I’m a big fan of the “why” behind things. The historical record indicates that quite a bit of quilted/padded clothing was worn over mail. That seems weird to me; putting the padding on over the armor defeats the purpose, right? The gambeson or aketon is, as I understand it, the “foundation” supporting garment, but putting the cut vulnerable cushion over the cut resistant metal sounds like a great way to waste a lot of fustian to little benefit. What can’t be denied is that it did happen; both in visual and written sources; especially in the 12th and 13th centuries when mail was the predominant defense (before plate started to take over.)
But knowing it happened doesn’t really help me with understanding why it happened. There doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer out there, and because it’s bothered me I’ve taken quite a lot of time to think about the reason we’d see it in manuscripts and paintings and writing. Once I stopped conflating the two different applications of quilted clothing, defense and padding, as the same thing; everything made a bit more sense. Let me explain.
Testing conducted with quilted and padded or layered linen shows it to be a respectable (if inferior) defense against cuts and stabs and even arrows. Mail is better (and plate better than mail), but fabric armor was not useless; no one would have worn it alone otherwise. 14th century folk were plenty smart, even if they didn’t have time to invent Netflix. I doubt even your basic ditch-digging peasant would wear a hot, bulky, uncomfortable garment if it had no perceivable benefit. From an aristocratic point of view, while people are far more expensive now a-days than they were in medieval times, soldiers were still a sizable investment and it took decades to breed and raise a new crop of fighting men if your old batch was dead and broken. It would be a waste of money to finance protection that didn’t actually protect. The medieval battlefield was an up-close and messy place, it would be hard to miss if padded garments were as useless as Hollywood thinks plate armor is.
However, economically, a padded gambeson is worlds cheaper than a shirt of mail. More expensive than clothing, for sure, but a pittance compared to other armors. Mobility, comfort, and portrayal of status aside; there’s a reason that droves of levies and archers were provided aketons if they couldn’t provide anything better for themselves. A lord could commission or buy many, many more padded garments for the price of an equivalent piece of mail armor. Also, though even the simplest person’s clothing was made for the person (something we consider a luxury today); large, mass production type manufacture of equipment also existed. Not mass production on the scale we experience in a modern concept of course, but progressive for its day. I conjecture that padded garments were, perhaps, something you could get in bulk.
But enough about peasants who can’t afford the cool stuff, what about mail? In the King’s Mirror, it distinctly identifies garments that are worn under mail, and garments worn over mail (both on the body and on the legs.) “Above and next to the body he should wear a soft gambison, which need not come lower than to the middle of the thigh… outside this, a well-made hauberk and over the hauberk a firm gambison made in the manner which I have already described but without sleeves.”
What benefit is there to putting the “firm gambison” over the mail? Mail works well when layered over a foundation garment, that’s a well accepted trait. However, it isn’t worthless on its own. I know it’s a contentious argument (the mail without padding topic), but in my opinion if mail was no good on its own no one would wear voiders over unpadded arming doublets while in plate. Even for the wealthy mail was expensive. They wouldn’t wear it if it didn’t do anything. I digress somewhat, but think about what happens when someone hits you with a sword: you’re being subjected to two primary forms of injury. First, you’re being cut with a sharp edge. You’re also being beaten with a big steel bar. Padding is far more effective at mitigating the effects of the latter than the metal mail is alone. The mail still provides a barrier against the edged weapon, it just hurts more (and may expose you to other bludgeoning injuries such as broken bones or hemorrhaging) to get struck without the cushion padding provides.
When wearing mail as the primary defense, the padding, on the inside or out, serves to soften the impact of a blow, but is not vital to prevent the cutting effect of a blade. Since you can still die from internal bleeding, padding was important before plate started doing the work of dissipating the impact of a blow. Using mail and padding in concert with each other, the padding doesn’t need to be nearly so great as it does when a quilted defense is worn alone. Fabric armor acting as a stand-alone defense must be considerably more robust to prove effective against the damage of both impacts and cuts/stabs. When something else (namely mail) is providing the penetration protection, you simply need less fabric to do the cushion part of the job.
If one considers the difference in bulk between stand-alone fabric armor and supplemental under armor padding, the idea of wearing fabric on top of mail seems a little less absurd. It also helps clear up why there would be such a distinction between soft and hard fabric garments in the literature. From an economic standpoint alone, the larger a circumference you have to cover with mail, the more materials and time the piece of armor requires. Covering a thick, arrow-resistant aketon with mail compared to a minimally stuffed gambeson would increase the cost, bulk, and weight of the entire ensemble. Layering a thick, durable fabric garment (hard) over your mail would avoid that problem while still providing an additional layer of defense.
Not everything lasts forever. It’s hard to swallow as a reenactor who pays dearly in time or expense for their outfit, but some items (especially combat items) are intrinsically a disposable item. Modern ceramic ballistic armor plates cannot be reused after taking rounds and have to be replaced. Cut or damaged padded clothing is significantly easier to sew up than mail is to repair, and the expense of replacing a quilted piece is negligible compared to the cost of replacing destroyed mail. Mail worn against the arming clothes but under the gambeson/aketon would provide defense against any cuts or stabs that penetrated the fabric, while still benefiting from the dissipation of blunt trauma. Damage to the exposed fabric layer may have been an expected and accepted cost of going to war compared to any damage exposed mail may experience.
Then there’s the vanity issue. When I drop the dough (or invest the hours) into a piece of mail armor: I want to show it off. I’ve made no illusions that half the fun of wearing armor is looking damn-sexy in armor. Covering up all that glittery, shiny steel-woven glory with something as provincial and basic as fabric is initially galling, because I’m not thinking about it as defense as much as an accessory. Objectively it’s a laughably naïve thought, and such a thought would never have occurred to a serious combatant on the fields of medieval Europe.
I suspect white or off-white linen/canvas as the outside layer would reflect some light and be cooler in the sun than the dark metal rings of mail. Also, considering that heraldry is important on the battlefield, without at least a surcote to display your arms going into battle with just your mail on would make you look like one of the unwashed common masses. Said unwashed common masses generally try to follow the fashion trends of the nobles, and even without arms, wearing at least a colored garment over one’s mail could give the appearnce of higher status. I admit I’m getting a bit far out into the weeds here at the end, and perhaps blurring the lines between padded armor and surcotes and tabards, but fashion follows form and form follows fashion, and all that.
In the end, there are two types of quilted garments and while the distinction between the two seems to have been clearly defined in the historical record, it doesn’t seem to be as well understood as it probably could be in the armoring community (or if it is, the distinction is made on an individual level, because I’ve never really thought about it this way until I wrote this article.) I surmise that much of this murkiness stems from the way we use armor vs. the way armor was used in period, similar to the “but my armor is pretty” line of thinking above. Most sane people don’t spar with the sharps and so we have far less experience with the actual destructive effects of the weapons our armor is designed to defend against. We have academic knowledge, on pigs and watermelons, but we don’t have the “Don’t forget that piece of armor Squire, I watched Uncle Murray die last week for making that mistake.” experience.
When we use armor for modern full harness sport fighting, we make some concessions for safety. As Ian LaSpina mentioned in his video about locking visors on bascinets: we have a different set of considerations in our reenacting fighting than they did on the live-or-die battlefield. With our armor we spar with blunts, which probably transfer energy to the target somewhat differently than a sharp does, perhaps as more blunt impact. While sparring was undoubtedly a part of training for a knight in period, ultimately, a medieval combatant only needed to survive the combat he was in (and in the end, he didn’t necessarily have to be happy and comfortable about it.) Going home with minor, but not debilitating, injuries and wounds (possibly to include minor disabilities) still count as survival, but is an unacceptable margin of safety for our purposes.
Doubly so considering that we as hobbyists and martial artists in both sparring and training hit each other constantly and want to continue to do so in an enjoyable manner without excessive discomfort or debilitating injury. We want to be able to fight multiple bouts (or multiple days during a weekend event), and still be able to get to work the next day. As such, I bet we tend to wear thicker padding than a medieval soldier would deem minimally adequate to survive. Survival is a completely different set of parameters than a safe and comfortable bout between gentlemen and friends.
Considering how much padding we probably use for our own comfort, it’s easy to confuse armor and padding. Quilted garments that are padded armor in and of themselves, intended as protection alone, were far different from their padding counterparts. It takes an incredible amount of material to make an armor out of fabric that provides protection against various types of impacts, cuts, and punctures. Due to the thickness of padding and/or absurd number of layers, these garments are unsuitable undergarments for other type of armor, mail or plate. Padding as we think of it, meant to assist in the mitigation of impact in concert with other types of armors, is more like what we find inside helmet liners.
While I suspect that the exceptionally paranoid may have worn metal armor over padded armor, padding and padded armor were not mutually exclusive. Padded armor couldn’t fit under metal armor well and padding couldn’t provide adequate cut or puncture protection alone. That’s not to say that there weren’t experiments with layering very thickly padded armor under mail, there are plenty of people that will accept discomfort and inconvenience in exchange for actual or perceived increased protection. In the Army I remember soldiers who wore a ton of extra gear, mostly because they could.
They were usually miserable and hot and tired. But then again, there are also soldiers who have died because they dropped plates or DAPs for the sake of comfort. A good example of this in a historical context, and in relation to padding under chainmail, is LindyBeige’s train of thought in his video on the mega-coif. He poses that the big dome head appearance of the knights in early period imagery is due to an abundance of padding (compared to the cervelliere-style helmet theory.)
With these few exceptions in mind, re-creations of garments made from a multitude of layers as described in text have a very distinct look from padding when looked at in photographs. Paintings and drawings of the day were not detailed enough to really highlight the difference in the same way; just think of the wide variety of styles used to portray the weave of mail on the Bayeaux Tapestry. Those kinds of abstract drawings sparked generations of hypothesis and misinformation.
As historians, we also have to contend with the fact that fabric decays. Metal, by its nature, lends itself far better to surviving for hundreds of years and being close-enough to its original construction for modern study and analysis. Padded clothing and clothing in general doesn’t have the chronological endurance that other forms of protection do, and so there’s fewer examples to actually use as a verification of written or artistic references. In absence of this physical evidence, and based on other more subjective references, it makes much more sense to me that people were not actually wearing padding over their mail, but were in fact wearing padded armor over it instead.