Part 72 - Q & A VI: Blackmaille at the faire!
by Lord Thomas the Black


Q & A VI: Blackmaille at the faire!

             Welcome back to another edition of Blackmaille!

             This month, I thought I’d cover some of the common questions we get at the Black Oak Maille Guild’s annual demonstration at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival. For the most part, I’ve avoided the questions that I’ve already answered in previous Q&A articles, but sometimes one sneaks through. Anyway, on with the show…

 What are you doing here?

            This is usually asked by obnoxious drunks late in the day, but occasionally by otherwise normal-seeming people who missed the huge “Black Oak MAILLE Guild” sign up front.

            What we’re doing is demonstrating the craft of making medieval maille armor. As best as we can, we’re copying the tools and methods of the medieval period, and producing armor that is similar in appearance, if not in exact make-up or methodology, to real maille armor of the time. In addition, our “camp” setup portrays maillers on campaign, paid personal armorers of a wealthy knight, left behind with the baggage train to repair their knight’s armor at the end of the day. To this end, we explain the difference between running a maille shop in town, and being a camp follower.

 So what is the difference between running a shop and being a camp follower?

            The main difference is one of productivity. In a shop in town, maille would be produced assembly-line style, with a separate apprentice assigned to each step of the process (one coiling wire, one cutting rings, etc). The emphasis in town is more on production of maille for sale. The shop is focused on making new maille garments to bring in business.

            In the field, on the other hand, the emphasis is more on repair of existing maille. Most of the day is spent on foraging for food and supplies, or working on maille brought for repair the previous evening. When the knights return from the day’s battle, then there’s work to be done fixing holes and other damage to maille before the next day’s battle. Each apprentice would be given his own workload to handle, and production of new maille would be limited to a few rings here and there as needed.

 How much does this weigh?

            It depends on the piece we’re talking about. A riveted maille coif might only weigh 5-6 lbs, while a butted maille hauberk can weigh as much as 65-70 lbs. It all depends on the size of the piece, the materials used, and the method of construction.

How long does this take?

            Again, it depends on the piece in question. Generally speaking, a coif will take about a month or so, working 2-3 hours a day, while a hauberk will take close to six months. That’s for butted maille. Figure roughly twice that if working in riveted maille.

Isn’t that tedious?

            Tedious: adj. 1 Marked by dullness; long and tiresome. 2. Causing weariness or boredom, as through verbiosity. – syn. 1. Wearing, boring, tiring, monotonous, dull.

            Wow. Once you look up the definition of “tedious”, that question’s just a bit rude, don’t you think? “Hey, you guys seem pretty busy, and seem to be having a lot of fun here, but isn’t this kind of thing about as interesting as watching paint dry?” Ironically, nine times out of ten, it’s the people who ask this who’ll stand there and watch us for an hour! As one of the great philosophers of our time once said, “Boredom sets into the boring mind”[1]

            To answer the question, no, I don’t find it tedious at all. Granted, it’s long hours of work doing the same repetitive tasks over and over, and some may find that tedious. I find it helps me to relax, and it helps me focus (I have a mild case of ADD). For me, maille is a sort of meditation, except that when I’m done, I’m not only relaxed and focused, I have armor (try THAT in yoga class)!

Is this hard?

            Short answer: No, not really. The individual steps involved in making maille are all relatively easy by themselves, and once you learn the patterns, weaving maille isn’t hard, wither. The only difficulties I’ve come across are finding the time to work on it (if you don’t put in at least 2-3 hours a day, you won’t see much in the way of progress), and when I started doing riveted maille, finding the tools (tools for riveted maille can be found online, if you’re willing to look for them, but period-looking tools are a different matter).

Which is better, scale or maille?

            It depends on what you mean. If you’re looking for armor for Roman re-enactment (for example), either one would work, as the Roman Empire had and used both kinds of armor. If you’re talking about protection, it depends on what you’re protecting against. Maille probably protected better than scales against slashing attacks (assuming the scales are attached to a leather backing, or tied to each other, like in lamellar). Against archery, on the other hand, scale armor is the undeniable winner. We’ve proven time and again at fest that bodkin-tipped arrows will puncture maille easily, but have difficulty puncturing scales. If you’re talking about ease of construction, I’m going to say maille, but that’s just my opinion. I’ve never tried making scale armor (the Blackmaille on scale armor was written by a student of mine with more experience in that than me). I would guess that scale-maille gets easier with practice (like anything else), though.

I saw something about this on “Conquest” (or “MythBusters”)…

            Woah, woah, woah, WOAH! Stop right there. Before you go too far into your question, we need to talk about these shows, and why I have to ask you to leave my demo if either of these are your only research into medieval armor (or you cite either show as a source of your “expertise” in maille). RANT MODE ON:

            “Conquest” is (was?) a “documentary” series that appeared on the History Channel, starring actor, stuntman, and historical weapons expert Peter Woodward. In each episode he (or occasionally an outside expert) teaches his small group of assistants a particular type of weapon, or a set of weapons from a particular time period, while demonstrating their function, describing their comparative advantages and disadvantages, and discussing their history. Near the end, the host sets up a challenge in which the group must demonstrate their knowledge of the weapons in a simulated exercise. At times the exercise is largely scripted in advance, but at other times involves (safe) free sparring without a predetermined outcome. This adds a certain “reality TV” aspect to the show.[2]

            My problem with this show comes from the host’s (or writers’, or director’s, or producer’s) complete lack of research into the weapons, armor, etc that they’re displaying. Most of the armor and weapons are cheap Museum Replicas stuff, and their idea of “Finding out how effective this stuff was” consists of swinging them around and acting like they know what they’re talking about.

            For example, in the “Arms and Armor of the Medieval Knight” episode, they put a butted-maille shirt[3] on a wooden post[4], and hit it with an axe[5]. Of course, they obliterated it. This leads Peter Woodward to wonder why maille was used as armor for so long, when it clearly wasn’t very effective. Maille was the dominant armor on the battlefields of medieval Europe for more than 1600 years (600 BCE - @ 1350 CE), and they didn’t use what didn’t work. I honestly can’t watch this episode past the first five minutes anymore.

            “MythBusters” is a popular science program on the Discovery Channel, starring special effects experts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, who use basic elements of the scientific method to test the validity of various rumors and urban legends in popular culture. I really liked this show when it first started, but lately, it’s degenerated into “let’s see how much we can blow up real good in an episode”. “MythBusters” has abandoned all pretense to research, accuracy, or education, and with it, their credibility as a source in any argument. Most of their “mythbusting” consists of testing a story under the original conditions, and if it’s “busted”, then they try to see what it takes to MAKE it work. A lot of it involves building elaborate, Rube-Goldberg-esque machines to test their harebrained theories, and unfortunately, it’s usually because of these machines that the theory fails. For example, in probably their most controversial failure ever, they were testing the old Robin Hood “arrow-split-by-another-arrow” story. They built their contraptions to shoot the arrows, and failed to split one with another try after try. The problem is this: In the Errol  Flynn “Robin Hood” movie they cited as the source of this “myth”, that shot wasn’t trick photography! One arrow was actually split by another, fired by a trained, professional trick-shot archer! The DVD even shows him doing this shot again and again, and you can see there’s no trick photography being used! For that matter, I (and others) have personally witnessed this happening at the Crossbow Archery line at renfest! Apparently, the prevailing theory on “MythBusters” is one of “If we can’t do it, it can’t be done!” to which I have to call “shenanigans!” RANT MODE OFF

            Well, that wraps it up for another edition of Blackmaille! Thanks for joining us again. As usual, any questions, comments, hate mail or fan mail can (and should) be sent to me at:

                                    c/o Tom Beckett
                                    13628 Belmead Ave
                                    Grandview, MO 64030

Or you can email me at:          

            See you next month!

[1] Metallica, “The Struggle Within” Hetfield/Ulrich, 1991   Metallica rocks!
[2] Wikipedia
[3] Butted maille wasn’t used in the middle ages. All maille back then was riveted, and much stronger than modern butted maille.
[4] A wooden post does NOT, in any way, even remotely approximate the resistance given by a human body. Not only that, but Woodward didn’t even bother with putting a shirt and gambeson under the maille, which makes a world of difference as well.
[5] Axes weren’t the dominant weapon on the battlefield during the “Age of Mail”. The weapon that should have been used was the sword.  The axe became more popular as a weapon after the transition to plate armor in the latter Middle Ages.


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