The Writer’s Guide to Gambesons

As promised this week I will be covering types of armor that were common in medieval Europe, starting with gambesons and continuing over the next three weeks with chainmail, plate armor and brigantine. I will also be doing some myth busting with each type of armor. I want to point out that just because I’m covering four types of armor that these were not the only types of armor used in Europe during the Middle Ages. I am merely focusing on the most common ones. There were also other designs and transition styles that were combinations of types of armor.

As always, magic is the exception to the rules. Because magic.

Introduction

The gambeson or padded jack was a quilted jacket that usually extended to the knees, fastening up the front with lacing, ties, buttons, or buckles. It was commonly stuffed with fabric or horsehair. Since it was easy and economical to make, the gambeson was quite commonly used on its own for protection. It provided decent defense against slashes and bludgeoning. One way to provide more protection when the gambeson was worn alone was the use of jack chains. They were sections of metal that were stitched, tied, or laced to the outside of the gambeson’s sleeves to provide more protection. [1]

Medieval depiction of a gambeson. Photo source.
A gambeson with jack chains. Photo source.

How It Was Worn

Gambesons were also the vital first layer under chainmail and plate mail armor, providing cushioning and shock absorption and protecting against chaffing from any of the armor’s edges. They usually had arming points, ties for attaching armor, which helped with the weight distribution. Some gambesons had sections of chainmail attached to the sleeves and armpits called goussets or voiders. This provided more protection, especially to areas that could not be covered with plate armor. [2]

Gambeson with chainmail voiders.
Photo source.

In the mid-15th century the gambeson evolved into the arming doublet, a tightly fitted garment ending at the hips that replaced the arming belt and caused the weight of the leg armor to be carried on the hips and waist rather than the shoulders. [3]

An arming doublet. Photo source.

There was also a padded coif or arming cap that was worn on the head underneath chainmail or helmets although it could also be worn alone. The downside to wearing a gambeson was how warm it could become because of its insulating properties.

Cost

I was unable to find any recorded prices for gambesons. However, a freeman in late 12th century England who owned goods valued at less than 10 marks (1 mark = 13s 4d) was required by law to own a helmet, spear, and gambeson. [4] This implies they were relatively cheap. By comparison, a modern gambeson will run you between $115 to $350.

Depictions

Even though gambesons were quite common in the Middle Ages and an essential first layer under armor, they are rarely depicted in television shows or movies or mentioned in historical or fantasy novels. One of the exceptions was Netflix’s “Outlaw King.”

Writer’s Tip: Including rarely depicted armor like gambesons is a great way to show the social standing of your character.


I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2020 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gambeson
[2] https://its-spelled-maille.tumblr.com/post/175518038999/what-is-a-gambeson-its-a-mystery-gambesons
[3] http://myarmoury.com/talk/viewtopic.php?p=86991
[4] http://medieval.ucdavis.edu/120D/Money.html
English Weapons & Warfare, 449-1660, A. V. B. Norman and Don Pottinger, Barnes & Noble, 1992 (orig. 1966)

3 Comments on “The Writer’s Guide to Gambesons”

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