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Maille, or chainmail, was the main form of body armour during the early mediaeval period. The name 'maille' derives from the Old French, meaning "mesh" or "net".

It evolved over time, from shorter garments related to the Roman lorica hamata to the all-covering elevtenth century hauberk.

Maille also became more common over time, so while at our earliest shows it is limited to the very richest, by the mid eleventh (i.e. Hastings) century it is almost universal among the warrior élite we tend to portray.

  • byrnie - earliest, shortest, with short sleeves and around waist length.
  • haubergeon - from the tenth century, maille shirts had elbow-length sleeves and mid-thigh length.
  • hauberk - from the mid-eleventh century, with sleeves to the wrist and knee-length, split at front and back. In the twelfth century, hauberks often had integral coifs and mittens, though these disappeared in the later thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
  • chausses - maille leg coverings, used by the Norman elite in the late eleventh century and increasingly common for knights.
  • maille coif - a maille balaclava worn underneath the helmet.
  • maille mittens - from the twelfth century, hauberks extended to cover the hands.

Examples of mail shirts

The only known English mail shirt comes from the seventh century Sutton Hoo burial, though many are depicted in manuscripts. The c.10th Gjermunbu find had short sleeves and was barely lower than the waist. Those found a couple of centuries later are closer to the Norman ones, with longer sleeves reaching to at least mid-thigh length when belted.

English manuscripts shows ‘dagged’ edges around the sleeves and hem of some short-sleeved, waist- or thigh-length mail shirts.

The most intact mailshirts from our period are the two Danish ones from Vimose and Thorsbjerg. Both are a combination of round wire/round rivets and thin, flat, punched links.

The Gjermundbu shirt is made from alternating round-ring-round-rivet wire rings and stamped rings with a square cross-section.

A number of maille fragments were found close to the earthwork fort in Birka, dated to the earlier tenth century. These are discussed by Peter Beatman, | 'Mail from the ‘Garrison’ of Birka: A Review of Recent Research' (New Varangian Guard, 2008).

Construction of maille

Maille rings found at Birka c.900-950 and the 8th century mail aventail of the Coppergate helmet had solid links made from drawn wire welded closed. However, the tenth-century mail find from Gjermundbu, Norway had solid rings punched from a sheet of metal.

Maille rings

NB - this section needs revision.

All maille should be made of round wire, about 1.2mm thick, wound into links between 9mm ~ 12mm in outside diameter. Maille should be riveted (including mixtures of solid and riveted rings), butted mail is not authentic for our period and location.

  • Riveted chain mail shirts and welded mail aventails should be encouraged as much as possible.
  • Butted maille is available much more cheaply, but is not particularly authentic. It is permitted, but members are strongly encouraged to save up and buy riveted maille, particularly as it is available at affordable prices.

Although surviving mail varies between 6.4mm and 15mm in ring diameter, most of the viking-period mail falls in the band 7.4mm to 8.7mm. The maximum ring diameter is 12mm (outside diameter, based on the Väte chain).

Ideal ratios of link diameter to thickness fall between 9.26 and 4.17 to 1. This means that for 12mm mail we should accept links no smaller than 1.3mm in diameter. By the same token, links should be no thicker than 2.88mm in diameter. This limit does not need to be enforced because rings that become very thick for a given diameter become useless since the internal hole is too small to pass all the adjoining links through!

Mail links should be round or flat-sectioned, but not square-sectioned (a modern re-enactorism usually made from spring washers. In some cases flat-sectioned links may have alternated with lapped and riveted links or been riveted in their own right.

Riveted chain mail shirts and welded mail aventails should be encouraged as much as possible. Butted maille is not authentic. It is permitted, but being phased out, and no one should be investing in butted maille.

[note on round vs wedge rivets]

All mail should be of iron links, which varies in colour from a dull grey to ruddy brown. Some medieval literature describes gilded links of mail, i.e. iron links that have been covered in gold foil.

Copper or copper alloy rinks may be used, but only as decorative rows along the edge of mail articles. In view of their scarcity and dubious age their use is not encouraged.

Mail made from aluminium rings has previously been permitted in a very small number of exceptional cases, where members of the Vikings Society are unable to wear mail for health reasons but wish to have high-status kit (for example as army commanders). Such armour is purely for appearance, and so members are honour-bound to take no benefit in combat from wearing the armour. Anyone wishing to wear lighter maille for this reason requires the permission of the Konungr (delegated to the Society Authenticity Officer). We strongly recommend that members use flat-section washers rather than aluminium mail – they are extremely light and wholly authentic.

Logo.gif Unacceptable forms of maille

A number of types of maille have been phased out and are not permitted by the Vikings Society:

  • galvanised links. Note that it is possible to remove galvanised plating by tumbling in a cement mixer;
  • square sectioned spring washers;
  • mail links larger than 12mm;
  • all mail with ring size to thickness ratios greater than approximately 9 to 1.

Pages in category ‘Maille’

The following 8 pages are in this category, out of 8 total.