Demystifying Chain Mail and Ring Mail

by Dan Howard

Introduction

A common question from armour novices is “what is the difference between chain mail and ring mail?” This question is not a straightforward one to answer. A lot of the problems we have today with mail terminology can be traced back to scholars of the 18th-19th centuries.

These days we define “mail” as it was defined in the Middle Ages. It consists of a “fabric” of interlocked metal rings which form a strong, flexible, mesh armour. Each ring is linked through four others, two in the row above it and two below. Although there were variations, this “4-in-1” pattern was by far the most prevalent. The word “mail” is derived through the Old English mayle, French maille, and Italian maglia, from the Latin macula meaning the mesh of a net.

Chain Mail

The above definition of mail was not the one used by Victorian scholars, though. They used the word “mail” in a more general sense – to describe any sort of metallic body armour (i.e. “mail” = “armour”). One of the first to use this inaccurate terminology was Francis Grose, who wrote in the late 18th century.(1) It is common to see the word “mail” in translations of early texts in instances where it is clear that the subjects cannot have been wearing mail.

One well-known example is the biblical description of Goliath wearing a coat of mail weighing 5,000 shekels of bronze [Samuel, 17.5-6]. The use of the word “mail” in this instance was not meant to be specifically referring to “true” (4-in-1) mail, but as a general term to describe armour – in this case, bronze scale armour.(2) Other examples of the misuse of this word include using plate mail and scale mail instead of plate armour and scale armour. Because of this overly-generic use of the term “mail,” a word was needed to differentiate true mail from other types of body armour – hence the term “chain mail.” If the word “mail” is used in its correct context then “chain mail” is superfluous and does not need to be used at all.

Meyrick

The other major problem with mail terminology came from initial attempts to interpret contemporary illustrations. Samuel Rush Meyrick, writing early in the 19th century attempted a very “literal” interpretation of the armour depicted in contemporary effigies and illustrations (such as the Bayeux Tapestry) and invented a variety of constructions to closely resemble them.(3) These constructions included banded mail, tegulated mail, mascled mail, and trelliced mail. It has since been demonstrated that most of Meyrick’s proposals were either impractical or could not be physically reconstructed to resemble contemporary representations. (see Figure One)

Figure One

Figure One

Doubts about Meyrick’s work began to be expressed later in that century by scholars such as Hewitt, Laking, and Ffoulkes, but some writers such as Ashdown (4) and Viollet-le-duc (5) perpetuated Meyrick’s inaccuracies into the 20th century, to be picked up and used by some modern writers, including the authors of many fantasy roleplaying games. The final word on this subject seems to have been had by Claude Blaire in the middle of the 20th century (6) and since that time no armour scholar has seriously considered Meyrick’s theories to be valid. The general consensus today is that the difficulties involved in realistically illustrating medieval mail led to a variety of stylistic conventions, and that all of the contemporary illustrations and effigies are depicting nothing more elaborate than typical 4-in-1 mail.

Ring Mail

One of the types of armour interpreted from contemporary illustrations was given the term “ring mail.” Meyrick’s definition of ring mail consisted of a foundation garment upon which non-interlocking metal rings were attached. Today this would be more accurately termed “ring armour” not “ring mail,” since it does not form an interlinked mesh. As has already been said, illustrations and effigies depicting medieval armour are all likely to be different methods of rendering the same construction (i.e. 4-in-1 mail). There is no evidence to suggest that “ring armour” existed in Europe at the time.

However, ring armour does seem to have been utilised in other times and places, albeit rarely. Stone’s Glossary has a photo and a description of ring armour which apparently came from north-eastern Asia.(7) (see Figure Two)

Figure Two

Figure Two

In Renaissance Europe there was a type of armour called an “eyelet doublet” which might also be classified as a type of ring armour. However the eyelet doublet dates to the 16th – 17th centuries – much later than the Medieval illustrations in question. One contemporary reference to eyelet doublets was made by Sir John Smythe in 1591,

“Archers should wear either eyelet holed doublets that will resist the thrust of a sword or dagger and covered with some trim to the liking of the captain… or else jacks of mail quilted upon fustian.”(8)

Charles Foulkes presented illustrated details of two extant “eyelet coats” from the Musee d’Artillerie and the Musee de Cluny, both in Paris.(9) Regardless of the prevalence of this type of armour, the construction should be classified as “ring armour,” not “ring mail.” (see Figure Three)

Figure Three

Figure Three

Banded Mail

The only Victorian classification of mail still thought by some to have actually existed is banded mail.

Figure Four

Figure Four

There have been various theories proposed for its construction but the most popular is the use of leather thongs woven through every alternate row. This theory has been given weight by the existence of Oriental (non-European) mail in which neck collars have been reinforced in this fashion.(10) However, it ignores the fact that mail collars were required to be more rigid than the rest of the hauberk so that they could stand up around the neck.(11) Claude Blair wrote,

“… there seems to be no reason why such qualities in the rest of the hauberk should have been thought desirable. The thongs would not have made the hauberk any stronger, and their tendency to stretch or contract by varying amounts would hardly have been conducive to a satisfactory and comfortable fit.”(12)

Banding is evident in all mail constructions to a certain degree (see figs. 7 and 8). The degree of visibility is dependent on the direction of the lighting and where the person viewing the mail is standing. There are other things that can influence the amount of banding being seen as well. Among these is if the piece is made up of links having a flattened section, or if the rows are made up of links having different sizes. The larger the difference in link sizes the more pronounced is the banding effect. The stylistic representation of this banding is illustrated in figs. 5 and 6. The photos in in figs. 7 and 8 clearly demonstrate the similarity between the banding depicted in the illustrations and that which is evident in physical examples of mail.

Figure Five & Six

Figure Five & Six

Figure Six & Seven

Figure Six & Seven

Conclusion

Today many writers use the terms mail, chain mail, ring mail, and ring armour interchangeably and it is often impossible to determine exactly what they mean to be discussing. This confusion in terminology has been caused by the inaccurate definitions of armour used by 19th century scholars such as Meyrick and Viollet-le-duc. Most of the types of mail initially proposed by Meyrick are unlikely to have ever existed. It has also been demonstrated that the terms chain mail and ring mail should not be used at all, and that mail and ring armour should be used instead. Mail consists of a mesh of metal rings interlinked to form a flexible armour. Ring armour consists of a foundation garment of cloth or leather upon which individual rings are attached. It is likely that ring armour did not exist in Europe during the Middle Ages, but was worn later in the form of eyelet doublets. Ring armour was also worn in Asia but it seems to have been rare.

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