The 'Jack' - Linen Armour for Historical and Fantasy Role Playing

ChalkLine

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#1
'Cloth' Armour is usually given poor statistics in nearly all role playing games, and on the surface this seems logical. After all, cloth as a substance is quite soft and well known, we wear it every day. Most games like Dungeons and Dragons or Rune Quest make it the cheapest and least effective armour available and is almost never used by player characters.
However, in history, especially the middle to late 15th century Europe, linen armour had a long period of service and was widely considered to be very effective, right up to the point that when the King of France was creating a national rather than retinue army he actually listed linen armour as the best form of combat protection.

The linen armour was often called a 'Jack', and was a heavy torso protection with a raised collar and with lighter construction attached sleeves. The head and legs seem to have been rarely if ever protected by layered linen alone and are not reliably shown in the historical record.

Layered linen armour has a very long pedigree. Firstly, I'm not talking about Linothorax (which may or may not be factual, not that this matters) but rather linen armour made by stitching.
Linen, the cloth from the Flax plant, was the primary cloth for most of Europe during the ancient and medieaval eras along with wool. There was two ways of making 'padded' armour which was by quilting or layering, and I will only discuss layering here.

Tests by Dr. Alan Williams have found that layered linen of 16 layers provides as much protection as 5mm of cuirboilli leather protection, or resistance to about 80 to 90 joules of energy. Now, for comparison the energy produced by the average sword or axe varies from 60 to 130 joules, depending on the strike.

The maximum layers that linen armour can have and still be practical as armour is about 30, and this was the general amount used in the 15th Century when such armour was worn alongside 'articulated plate' ('white harness'). At 30 layers of linen the protection level is around 200 joules resistance, but that amount of layers was only worn on the torso. This armour was extremely common and images and sculptures from the time it was used show it in widespread use.

As can be seen jack of linen armour was quite capable of turning a one-handed sword blow.

Jacks are said to have been resistant to arrow-shots. How much a jack would resist a war bow or war crossbow isn't clear but it seems that they could be relied on to some degree to provide protection at medium range.

Jacks of the period were co-existent with widespread use of two-handed cutting weapons and these the jack could not reliably defend against. To 'harden' the armour against such weapons 'jack-chains', or 'splyntes', were added. These were steel strips linked together that ran down the outside of the arm. Not all jacks are shown with these but they seem to have been light and not to have hindered movement. The jack-chains had a small shaped plate at the elbow and shoulder for joint protection.

Now, linen armour has positives and negatives associated with it in comparison with metal defences. It could become soaked with fluid and heavy. In this condition it did not shed heat well and rapidly became oppressive. It could become infested with vermin and become a vector for diseases such as typhus, a common military encampment disease. It was destroyed on the process of protection, a good cut would well slice open the jack. Over the course of a battle a jack might well be destroyed. However, it is to be remembered that pitched battles were extremely rare and most fighting in the historical period was of the form of skirmishing. This meant that the jack could be repaired afterwards and have a long service life.

The jack was lighter and easier to manouevre in compared to the equivalent metal armours with their significant resistances to piercing. It was much easier to make and maintain, needing only the common skills available of tailoring. The best jacks wren't simple though, the patterns available to us show that the jack was cunningly tailored to allow the maximum amount of movement.

Image of jack with jack-chains.

 

Gallowglacht

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#2
In AD&D 2E I tended to treat Jacks as hide armour stats wise. Still cheap, but heavier and more effective.

And less, linen armour needs more love.
 

WistfulD

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#3
Yes, I think it's fairly well established that jacks (/gambesons/aketons) were probably significantly more prevalent historically than leather armor (cuirboilli in particular having a relatively unclear historical prevalence, but sometimes deemed likely to have been worn in addition to jack and mail, so direct comparison isn't necessarily fruitful). Gygax did (accidentally, I'm sure) a bit of disservice to history by making leather (and of course studded leather and ringmail) such prominent starting armor for adventurers (/ongoing armor for the 'nimble rogue' character archetype).

I will state that "easier to manouevre in" is something that is hotly debated (mostly by those that fear that people will buy into the enlightenment myth that the era of plate armor could be summarized as a bunch of clumsy brutes in tin cans hitting each other with sharpened iron bars). Metal armors are more encumbering, but their effect on maneuverability is almost directly related to the bearers' ability to bear that load. In that regard, TSR-era A/D&D was more accurate than WotC-era.

Is there a particular game system you were intending to utilize this research you've done? Great write-up, btw.
 

ChalkLine

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#4
I'm doing an on again/off again rewrite of the Mythras combat system and it'll feature in that

yeah, my own experiences in white harness will also feature in that. I find that the problem with it isn't fatigue as much as heat build up, but that would be difficult to model without getting way too 'Battlemech' :)
 
#5
What would you put linen on a par with in Runequest? From memory it gives 3 Ap in the classic RQ2, which is the same as cuirboilli and higher than leather. By the sounds of it it should be more expensive. Pricing in RQ has never made any sense to me though.
 

Gussick

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#6
It's not just overlooked in RPG's--most people who are interested in medieval armor focus on late period metal harness. But there are huge advantages to linen armors. For one thing, the jack/gambeson doesn't need to be tailored to a specific person. It works reasonably well for a range of sizes. And if it needs to be altered it's pretty easy to do. I've done it myself.

There's evidence from the 14th in particular that jacks were sometimes used over the top of mail. This option would be extremely difficult to get through. Anything powerful enough to break a rivet would be bogged down in the fabric layers first.

Steel and leather don't breath, but linen not only breaths it *wicks* moisture from the body. It's cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Jacks are associated with the commoners of the late medieval. The great French peasants revolt is called the "jacquerie" and period illustrations show the "jacks" wearing jacks with ad hoc additions of helmets and gauntlets. In England we see references to cloth armor being required for the lower ranks of the militia who presumably could not afford metal harness.

In game enchantment-wise, there are untapped opportunities here to use special threads, cloths and even parchments to act as bolsters.

For sneaky types, linen is quieter than leather. Hardened leather scrapes and makes thuds when you use it. I don't know why it was associated with the sneaky classes to begin with.

There's also no reason that hard stuff can't be added inside the layers. I know whale baleen showed up in some 14th century armor, so enchanted animal parts might be incorporated into game linen. If you can sew it into the linen, you can use it.
 
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ChalkLine

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#7
What would you put linen on a par with in Runequest? From memory it gives 3 Ap in the classic RQ2, which is the same as cuirboilli and higher than leather. By the sounds of it it should be more expensive. Pricing in RQ has never made any sense to me though.
In RQ3 stats you could say 7AP for the torso and 5AP for the arms - if not higher for both
Yep, it blows all the game balance into the weeds.
 

Dalillama

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#8
yeah, my own experiences in white harness will also feature in that. I find that the problem with it isn't fatigue as much as heat build up,
This is true of pretty much any armour, really, and the big reason you don't historically see a lot of heavy armour in Africa or South and Southeast Asia: going about in heavy plate in Morocco or Kerala or Vietnam is basically asking to die of heatstroke.
 

Stupid Made Up Name

David
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#9
Jacks of the period were co-existent with widespread use of two-handed cutting weapons and these the jack could not reliably defend against. To 'harden' the armour against such weapons 'jack-chains', or 'splyntes', were added.
I'd really love to see a period document using the term "jack-chains", because I heard the term in use by reenactors 20+ years ago, I never once saw it in period use. I always kind of assumed that it was a reenactor coinage.
There's evidence from the 14th in particular that jacks were sometimes used over the top of mail. This option would be extremely difficult to get through. Anything powerful enough to break a rivet would be bogged down in the fabric layers first.
[...]
There's also no reason that hard stuff can't be added inside the layers. I know whale baleen showed up in some 14th century armor, so enchanted animal parts might be incorporated into game linen. If you can sew it into the linen, you can use it.
A good long time ago a friend had a magazine (Military Illustrated?) with an article detailing someone's experiments shooting arrows at mail with a padded cloth backing. If he hit the mail, it went through mail+backing, but if he hit the backing alone, it bounced off.

An itinery of Sir John Fastolf's possessions includes jacks stuffed with mail and with horn.

A mail armour with cloth protection included over it is usually called a "jazerant" or "gestron" or any of a dozen or more varient spellings. King Arthur wears one in Mallory's Morte d'. John Howard's account book details him sending cloth to his mail-man to make a geston.
 

ChalkLine

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#10
Yep. Also a big problem with English records is that many are written in legal French when the people who owned the items didn't speak it, so the nomenclature may be iffy
 
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