Educator How-To: Be your own knight in shining armor with homemade chain maille

When people think of knights, they generally think of armor, too. The plate armor most associated with knights was actually a fairly recent invention. Armor started as quilted shirts and thick leather pieces to cover arms and legs (if you were fortunate enough to afford it!).

Chain maille was a pretty fantastic innovation for the time, but it had its drawbacks, too. It was heavy and cumbersome and only as strong as each individual link. Because the links were made of steel or iron, they rusted quite readily, and those rusty links were the proverbial “chinks in the armor.” They were points of weakness that might allow a sword point or arrow to penetrate. 

The job of armor maintenance was given to young boys that might otherwise be underfoot. To start, the armor was placed in a barrel of sand and sealed up. The boys would then roll the barrels back and forth across the yard and the sand would scour the blood and sweat and rust off the links. Even a well-maintained chain maille shirt would need repairs quite often and the color on even the best of days would be a dull dark gray.

Further innovations led to the plate armor that we know today, but even then, it wasn’t always so shining. Here is a suit of armor that belonged to Henry VIII. 

Youth Ed Armor 2Youth Ed Armor 1 

 

Beautiful? Yes. Well-crafted? Yes. Shining? Not so much.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that body armor like this was a strictly European invention.  Most cultures that engage in warfare have some sort of armor to counteract the weapons. Some of the armor is ceremonial, but more often than not, it is clever and particular to the local environment. 

The Maya and Aztec, for example, wore knee-length jackets of tightly-woven quilted cotton called ichcahuipilli. The jackets were soaked in salt water and then the water was allowed to evaporate. The salt left behind would crystalize between the quilted portions of the jacket, creating small, thick, sturdy plates of protection which were effective against arrows, atlatl darts, obsidian swords and batons.

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They didn’t have cotton in Micronesia, so on the islands of Kiribati, they used what they did have: coconuts. Helmets, leg coverings, shirts and chest protection were made from tightly-woven coconut fibers as protection against another natural resource: sharks (or more accurately, shark teeth). The teeth of the sharks were drilled in the roots and then attached to the base with bits from the veins of the coconut leaf or human hair. The shark-tooth swords were intended to disembowel an enemy or open a major artery so he would bleed out. Yikes!

Want in on all this exciting armor action? You’ve got two options!

Option 1: Bring your crew down to see Magna Carta before it leaves on August 17th.  You have three short weeks! If you want to bring a school group or day care, be sure to contact fieldtrips@hmns.org to get the school rate. You will also want to consider coming on a Friday mornings at around 11.

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Option 2: Can’t make it to us? Then try your hand at making your own armor. Sort of.  Here’s a pretty easy chain maille bracelet you can make at home. It won’t offer you much protection but it will allow you to practice your technique before trying something a little more complicated.

Materials:

-Jump rings or chain maille rings (The bigger they are, the less work for you.)
-The clasp of your choice or a piece of leather or ribbon to tie the bracelet ends together
-2 pairs of jewelers pliers (or needle-nosed pliers if you are in a pinch)
-A tape measure or piece of paper to measure your wrist

Procedure:

  1. Measure how long you want your bracelet to be using a tape measure (or even a piece of paper). The standard size for women is about 7 inches and the standard size for men is about 8.
  2. Open several of your jump rings. To open them, you DON’T want to pull them apart.  Instead you want to twist them open. If the individual rings start off as an “O” shape, you don’t want to make them into a wide-mouthed “C”. Instead, you want to slide the ends away from each other, one towards you and one away from you. Because of the way the rings are made, they naturally take that shape, so that should help you get started. If your rings lay flat when opened (rather than in a twisty shape), you will need to try again! Once you have a pile of open rings, things get a little trickier. You can keep up though. I believe in you.

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  3. The next step is to put four closed rings on an open ring and then slide the open ring back into the closed position. Then repeat this step over and over. You will need probably 10 of these 4-in-1 sets for a 7-inch bracelet.

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  4. Once you have the 4-in-1 sets made, you will need to use your pliers to separate out two rings from the four. The set should hang from your pliers as two rings, with one ring in the middle and two more rings at the bottom. You are then going to feed an open ring through the top two rings. Shift your pliers around so that you are now holding onto that open ring.

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  5. Using your other set of pliers, pick up two rings on another 4-in-1 set. Loop those two rings through the open ring (effectively creating a new 4-in-1 set) and then close the open ring. You should have created a small chain at this point. Great job!

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  6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 until you have 4 or 5 small chains. I am doing 4, but I have pretty small wrists.

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  7. Getting close to being done! You will need to link these small chains in exactly the same way you did the sets. Take two rings from the top of one small chain and put them on an open ring with two rings from the top of another small chain.
  8. Now, repeat step seven with your longer chains!
  9. Finish up by adding a single jump ring to each end. This will let you tie the two ends together, or you can add a clasp to that last ring before you close it up. You’re done!

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Book List: Conquerors!

With the Genghis Khan exhibition now on display, the book list for March will feature the theme Conquerors: Their Lives and Times. Scholastic Books publishes a series of books, over 50 in all, whose titles all begin with You Wouldn’t Want to Be…  The books, illustrated with colorful cartoons, bring history to life in an engaging, entertaining way.
 
For example…You Wouldn’t Want to Be in Alexander the Great’s Army! by Jacqueline Marley begins with an introduction and a map of Alexander’s route.  You learn that Alexander’s father, Phillip II, united Macedonia and made it strong.  Phillip’s army controlled most of Greece when he died, and his 20-year old son Alexander III decided to embark on the trip that his father had planned.

Alexander The Great
Creative Commons License photo credit: Dime01

As you read you learn interesting tidbits:  At the Siege of Tyre (332 BCE) Alexander had to defeat the Persians; when Alexander’s men tried to scale tall walls, the Persian soldiers poured red-hot sand down on them. Alexander founded the city of Alexandria in Egypt. Soldiers were not paid but were allowed to steal from their victims – and so looters learned to take only light things because they had to carry everything they took; soldiers were also allowed to pick up wives along the way. Alexander’s trip lasted 8 years; and soon after the trip ended, Alexander died at age 32.

This book contains a glossary and an index.  The books in this series are useful introductions to many topics.

The story A Medieval Feastby Aliki is 25 years old, and could have taken place during the time of William the Conqueror.  The pictures are timeless.  The King, Queen, knights, squires and other members of the court – maybe 100 in all – are coming to visit Camdenton Manor, and the lord and lady must prepare for the visit.

The serfs who lived on the lord’s estate helped with the preparations that involved everything from redecorating the Royal Suite to building fences for the horses—in addition to preparing for the feast. 

Sir Aiden and his charming squire
Creative Commons License photo credit: badlogik

The lord went hunting and hawking for meat, and they trapped and fished.  Fruits and vegetables were gathered; bread was made; butter was churned and wine and ale were brewed.  A rare “beast” called a Cockentrice was created by cutting a caponand pig in half and attaching one’s back to the other’s front and vice versa.  A peacock was cooked and then all the feathers were reassembled.  The upcoming feast, fit for a king, would begin at 10:30 a.m. and end at dark.  The next day it would be repeated.

Take time to look carefully at the illustrations!  Aliki’s detailed pictures enable the reader to learn even more about this time period.  The reader sees the serfs at work and play, the kitchen alive with food preparation, people trapping birds and so much more.  (For another look at life in a medieval castle, read You Wouldn’t Want to Live in a Medieval Castle! by Jacqueline Morley.)

medieval women
Creative Commons License photo credit: hans s

Crabtree Publishers publishes an incredible number of nonfiction books which are illustrated, easily read and contain facts about a particular subject.  One of the books in the Medieval World series is Women and Girls in the Middle Ages. This book is divided into topics such as Having Fun, Housekeeping, Educating Girls and Beauty, and you learn interesting facts on each page. 

Did you know:
• That during this time all you had to do to get married was say “I Do”?
• That you needed bread, glue, turpentine and a candle to get rid of fleas?
• That employment opportunities for women improved after the Plague killed one third of Europe’s population?
• That women were told to comb their hair and “make sure that it is not full of feathers or other garbage”?
• That you can make a beauty lotion by mixing asparagus roots, anise, bulbs of white lilies, milk from donkeys and red goats and horse dung?

Books from the Conquerors: Their Lives and Times list will transport you to another time—and, as a bonus, probably make you very glad you are living NOW.