If you’ve ever played Dungeons & Dragons, you are familiar with plate mail. If not, all you really need to know is that it is basically the best armour you can buy, short of magically enhanced protection. Well, at least, it used to be. Then at some point they introduced ‘full plate mail’.
But wait! Plate. Mail. Is it plate, or is it mail? How can it be both?
If you poke around the internet a bit, you’ll come across the general notion that plate mail is a total D&D fabrication and historically inaccurate. I’ve even seen forum debates on this topic. You had plate armour, which was what we all have in our heads when we think of knights in shining armour, and you had mail, which tended to comprise of interlocking rings of iron, or similar.
Nothing really springs to mind in connection with plate mail (although D&Ders might find themselves assigning this language to plate armour, by default). The Baldur’s Gate wiki tells me this:
“Plate mail is a combination of chain armor with metal plates covering the vital areas such as the chest, abdomen and groin. Similar in construction to bronze plate mail, true plate mail comprises chain and leather.”
“Full plate mail is the best armor a warrior can buy, both in appearance and protection. The perfect fitted interlocking plates are specially angled to deflect arrows and blows and the entire suit is carefully adorned with rich engravings and embossed details.”
Well. We have two kinds of armour, both of which use the word ‘mail’, and only one of which is described as actually including mail…
I’m going to say that ‘full plate mail’ was actually just full plate, which was worn over mail, but of which the full plate was not, in any sense of the word, a type of mail.
As for ‘plate mail’… It turns out that there actually was a kind of armour for which ‘plate mail’ is a fairly accurate description, and the Baldur’s Gate wiki description is pretty darn good.
Basically it works like this. Armour is layered. Mail is one of those layers (with a few layers underneath). If you were wealthy, full plate was your top layer. But what about the poor sods who weren’t so wealthy? You know, the common soldiers.
Turns out there were other kinds of plate besides full plate, including a lot of stuff made out of ‘cuir bouilli’ – or boiled leather. It was almost as hard as iron. You had brigandines, which was leather lined with cuir bouilli or iron plate. You had lamellar, which was a kind of scaled armour – basically cuir bouilli or iron scales attached to a coat. You also had articulated cuir bouilli plate – think full plate, but made out of boiled leather. You might dismiss this as ‘leather armour’ (the poorest form of armour in D&D) but it was really hard. Really hard. You also had odds and ends of iron plate used in conjunction with all this other stuff – basically pieces of iron plate that did not amount to a full suit.
So what do you have if you throw a brigandine or lamellar over mail and toss in some articulated cuir bouilli or iron plate? Well, layers, obviously. More layers than you had before. But you also have a pretty good mix of mail and plate, which at the same time is not full plate. Or as the wiki says, a combination of chain armour with plate protecting the vital areas…
Most the research in this post was done for my upcoming novel In the Company of the Dead and drew from a post by Joseph Malik – you can find his posts on armour here and here. Don’t assume the pictures I’ve used here are good examples of armour – they are just to demonstrate the different types. You should definitely read Joseph’s posts in full.