In accordance with the title of the post, I'm going to ramble at length about the use of certain pieces of clothing and/or armor in warfare, both for single combat and for massed encounters. So let's jump straight to the subject at hand.Quilted cloth
Also known as "padded cloth," a quilt is essentially soft but resilient padding sandwiched between two or more layers of stout fabrics. In order to prevent the padding material from coming loose and gathering at the bottom of the garment, it usually sports additional stitches compartmenting it into smaller sections. By far the most common shapes for the compartments are lozenges and straight "ribs," whether vertical or horizontal. Recent discussions in several living history and reproduction arms boards have informed me that this kind of armor could also be made by stitching together multiple layers of fabric, usually linen, into a stiff and compressed form. A jack or gambeson worn as an independent armor would have had up to thirty layers, whereas a padded aketon or arming doublet meant to be worn under mail or plate would have been much lighter with between five and ten layers. Modern reconstruction efforts have only succeeded in making garments of this kind by hand-stitching--that is, the authentic method. Modern cloth-sewing machines simply aren't too well equipped to handle such thicknesses.
The low value attached to padded/quilted armor in fantasy roleplaying games has led some people to mistakenly assume that it is a kind of equipment most warriors would gladly abandon in the presence of more protective alternatives. However, the historical record does not support this prejudice; while it is true that the quilted vest or jacket was commonly used by cheap levies and poorly-equipped militias, many war-hardened warriors and professional soldiers also displayed a clear preference for this kind of armor. From the 16th-century Spanish conquests in Central and South America we have plenty of evidence that soldiers tended to choose quilted cloth when they were unable to procure plate cuirasses, and some even went so far as to abandon the cuirass in favor of the quilted vest.
That is not the whole story. Quilted/padded cloth played an even more important role as padding for use with heavier kinds of armor. Imagine wearing iron mail without padding; words will not suffice to describe the extreme discomfort. A strong blow against unpadded mail would also be likely to drive broken links into the wound, tearing the flesh as well as causing a potentially fatal infection. With padding, however, the broken links would usually be stopped before they could penetrate the cloth. Not to mention that the addition of a soft layer beneath would distribute the shock of the blow more evenly throughout both mail and padding and therefore make the mail rings much less likely to break.
Unpadded plate isn't a much better idea. Without padding the edges of the plates would chafe the warrior's skin at the points of contact. And remember how in cartoon slapstick acts a character would cover another's head with a metal cooking pot and beat that pot until it rings? The effect of a strong blow on unpadded solid plate is uncannily similar to that. While the plate may be stout enough to survive the impact, the wearer is likely to suffer contusion at the very least, with some concussion and broken bones being very likely additions. Soft padding also strengthens plate in the same way that it supports mail--by distributing the shock more evenly all over the armor.
(There's a myArmoury article
that has some more information about medieval and Renaissance European padded/quilted efenses for the curious reader.)
Of course, padded or quilted cloth is not the only viable form of foundation garment to be worn under metallic armor. Thick or multilayered clothing could serve well for the same purpose, and indeed this was the preferred method among the Vikings and their contemporaries as well as many Far Eastern cultures (most importantly China, Korea, and Japan). Many European arming doublets from the 15th century also had very minimal padding, especially in cases where the wearer had good plate armor with such closely-tailored fit that the wearer's ordinary arming clothes (including shirt and unpadded doublet) gave enough padding to provide both comfort and protection. Later on in the 16th century, the fashions of the day demanded that ordinary doublets be "bumbaized" (padded and stuffed) to achieve the desired "peascod" silhouette, which incidentally made it possible for ordinary soldiers to get adequate padding for ill-fitting munitions-grade armor from their day-to-day clothes without the need to resort to a specialized padded garment.Leather
When we think of "leather" we usually get the image of a soft, almost clothlike product. In actual historical armors this type of material was mostly used as padding much in the same way as quilted cloth, often with several layers glued or otherwise fastened together. To provide enough cushioning power to be worn alone without any other kind of armor over it, this kind of soft leather has to be very thick
--witness the buff coats
worn by pikemen
, and many kinds of cavalry in the 17th century, which is a much heavier garment than it looks because it can be as thick as an inch or more in certain places.
When leather was worn alone without heavier armor it usually came in the form of stiff "boiled" leather, also known as cuirbouilli
. I repeat, the thing is damned stiff
. Basically it is vegetable-tanned leather fitted to a form and then treated with hot water (or, as some might say, oil) until it becomes . . . well, stiff. Cuirasses of boiled leather were a fairly common form of additional defense for men-at-arms
in 14th and early 15th-century Europe, being worn over their mail hauberks as a form of solid defense against the concussive (bludgeoning) power of blows. It would have been largely beyond the reach of lesser troops, however, since the sort of good, thick leather needed for such breastplates (and for thick buff leather as well) was still a rather expensive commodity at the time. Later on in the 16th and 17th centuries its use became more widespread with the growth of more efficient ranching practices that cut down the cost of leather and the introduction of blacked and blued finish for steel armor that meant solid boiled-leather breastplates could simply be painted black or a very dark blue to make it look like steel--at least when seen from a distance. Many infantry and light cavalry "helmets" in the late 18th century and well into the early 20th were actually made of boiled leather reinforced with metal studs and brow-bands. The protection afforded by these helmets were often more psychological than physical, and they were the sources of numerous Napoleonic accounts of cavalry sabers splitting enemy helmets in two. Real steel helmets like the ones worn by cuirassiers remained almost invulnerable to cutting blows--though a particularly forceful blow could still cause horrible concussion.
An interesting case in point is the Prussian pickelhaube
. This was a leather helmet with a spike at the top, which entered the Western consciousness as part of the stereotypical image of German soldiers in World War I. However, with the development of static entrenchment networks all along the Western Front the German commanders soon learned that the leather helmets did not give effective protection against shell and grenade splinters, so by 1915 the German army had replaced the pickelhaube with a steel helmet sensibly called the Stahlhelm
. Strangely enough, the popular press still preferred to draw Germans with the spiked helmet all the way to the end of the war even though for most of its duration the Germans wore the boring gray steel pots instead.Cloaks
Frankly, I'm puzzled by the popular fantasy image of knights and soldiers wearing cloaks to the battlefield. Most cloaks were heavy, bulky items, and all people I know to have worn them for long periods (including me) agree that they present a significant obstruction to movement. There are numerous references to 18th-century European duelists dropping their capes or cloaks before they drew their swords and squared off. If the duelists had not dropped their capes they would have been able to rely on an additional layer of thick stout cloth--quite a significant addition, considering that the penetrating punch of dueling small swords was not very great--and they must have had a very good reason to forego so much protection. There were also scattered allusions in 16th- and 17th-century chronicles to soldiers dropping their cloaks or leaving them with the baggage before they went to battle. Generally, soldiers preferred to get rid of cloaks, greatcoats, and other similarly bulky items of clothing before they fought, except in very cold weather such as when crossing the Alps or trudging through a Russian winter. The (almost?) total absence of cloaks among the warriors depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry is quite instructive, as is the generally cloak-less appearance of men-at-arms
and other soldiers in numerous medieval miniature paintings.
But there is another side to the cloak. European duelists from the 16th century onwards were frequently mentioned in the act of taking off their cloaks and wrapping them around the free arm. Renaissance Italian fighting manuals, providing instruction mostly for rapier duels but occasionally also for battlefield action with the sword, often include passages about the use of the sword-and-cloak and/or cloak-and-dagger styles. This should not come as a surprise, since modern people tend to underestimate the stoutness of closely-woven wool or linen. A cloak draped over the unoccupied (usually left) arm would allow the combatant to catch and trap the enemy's weapon or do some similarly dirty tricks against that enemy's arm, legs, and face. It is easy to imagine a possible scenario where the sword-and-cloak fighter bats the cloak across the opponent's face, blinding him for a while, before catching an arm or a weapon, pulling it in, and stepping ahead to deliver a lethal close-range thrust. Another interesting techniques that crops up every now and then in the fighting manuals is throwing (!) the cloak into the opponent's face or onto his weapon arm and then running away or stepping in to attack as described above. This method of fighting was particularly useful for fighters having the shorter weapon, providing them with an unexpected means of turning the table against their opponents' longer reach. Another cultural group once known for their skill with the cloak and long knife is the Hispano-Mexican villagers along what is now the American border.
We can also make a rather fanciful conjecture that the utility of the cloak in sudden small-scale encounters was the reason why the Anglo-Saxons and some Native Americans preferred to pin their cloaks on the right shoulder, leaving the whole left half of the body covered--this would have allowed them to assume a fighting pose by unpinning the cloak and making a quick whirling motion with the left arm to drape the garment over it.
I nearly forgot to mention an important reason why nobles, important knights, and other distinguished men-at-arms
would not have liked to wear cloaks into battle--the cloak would have obscured their coat-of-arms in addition to making the wearing of a shield a very awkward exercise. Even if the cloak had been meticulously fastened, there was no guarantee that it would not fall forward and entangle the weapon arm. The same seems to have applied to other periods. The Roman legionaries in Trajan's victory column were depicted with grand-looking cloaks in the parade scenes, but in the battle scenes the cloaks were noticeably absent.
A quick survey seems to indicate that the sword-and-cloak style became popular as shields gradually fell out of fashion and private duels of honor came into vogue during the course of the 15th and 16th centuries. A shield or target strapped to the forearm remained a truly practical weapon only in military situations because it was too large to be carried around the town in civilian dress; a buckler sometimes couldn't be carried in the streets because the authorities might associate them with a penchant for illegal dueling; but everybody could wear a cape or cloak as a seemingly innocent item of fashion.