In most video games armor is split up into ranks. First, the player has no armor. Then he gets chainmail. And last but not least he finally gets his plate armor (which supposedly offers better protection). But when we look at Antiquity and especially the Middle Ages, then it shows that mail armor was used most of the time, while plate armor was only used for a very short time period (and never completely replaced chainmail).
So that bears two questions. Why was chainmail popular for so long? And why was chainmail used for so long? There were 5 reasons for that.
Chainmail was popular for so long since it was much easier to make, maintain, and repair than plate armor while still being extremely effective against most dangers that lurked on an ancient or medieval battlefield. Additionally, mail armor could also be put on much faster than plate armor.
Let`s take a separate look at all of these advantages.
Chainmail is easy to make
Ultimately chainmail is nothing more than wire. The wire had to be turned into rings, the rings had to be interwoven, and the individual rings had to be closed by either riveting or welding them together. Yes, the process of making chainmail took quite some time and was certainly not the most exciting job, but it was not difficult!
The same can not be said for the production of plate armor. Entire industries were necessary to produce plate armor since plate armor did not only require more steel than a shirt of chainmail, but the steel also had to be processed and turned into sheets of equal thickness. These steel sheets could then be ordered and picked up by the armorers who then turned them into plate armor.
But producing large numbers of uniform steel sheets (that had to have different thicknesses depending on if they were turned into a breastplate or for example leg armor) needed an entire industry (and large water-powered hammers)
The kind of industry that was necessary to produce large numbers of uniform steel sheets (that could then be turned into plate armor) just didn`t exist before the Late Middle Ages. So only when it developed at the turn from the High to the Late Middle Ages (around 1250), plate armor could be developed.
Here you can find out more about the turn from the High Middle Ages to the Late Middle Ages and why the year 1250 is commonly seen as the end of the High Middle Ages.
Now, when I wrote that the industry necessary for the production of large steel plates only developed in the Late Middle Ages, you might have thought of the ancient Roman lorica segmentata (a Roman armor made from long stripes of overlapping metal). And yes, the ancient Romans produced that kind of armor. But the metal strips in a lorica segmentata were much smaller than the plates necessary for a late medieval breastplate, and as such much easier to produce.
However, the lorica hamata (shirt of chainmail) was still much more common than the lorica segmentata among Roman soldiers. Two reasons for that were the much easier maintenance and the fact that repairing chainmail is pretty easy and – unlike the repair of the lorica segmentata – does not require special spare parts.
But before we talk about why chainmail is so easy to repair, I would first like to talk about why chainmail was so easy to maintain compared to plate armor.
Chainmail is easy to maintain
The greatest danger to iron or steel armor (no matter chainmail or plate armor) was rust. As soon as the metal came in contact with water, for example, rain but also sweat, the surface of the armor immediately started to rust. So one major part of maintaining the armor was to remove any surface rust before it could bite into the material of the armor.
Surface rust on plate armor could only be removed manually by polishing and oiling the armor immediately after it had been used. In case that wasn`t done and the surface rust had already bitten into the material, it had to be removed by grinding and polishing the affected plates. Needless to say that that was quite a lot of work and also not that easy to do when the knight was at war.
Chainmail on the other hand was much more forgiving.
While chainmail rusts just as fast as plate armor when it gets in contact with water or moisture, the design of the chainmail basically maintains itself. Whenever the knight in his mail armor moved, the individual rings of the chainmail also moved and immediately rubbed the surface rust off themselves. So chainmail basically maintained itself, one could say it was self-cleaning.
Only when chainmail was stored for longer periods it had to be oiled.
But chainmail was not only easier to maintain than plate armor, it was also much easier to repair.
Chainmail is way easier to repair than plate armor
As mentioned, chainmail is basically just made from wire.
So as long as a skilled armorer had some wire and his blacksmithing equipment with him, he could repair a damaged shirt of chainmail without any problem and without reducing its protective qualities.
The same can not be said for plate armor.
Not only did an armorer need steel plates of the right thickness, but he also had to hammer the material into shape. That could be done quickly as long as he had access to a water-powered hammer. When he was in a war camp, then he usually didn`t have that kind of specialized equipment with him to replace a damaged plate. Instead, he would have probably tried to patch the damaged plate, which could have reduced the protective qualities of the plate armor.
And not only could chainmail be repaired pretty fast, but it could also be put on much faster than plate armor.
Mail armor is easier & faster to put on
The time a knight needed to put on his mail armor depended on the degree to which he wore chainmail. So when he wore chausses (leggings made from chainmail) as leg protection he obviously needed a little more time than when he just had to put on a shirt of chainmail. Putting on a shirt of chainmail was like putting on a modern-day sweatshirt and took way less than one minute.
When a knight first had to put on his padded jacket, then it obviously took a little – but not much – longer. However, unlike modern-day depictions, not every knight wore padding beneath his armor. Here you can find out more about the advantages and disadvantages of wearing padding under the chainmail.
Just for comparison, a knight who had help needed 8-10 minutes to put on a complete suit of plate armor assuming that all parts had been laid out in the same order they had to be put on. By the way. While padding beneath the armor was optional for knights who wore chainmail, padding was never worn beneath plate armor.
So now we have looked at 4 of the 5 reasons why chainmail was popular. But I have saved the most important reason for last: Chainmail was highly effective!
Mail armor is highly effective
Now that does not mean that plate armor and even textile armor like the Gambeson weren`t also effective, they definitely were.
But mail armor provided sufficient armor against most dangers a knight could encounter on an early & high medieval battlefield since mail offered excellent protection against cuts and slashes. And especially in combination with a shield as a first main line of defense, mail armor as a last line of defense, and lifesaver definitely did its job.
Speaking of medieval shields. For these shields to be as protective as they were, they had to be built through a sophisticated process. Here you can find out more about how medieval shields were built.
So aside from the already mentioned advantages like chainmail being easy to make, easy to repair, easy and fast to put on, and easy to maintain, the main reason why chainmail was used for so long was that it simply worked.
Now one might think that chainmail was also cheaper than plate armor (basically a 6th advantage). But that is not true! Chainmail was generally more expensive (about 6 oxen for one shirt of chainmail) than the mass-produced plate armor that was common among soldiers in the Late Middle Ages!
Do you want to find out more about just how common the use of plate armor was in the Late Middle Ages and how (in)expensive the plate armor that a regular late medieval soldier wore was? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
David S. Bachrach: Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012).
Malte Prietzel: Krieg im Mittelalter (Darmstadt 2006).
Alan Williams: The knight and the blast furnace (2003).