by Gregory Mele
Fabric armours were some of man’s earliest defenses against sword, spear and knife. Linen cuirasses and skirts saw action for centuries as the principle body armour of both Egyptian and ancient Greek warriors. The use of metal armours in later Antiquity, seems to have led to a decline in the use of fabric defenses, so much so that there is little evidence of its use in Europe at all by the early Middle Ages (c.500 - 1000 AD), warriors depending entirely upon their shields if ferrous armour wasn't available. Undoubtedly some sort of fabric armour may have been in use, but if so no clear iconographic representation survives.
By the High Middle Ages (c.1050 - 1350 AD), mail armour had become the dominant defense for the body and limbs. While the protection offered by mail is excellent against cuts and thrusts, it offers little protection against direct concussive blows to the body. Further, individual links can be torn out of a mail coat and driven deeply into wounds with a consequently high risk of infection. As a result, a secondary protective layer was required to dilute the force of blows by spreading them over a wider surface area.
By the 13th century, padded armours had been fully developed and these were widely used on various parts of the body. The garments followed the design of civilian clothing. Thus padded chausses defended the legs, and a padded coif (cap) was worn underneath the helmet.
The body itself was defended by a gambeson or “aketon”, but there seems to be no reason for differentiating between the terms. This was a knee-length, sleeved garment, split in front and back, just like the male surcoat. The gambeson, like the chausses, was quilted and made from either linen or wool (the word “aketon“ derives from Arabic and suggests the use of cotton). They could be quite thick, and the bulk of the quilting generally ran vertically. They could be left a natural linen color, or dyed a variety of colors. While some had integral mittens, others were short sleeved or sleeveless. All of these varieties can be seen in the Macjieowski Bible (c.1250).
With the adoption of plate armour in the Late Middle Ages (1350 - 1500), the need for padded chausses disappeared altogether. Further, as the mail hauberk was shortened and increasingly worn underneath a coat of plates or breastplate, the need for a heavily padded supertunic declined. By the late 14th century, the gambeson had taken on the short, fitted form of a man's cotte. It was still well padded, but was far less bulky than its earlier counterparts. (This is the model we have chosen to reproduce.) With the adoption of full plate harness in the 15th century, the gambeson further shrank to the form of an “arming cotte” - a lightly padded jacket, primarily de signed to provide attachment points for the steel armour, and to defend against the abrasion from its wear.
While the knights and mounted serjeants used all of these garments as a secondary defense, for many simple foot-soldiers throughout the Middle Ages, padded armour became their only form of protection in battle. They were apparently quite suited to the task. Anna Komnena's “Alexiad” (1148) tells of a Norman mercenary who wore a “hauberk” made of 17 layers of linen, soaked in brine that was impervious to sword blows, and the same claims were made of the heavily padded “jacks” of the 15th century foot soldier.