BMCR 2022.11.44

European mail armour: ringed battle shirts from the Iron Age, Roman Period and Early Middle Ages

, European mail armour: ringed battle shirts from the Iron Age, Roman Period and Early Middle Ages. Amsterdam archaeological studies. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2021. Pp. 520. ISBN 9789463721264. €161,00.

Despite the wide distribution and long endurance of mail armor, armor made of interlocking metal rings, the study of mail particularly in the ancient world has remained relatively underdeveloped, even compared to work on more short-lived forms of armor like the linothorax or the so-called lorica segmentata.[1] It is a gap that Martijn Wijnhoven’s European Mail Armour seeks to fill, providing a comprehensive study of mail armor as an artifact type from its emergence in Iron Age Europe through the Roman Empire and into the early European Middle Ages. At this laudable goal, Wijnhoven has succeeded tremendously, producing a book τηατ will be the foundation for all further study of this important armor-type.

The book is divided into twelve chapters, including an introduction and a brief conclusion. The introduction lays out the scope and method of the rest of the volume, as well as clarifying terminology, sensibly preferring ‘mail’ to the popular but anachronistic ‘chain-mail.’ The second chapter then moves through the evidence for the origins and then dispersal of mail armor. Wijnhoven’s range of samples with which to chart the spread of mail is very impressive, though some very early examples from the Roman Republic such as additional armor rings from Numantia or fasteners from Baecula escape his notice.[2]

The third chapter focuses on mail as it occurs in the archaeological record. Wijnhoven begins with the conditions by which an expensive and repairable armor enters the archaeological record before detailing both the kinds of armor finds, including hybrid so-called lorica plumate or ‘feathered’ armor, as well as how the conditions of their deposition, such as accompanying human remains or other artifacts, shed light on the social access to mail armor. The fourth chapter then turns to iconographic evidence and serves as a valuable overview on how to assess changing depictions of mail armor in different periods. The fifth chapter then turns to literary evidence, focused mostly on the question of the ancient terminology for mail. Wijnhoven correctly points out that while plausible, Latin terms like lorica hamata or more rarely lorica catena remain conjectural and could refer to broader ranges of armor other than mail; elite sources’ insistence in often avoiding technical language has left us without firm ancient terminology in this respect.

The sixth chapter discusses decorative elements in mail, particularly the use of copper or copper-alloy rings as decorative elements and concludes that Roman armor in particular seems to have frequently been so decorated. Chapter seven then discusses the padded undergarments worn under mail. The evidence for such padded garments in the Middle Ages, going by various names (gambeson, aketon, arming doublet, etc.) is extensive. Similar evidence in the ancient world is far more limited, with explicit textual references to such a garment, called variously a humation, thorocomachus or subarmalis generally coming relatively late. Wijnhoven presents a comprehensive overview of the evidence (textual, representational and archaeological), concluding that taken together they demonstrate that such padded garments were used with mail throughout the whole Roman period. While this conclusion reflects the communis opinio on the question, the evidence is marshalled more exhaustively here than elsewhere, making this chapter a valuable contribution on this issue and likely a conclusive one.[3]

Chapters eight, nine and ten walk through the production process for mail armor in sequence, discussing possible and attested production methods at each stage, from the production of the rings to the joining patterns of the rings and finally the construction and tailoring of the armor itself. Wijnhoven argues against the notion that ‘butted’ mail rings (where rings are merely bent closed rather than riveted) were common early in the development of mail, particularly in Iron Age mail, noting that most examples of butted rings are either decorative elements or repairs, although he does allow for some use of butted mail in early efforts to imitate true riveted mail armor. The author also argues that the construction of mail mirrored techniques used with textiles, with ancient mail armor being worked ‘in the flat’ much like ancient garments were ‘woven to shape’ with minimal sewing or other ‘post-loom’ work. As more elaborately shaped garments entered common use in the early Middle Ages, the construction of mail armor followed suit, with more complex shaping and greater evidence for the deliberate use of differently sized rings to create a favorable balance of weight and protection. Chapter eleven then looks at the characteristics of the armor rings themselves, with particular attention to characteristics which can situate a fragment of mail either culturally or chronologically or differentiate different mail-making traditions.

The arguments and descriptions are greatly aided by the heavy use of high-quality images throughout, including diagrams, maps, charts, reconstructions and high-detail color images of surviving pieces of mail. These visual aids are well reproduced and also well-chosen, serving to illustrate even to a reader unfamiliar with mail armor the key facts about its manufacture, structure and distribution. Likewise, Wijnhoven’s writing is clear and understandable. Technical terms are carefully defined and the author concludes almost every subsection and chapter with a brief summary wrap up which clarifies the proceeding evidence, making the overall argument easy to follow despite the large amount of evidence marshalled. The book also features an extensive catalog of mail finds discussed, an enormous service to future scholarship on these armors.

If there is a lacuna in Wijnhoven’s otherwise comprehensive approach, it is that while the present work considers the production of mail and its place in the social order, the book seems relatively uninterested in the cost of that production or the battlefield utility of mail. The latter gap is particularly curious given that mail armor was, in the final analysis, armor, designed to save the life of its wearer in combat, a crucial feature which is mentioned in the book but never focused on. Nevertheless, European Mail Armour is a remarkable achievement. For scholars looking to get a handle on this important artifact category, Wijnhoven’s book will doubtless serve as the essential reference work, while the many smaller interventions into debates on technical issues surrounding mail will be influential through their comprehensiveness, where they are not definitive.



[1] E.g. Aldrete, G.S., S. Bartell and A. Alderete. 2013. Reconstructing Ancient Linen Body Armor. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press; Bishop, M.C. 2002. Lorica Segementata I. A Handbook of Articulated Roman Plate Armor. Duns, Berwickshire: Armatura Press; Jarva, E. 1995. Archaiologia on Archaic Greek Body Armor. Rovaniemi: Pohjois-Suomen Historiallinen Yhdistys.

[2] Numantia: Jiménez, A., Bermejo, J., Valdés, P.Moreno, F, and Tardio, K. 2020. “Renewed work at the Roman camps at Renieblas near Numantia (2nd–1st c. B.C.).” JRA 33: 4–35. An earlier discovered set of rings from the same site is, however, in Wijnhoven’s catalog. Baecula: Bellón Ruiz, J. P. 2012. “La cultura de la Guerra en la antigüedad. Investigar la memoria destruida: la batalla de Baecula.” In Iberos: Sociedades y territorios del occidente mediterráneo, edited by S. González Reyero, 197-211. Madrid: CSIC-FECYT.

[3] E.g. Bishop, M. C. and J. C. N. Coulston. 2006. Roman Military Equipment: From the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxbow, 2006, 63; Sumner, G. 2009. Roman Military Dress. Stroud: The History Press, 170-5; Junkelmann, M. Die Legionen des Augustus: Der römische Soldat im archäologischen Experiment. Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 154-7.