During my time volunteering for Knights of Veritas, one of Butterfly Sundries’ former Featured Charities, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to learn more about the middle ages. One of the things I learned is that most-everything I thought I knew about armour (including some things still in text books) is absolutely wrong. Two of those lessons inspired this original Butterfly Sundries earring design from the Knights Collection.
Lesson 1. There’s no such thing as “chain mail.”
Did you know that “chain mail” is a modern term? It didn’t exist in the middle ages. It was invented by armour scholars about 150 years ago who were looking at different artistic representations of maille armour and decided that each different artistic representation must be a completely different form of armour design! Those same armour scholars decided to call all kinds of armour “maille”, and then specified a term for each different artistic representation (‘banded maille’, ‘ring maille’, ‘plate mail’, ‘chain maile’, etc.). But, none of those terms existed in the middle ages!
Later scholars went back and looked at the same art, compared what they saw to medieval inventories and archeological finds, and realized that there really was only one weave or pattern that was followed; they’d created an artificial classification system that hadn’t existed during the middle ages! If people in during the middle ages only ever called it “maille” (though they would spell it in many different ways, sometimes even in the same sentence)- why should we continue to try to reinvent the wheel and muddle everyone’s understanding? This led modern scholars, about 60 years ago, to go back to calling maille armour by it’s original name: (just) maille!
Unfortunately, though that was true for modern armour scholars- and many wise people followed their example- not everyone got the memo. The incorrect terms were largely reintroduced back into our vocabulary by the maker of a popular fantasy game, Dungeons & Dragons, who referenced old outdated books. Those terms have been further reinforced by popular books and movies (special features of the Lord of the Rings, anyone?)! In fact, many historical reenactors who haven’t done their research continue to use the wrong terminology!
As a jewelry artist myself, I am sad to say far too many jewelry hobbyists and artists continue to support the use of inaccurate terms by labeling their work with terms like “chain mail jewelry”, whether for ignorance or the necessity of using the terms for which their prospective clients are most likely to search. (Note: I have yet to see any genuine European medieval jewelry designs using maille weaves, and much of my inspiration for my original designs come from antique jewelry designs from ancient Rome & medieval Europe; buy such designs because they are pretty and you love them- not for their historical accuracy!)
So, word to the wise: if you want to sound like you got all your arms and armour information from a fantasy game, movie or novel…. by all means, continue to call maille armour “chain mail”, “ring mail” etc. However, if you want to sound like you got your information from a reputable armour scholar, just call it “maille”!
Lesson 2. Maille wasn’t made with butted rings.
Often when you see people selling maille designs you’ll see butted rings (like jump rings) woven together but, unless it was for decoration, you never saw those kind of rings used for maille armour during the middle ages! Why? Because butted jump rings offer absolutely no protective value! If you’re going to wear 20-ish pounds of added weight from a maille shirt when you’re fighting for your life- wouldn’t you want to wear something which is going to help protect you from the most common forms of attack? Of course you would!
When armour makers in the middle ages made maille shirts (sometimes called hauberks) they would either rivet or weld the ends together on EACH ring (they could be either flat-as seen in the picture above- or round; sometimes you would see washers with no ends) in the weave- making them stronger and able to withstand attack. Wearing such a maille shirt with a tight (small rings) weave could protect you from all manner of different attacks from the most common weapons. In fact, it was so effective that maille armour was used for centuries, often in combination with a shield, for its protective benefits from attacks (including bow & arrow, sword, etc.) before it eventually was supplemented and replaced by plate armour. However, even when plate armour became the primary form of protection, maille was still used for protection in the gaps of the armour!