Spotlight: Quilted Armour Defenses of the High Middle Ages
An article by Alexi Goranov
Medieval battles were chaotic and frantic events from the perspective of the individual soldier. Under such conditions even experienced and well-trained individuals faced a high probability of being hit by an opponent. To minimize the extent of injury, soldiers used a variety of body defenses. Such defenses are commonly called "armour", and they have been in use on the battlefield in one form or another since humans first engaged in warfare.
Most actual surviving examples of armour are made of iron or copper alloys. In pictorial art and sculpture, one cannot help but notice the metal (outer) defenses first. However, metal armour was not worn alone, nor was it necessarily the most common form of body defense on the field. One of the simplest forms of armour was a quilted, textile garment. It was made either by quilting two or more layers of cloth together to serve as a shell, usually stuffed with padding, or by quilting multiple layers of cloth together. Such defenses provided significant protection alone, as will be discussed below, but also were worn in combination with metal armour (mail or plate,) in which case they provided protection against blunt trauma and otherwise serve as a cushion between skin and metal armour.
Some forms of quilted defenses were made from layers of linen (at least two) quilted vertically to make tube-like pockets. These pockets were then stuffed with wool, tow, rags, animal hair, cotton, or some other padding. The preference for certain stuffing materials (e.g. wool) seems to have been due to the breathable nature of these fibers, which helped prevent overheating. In period literature the word fustian is used to indicate the stuffing. It is not known exactly what material it references, but it is likely a cloth made of a mixed weave of linen and cotton. This construction was used during the 13th and 14th centuries, although the exact boundaries of its popularity are not clear. An alternative construction seems to have been the quilting together of multiple layers, sometimes more than twenty, to form a thick protective garment.
Forms of Quilted Defenses
In general, as was discussed above, there are two basic ways to make a padded garment: stuff a shell with padding, or put many layers of cloth on top of each other. The form, shape, size, material, and fashion varied endlessly, as did the names for quilted defenses. It is not entirely clear what each period name specifically means. Even modern historians interpret these names differently.
There are many words used in period texts to refer to quilted defenses, and what is most confusing is that these words appear largely interchangeable even within these texts. There is a description attached to some of these defenses, but some other names were used without description. For example, the purchase books of Sir John Howard lists "Welsh jacks", "Scottish jacks", and "doublets of fense", where only the construction of the "doublet of fense" is vaguely discussed. Two common period terms also used to refer to quilted defenses were the "gambeson" and "aketon". These two terms appear to have been largely interchangeable. Even their construction was very similar, and their use extended from about 12th century to 15th century.
Many modern reenactors and some historians, including Claude Blair and David Edge, use these terms to refer to different uses of the same type of garment: the aketon is generally discussed as the quilted defense worn under armour (plate or mail), and the gambeson as the quilted garment worn over the armour. Either the gambeson or aketon could have been used as a standalone defense. Even though such division might seem unnecessary, the abundance of effigies and pictorial representations of warriors wearing two quilted defenses, one under and one over the mail hauberk, suggests that these two garments may need to be addressed separately (please refer to the effigy of Sir John de Creke, 1325-30). The reader should be aware that the decision to call the top one a gambeson and the bottom one an aketon is partially speculative. It is done here to follow the interpretations of Claude Blair and David Edge.
The term pourpoint is used by some, such as Claude Blair, to denote any quilted armour, and by others, such as Brian Price, to refer to the garment most often called an arming doublet (see below).
According to Claude Blair and David Edge, aketon was often used to refer to the quilted defense worn under metal armour (mail or plate). Judging from period artwork, it had a fairly snug fit to accommodate the layers of armour worn over it. It was usually made with a linen shell and left undecorated. This is an over-simplification, as there are records of aketons being adorned or worn over mail. There are no known actual surviving examples named "aketon," even though there are plenty of period illustrations and effigies revealing details about these garments. This quilted defense was also used as a standalone defense by the lower ranking soldiers from the 12th century until at least the end of the 15th century. It had tight-fitting sleeves which could end in straight or dagged edges. The bottom of the aketon could also be straight or dagged. Almost invariably, these defenses had collars that seem rather stiff. It appears that the length of the aketon evolved with the armour worn above it. In the 12th and 13th centuries the hauberk was the main metal defense worn, and it reached to the knees; the aketon of the period followed suit. During the 14th century the hauberk shortened to reach above the knees and the aketon shortened respectively. In the second part of the 14th century the waist of the aketon narrowed significantly to reflect the other changes in fashion (the so-called "wasp-waist"). These defenses could have had slits on the sides and the back to allow for riding. Until the 14th century virtually all examples of padded defenses worn under the armour were shown to be pulled over the head like a shirt. This suggests that initially the quilted armour did not have an opening on the front. During the 14th century, padded garments which open on the front were shown. These were closed by lacing, or more rarely, buttons.
The term gambeson, as interpreted by Claude Blair, refers to a relatively thick quilted defense usually worn over the metal armour, or over another quilted defense garment. According to him, gambesons were used at least from the 12th century to the 15th century. Gambesons were made in a similar manner to the aketon, but the outer layer could often be covered with a rich textile, like silk, and was often adorned with the coat of arms of the wearer. Blair notes that quilted garments worn under metal armour were called gambesons on occasion. The gambeson could be made without sleeves, and in some instances it is shown to be worn over another padded garment (which would be termed an aketon). The edges of the gambeson could be straight or dagged. There are examples of gambesons as early as there are examples for aketons. There are two surviving garments from the end of the 14th century which are usually called jupons (a textile defense deriving from the surcoat or the coat armour), but due to their quilted construction these technically can also be called gambesons. One is the gambeson of Edward the Black Prince from Canterbury Cathedral, and the other is attributed to Charles VI and lies in Chartres Cathedral. The overall construction of both of these is rather like that of an aketon or a gambeson: a shell of linen textile vertically quilted and stuffed with wool. Edward's gambeson is made of five layers: two linen shells and the wool stuffing in between, an inner satin lining, and coat of arms in blue and red velvet applied to the front. Charles VI's gambeson is made of seven layers but in essence it is a linen shell stuffed with wool. Both garments open on the front. Edward's gambeson is laced together, while Charles's is closed with 25 wooden buttons. Both are tailored to closely fit the body. The exact length of the sleeves on Edward's gambeson is uncertain due to the decomposition of the textile, while the sleeves of the gambeson attributed to Charles reached to the wrists. Similar quilted defenses (gambeson/jupon type) were often worn over metal armour (as shown in the effigy of Peter Kreglinger) but can also be seen worn under plate armour (see the effigy of Walter von Hohenklingen, 1386). It is largely believed that both Edward's and Charles's garments were meant to be largely processional clothing items rather than real body defense, however, they do display the general construction that is believed to have been used for making quilted defenses.
As mentioned above, one of the main purposes of quilted textile armour was to absorb the shock of blows and thus minimize blunt trauma. The need for such shock absorption dictated the thickness of the quilted defenses. With the advance of full plate armour after 1410, the metal plates used could withstand blows due to their rigidity and transfer the force over a much wider body area. Thus the use of plate largely removed the necessity for very thickly padded textile defenses, but still required a thinner garment to be worn. These new, thinner quilted garments are called arming doublets (or arming coats, jacks or pourpoints). They were usually shorter than the previously described aketons and gambesons, and had full length sleeves. Arming doublets provide an armour attachment base in addition to providing comfort in wear. Since plate covered most, but not all, of the body (like some joints), the arming doublet was sometimes covered with mail to add more protection to vulnerable spots like the armpits or groin. A marvelous surviving example in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, exemplifies this trait. Arming doublets opened on the front and were usually laced. The use of such garments is explicitly mentioned in the 15th century essay How a Man Shall be Armed when Fighting on Foot. The "doublet of fence" described in Sir John Howard's books has for each front quarter 18 folds of white fustian, 4 folds of linen, and one fold of black fustian for covering (23 folds total). Each back quarter was made with 16 folds of fustian, 4 folds of linen, and one fold of black fustian for covering (21 folds total). The sleeves were of 6 folds of fustian, two of linen cloth and one of black fustian. Sir John Howard paid 20d for the doublet. Interestingly, Robert Reed notes that there are no records of arming doublets in Sir John Howard's books. Could the "Scottish" or "Welsh" jacks be referring to arming doublets? It is also worth noting that a standalone defense, much thicker than the arming doublet, is (was) called a "jack." These garments were popular in the 15th and 16th centuries and were made much as the arming doublet was, but were much thicker. In essence they served the same purpose as aketons, but since jacks were made from multiple folds of cloth, modern enthusiasts prefer to call them by a different name to distinguish them from the stuffed aketon/gambeson construction.
Gamboised cuisses were quilted defenses for the thighs. Their method of construction appears to have been much like that of aketons and gambesons. One of the richest resources depicting what gamboised cuisses were like is the Maciejowski Bible. According to depictions therein, gamboised cuisses were "like a pair of vertically quilted waders cut immediately below the knee" as described by Blair. These cuisses were sometimes adorned with embroidery. Gamboised cuisses were in use from no later than 1250 until at least the beginning of the 15th century, and maybe later. The basic construction did not change much except when the cuisses were studded with rivets. This was indicative of reinforcement with metal plates. Gamboised cuisses were worn not only under the mail cuisses, but also over them. The lower ends of the cuisses were secured just under the knee by a strap and buckle or by a thong. One of the main roles of the cuisses was to serve as an attachment base for the poleyns (a metal cup covering and protecting the knee).
The jupon is a textile garment also called coat armour. It was in use at least as early as the 12th century and perhaps even earlier. It seems to have been almost always worn over the armour and its role was likely to simply protect the armour from the elements and to display heraldry. It could be with or without sleeves and its length varied from knee length or longer in the 12th and 13th centuries, to thigh-length in the late 14th and early 15th century. The jupon was usually a tight-fitting garment, but its sleeves could be very loose. The longer versions were usually split on the front and sides to allow for riding. The jupons did not appear to have been a standalone defense, unlike the gambeson and aketon. However, some garments called jupons (the Charles gambeson, for example) display some of the characteristics of quilted defense construction, hence are discussed here. In simplistic terms, the jupons are thinner versions of the gambeson that had more of a decorative function. The jupon, or coat armour, was sometimes lined with metal plates to produce the coat of plates.
The head of the medieval soldier was often protected by quilted, soft armour: the arming cap. Arming caps were used until the 16th century, though past the end of the 14th century they are rarely seen as a standalone form of head protection. The arming cap was a padded version of the civilian "coif" that closely fit the head and had ear lappets that were tied together under the chin. Such arming caps were worn alone, or with some sort of metal armour, mail coif or a helmet. There are examples of arming caps worn over the mail coif suggesting that there might have been a thinner garment underneath the mail coif to prevent chafing. Some arming caps have a thick circlet around their periphery that is presumably used to support a helm. Claude Blair suggests that arming caps were used in conjunction with the padded liners of helmets. It is also arguable that indeed the arming caps may have evolved into the padded linings of the helmets of 14th and later centuries. Although, to the author's knowledge, there are no surviving arming caps, the author has examined the construction of several padded helmet liners ranging from the end of 14th century to the mid 16th century. The padded linings of two visored bascinets from the Churburg castle were made from canvas or wool and stuffed with cow hair to provide padding. Two mid 16th and mid 17th century quilted liners of German and Italian close helmets reveal that they were made from linen and were stuffed with cotton. The thickness of those liners varied from 2mm to 15mm, the thinnest parts being where the stitching was.
Besides offering padding for comfort, did these quilted armour defenses provide any actual protection? The fact that soldiers wore these quilted defenses alone strongly suggests that they must have. Currently much amateur testing using various targets covered with aketon-like garments has shown that quilted defenses significantly decreased the penetration of sword cuts into the targets but did not completely prevent penetration. Possibly the most complete and sophisticated evaluation of the protective properties of textile defenses was done by Dr. Alan Williams. Using simulation tests he writes that if a quilted garment is made of 16 folds of linen alone it provided similar or better protection than 5mm of cuir bouilli (boiled leather) defense (~80-90J of energy needed to penetrate). The energy available to a sword or axe varies from 60 to 130J. In other words, 16 folds of linen may not be enough to completely prevent penetration by a sword, but the amount of damage dealt is significantly decreased. In addition, he also writes that the combination of padding and metal armour increases the energy needed by a piercing weapon (lance, arrow, crossbow bolt, etc.) for penetration as compared to the energy needed to penetrate the metal plate alone. Of course many of the actual garments were padded with hemp or wool or other tough-to-cut materials which largely decreased the need for many linen layers.
In the current armour reproduction industry, quilted defenses seem to be underemphasized, judging by the number of retailers who make quilted defenses and the variety they offer. The following is a list of some of the manufacturers which offer quilted textile garments. Most of those garments are called "gambesons" though they are often intended to be worn under metal armour. This choice for naming might be due to the fact that the word "gambeson" is better recognized by English speakers.
Museum Replicas Limited offers a medieval gambeson, an arming coat, and an arming cap.
Revival Clothing offers the largest selection of gambesons and aketons, as well as arming caps.
Mercenary's Tailor once offered a hemp-stuffed gambeson.
Historic Enterprises offers a period-accurate arming coat (arming doublet).
By The Sword also offers gambesons and non-plated jacks.
CAS Iberia / Hanwei offers padded defenses they call gambesons.
This is not an all inclusive list of manufacturers and retailers. Apart from these, there are a number of craftspeople, like John Heinz of Herugrim Custom Ironwork, who can make custom quilted garments.
Due to the scarcity of surviving examples and their concealed wear, quilted garments have received much less attention than metal armour both in terms of research and in the armour reproduction market. This is rather unfortunate as metal armour is virtually always worn with some sort of textile padding underneath for comfort and extra protection. Quilted defenses, much like their metal counterparts, also required some skill and knowledge to be made. There are at least two opposing factors that come into play and they need to be properly balanced for the defense to function optimally: thickness of the padding and the ability to allow for free motion of the body. If the garment is too thick or improperly cut then the wearer cannot move well, and if the garment is too thin then it will not protect properly. As modern researchers and armourers attempt to properly recreate and revive the art of making armour, we come closer to understanding how defenses, including gambesons, aketons and such, were produced and how they were supposed to perform and function.
About the Author
Alexi is a postdoc in the biological sciences at MIT. He has had an outstanding interest in medieval military history and weaponry for many years, but only started collecting in late 2003. His main interests lie towards European weapons and warfare practices of the 13th and 14th centuries.
Armour Purchases and Lists from the Howard Household Books, The Journal of the Mail Research Society, by Robert W. Reed, Jr.
Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight, by David Edge, John Miles Paddock
Complete Encyclopedia Of Arms & Weapons
European Armour, circa 1066 to circa 1700, by Claude Blair
English Medieval Knight 1300-1400 (Warrior, 58), by Christopher Gravett
Head Protection in England Before the First World War, by Blackburn, T. P. D., D. A. Edge, A. R. Williams, and C. B. T. Adams
Techniques of Medieval Armour Reproduction: The 14th Century, by Brian R. Price
I wish to thank Dan Howard for providing valuable comments on this article.