History of chain mail

January 15, 2016

History of chain mail

I searched for the origin and history of chain mail and what I found out is that no one knows for sure. Must go back to a very long time...

Chain mail maybe of Celtic origin

Its origin is definitely European -of that, I am sure- and since I loved visiting museums when I was living in France, I’ve decided to put together the bits of knowledge I have and write my own version of chain mail history... maybe a little unconventional, but it’s the way I understand it.

What is the correct spelling?

First, I do not like much the word chainmail or chain mail. It reminds me too much of these dreaded chain letters that you must forward to 10 people otherwise you will suffer from some horrible fate. I much prefer using the French word “maille” which refers to something in the form of a little circle (this word is extensively used in knitting techniques). But it sounds like "chain mail" is what is used the most on the US, so let's go with the flow...

Where the name comes from

The original full name is “cotte de mailles” which refers to a protective piece of clothing (cotte) made of rings (mailles). Because it is protective, we can safely assume that the maille is made of heavy duty material -like metal- and not yarn. In short, a “cotte de mailles” is a form of armor.

History of chain mail

The first use of chain mail was to make protecting clothes to wear in battlle

I have found “cottes de mailles” in many cultures and countries but it is my belief that it has been created by the ancient Celts -or Gaulois- before they went fighting the Roman invader. Those guys were afraid of nothing except that the sky may fall on their head.

Their blood was always boiling and they needed to find a hobby to burn all this manly energy. Since there were no Ikea shelves to put together, no football to chase and no car engine to rebuild, and that skinning rabbits was not a virile enough task (although boars were OK), they choose to express themselves by going into battle.

Each time something was difficult in the hut with the wife, they behaved like typical machos... jumped onto their horse, rode away so that they did not need to talk, stopped by the tavern to get wasted with a few pints of ale and then took up a fight with the other guys.

In these ancient times, the only available weapons were bladed: huge swords, axes and other big skull-crusher hammers. This is how the Celts had the genius idea to wear “cottes de mailles” to protect their hairy bodies from cuts and bruises. I want to believe this was inspired by the wives who were sick to remove blood stains from the laundry -OxyClean was not yet invented- but there is no historical evidence of that.

A creative blacksmith fabricated rings in metal that he linked together to form a mesh which was used to make pieces of protective gear: shirts, socks, head covers, gloves... and voila. Good to go to war!

It appears that ancient Celts were the first to adopt the famous French saying “sur le champ de bataille, il n’y a que maille qui m’aille” (please note the rhyme that gives a nice poetic touch to such rugged technique) . Which I will translate by “on the battlefield, I trust only chain mail”.

From the Celtic world, the use of chain mail to make protective clothes sprayed all over the world

Although there was no internet, no TV, and no iPhone, the trend spread like crazy around the world (Japan, middle East, Asia...) and a classic was born. The cottes de mailles were efficient, flexible, allowed freedom of movement and were rather light compared to the traditional full body metal armor. They also were easy to repair.

For centuries, cottes de maille have been worn by any respectable knight, king, crusader and even Joanne of Arc. If you were a rich and famous who had to go fight a battle somewhere, you could not leave without your custom made chain mail outfit (which is also very easy to maintain when you travel).

The invention of gun powder made cotte de mailles obsolete

There are rumors out there about chain mail shirts being bullet proof and I can assure you that it is an urban myth!!! This type of chain mail clothing is used today by shark divers to avoid ending up as a shark-snack, by butchers to protect their hands from sharp knifes and of course by actors and stunt men in movies and historical reenactments.

This is when artists re-invented the technique to make jewelry

This is also when artists brought a fun twist to this ancient art and started to make jewelry and accessories.

Related post: The byzantine weave

The original weave was what we now call European 4-1 and many more variations have been (and still are) created. Because of the variety of designs, the possibility to integrate other materials like gemstones, and the availability of different metals, everyone from the girly girl to the hardcore biker can today adopt chain mail to make a statement.

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