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History and Methodology of European Mail
Article © MAIL User: AMA Cobra

A Brief History and Methodology of European Riveted Mail

Mail armor is the earliest known type of metal armor and remained in use for centuries, ending use in Europe in the seventeenth century, according to an engraving by Christoph Weigel in 1698 (Pfaffenbichler 1992:56). Mail smithing was distinct and unique from the blacksmithing process and other branches of smithing (Ffoulkes 1912:44). The process of mail armor smithing is recorded to have survived as late as the twentieth century in the Sudan, as written by the historian Arkell (Pfaffenbichler 1992:56). However, the making of mail armor, and even jewelry, still exists in craft form (M.A.I.L. 2003).

There are no surviving contemporary documents on the technical nature of mail armor construction and the only study into the mail making process can be achieved through the studying of surviving artifacts, illustrations of mail smiths at work, and historical documents discussing mail in general (Pfaffenbichler 1992:56, Ffoulkes 1912:44). One of the most focused documents on armor is the De Armorum Fabricatione by J. Cramer in 1649, but it gives little information of the process of mail construction and cites only Roman authorities (Ffoulkes 1912:44).

In the early days of mail smithing the armor produced was highly prized (Burgess 1953:193). Though as time passed and guilds formed, the making and use of mail garments expanded with, according to Holinshed, mail shirts being part of the common foot soldiers' equipment in 1586 and, according to Edward Davies in 1619, to the equipment of the arquebussiers (Ffoulkes 1912:48). Because mail armor naturally expanded and contracted, it could be worn by different people of similar, but not exactly matching, size (Burgess 1953:193).

Mail armor was easy to produce, flexible on the body, and provide good defense against the slashing of edge weapons (Pfaffenbichler 1992:56). However, considering that mail armor was not rigid, the blunt force from a solid strike could cause broken bones and “haemorrhaging” (Edge & Paddock 1988:57). Another weakness of mail armor is its vulnerability to thrusts from pointed weapons, arrows, and crossbow bolts, which could split the rings (Pfaffenbichler 1992:56, Edge & Paddock 1988:57). Despite these disadvantages, mail armor continued to be used for centuries.

In order to grade a piece of mail armor it was tested against various weapons and, in the 11th century, a piece of mail was considered “of proof” if it could not be penetrated by an arrow shot from a bow (Edge & Paddock 1988:33). As bow technology advanced, it slowly began to surpass the quality of mail armor construction to the point where, as recounted in the “Cronicle of Gerald de Barri”, an arrow short from a longbow pierced through a gambeson (padded overshirt), the skirt of a mail hauberk (long shirt), the chausses (mail leggings), and pinned the wearer’s leg to his saddle (Edge & Paddock 1988:91).

The widespread use of mail armor can be seen by a quote from Fiamma in the “Chronicon Extravagans” where he discusses 1288 Milan, “the makers of hauberks alone are 100” (Edge & Paddock 1988:92). Towns, over time, started to become renowned for their mail production as was the case of Chambli, a town near Beauvaus (Edge & Paddock 1988:92).

One famous Milanese merchant-armorer, Francesco Datini, had established himself in Avignon in 1361 and, in his 1367 inventory, listed 12 mail hauberks among his 150 items (Pfaffenbichler 1992:32-33). Another merchant-armorer in 1295 called Frederic the Lombard, assembled a large inventory in Bruges for the fleet of Philip the Fair consisting of, “2,853 helmets, 6,309 round shields, 4,511 mail shirts, 1,374 gorgets, 5,067 coats of plates” (Pfaffenbichler 1992:33).

Mail armor making became so specialized and such a prized skill that guild marks on mail garments became common to identify particular guilds (Pfaffenbichler 1992:62). England formed its own national guild with a minimum apprenticeship of seven years, sometimes even as long as fourteen years, in comparison to the four year apprenticeship of Augsberg (Pfaffenbichler 1992:29). These guilds used their guild marks as a show of power by demonstrating how widespread the demand was for their mail armor as well as being a quality control device against poor goods and unlicensed smiths (Pfaffenbichler 1992:29). The guild mark, being in most cases a stamping of the town coat of arms on a ring, was proof that the smith had passed a quality inspection by appointed viewers (Pfaffenbichler 1992: 29). This practice is known to have existed as early as 1362 or 1363 in Nuremberg with two capitanei, or guild masters, being in charge of inspection, one such shirt exists in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (Pfaffenbichler 1992:29, 62).

The process of creating medieval riveted mail armor began first with using soft iron that had been drawn into wire form (Edge & Paddock 1988:176). It is highly debatable as to whether or not the original mail smiths were knowledgeable of wire-drawing so any further explanation of this step ends here (Pfaffenbichler 1992:57, Burgess 1953:28). The iron used was a high quality soft and, today is nearly unobtainable (Burgess 1953:33).

The first actual known step of mail construction was to wrap the iron wire around an iron rod, known as a mandrel (Edge & Paddock 1988:176, Burgess 1953:29). The mail smith had to keep in mind that the rings being created would change size throughout the mail making process (Burgess 1953:29). It is believed that the mail smith would have had numerous mandrels of varying sizes in his workshop and that they might have been fitted with wooden handles for gripping and a slot or hole for feeding the first bit of wire into to start the coil (Burgess 1953:29). Considering that these mandrels could only be so long to be usable the length of the drawn wire would not have had to be very long in length (Burgess 1953:29).

What followed was the cutting of the coil into individual rings, requiring either a cold chisel or wire cutters (Edge & Paddock 1988:176, Burgess 1953:29). The actual tool used is debatable since any evidence on the rings is destroyed by the later flattening process (Burgess 1953:29). The rings were then resized with an overlap prior to the next step (Burgess 1953:29).

All of the above steps involved working the wire in a cold state (Burgess 1953:29). As the wire was coiled and the resulting rings resized the metal attained a work-hardened quality, requiring it now to be annealed (Burgess 1953:29). Annealing is a process that softens the metal for easier working and requires the metal to be heated to a red-hot state and left to air cool (Pfaffenbichler 1992:57-59, Burgess 1953:29).

With the rings properly annealed it was now time for the mail smith to flatten rings, most notably the overlapping section (Edge & Paddock 1988:176, Burgess 1953:30). This step was considered as, “the most important process as far as the finished appearance of the ring is concerned" (Burgess 1953:30). For the flattening process it is believed that either a vice-shaped tool or a hammer and set of dies were used (Edge & Paddock 1988:176, Burgess 1953:30). With the hammer and dies method, one to two strikes were used, with the first being a light to settle the overlap and the second being the flattening strike (Burgess 1953:30).

The flattened rings now needed to be pierced with a slot for riveting (Edge & Paddock 1988:176). The punch used was a long, thin, wedge-shaped tool that was pushed through the overlap just far enough to break the other side and leave a rectangular wedge-shaped hole (Burgess 1953:34). "On no account must the punch, at its widest part, be more than one third the width of the swaged-out joint before punching. If it is wider than this the tendency will be to split the ring" (Burgess 1953:34).

It is believed that, in a workshop, assistants and apprentices managed the previous steps; with the division of labor allowing the last two steps to be handled by the master craftsman (Pfaffenbichler 1992:56-57, Burgess 1953:34). The flattened and punched rings were next woven into the proper pattern with four links passing through every one and were closed one by one (Edge & Paddock 1988:176, Burgess 1953:34).

Smiths and artisans, especially mail smiths, do not use random techniques for their craft; they used the time-tested techniques that they were taught as apprentices (Burgess 1953:202). It is believed that, considering the sheer number of mail shirts made during the medieval period, that the weaving pattern for mail might have been similar to a modern knitting pattern (Pfaffenbichler 1992:59). E. Martin Burgess in his “Further Research into the Construction of Mail Garments” stated his belief that, "the patterns found in mail have a very real historical, and perhaps geographical, significance" (1953:202).

For the individual tapering of mail garments for the wearer, it is known that rings were added or removed from rows to expand or contract the piece (Pfaffenbichler 1992:59). It is believed that it would take the medieval mail smith less than one minute per ring for weaving and riveting (Burgess 1953:34). It took over 30,000 individual rings to make one mail shirt (Edge & Paddock 1988:176).

The final step in the construction of mail garments was the riveting of the rings. The rivets were made out of flattened wire and were, in most cases, iron though some evidence of copper rivets do exist (Edge & Paddock 1988:176, Burgess 1953:195). The wire for the rivets was flattened at one end and the wedge-shaped rivets were cut with wire cutters (Burgess 1953:33-34). The rivets were attached one line at a time and flattened into place (Burgess 1953:34). In the surviving pieces of historical mail, all of the protruding rivet heads face the same direction and, it is believed, must have been worn outward from the body (Edge & Paddock 1988:176, Burgess 1953:195). This is believed because the rivet heads would have caused friction and wear on any aketon (padded undergarment) and the mail smith would have wanted to make the mail piece as comfortable as possible (Edge & Paddock 1988:57, Burgess 1953:195).

With the mail garment now complete it could now be strengthened through a case-hardening process (Pfaffenbichler 1992:59). Metal of the cast and rolled steel quality were unknown to medieval smiths since the process required to make such metal is a recent discovery and the metal is difficult to work by hand, even when annealed (Burgess 1953:33). The iron used by medieval mail smiths was case-hardened by rolling it up in charcoal (Pfaffenbichler 1992:59). If left long enough the iron would eventually become steel throughout, but this was not desired since iron tools with steel faces were considered better due to a lower likelihood of the metal cracking and splitting (Burgess 1953:33).

Works Cited

Burgess, E. Martin.
1953 The Mail-Maker’s Technique. The Antiquaries Journal 33: 28–55.

Burgess, E. Martin.
1953 Further Research into the Construction of Mail Garments. The Antiquaries Journal 33: 193-202.

Edge, David & John M. Paddock.
1988 Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight: An Illustrated History of Weaponry in the Middle Ages. Crescent Books, New York.

Ffoulkes, Charles.
1912 The Armourer and His Craft: From the XIth to the XVIth Century. Methuen & Company, Ltd., London.

M.A.I.L. - Maille Artisans International League

Pfaffenbichler, Matthias.
1992 Medieval Craftsmen: Armourers. British Museum Press.
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