal, vol XXXIII, 1953


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