Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Apocryphal Armour

There is a small subset of internet nerds who dislike the use of the term chainmail. The problem is that it is tautological. Mail means armour made from a matrix of metal rings linked together to form a flexible mesh. Adding descriptors to mail as a means of describing other forms of armour, as though mail just means armour, dates back, like most forms of academic silliness, to the 19th century.
The 19th century was a time when Victorian gentlemen were collecting and cataloguing things with gay abandon.  Among these was Samuel Rush Meyrick. Meyrick was active during the first half of the 19th century in the field of mediaeval history. He was a renowned cataloguer of armour and has this marvellous British Celtic helmet that looks like a backwards baseball cap made of bronze named after him.

Meyrick was something of a taxonomic splitter. Generally speaking, the world is made up of two kinds of taxonomists; those who see similarities as being most important, and those who see differences as being more compelling. It is tempting at times to characterise the splitters as being more creative and perhaps more adventurous, always out to prove that there are new things under the sun. It can also be tempting to see the lumpers as being like the researchers that were determined to convince everyone that the extraordinary revelation of the discovery of Homo floresiensis was a mistake, and that the remains found were just some unusually small microcephalic individuals who happened to have inhabited the same area over the course of a few tens of thousands of years. In Meyrick’s case , however, the splitting was ill-advised.

Meyrick collected armour and classified it according to the established systems of the day. For the majority of the armour he was able to collect – predominantly plate armours – this was easy, plate armour lasts a long time and was fairly well documented. As he was putting together his extravagantly named work of a lifetime; A critical enquiry into antient armour as it existed in Europe, but particularly in England, from the Norman conquest to the reign of King Charles II, with a glossary of military terms of the middle ages, he found it necessary to write about the armour that existed before plate armour. To do so he relied upon secondary sources - there is actually very little armour in existence from the early Middle Ages as it has mostly rusted away and fallen apart, and documents from the period are not particularly specific about the kinds of technical details he required. As a result he had to look at manuscripts, at tomb effigies and to a very large extent at the embroidered warriors of the Bayeux Tapestry. Whether because different embroiderers worked on different parts of the Bayeux Tapestry or whether there was an active attempt by the individuals concerned to vary the patterns used to depict what would have been many similarly mail-clad warriors, the result was a wide variety of patterns sewn upon the forms of the warriors. Meyrick seems to have had one of those proliferating imaginations as he was able to take simple patterns and extrapolate to quite ridiculous extents.

The results of Meyrick’s extrapolations from simple stylistic conventions was a variety of different forms of apocryphal armour. These misinterpretations were notable in being wrong in a number of quite detailed ways which I can only assume to be the work of a dishonest man, or a foolish individual so absorbed in his theories as to allow himself to be swept away.
Meyrick saw, in the simple and stylised embroidery and in similarly simple and stylised illustrations and carvings, what looked like this;

From these he postulated eight different types of “mail”; ringed mail, mascled mail, trelliced mail, rustred mail, chain mail, banded mail, tegulated mail and scale mail. Of these, two actually existed. “Chainmail” was almost certainly what the vast majority of these images depicted – Meyrick had allowed the artistic conventions to feed his confabulatory obsessions. Scale armour was a variant of lamellar armour, lamellar was actually rather common in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, and was included as part of the composite forms of protection in Japanese armours. Scale armour is significantly less common, even to the extent that I think it is probably safe to say depictions of what look like scale in Western Europe were probably lamellar.

From the Bayeux. Note: That's Bishop Odo on the left starting the myth that clerics could only use blunt weapons

So, the apocryphals consist of;

Ringed mail, Which found its way into AD&D as ring mail and is probably the most common form of bullshit pseudo-armour depicted in movies and TV. There is a real version of this but it is Asian and relatively modern so no banana.

Absolute bullshit

Mascled mail: in which diagonal crosshatching is interpreted to be overlapping lozenge-shaped metal plates sewn to a leather backing. Not unreasonable except that it was poor interpretation of insufficient evidence and wrong.

Trellised mail: this is particularly egregiously confabulatory, from the third pattern across Meyrick concocted a form of armour that has square plates held between layers of leather by a central rivet and strips of leather between. This is essentially similar to a later form of armour known as brigandine, but there was, of course, woefully insufficient evidence for such a thing occurring in the eleventh century.

From this...

... we get the second from the left, note the detail above (nonsense). Also nonsense are numbers one and four (ringed mail and tegulated mail).

Rustred Mail is impossible to find an example of. I saw a 19th century illustration once in an old children’s encyclopaedia (Newne’s Pictorial Knowledge). I have looked for it but cannot find it. It is ridiculous to think that someone “figured out” rustred mail existed and others believed him. Rustred mail is big overlapping rings that hang down over one another. It did not occur to Meyrick that the reason people use rings in armour is the whole interlinking thing. He somehow assumed people tried various other configurations before linking them together.

This is a terrible image

Banded mail gets interpreted in AD&D as being something akin to the laminated armour cataphracts wore on their arms and legs but in Meyrick’s nomenclature it refers to a misinterpretation of this simplified and stylised way of depicting ordinary mail.

Like the hauberk of the bloke battering the muscular baby to death

Cataphract on the left is fighting a man from the future, there is no banded mail in this picture

There is a possible thread of truth in forms of conventional mail with leather thongs threaded through as a means of stiffening collars and such.

Tegulated mail is what Meyrick got out of crosshatching or brickwork patterns where the lines are vertical and horizontal. His creative interpretation of this is of square or rectangular plates riveted or sewn to a backing. This would actually not be an especially bad interpretation save that he had insufficient evidence to assert that it occurred where he asserted that it occurred.

Notice his hose are also tegulated

Now what is the harm done by a few creative interpretations? Isn’t all history interpretation? I don’t think any great harm has been done by Meyrick’s confabulatory assertions but that there was an influence is certain. In addition to being the heyday of collection and categorisation, the 19th century in England was a time of significant mediaeval revivalism. There was something about mediaeval folks in general and about Vikings in particular that stirred the romantic spirit of the age. Time was beginning to move forward more quickly and as the landscape changed, the figures who had been imagined to exist within the fading world were all the more poignant reminders of what had been lost. In short, the reasons for the 19th century mediaeval revival are the same as the reasons why fantasy is popular now: yearning for what has been lost.

The textural embellishments provided by Meyrick’s confabulatory misinterpretations enriched the cultural image of the mediaeval world and were taken up, as with other things like horned helmets and double-headed axes, as being an essential part of the mediaeval world. They were embraced for much the same reason they were depicted as they were on the tapestry, because people found a monotonously mailed mediaeval Europe unacceptable. They still do. Look at the ways mediaeval armour is depicted in film and television and the underlying principle of Meyrick’s work and the textures that inspired it still applies. In mediaeval films textural variety is more important than historical accuracy or even plausibility. The Viking as depicted in contemporary cinematic culture is not so far removed from the Sturm und Drang romanticism of the 19th century, and is even more clearly influenced by the twentieth century romantic counter-cultural movements of hippiedom, punk, heavy metal and biker culture in which individuality within accepted parameters is the hallmark of status. In such a paradigm it becomes necessary to invent various means of distinguishing between warriors, and I use the term advisedly - soldiers are allowed to dress the same, warriors must be distinct in order to personify notions of individuality.

Note the number of different textures and means of fastening

There is another aspect to this subject that is a little harder to pin down. In addition to the need to distinguish between fiercely independent heroic warriors, Meyrickian armours have about them a kind of contructivist quality, which is heightened and honed in cinematic and illustrated depictions. This is particularly the case in depictions of Viking and other “barbarian” armours, the individuality of the designs suggest a series of individual makers working independently of the dictates of an oppressive civilisation. The individuality of the textures is talismanic, the protection they grant is symbolic. This is especially the case in the contemporary TV series about Viking called The Vikings, in which every warrior wears a differently textured garment, none of which are explicitly demonstrated as providing protection against weapons but are each encoded with the idea of armour-ness. What armour actually did in historical contexts is not depicted so the armour is reduced to a sign. The constructivist quality intensifies this, the foregrounded materiality that is such an integral component of what we see as the pre-industrial past. In reality the so-called Dark Ages were not so rough-hewn, as even a casual perusal of the treasures of Anglo-Saxon England will reveal. Our view of the past dictates that it must be so. 

The old fella on the left's armour is recycled from Dragonheart

Confabulated mail, mail,Confusticated mail
These textures serve only to demonstrate that these are individual badasses

These dragonslayers are awesome


  1. Actually: with regards to Homo floresiensis, if you examine Indonesian and Australian aboriginal languages you get three phonetic sub groups. Ul, DJ, and ng. These three groups have a sub dictionary. Amongst the aboriginals of australia they talk of the wulgaru (note the ul-) who are described as giants, and guardians of the dead. The podj-podj (catch the dj- did you?) on the otherhand are child sized people who know about bush tucker and medicinal plants. If you consider ng to be 'modern humans' the dj are your Homo floresiensis. The dj dictionary includes the net, a basket, and bow and arrow if I remember, honey, seeds and grains, medicines, narcotics. They dont have gods or spirits like the ng, but they have a sense of good and bad. They have a word for champion, and tattoo. Drums and even djeridoo are music instruments. So making an assumption that the Homo floresiensis and podj podj are one in the same, they are a people with a culture, language, and a history.

    1. Sean, I think you may be guilty of a slightly different variety of flamboyant confabulation than Meyrick's but I appreciate the comment nonetheless.

      Among the things we do know about floresiensis are that they diverged from a very ancient lineage of Homo, possibly Homo habilis (we can tell this from bones in their wrists). We strongly supect that they had fire but their brains were so small that we have to reevaluate what we call the cerebral rubicon, the brain volume necessary for the kinds of complex behaviours we think of as being human. We do know that there is a possibility that the ancestors of contemporary Melanesian people lived in Flores at the same time as floresiensis so it is there that we'd be most likely to find cultural records. Sadly, I really think 10+ thousand years is enough to wipe away every trace.

  2. Artists are going to need to subject African warriors to the same mania for individualization (historically-based or otherwise) if we're ever going to get a decent African RPG.

    1. The big benefit we have here is that many people, myself included, know bugger-all about historical African material culture. So there is a lot of scope for the introduction of fascinating novelty, authentic and otherwise. I loved Apocalypto, in part because my ignorance of Mayan history allowed a degree of permissiveness, in part because the authentic details they did include were so deliriously weird and alien to my experience.

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