A Nineteenth Century Quilted Cavalry Armour from Sudan:
a resource for reconstruction of medieval gambesons.

Peter Beatson (NVG Miklagard)


Introduction

No examples exist of padded cloth armour exist from before the late medieval period. Whereas the cut of the earliest extant European cloth armours had already developed in line with civilian fashions [1], the nineteenth-century Sudanese cavalryman’s armour is quite similar to the form of an early medieval tunic. Quilted armours for both horse and rider, which are now displayed in the British Museum [2] were captured from the army of the Sudanese mahdi Muhammad Ahmad ibn ‘Abd Allah at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898. As a rare practical exemplar, this modern-day survival may serve as inspiration for reconstructing suitably functional medieval padded body armour.


Description

The armour (Figure 1) is a pullover garment, its listed dimensions are length 134 cm and width 131 cm [3], suggesting the untapered sleeves are probably three-quarter length, and that the skirts would protect the legs to well below the knees. This length is consistent with a cavalryman’s defense, as is the central vent high up to the waist region required to accommodate the saddle. The chest measurement can be estimated as 130 cm.

It is made of cotton stuffed with kapok, the material being loosely quilted in the horizontal direction and firmly quilted lengthwise, the quilting intervals only around 1.5 to 2 cm (one finger width?). Unfortunately the interior is not visible so it is unknown if the lining is quilted to the other layers. The total thickness is not recorded but would appear to be no more than 1.5 cm. A notable Sudanese characteristic is the striking and attractive appearance created by constructing the covering from large patches of different bright colours:


Figure 1- Sudanese quilted armour AF 1899 12-13.1 (c. 1898) now in the British Museum, front view [4].


The neck opening (Figure 2) is close fitting, with a short slit at centre front. Like the other edges at the hems, wrists and vent, it is finished with a binding tape. Though a true collar is lacking it appears some provision has been made to protect the back of the neck, a flap made by retaining part of the material that would normally be cut away to form the neck hole:


Figure 2 - Detail of neck opening and quilting of armour AF 1899 12-13.1.



Construction

A pattern inferred from a single photograph cannot be definitive, however the cut of the neck flap seems to demand no joining seam at the shoulder, thus the foundation of the garment is single long central strip of only about 40 cm width, to which sleeve panels of equivalent width are attached. Tapering side panels, also about 40 cm wide, are inserted under the sleeves, a slight shaping for the waist is noticeable. Extra width is obtained below by adding triangular inserts at the hem (Figure 3):

Figure 3 - Probable forms and assembly of main elements of quilted armour AF 1899 12-13.1, based on the photograph reproduced in Figure 1. Decorative features, notably the variously coloured panels, have been ignored.

The design of sleeves directly attached to central panel with side panels beneath is clearly based on a contemporary Sudanese civilian garment known as djubbah. This pattern is however of considerable antiquity, several surviving tunics of this style being known from 12-14th century Muslim Egypt and elsewhere in the Islamic lands [5]. If this Sudanese armour is not of an unbroken tradition it at least witnesses a convergence of design driven by similarity of purpose, and provides an insight into what padded armour might have been like in the Eastern Mediterranean world of 800 or so years previous.


NOTES

[1] Notably the pourpoint of Charles de Blois, in the collection of the Musées des Tissus et des Arts décoratifs de Lyon [inv. no. 30307], and the jupon of Charles VI, in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Chartres. Both are French, probably late 14th c. Reference - New York Metropolitam Museum of Art, Department of Arms and Armor. “The Function of Armor in Medieval and Renaissance Europe”. In Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000 -. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ufarm/hd_ufarm.htm (October 2002).

[2] Accession numbers AF 1899 12-13.2 and AF 1899 12-13.1, respectively.

[3] Source - David Alexander. Furusiyya: Catalogue. King Abdulaziz Public Library: Riyadh 1996, cat. no. 75, p.88.

[4] Source - Alexander, op. cit., p.89 (see Note 3).

[5] As, for example, discussed in - G.M. Vogelsang, ‘Two children’s galabiyehs from Quseir al-Qadim, Egypt’ Textile History 18, p.133-142. PB.




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Peter Beatson, 2007. All rights reserved by the author.

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