“Striding heroically to the ring, I donned my gambeson, carefully tucked my man-bun under my mask, picked up my federschwert, and participated joyously in longsword sparring, secure in the knowledge that I was a mighty swordsman in spite of having never read a Fechtbuch.”
While that’s said tongue in cheek, it must be admitted to be fairly typical, too. The sad part is that almost everything of a factual nature in that statement is dead wrong, in spite of the fact that almost the entire body of HEMA practitioners would find nothing wrong with it. Sparring refers, specifically, to fistic arts, and should not be used for bouting with weapons. “Federschwert” comes from a misunderstanding a German poem, and should not be used to refer to practice swords. And it is not possible to be any kind of a mighty swordsman today, but especially not if one just plays sword tag without serious study.
I have addressed most of those errors in other essays (and probably shall have to again), but of specific interest to us in this essay is the fact that our intrepid, but poorly educated, hero above is not wearing a gambeson, probably doesn’t know what a gambeson is, and has probably never seen one. All of his buddies call the padded coats they wear “gambesons,” and for a certain class of person, force of personality matters more than mere scholarship. If the cool kids say it, then it’s so, and anyone who disagrees is a Bad Person (tm), and probably (gasp!) a pedant, to boot. Disagreeing with the Unity is double-plus ungood.
Worse, when you confront them with their error, they will look up the word in a modern dictionary, then insist they have “documented” their use of the term. Sadly, modern dictionaries are rarely of any value when looking for historical technical terms. In fact, most museum staff—in spite of being real scholars—are rarely any better, since they are usually only interested in the artistic value/merits of an artifact, not its mundane use. Likewise, the minutiae of historical combat are of little interest to real (read: “academic”) historians; they think the practice of getting too involved in the nuts and bolts of history causes one to miss the more important Big Picture, and derisively dismiss it as “tank spotting,” in reference to WWII history buffs who care too much about the specific tanks engaged in a given battle. We cannot rely on any of those sources.
One might ask why this is important. After all, if “everyone” uses a term in a given way, haven’t they redefined it? And besides, they’re afraid they’ll hurt their friends’ feelings if they use a term correctly when those friends do not. And besides again, language is changing all the time, so we should just accept that! So there, you mean-spirited pedant!
Of course, it’s true that language does change constantly. Not all change is good, however. Change which improves the precision of language should be embraced, but change which does not should be eschewed. The fact that language was woefully imprecise in a given period of study is immaterial to that; we, today, need precision in order to talk about things meaningfully.
What then, is a gambeson, and why is it important to use the term precisely? More importantly, how do we find out? Simple. Go to the real experts and the primary source material.
“…aketon was a plain quilted coat usually worn under the armour. Gambesons, on the other hand, are often described in early inventories as being made of silk or some other rich material, decorated with embroidery and coats-of-arms, a fact suggesting that, sometimes at least, they were designed to be worn as independent defences or as surcoats. This view is supported by a number of texts that refer to the gambeson being worn over the aketon, the hauberk or, from the end of the 13th century, over plate armour… In a few instances two aketons are worn, the upper, which should probably here be called a gambeson, without sleeves.” Blair, C. European Armour. Macmillan, 1959. p. 33.
“The gambesons were quilted coats similarly decorated with heraldry and intended for external wear; one was covered in white silk with a black bend decorated with three dolphins in gold. The aketons were quilted garments intended for wear under mail armour…” Richardson, R. The Medieval Inventories of the Tower Armouries 1320–1410. Diss. University of York, 2012. Web, 14 May 2018, pp. 178-179.
Thus, we see a clear distinction between aketons, quilted garments worn under armor, and gambesons, rich garments, often highly decorated, worn over armor. Just calling them both gambesons ignores this important distinction, and reduces the precision with which we can discuss them.
What does a gambeson look like? Here we can see them in the famous Mac Bible. Note the way the shoulder holes sick up stiffly, showing their heavily quilted construction: <http://manuscriptminiatures.com/4673/7957/>. M.638 Maciejowski Bible (fol. 11r).
We can see the distinction between aketons and gambesons discussed here, where in both kinds of combat the aketon is the padded foundation garment worn under armor, and the expensive gambeson is worn over the mail and aketon in jousts: “For War: an aketon, plates from Germany or elsewhere, and in addition to the aketon as above, a good gorget, sword, axe with a spike, and a long knife… For Jousts: aketon, hauberk, and gambeson, which is made of silken cloth and the like, and can be so costly that the steel plates, basinet and helmet are as nothing in comparison.” Meyer, P., G. Paris, A. Thomas, and M. Roques. “Modus armandi milites ad torneamentum.” 1884. Romania. Paris: Société des amis de la Romania [etc.]. p. 530. Translation copyright Will McLean 2013.
Sometimes, the foundation garment could be called a doublet (although the term aketon can also be seen quite late in the period), but still not a gambeson: “He schal have noo schirte up on him but a dowbelet of ffustean lynyd with satene cutte full of hoolis.” (He shall have no shirt upon him, but a doublet of fustian lined with satin cut full of holes.) Anon. How a man schall be armyd at his ese when he schal fighte on foote Hastings MS. fol. 122v.
In short, gambesons were worn over armor, aketons under it; aketons could sometimes be worn alone in armored combat. Ignoring that doesn’t make one cool.
Quite apart from simply learning what gambesons really were, there are important lessons here about research. First, popular opinion is utterly meaningless, and usually wrong. Second, starting with a belief and then working to prove that belief correct is not real scholarship, and can lead to serious mistakes. And third, don’t be afraid to stand up for accuracy; precision is important, and you shouldn’t fear the ignorant disapprobation of your fellows. We know what Master Hans Talhoffer said about being fearful: "Fencing requires heart; if you frighten easily, then you are not to learn to fence." (Ambraser Codex, fol. 1v.) So buck up, scholar, call a gambeson a gambeson, and do not fear the masses in their ignorance.