A gambeson (or aketon or padded jack) is a padded defensive jacket, worn as armour separately, or combined with mail or plate armour. Gambeson were produced with a sewing technique called quilting. Usually constructed of linen or wool, the stuffing varied, and could be for example scrap cloth or horse hair. During the 14th century, illustrations usually show buttons or laces up the front.
EtymologyThe term gambeson is a loan from Old French gambeson, gambaison, originally wambais, formed after the Middle High German term wambeis "doublet", in turn from Old High German wamba "stomach" (cognate to womb.)
The term aketon, originally medieval french alcottonem might be a loan from Arabic al-qutn "cotton (definite article - the cotton)".
In medieval Norse, the garment was known as vapntreyiu, lit. "arming shirt" or pannzar/pannzarum, another loan word from middle high German.
Also known as: Aketon, acton, arming coat, auqueton, gambeson, hacketon, haqueton, pannzar, vapntreiyu, wambais, wambesium, wambs,
Quilted leather open jackets and trousers were worn by Scythian horsemen before the 4th century BC, as can be seen on Scythian gold ornaments crafted by Greek goldsmiths. The European gambeson can be traced at least to the late 10th century, but it is likely to have been in use in various forms for longer than that. In Europe, its use became widespread in the 13th century, and peaked in the 14th and 15th centuries.
The gambeson was used both as a complete armour unto itself and underneath mail and plate in order to cushion the body and prevent chafing. It was very insulatory and thus uncomfortable, but its protection was vital for the soldier.
Although they are thought to have been used in Europe much earlier, gambesons underwent a revolution from their first proven use in the late 11th and early 12th centuries as an item of armour that simply facilitated the wearing of mail to an item of independent armour popular amongst infantry. Although quilted armour survived into the English Civil War in England as a poor man's cuirass, and as an item to be worn beneath the few remaining suits of full plate, it was increasingly replaced by the 'buff coat'- a leather jacket of rough suede.
There are two distinctive designs of gambeson; those designed to be worn beneath another armour, and those designed to be worn as independent armour. The latter tend to be thicker and higher in the collar, and faced with more resilient materials, such as leather, or heavy canvas. This variant is usually referred to as padded jack and made of several (some say around 18, some even 30) layers of cotton, linen or wool. These jacks were renowned to stop even heavy arrows and their design of multiple layers bears a striking resemblance to modern day body armor, which substituted at first silk and later kevlar as fabric.
For common soldiers who could not afford mail or plate armour, the gambeson, combined with a helmet as the only additional protection, remained a common sight on European battlefields during the entire Middle Ages, and its decline - paralleling that of plate armour - came only with the Renaissance, as the use of firearms became more widespread, until by the 18th century it was no longer in military use.
While the use of linen has been shown in archaeological evidence, the use of cotton - and cotton-based canvas - is disputed since the access to large amounts of cotton cloth was not widely available in northern Europe at this time. It is quite probable that Egypt (and Asia-Minor generally) still produced cotton well after the 7th and 8th centuries and knowledge (and samples) of this cloth was brought to Europe by the returning Crusaders. However logistics and expense of equipping a town militia or army with large amounts of cotton-based garments is doubtful, when flax-based textiles (linen) was in widespread use.
Gambeson in German: Gambeson
Gambeson in Spanish: Gambesón
Gambeson in French: Gambison
Gambeson in Dutch: Wambuis
Gambeson in Polish: Przeszywanica
Gambeson in Russian: Стёганка