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Forum Index > Off-topic Talk > Gambeson, mail, plate, and leather armor Reply to topic
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D. S. Smith




Location: Central CA
Joined: 02 Oct 2011

Posts: 221

PostPosted: Sun 14 Apr, 2013 11:00 pm    Post subject: Gambeson, mail, plate, and leather armor         Reply with quote

Hello all, I've been trying to become more informed about medieval armor since finding this great site a couple years ago. The wealth of knowledge here is incredible. I know the topic of what kinds of armor have been used seems to have been done to death, so I apologize for one more.

For this topic, I'm not really interested in historical precedent for a particular armor, more with its' actual effectiveness. My biggest question concerns weight and heat, two things which I know can quickly sap someone's strength on a battlefield or other high-stress situation.

I've read time and time again on here that plate metal armor was lighter than a comparative level of protection from cloth, leather, or mail. I can believe this, particularly with regards to mail. My only armor I've ever held personally is a low quality reproduction mail hauberk and coif, and I am shocked at how heavy it is. To be dressed head to foot in this stuff including mittens and booties and then try to fight melee combat would be unreal. My hat is off to those who did so.

Next comes the gambeson. Now this is one area in which I do have "some" sort of experience. I've never owned a gambeson, even a reproduction, but I do wear a dog bite suit for police k9 agitation. I'm not sure if you guys have ever looked at bite suits, but they look almost identical in design, function...heck, even manufacture..., to some gambesons I've seen. I've very aware of how effective layers of cloth can be at providing both penetration and abrasion protection. As a matter of fact, the kevlar vest I wear to work every day is just layers of aramid fiber cloth. But I do know that vests and bite suits are incredibly hot! Hot, heavy, and very movement restricting. Try running and fighting with dogs on a warm summer day and you'll be exhausted in no time. So I really can't see how a gambeson would be any different.

Then comes leather. It seems as though leather is everyone's favorite armor material to bash (metaphorically:). I do know that leather has very good abrasion resistance qualities (like my leather motorcycle jacket), and even some slash resistance (cut myself while wearing leather gloves enough times to be impressed with the slash protection of even fairly thin leather). I am sure it is horrible for stab protection.

So my question (I am coming to it and thanks for being patient...hehe), is theoretically, why is leather such a bastard stepchild? As someone who carries arms and armor daily as part of my job (of course a totally different variety than in the medieval ages), I'm a big believer that armor and weapons should be tailored for the situations likely to be encountered. When I'm going to a gunfight, I wear hard rifle armor plates, carry a long gun, kevlar helmet, kevlar vest, etc. For day to day, I wear only a kevlar vest and carry a handgun or two. Away from work, I don't wear any armor and only carry one handgun. To make a long story short, I tailor my weapons and defenses to the situation I'm likely to encounter.

So here's my thought process as it translates to a medieval setting; I can see why head to toe plate armor protection would be nice if I were going to be slugging it out on a battlefield in melee combat with sharp weapons everywhere. There is no doubt in my mind that a gambeson (or bite suit), mail hauberk, or plate armor would protect better on a medieval battlefield than a leather motorcycle jacket and pants. However, that's for going into battle. For situations such as a man-at-arms might face, where my daily job might be keeping the peace or fighting un-armored opponents, I would sure rather have a leather jacket or pants than a gambeson or mail or plate. Or even as an archer in a larger battle I would think. People mention how hot and heavy leather is, but probably only if it's built to withstand a direct sword impact. For casual slash protection it seems to me it would be lighter, cooler, and allow far more mobility than other armor options.

I'm just hoping to drum up some discussion on theoretical (non-historical) pros and cons. These are my personal thoughts on it, but I have never trained with or against edged weapons, which is why I'm asking for experiences and opinions from people here who know far more than I. My interest in swords and armor comes from a fantasy-type background, so this is why the theoretical and non-historical questions.

Lo, they do call to me.
They bid me take my place among them,
In the halls of Valhalla!
Where the brave may live forever!
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Elling Polden




Location: Bergen, Norway
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PostPosted: Mon 15 Apr, 2013 1:03 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

The reason leather gets tore up with such pasion, is its prevailent use in fantacy games and literature. Which in turn makes people think that it was common historically.

A leather bike jacket is a huge step up from nothing. However, making thick, relatively soft leather is more high tech than we consider.
The introduction of cattle ranching and the production of what we identify as leather is visually quite easy to spot; In the middle ages and early renaisance, shoes and boots are soft hide, belts are narrow and appear quite soft as well.
In the 17th C, however, you see an exposion in leather use. High, barrel topped riding boots with solid soles, wide brimed leather hats, wide belts with huge buckles.... And the buff coat, the only wide spread leather armour in European history.

If you consider the plate armour, imagine your riot gear, but without all the neoprene padding, made of relatively thin metal, and laced thighly to a form fitted jacket and pants.
(huge improvement there allready. From my experience with close combat trains suits and the like, they are often over padded, over bulky, and the fit is questionable.)
Reencators of the late middle ages are often whearing what to my eyes could be compaed to a EOD suit, rather than battlefield armour. Then, as now, you adjust your kit according to your role and the threat level.

A propperly made mail shirt would weigh less than 20 pounds, and be comparable in wear to a rifle vest. My full 13th c mail armour weighs in at about 40 pounds, and I can wear it even in relatively warm weather with some occational fighting. It gets hot and clamy, but not horibly so. I have large ventilation slits under the arms though. But if someone is in a position to target them, It would make little diference.

"this [fight] looks curious, almost like a game. See, they are looking around them before they fall, to find a dry spot to fall on, or they are falling on their shields. Can you see blood on their cloths and weapons? No. This must be trickery."
-Reidar Sendeman, from King Sverre's Saga, 1201
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D. S. Smith




Location: Central CA
Joined: 02 Oct 2011

Posts: 221

PostPosted: Mon 15 Apr, 2013 1:42 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thanks for the thought provoking responses and comparisons, Elling. You were one of the people I hoped would provide input to this topic, and I value your opinion, especially as someone who practices quite a bit with these various types of arms and armor. I hadn't considered that our modern day leather manufacturing (for motorcycle clothing as an example), would be more advanced than during the medieval era. I just sort of assumed there would have been experts then as well as now who made high quality items, and those who did not.

I'm shocked at the weight you provided for your 13C mail set-up. Just my hauberk alone, not including the coif, weighs 45 lbs. I know mine is low quality (butted), but I assumed the real stuff would be every bit as heavy, if not heavier. I'd thought a head to toe set-up like you see the crusaders wearing would be close to 100 lbs. But of course I was just guessing. 40 lbs is doable, my duty gear for work (standard daily uniform alone, not SWAT stuff) weighs almost exactly 40 lbs. I can easily fight, run, and move in that, and I do often. The soldiers overseas wear way more gear than I do, even with my full SWAT kit on. So I know it can be done.

You are right that leather is incredibly commonly used for medieval armor in fantasy and entertainment. I almost think it has a more "romantic" appeal than plate armor. But before coming to this site I was always one of those who thought a plate of suit armor was 100 lbs and the knight had to be hoisted onto his horse with a winch. Wink

Lo, they do call to me.
They bid me take my place among them,
In the halls of Valhalla!
Where the brave may live forever!
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Elling Polden




Location: Bergen, Norway
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PostPosted: Mon 15 Apr, 2013 3:24 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Butted mail has a lot thicker wire and weave, in order to carry its own weight without beeing butted. Adding to this, it is usually made by people that have little experience with riveted mail.
This said, there are a LOT of variations out there.
Both mail and plate come in all varieties, from extremely light and thin to ridiculously thick. But, like now, some 40-50 pounds is the weight a man can carry without being seriously encumbered. And amours where adjusted with that in mind.

"this [fight] looks curious, almost like a game. See, they are looking around them before they fall, to find a dry spot to fall on, or they are falling on their shields. Can you see blood on their cloths and weapons? No. This must be trickery."
-Reidar Sendeman, from King Sverre's Saga, 1201
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Dan Howard




Location: Maitland, NSW, Australia
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PostPosted: Mon 15 Apr, 2013 4:35 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Medieval mail was pretty carefully tailored to fit the owner. You should be able to knock 5-10% off the weight of a modern mail shirt just by fitting it properly.
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Mart Shearer




Location: Jackson, MS, USA
Joined: 18 Aug 2012

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PostPosted: Mon 15 Apr, 2013 6:43 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

The weight of mail also seems to have varied depending on whether it was the primary defense, or a secondary defense beneath others. For example, the heavily corroded hauberk from Kungslena, probably dating to the battle of 1208, weighs 15.3 kg (33.7 lbs), while Claude Blair lists one in Edinburgh that's over 14 kg (31 lbs). The 16th century long-sleeved mail shirt Wallace A7 comes in at 7.9 kg (17.4 lbs), While the half-sleeved Wallace A1 from the early 15th century(?) weighs a light 4.479 kg (9.87 lbs).

John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, took the precaution of wearing mail under his clothes because of assasination risks.


Likewise, we have instances where men may have travelled in mail when they fought in plate, or in gambesons when they fought in mail. It seems that the reduced protection and weight was acceptable when battle was not imminent but a meeting engagement was possible. On the other side of the coin, we have examples of men donning armor "above and beyond" when the threat of death was severe -- Usamah ibn Munqid wearing a kazaghand with two layers of mail, or Fernando wearing three hauberks in the Cantar de Mio Cid. As men later wore plates or brigandines over their mail, I suppose we shouldn't be too surprised that they might have worn two layers of mail, or scale armor over mail in earlier times.

One of the benefits of armoring in layers -- aketon, mail, plates -- was that one could strip down when the threat level decreased without being completely unarmored.

ferrum ferro acuitur et homo exacuit faciem amici sui
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Matthew Amt




Location: Laurel, MD, USA
Joined: 17 Sep 2003

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PostPosted: Mon 15 Apr, 2013 7:24 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I think people tend to over-do the "different scenarios" thing. For the vast majority of medieval warriors, I have the feeling it came down to either fighting or not fighting. For fighting, they wore their armor, for not-fighting, they did not. Noblemen wandering around town would typically wear their swords, at least, and I assume they'd have at least a couple attendants, squires, pages, maybe even (armored?) guards. Maybe a couple noble friends, as well. Who in their right minds is going to start a barroom brawl with a force like that? They'd generally be pretty safe from brigands and assassins, too, since unsavory strangers were easy to spot in close-knit town, and the alarm would go up. Non-nobles aren't going to just up and attack nobles on a whim, nor are nobles going to just romp through town beheading commoners for fun. Either way, there were serious legal and social repercussions! Nobles versus nobles was going to be played by proper rules of chivalry. Commoners versus commoners could be a fistfight, but once weapons came out, there'd be laws covering assault and murder. Heck, even in Saxon England, where free men generally carried spears in public, there were laws governing who was at fault if anyone was wounded.

For travelling in any place that wasn't considered safe, there'd be more weaponry carried, and more armor. Guards who only had gambesons and helmets and maybe mail would wear it all. Nobles might go unarmored as long as they felt safe, then armor up whenever they felt it was necessary. Probably leave helmets off, though. It only takes a moment to toss on a mailshirt, though, so maybe a squire could carry it, close to hand. There must be some literary references to such practices!

Once you get into the later 14th and 15th centuries, there's a wider variety of armor parts from which to choose, so I suppose it's possible that a knight might feel that a brigandine was a good idea, but his full battle plate not necessary. If it was me, though, I think I'd default to "all the armor" if there was ANY chance of someone going after me with pointy stuff. Hot and stuffy is better than bleeding.

Overall, real life was definitely not like the stock gaming scenario, where groups of free-lance warriors sit fully armored in bars, waiting for ninjas to drop from the ceilings.

Matthew
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Sean Manning




Location: Austria
Joined: 23 Mar 2008

Posts: 419

PostPosted: Mon 15 Apr, 2013 8:16 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Mart Shearer wrote:
The weight of mail also seems to have varied depending on whether it was the primary defense, or a secondary defense beneath others.

One often sees this suggested, but I have never seen a document or narrative which makes the distinction. So little European mail has been weighed that it is hard to know if there was a change over time. That very light mail in the Wallace could just as well be heavily worn, or for wearing on its own about town, or for someone with a bad back, or by an armourer who got a deal on some very thin wire. In short, the idea that mail for wearing under plate was especially light is just a guess.
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Bartek Strojek




Location: Poland
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PostPosted: Mon 15 Apr, 2013 8:38 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Sean Manning wrote:

One often sees this suggested, but I have never seen a document or narrative which makes the distinction. So little European mail has been weighed that it is hard to know if there was a change over time. That very light mail in the Wallace could just as well be heavily worn, or for wearing on its own about town, or for someone with a bad back, or by an armourer who got a deal on some very thin wire. In short, the idea that mail for wearing under plate was especially light is just a guess.


Well, in Wallace Collection alone there are at least few very light pieces like that, and none of them seems to look particularly worn out, if at all. In fact, those that are shown with close up appear to be almost as new.

The problem is that majority of preserved mail from before ~ 1350 appears to be drastically incomplete, or/and rusted, so it's hard to tell much about it's weight. Worried
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Mikael Ranelius




Location: Sweden
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PostPosted: Mon 15 Apr, 2013 11:09 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

There are plenty of period illustrations which suggest that padded cloth armour could be worn as civilian garments, at least in the 14th century.

As for leather armour one should mention the late 15th century French ordinances of Louis XI specifying an outer layer of stag's skin on top of 25 layers of flax.
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Matthew P. Adams




Location: Cape Cod, MA
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PostPosted: Mon 15 Apr, 2013 12:13 pm    Post subject: Re: Gambeson, mail, plate, and leather armor         Reply with quote

D. S. Smith wrote:
But I do know that vests and bite suits are incredibly hot! Hot, heavy, and very movement restricting. Try running and fighting with dogs on a warm summer day and you'll be exhausted in no time. So I really can't see how a gambeson would be any different.



Once you have sweat through a natural fiber garment it becomes a big cooling vest. Ever hear the hiking adage "cotton kills"? a wet cotton shirt will chill you faster than if you go shirtless, and in cold temperatures put you at a greater risk of hypothermia. The thickness of arming clothing hinders some of the heat transfer, but it's still a whole lot cooler than synthetics.

From what I understand linen is even better at transferring body heat than cotton.

"We do not rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training" Archilochus, Greek Soldier, Poet, c. 650 BC
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Dan Howard




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PostPosted: Mon 15 Apr, 2013 2:39 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Mikael Ranelius wrote:
As for leather armour one should mention the late 15th century French ordinances of Louis XI specifying an outer layer of stag's skin on top of 25 layers of flax.

One layer out of 26 doesn't make it leather armour. It is still cloth armour - it just has a leather cover.
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Robin Smith




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PostPosted: Mon 15 Apr, 2013 5:07 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Matthew Amt wrote:
Overall, real life was definitely not like the stock gaming scenario, where groups of free-lance warriors sit fully armored in bars, waiting for ninjas to drop from the ceilings.

Matthew
Maybe not your real life, but I can assure you that I absolutely do sit around in bars fully armoured and waiting for ninja attacks... Laughing Out Loud
A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine
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D. S. Smith




Location: Central CA
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PostPosted: Mon 15 Apr, 2013 6:52 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thanks for all the great replies, please keep them coming. I like hearing the different views and opinions.


Robin Smith wrote:
Matthew Amt wrote:
Overall, real life was definitely not like the stock gaming scenario, where groups of free-lance warriors sit fully armored in bars, waiting for ninjas to drop from the ceilings.

Matthew
Maybe not your real life, but I can assure you that I absolutely do sit around in bars fully armoured and waiting for ninja attacks... Laughing Out Loud


Maybe not ninjas, Robin, but how does that work on the ladies? Laughing Out Loud

Lo, they do call to me.
They bid me take my place among them,
In the halls of Valhalla!
Where the brave may live forever!
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Dan Howard




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PostPosted: Mon 15 Apr, 2013 9:37 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

It works better when he wears his "Black Russian" codpiece Happy
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Robin Smith




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PostPosted: Mon 15 Apr, 2013 9:43 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

D. S. Smith wrote:
Thanks for all the great replies, please keep them coming. I like hearing the different views and opinions.


Robin Smith wrote:
Matthew Amt wrote:
Overall, real life was definitely not like the stock gaming scenario, where groups of free-lance warriors sit fully armored in bars, waiting for ninjas to drop from the ceilings.

Matthew
Maybe not your real life, but I can assure you that I absolutely do sit around in bars fully armoured and waiting for ninja attacks... Laughing Out Loud


Maybe not ninjas, Robin, but how does that work on the ladies? Laughing Out Loud
If my wife catches me talking to "the ladies" at a bar, I better be more than just armoured. Eek!

Razz

A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine
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Dan Howard




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PostPosted: Mon 15 Apr, 2013 9:49 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Re leather armour: Villani wrote that Hungarians wore leather armour - apparently consisting of four layers:

"They generally wear leather doublets (farsetti di cordovano), that they wear over their clothes, and to that they add a new layer, and to this another, and attach another, and in this way they are made strong and sufficiently defensive."

The translation seeems to imply four separate garments rather than one cuirass made of four layers quilted together.
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D. S. Smith




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PostPosted: Mon 15 Apr, 2013 11:21 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Dan Howard wrote:
Re leather armour: Villani wrote that Hungarians wore leather armour - apparently consisting of four layers:

"They generally wear leather doublets (farsetti di cordovano), that they wear over their clothes, and to that they add a new layer, and to this another, and attach another, and in this way they are made strong and sufficiently defensive."

The translation seeems to imply four separate garments rather than one cuirass made of four layers quilted together.


I don't know the context to it, and haven't read any of his other writings, so I may be way off base... but from the description you just posted I would assume he meant one garment with multiple leather layers on it. The word "attached" on the fourth layer especially makes me think this.

Lo, they do call to me.
They bid me take my place among them,
In the halls of Valhalla!
Where the brave may live forever!
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Dan Howard




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PostPosted: Mon 15 Apr, 2013 11:40 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Possibly. I'm wondering why he uses farsetto (doublet) rather than something like corazza (cuirass).
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Mart Shearer




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PostPosted: Sat 27 Apr, 2013 1:47 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Sean Manning wrote:
Mart Shearer wrote:
The weight of mail also seems to have varied depending on whether it was the primary defense, or a secondary defense beneath others.

One often sees this suggested, but I have never seen a document or narrative which makes the distinction. So little European mail has been weighed that it is hard to know if there was a change over time. That very light mail in the Wallace could just as well be heavily worn, or for wearing on its own about town, or for someone with a bad back, or by an armourer who got a deal on some very thin wire. In short, the idea that mail for wearing under plate was especially light is just a guess.


Guillaume le Breton's account of the Battle of Bouvines suggest that the mail had grown heavier in the early 13th century.
http://www.deremilitari.org/RESOURCES/SOURCES/bouvines5.htm
Quote:
Gerard La Truie, who was nearby, struck him in the middle of the chest with a knife which he held unsheathed in his hand, and when he saw that he could not pierce through (because of the thickness of the armor with which warriors of our time are equipped and which is impenetrable), he gave him a second blow to make up for the failure of the first. He thought that he was going to hit Otto's body but instead he met the horse's head which was high and raised; he dealt it a blow right in the eye and the knife, thrust with great virtue, slipped all the way to its brain.

ferrum ferro acuitur et homo exacuit faciem amici sui
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