Wednesday, July 9, 2008

History of Maille, Part I

I never noticed that maille was mentioned in the Bible but it goes back apparently to Moses' time (13th century B.C.). These were the instructions given to make garment for Israel's high priest: "And thou shalt make the robe of the ephod all of blue. And it shall have a binding of woven work round about the hole of it, as it were the hole of a coat of mail, that it be not rent." -- Exodus 28:31,32 [American Standard Version, 1901] It is mentioned again in the well-known tail of David vs. Goliath, Goliath being clad in a coat of mail.
The oldest found pieces of maille are in
the graves of Celtic warriors, dated about 400 B.C. It was probably from the Celts that the Romans discovered it, and quickly added it to their own armor. The method of making the rings then was much the same as now: steel was drawn into wire, wrapped around a mandrel, and cut; although they likely used a chisel, and we have more sophisticated methods of cutting the wire now (although a hand saw isn't really all that much more sophisticated).
The weave that the Celts used was the same European 4-in-1 that is most commonly thought of as chainmaille today, and its purpose was to deflect a weapon and make it slide off the garment. Because it was made of many pieces, repair was a relatively simple thing (compared to plate, for example). It was also lighter (although a steel hip-length shirt weighs approximately 35 lbs., which is not something you frolic in).
Oriental maille had quite a different purpose, apparently. It was not woven in whole shirts but used at the joining-points of armor (European maille was often used similarly, especially when plate mail came into vogue). Also, pieces of it were added to armor that had edges meant to catch a weapon and give the armored warrior the second he needed to return a blow while the opponent's weapon was caught. From the images above, maybe you can see how the much more rigid Japanese weave might do this. The weaves pictured are regular European 4-in-1, and a Japanese web weave.

Stay with us as we follow maille (hopefully) from protecting a Phillistine giant to the mainstream jewelry business and hobby with rings in high-tech niobium and titanium or in glittering sterling, and all the places it's been in between.