Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The W.A.R. Armoury, Part 1: Of Haubergeon & Coif

Haubergeon, front view
Coif, side view

The W.A.R. Armoury, Part 1
Items: Hugin's chainmail shirt (haubergeon) and hood (coif)
What's this all about then, Nazgul? These items were worn by Hugin in many a photo shoot and now reside in the Castle vaults

You know when the mania for collecting has reached new heights (or should that be plumbed new depths...?) when you literally take the clothes off your hero's back!

A while ago Hugin advertised for sale a number of his items of armour as seen in the artwork for various albums/demos and promotional photo-shoots. Having waited a decent time to see if anyone would snap up the items, Nazgul decided that these items were just the thing to add ambience to the Castle library and a deal was struck with Hugin to import a job-lot over to the UK. As a result, a veritable cornucopia of weapons and armour arrived in boxes at the Castle over the ensuing weeks, some heavy enough to cause grave consternation amongst the postal carriers who had to lug the boxes around. A burst of the 'black breath' and threats of flagellation served to quell the mini uprising, but in truth the sheer weight of some of the items did rather take the breath away.  The mail shirt alone weighs around 10kg...

Take these two pieces of chainmail, for example. Whilst they look relatively innocent they weigh an absolute ton, particularly the mail shirt which is incredibly heavy. The thought of donning plate armour over something like this is - quite frankly - eye-watering. And let's be accurate about nomenclature for a second before proceeding further. Civilizations that used mail used different terms for each garment made from it. The standard terms for European mail armour derive from French: leggings are called 'chausses', a hood is a 'coif' and mittens, 'mitons'. A mail collar hanging from a helmet is a 'camail' or 'aventail'; a shirt made from mail is a 'hauberk' if knee-length and a 'haubergeon' if mid-thigh length. 

 For the record, a mail shirt interwoven between two layers of fabric is called a 'jazerant' and a waist-length coat in medieval Europe was called a 'byrnie'. So what we have here is a haubergeon surmounted with a coif.


The earliest finds of European pattern mail are from the 3rd century BC from Horný Jatov, Slovakia, and a Celtic chieftain's burial located in Ciumeşti, Romania. It wasn't a million miles from here that Hugin procured the original items - to be precise, it was from a forge in the southern Czech city of Český Krumlov, just over the border from Austria. It transpires that to Hugin's impressive resume we must also add 'international arms smuggler', as for various reasons the items were covertly brought back across the border hidden in the boot of his car!

The use of mail as battlefield armour was common during the Iron Age and the Middle Ages, becoming less common over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries. It is believed that the Roman Republic first came into contact with mail fighting the Gauls in Cisalpine Gaul, now Northern Italy. Mail armour provides an effective defence against slashing blows by an edged weapon and penetration by thrusting and piercing weapons, and a study conducted at the Royal Armouries at Leeds concluded that "it is almost impossible to penetrate using any conventional medieval weapon". Nazgul plans to re-test this research to afford it additional credibility, using prisoners from the Castle oubliettes and a range of edged blades. 

 Generally speaking, mail's resistance to weapons is determined by four factors: linkage type (riveted, butted, or welded), material used (iron versus bronze or steel), weave density (a tighter weave needs a thinner weapon to surpass), and ring thickness (generally ranging from 18 to 14 gauge in most examples). Mail, if a warrior could afford it, provided a significant advantage to a warrior when combined with competent fighting techniques.


Such is the weight of chainmail it's not uncommon in films to use knitted string spray-painted with a metallic paint instead of actual mail in order to cut down on cost (an example being Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which was filmed on a very small budget). Films more dedicated to costume accuracy often use ABS plastic rings, for the lower cost and weight. Such ABS mail coats were made for The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, in addition to many metal coats. The metal coats were used rarely because - surprise, surprise - of their weight, except in close-up filming where the appearance of ABS rings is distinguishable. 

However, in the movie Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Tina Turner is said to have been wearing an actual mail and she complained how heavy this was. So there you are - who would have thought Hugin and Tina Turner had something in common?

Mail continues to be used in the 21st century as a component of stab-resistant body armour (the British Police use mail gloves for dealing with knife-wielding assailants), cut-resistant gloves for butchers and woodworkers, and almost unbelievably as shark-resistant wetsuits for defence against shark bites! I'd like to meet the diver who can still swim whilst decked out in mail - one has to assume the modern stuff is either more lightweight, or that the divers are of Olympian proportions, otherwise you'd surely sink like a stone...?!

All of which brings us full circle back to the actual mail shirt and hood featured. Hugin reports that whilst putting the shirt on proved relatively simple, its removal was a different kettle of fish entirely. In the spirit of research Nazgul has tried on the shirt and encouraged others to do likewise, and this confirms Hugin's conclusion. Trying to remove it is a little like trying to push a baby elephant up a slope - slow progress at best, and best done with someone present to assist you. Plus, you enjoy the added fun of the mail rings getting entangled in your hair as the shirts comes over your head, which adds a whole new level of excitement and pain to the process. Wearing the thing is also somewhat discomforting, as you might expect with thousands of metal rings pressing up against you. Still, better that than being sliced in two on the battlefield I suppose....

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