14

I've read many textbooks and talked to plenty of people who explained to me that making thousands of rings, then interlocking them is terribly expensive.

This confuses me because history had Vikings covered in mail, Romans using mail until they managed to make interlocking strips work, and it wasn't uncommon for even Muslim warriors to use mail. Mail seems no more expensive than a sword, shield, and helmet.

So what is the price of mail compared to other items of that time? Was it really as common as I think it is?

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    Chainmail is cheaper than the alternative. When the sword is swinging at your exposed belly, chainmail is priceless. When the neighboring lordling conquers your land and imposes punitive taxes, you wish that you'd sacrificed a bit more to buy chainmail for the guy who was bound to you by ties of fealty. I'm not mentioning this for the humor value, but to point out that chainmail's value is somewhat detached from the price. (and the purchaser has a monposony to boot!) – Mark C. Wallace Jan 18 '15 at 22:46
  • @FredBarker posted some valuable information in his (as of this comment, deleted) answer. I hope it gets undeleted. – Semaphore Jan 20 '15 at 9:59
  • In another question of the same nature my answer computed that a skilled craftsman could make a mail hauberk in 2-3 weeks working full time. So, to relate that to today, imagine $25/hour * 120 hours = $3,000 labor. Adding in materials and profit, maybe $5,000. – Tyler Durden Jun 16 '15 at 15:30
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I have made mail armor on and off for 15 years now and perform in a local living history group. I also do a bit in plate armor. While it looks simple and such things as making a sheet of mail are rather simple, there is a complexity to patterning that is hard to explain to people with out actually doing it. Proper fitting and shaping makes a world of difference in fitting and maneuverability. Once a pattern is learned it is relatively easy to form together. Making a proper riveted ring is relatively simple. Though it takes some effort to get the process down efficiently. In each step there are quality control steps that are needed to make a high quality piece. You are also looking at a 1000 hours of labor for one full riveted suit. Which is about 25 days @ 40 hours a week of labor just in the suit. So from that perspective assuming and 15 an hour rate for skilled labor we already have 15,000 dollars in labor cost. Using a modern profit formula labor+materials+20% for profit as a wholesale value with a 150% mark up for retail value. It will take approximately 200-300 dollars in material in the modern age to make a full suit. You will wear out a pair of pliers, fuel for annealing the links and the metal itself. So we have a wholesale value of 18,360 and a retail value of 27,540.

That gives to modern price comparison from a first world perspective for a high quality, not quite museum quality suit. So a nice high quality with out being the top end, using modern materials and some modern equipment. This would be a 3/8th inch weave, a bit loose in the weave, but acceptable. A 5/16th inch weave would be preferable. This is also for raw mail. No linings, buckles, leather bits for comfort and ease of use. If you go through the extra effort and have developed the skills to make a museum quality piece it would easily be a 100,00 dollar project, labor is expensive. This is also why you very rarely see properly made riveted maille armor for sale. The price tag is out of the reach of most people. Now if I was a multi-millionaire equivalent, this would be a minor blip in my budget.

Now getting back to the original question. One of the advantages of maille is that it is rather easy to shift from one person to the other. with out modifications I could trade out my armor for someone else and it would not fit too bad. With plate armor that does not work too well. It needs to be fitted to the person to be properly mobile and not awful to wear. Which limits its usability after the owner was taken to the grave. A victorious army would be able to loot the losers arms and armor to add to their own. We jokingly call it Grave Mart. Maille armor if properly taken care of has a usable life of several hundred years, so it accumulates in armories and is more universally wearable. Which over generations means a stockpile adds up and can be used to equip an raiding force. Most soldiers were not armored though. A multi-millionaire equivalent lord, could afford to have a mass production of such armor made to better equip soldiers and therefore improve chances of victory in battle. Lesser nobles of the knight level equivalent, were required to keep a certain level of arms and armor produced and available. It was their job, its not that much of a different concept from a modern tradesmen have 100,000 dollars worth of equipment. It is just part of the cost of the trade.

So we have a dedicated force of tradesmen cranking out armor. A noble lord taxing people heavily for funds and multiplied by war victories, you can see why after a few generations, even a high priced item like maille could accumulate and even poorer groups of people could have a stockpile or armor, sons of soldiers having their father's war trophy mail stored in the attic. Patched and repaired countless times. Which does not matter with maille. It was expensive, close to the equivalent to a years worth of salary for a normal person. Or even more depending on the time. A quality suit would of been worth as much as a house. A simple unshaped piece would be equivalent to a decent new car. Quite a lot of money is invested into soldiers through out the ages.

http://www.modaruniversity.org/Blackmaille.htm

  • I'd guess that you use factory-made wire for your craft. Wire is quite cheap nowadays and equivalent materials were much harder to obtain in medieval ages. – sharptooth Jun 24 '15 at 9:12
  • it would be much harder to get and in much smaller portions, a foot or two. I did not go into to much detail with that since it was covered in another answer. I have not yet tried the process of smelting iron from the ground and turning it into an ingot, then hammering it out into sheets, cutting strips and turning those into wires to make into chain links. I might try it in the future in a small batch just to know how tricky it was. But since i am a hobbyist I have a limited amount of time for projects. I have a cousin that is a blacksmith by trade. I could probably get his help – David Richardson Jun 24 '15 at 20:51
  • normally a mailler would not make the wire themselves, it would be purchased from a blacksmith premade. They would focus on the making of the armor. In well established armor making communities, various shops would focus on one step of the process. – David Richardson Jun 24 '15 at 20:55
  • Yes, it would be purchased from another craftsman but its price would be surely higher than that of factory-made wire you can obtain now. The mailler would not waste his time to craft the wire but the other craftsman would and he would want to be compensated for his effort. – sharptooth Jun 25 '15 at 7:33
  • Using the rough estimates that the chart in a previous answer provides a suit of mail was about 5 pounds since there are 20 shillings to a pound. So a suit of mail armor cost slightly less then a suit of full plate. Which according to the purchasing power calculator I put the numbers in would give it an approximate value of 5265.25 dollars. 28,6139.57 dollars as an income value equivalent. Which actually puts it pretty close to my estimate in today's money, More material cost and less labor cost most likely. I was unable to find the cost of iron from this time frame. – David Richardson Jun 26 '15 at 1:02
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You will find some cost/price data here: List of Prices in Medieval England

Image of the Armour data: enter image description here

Expensive is a relative and subjective term, the best that can be done to answer the question as asked is to compare the prices with typical incomes/pay. For such a we find that a labourer would earn 1-4 pence per day (the lower pay is earlier the higher later medieval times), and a banneret was getting 4s/day (1316). Alternativly a rough conversion factor of about 1000 between prices in the mid 14th C and today could be used but it would have to be treated with extreme caution as wages and prices structures were very different then. This could be summarised as mail (armour in general) was expensive compared to the income of a labourer and not when compared to the income of an earl. There would also be a range of prices for differing quality and used etc. A possibly good comparison good today, for armour in general, might be a car, where a drivable old-banger can be had for less than ~£1,000 and at the top end prices exceed £1,000,000... but now we are straying into an area that may be categorised as opinion.

Currency: L - pounds, s - shillings, d - pence. 12 pence = 1 shilling, 20 shillings = 1 pound

The sources:

[3] Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages, Christopher Dyer, Cambridge University Press, 1989

[4] English Weapons & Warfare, 449-1660, A. V. B. Norman and Don Pottinger, Barnes & Noble, 1992 (orig. 1966)

[5] The Armourer and his Craft from the XIth to the XVIth Century, Charles ffoulkes, Dover, 1988 (orig. 1912)

[6] "The Cost of Castle Building: The Case of the Tower at Langeais," Bernard Bachrach, in The Medieval Castle: Romance and Reality, ed. Kathryn Reyerson and Faye Powe, Kendall/Hunt, Dubuque, Iowa, 1984

[7] The Knight in History, Frances Gies, Harper & Row, New York, 1984

7

(I make a few generalisations here, beware)

Economy of scale is a factor in the production of maille, especially in Europe during the early medieval period. During much of the Roman period, iron was mined - mining (espeically deep mining) is an extremely labour intensive activity which can only be supported by a stable and sophisticated economy. The benefits, however, are the smelting of highly concentrated ore to create metals with few impurities. Thus, the prevalence of lorica segmentate (plate armour essentially) at the height of the Roman empire.

In the later Roman period civil war had broken out, and the gift-economies of the 'barbarians' took over as the predominant system in Europe. These economies do not rely on gold or silver as a means of exchange, instead using domestic livestock as the unit of account. In these economies, large scale operations for mining are extremely difficult. So, much of the iron used becomes that which is found close to the surface, or bog iron. This is full of impurities and required a lot of processing to get workable metals (for example, the technique of pattern welding is used to overcome the inherent weakness of steel made from bad iron). In this case, creating wire is a better substitute; it's relatively easy to produce at scale, and requires less processing as a steel plate would. The gauge is thin and the inner-diametre is small (6-9mm) so uses little material. 'Knitting' the wire together is quick and can be done with finger strength alone before the rivet is tapped, enabling low-skilled labour.

These factors make maille a relatively 'cheap' product compared to plated armours (scale, lamellar, full plate harnesses etc). Later, when silver economies reassert themselves (~600-900AD), the production of maille becomes a viable option on a larger scale, then as economies stabilise under the feudal lords of Europe (lots of tax income again), plate becomes possible again.

In terms of raw material cost, we can look at bloomaries excavated in Iceland for clues: they found approx 5000kg of iron slag, containing 45-600% residual iron oxide representing possibly 1400kg of raw iron blooms. This would require approx 6400kg of iron bog ore and 22000kg of charcoal. After primary and secondary smithing, this represents about 370kg of bar iron. At 8-10kg per raw bloom, this is about 140 smelts - with 3-5 metal workers, this is about 9000 man hours - that's before starting to work it from bar to wire/sheet!

In terms of monetary cost, the Scandinavian unit of account (~13th Century) was a good milking cow of not more than 7 winters (or 120 standardized iron ingots c. 12.3kg).

Assuming 12.3kg is enough to make the necessary wire and rivets for a 8kg shirt, this gives us a good idea of a modern cost - it's about £1500 to buy a cow in the UK at the moment. Add in labour and I reckon it would be the price of a small family car. (In period, giving up food and a source of income - milk and meat - would inflate the cost by quite a bit!)

Smith, K.P., Ore, Fire, Hammer, Sickle: Iron Production in Viking Age and Early Medieval Iceland Skre, D. (Chapter 3) Silver Economies, Monetisation and Society in Scandinavia, AD 800-1000

0

Chain mail is more expensive primarily because it is more labor intensive to make it, and that has always been the case. However, anyone who wanted to use any form of armor had to decide what form of protection they wanted and then decide whether or not the extra expense was justified.

Chain mail could tend to be heavier and would concentrate most of the weight on the shoulders, while plate mail would distribute the weight a little more evenly and could be broken into sections. However, the big advantage of chain mail was that it distributes force more efficiently and it could provide better protection against piercing weapons such as arrows.

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    Chainmail is still vastly more common then plate and is made from less skilled labor. I keep hearing that chain-mail was heavy and difficult to move in, compared to plate that you could do cart-wheels in. Is this about cost or is it protection? Were knights the only ones who could afford it of they the only people crazy enough to wear it? – Tevo77777 Jan 18 '15 at 19:03
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    What I think is being missed is that today it is expensive, because labor (at least outside the developing world) is very expensive today. However, in Europe between roughly the fall of the Roman Empire and the population contraction that came with The Black Plague, unskilled labor was very cheap. So while today "labor intensive" = "expensive", that was not the case then. – T.E.D. Jan 18 '15 at 20:05
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    Chainmail was labor-intensive but material-cheap. Plate armor was the other way around -- large sheets of steel were hard to come by, but hammering one into armor was relatively easy. – Mark Jan 19 '15 at 4:12
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    chain mail is also easy to mass produce. Making the rings can be assigned to a large group of relatively unskilled apprentices, even done at home by anyone with a few hand tools (heck, I've done it myself, no kidding). Plate mail requires a trained blacksmith for every smallest piece. – jwenting Jan 19 '15 at 5:14
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    @Lohoris: I believe the contradiction is that mail (not "chainmail", just "mail") is labor-intensive but simple. Most village smiths could probably make wire, bend rings, and rivet it together, it just takes a while. Plate armor for lowly soldiers can be hammered together fairly quickly, but takes a more experienced smith. Of course the finely-crafted jousting armor we see in museums required both high skill and many hours of labor. – user4139 Jan 20 '15 at 21:24
0

Having read all these comments, I am impressed with the amount of knowledge shared on this forum. Very informative, I am also a writer of Sci-fantasy and I found this to be an excellent well of information. But I do have to pose the question that as we talk about materials and their abundance I wonder if as a person dials back the gauge of time, how common do some of these materials become? There are stories in antiquity of kings being made of gold, of the rich lands of the fertile crest being laden with ore and jewels. So I wonder, how good the quality of arms and armor were? If ore is found on the ground and it is considered a gift from the gods so to speak, then it surely is a lower grade of iron and it could be possible that lower grade was made into a low grade steel. Upon looking at photos and pictures of the era that I write in, it was more common for sinew and wood or reed armor to be produced than that of bronze or iron. The expense was too expensive for any kind of metal and it was cumbersome for a solder to carry or wear. I mean if we take Hoplites for instance, the typical wear was greaves, leather skirt, bronze chest plate, semi closed helm and a large round shield. But that was not what made them so formidable for their day. I mean it helped, but they had the phalanx. I guess my argument for the middle ages was that if a lord or duke or viscount had to pay to arm and armor his army, chain would be the best way to go because of its 1) Durability, 2) ability to pass down to the next generation of solder after another one dies, 3) and the cost ratio. Plate was introduced due to better weaponry, it didn't last very long because eventually weaponry caused it to be too expensive to try and keep up and fit your army with it. It was cheaper to fit a solder with a rapier, flint lock musket and a simple metal helm to keep with the technology of the powder age. It was also the same reason that castles were not being built as often as soon as cannon were invented, it just simply became obsolete. Plate mail didn't really last that long, but Chainmaille was around for many centuries and used the idea of a medium amount armor with a decent shield was easier and cheaper. And though it was costly to make Chain mail at first, in the long run, it was cheaper. I think plate mail was reserved for lords who could afford to equip it to his very few and select solders, but if you were fitting an army, often it wasn't either Chain mail or plate mail, often it was just hardened leather, studded leather and a wooden shield. The cost of that for your army as a lord was enough especially when we start to get into armies that reach into the thousands. Not many, if any lords could afford to put chain or plate on their army when the numbers were that high. But they did on a few occasions, kings especially were expected to keep up with "The Jones" so to speak and bankrupted their countries doing so. Anyway, that is my take on it.

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    Please learn to use paragraphs to break up your wall of text... – CGCampbell Jun 14 '16 at 14:50
  • Yes, this is a wall of text. – Tevo77777 Jul 22 '18 at 4:58
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It might be informative to look at how people make chain-mail today, e.g. http://metalsmithing.wonderhowto.com/how-to/make-chain-mail-armor-from-start-finish-0118499/ While medieval armorers didn't have the options of working in aluminum or titanium, I doubt that much else has changed. Looks fairly labor-intensive but, as noted above, much of it is unskilled labor.

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