Part 98 - Metallurgy & Maille, Pt 2

by Lord Thomas the Black


Metallurgy & Maille, Pt 2

            Welcome back to another edition of Blackmaille!

            Last month, we presented a crash-course in basic metallurgy, and learned how we as a species went from stone tools and weapons to forged steel tools, weapons, and armor. This month, we’ll look at how this science of metallurgy applies to maille armor, and how different treatments of the iron or steel used can produce different effects in the resulting maille.

A Brief History of Armor

            For as long as man has been divided into tribes, there has been conflict between those tribes. The “us-vs.-them” mentality is as hard-wired into our primitive brains as our need for food and shelter. The earliest armor was probably animal hides reinforced with bone and wood[1]. For example, a boar’s tusk helmet found in Greece, dated to 1400 BCE.

            Later, bronze is used by the Greeks in weapons and helmets, but their body armor is made of sheets of linen glued together, called a linothorax[2]. Early Assyrian and Egyptian armor was also quilted linen, not unlike later gambesons[3].

The Age of Maille

            Almost everyone is familiar with the romantic image of the knight in shining armor. The precursor to plate armor, though, is maille. Maille seems to have been a development of the late Iron Age, and was likely developed by the Celts. The oldest piece of surviving maille yet found was excavated from a Celtic grave in Romania, dated to around the 3rd century BCE[4]. This possible developed from armor made of rings threaded onto cords, like netting, a fragment of which was found in a much earlier Celtic grave in Bohemia, dated to the 8thc BCE. Maille is described as a Gallic invention by Roman writers such as Varro in the 1stc BCE[5], and Roman soldiers of that period are depicted on the altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus, which dates from before 30 BCE, as wearing maille.

            Several Pioneering articles on the manufacture of maille have been written by both Cyril Stanley Smith (1959) and C.M. Burgess (1953-1960). The starting point is some sort of wire. There has been some controversy over the earliest appearance of drawn wire[6], but drawing wire is not the only way of making wire, merely the most convenient. Small fragments of iron can be hammered into swages, or strips can be cut from flattened pieces and then twisted. Non-drawn wire has an irregular cross-section, and indeed, that is the appearance of many medieval maille links. The fastest way of making wire is by drawing, i.e. pulling a rod, filed to a taper at one end, through a succession of holes in a draw-plate, each slightly smaller than the one before. This produces wire of a uniform cross-section. The draw-plate is first mentioned by Theophilius, the 11thc writer on metalwork for churches, but may well be much earlier[7]. Excavated maille is usually too severely corroded for its method of manufacture to be determined, but the Coppergate maille (8thc) was found in unusually good condition, and its consistent diameter suggests drawn wire[8].

            The wire, however made, is wrapped around a mandrel to form a coil, which was then cut to make the rings. The ends of the rings are then overlapped, holes punched through both ends, and after weaving the ring into the work in progress, a rivet is pushed through the holes and hammered closed. An alternative method would be to close half of the rings by forge-welding before assembly. This alternation of rows of riveted and welded rings was presumably to save time. The specimen of Roman maille from Brokaer and Hedegard in Denmark as well as the Anglian maille from Sutton Hoo (probably) and that from York (definietely) were all made of such alternating maille[9].

            Modern attempts at re-creating maille suggest that an all-riveted shirt might contain between 28,000 and 50,000 links, depending on their size and the length of the shirt. This might take 1000 hours or more to make[10]. If half the links are welded, the time might be reduced to 750 hours[11]. Another alternative, suggested for the Roman period, is that the non-riveted rings were in fact punched from sheet[12]. This would have reduced the cost of manufacture considerably, but required fairly large pieces of sheet metal, and the evidence for its use remains inconclusive.

            Most medieval European maille consists of all-riveted links. This arrangement is less common but still found in Asian maille. Burgess suggested that all-riveted maille became more common in the 14thc because it could be made denser and so offered better protection. He pointed out that alternately welded and riveted maille requires that each link to be riveted is passed through four welded links before closing, and this limits the size of these links. In all-riveted maille, each link has only to be passed through two others before closure, allowing the link to be made of wire that is thicker relative to its overall diameter[13].

The Metallurgy of Maille      

            The metallurgy of most maille links from Medieval European armors is simply iron or low-carbon steel, but by the 16thc, they exhibit a variety of composition in terms of carbon content, homogeneity, and heat-treatment, just as plate armor does. Although one might have expected that it would have been easier to homogenize small links rather than large plates used for body armor, this doe not seem to have been the case in practice, and many links show very heterogeneous banded microstructures. Indeed, part of the attraction of maille may have been that it could usefully employ small pieces of sheet or wire of variable composition. Those that failed in drawing, perhaps due to too much slag content, could be discarded without undue cost[14].

            There would have been enormous quantities of arms and armor made for the Roman army, both legionaries and Germanic auxiliaries, and which has been estimated as reaching perhaps 435,000 in extent by the 4thc. So, this would imply 435,000 body defenses of some sort, of which (hypothetically) 100<00 were maille shirts in Europe and the Mediterranean area. It is very unlikely that these would all have been discarded, especially during a period of relative economic decline, and the largest part must have been adapted and re-used by subsequent generations. Much early medieval maille might have had Roman origin, although this material cannot now be positively identified. Maille, by its nature, lends itself to recycling. It may be observed in many museums that maille shirts of European as well as those of Turkish or Indian origin frequently consist of many patches of different appearance. The method of repair or alteration is the same as the method of manufacture. New pieces of maille are simply attached by joining a row of links at each edge. As a recent review by Callori[15] points out, maille was popular because of its adaptability to different sizes of wearer, and comparative ease of manufacture. Shape could be given to the limbs of a maille garment simply by varying the numbers of links in a row.

Migration Period and Early Middle Ages

            Throughout the Migration Period (roughly 300CE to 700CE) and into the early Middle Ages, the maille-shirt (byrnie, hauberk, etc) was the principal body defense for those Germanic warriors fortunate enough to be able to afford it. Its adaptability, however, meant that it was frequently repaired and reused, so that very little has survived intact from this period, if indeed much was made new in this period.

            The maille shirt from the burial of the Anglian King Raedwald (c 625 CE) from Sutton Hoo may have had alternate rows welded links and links riveted with copper. No un-corroded metal was found, but traces of copper rivets were[16]. An Anglian helmet of the 8thc was excavated in unusually good condition from the Coppergate, York, and has been studied recently. It was made of several plates of low-carbon iron riveted together to form a skull, with a nasal bar. A curtain of maille was hung from the lower rim of the helmet to protect the wearer’s neck, and was also made up of alternate rows of welded and riveted rings. One of each type was analyzed, together with samples from two of the plates[17]. All consisted of iron or low-carbon steels (generally 0.2%C or less), generally showing banding. The riveted link was almost circular in cross-section; the welded link was more ovoid. No attempt had been made to harden either the plates or the maille by heat-treatment.

            The earliest maille shirt which is relatively intact is said to have belonged to Svaty Vaclav (St Wenceslas, who was martyred in 935 CE), although this shirt cannot be positively dated to the 10thc. It is kept in the Treasury of Prague Cathedral. Studies have been made of this shirt, and found it to have been made of wrought iron[18].

            The Vikings continued to use maille, both alone and with modification. A series of boat-burials at Vendel in Sweden, Valsgarde, and elsewhere from the 7th to the 9thc have yielded samples of maille with rectangular reinforcing plates[19]. This innovation might be ascribed to an Eastern influence. Certainly Vikings used the rivers of Russia to trade to the Black and Caspian seas, as well as setting up the Kingdom of Kiev (by tradition founded @ 864 CE), from which Medieval Russia grew. Russian armor of the Middle Ages was a mixture of maille, scale, and lamellar not unlike that depicted in Byzantine images of soldiers[20]. Likewise, sometimes reinforced with pieces of plate, maille was the principal body armor in the Islamic world and India, as well as Russia, until armor itself went out of use. Ottoman Turkish maille armor seems to have been generally made of iron[21].


             And thus wraps up another edition of Blackmaille! Join us next month, when we wrap up our three-part series on metallurgy with a look at how advances in metallurgy brought about the rise and fall of the armor industry in Medieval Europe. In the meantime, thanks for joining us! As usual, any questions, comments, hate mail or fan mail can be sent to me at:

Thomas Beckett
13628 Belmead Ave
Grandview, MO 64030

Or you can email me at:

             See you next month!


[1] Price, Brian “Techniques of Medieval Armor Reproduction” Paladin Press, 2000

[2] Ffolkes, Charles “The Armorer and His Craft” Dover, 1988

[3] Ibid

[4] Rusu, M. “Das keltische furstengrab von Ciumesti in Rumanien” Germania, 50 (1969) pg. 267-278 and plates 140-149. This shows what appear to be both riveted and forge-welded links of circular cross-section. Most of the links are between 0.8 and 1.8mm thick, and between 8.5 and 9.2mm in diameter. There are also rows of butted links, which were probably a temporary repair.

[5] Williams, Alan “The Knight and the Blast Furnace” pg. 29, Brill-Laden, Boston 2003

[6] Oddy, A. “The Production of Gold Wire in Antiquity” Gold Bulletin, 10 (1977) pg. 79-87

[7] Williams, Alan “The Knight and the Blast Furnace” pg. 30

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Around 5 months @ 6hrs/day, or 10.5-11 months @ 2-3 hrs/day. Yipes!

[11] A little over 4 mo @ 6 hrs/day, or 8 mo @ 2-3 hrs/day. To put this in perspective, a butted maille hauberk, of 14g wire, 4-in-1, @ 30,000 rings, took me 6 mo @ 2-3 hrs/day.

[12] Sim, D.N. “Roman chain-mail: experiments to reproduce the techniques of manufacture” Britannia, 28 (1997) pg. 359-371

[13] Burgess (1958) pg 203

[14] Williams, Alan “The Knight and the Blast Furnace” pg. 31

[15] Callori, F. “Il sabato di San Barnaba-La battaglia di Campaldino (1289)” Exhibition Catalogue: (Bibbiena, 1989) pg 93-99. Protezioni in maglia metallica altomedievali

[16] Williams, Alan “The Knight and the Blast Furnace” pg. 31

[17] Tweddle, D. “The Anglian Helmet from Coppergate” The archaeology of York, 17 (York 1992) contains:

                “Analytical Results” J.Lang, P.Craddock & D.Hook,  pg 1017-1026

                “Technology and Dating of the Mail” S.A.O’Connor, pg. 1057-1082

[18] Williams, Alan “The Knight and the Blast Furnace” pg. 32

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid

[21] Ibid

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