So for the following post, as indicated the discussion will be about shields. This is a subject which is often pushed aside or ignored as it is often assumed that shields are pretty simple in their construction and development. It is actually far from the case. There is also often a sort of evolutionary view, that one form of shield replaced another as it became more popular, not the case either. The shield was a part of the fighting man's kit for longer than it has not been used in later periods, ever since someone had the smart idea of putting a large surface area between them and the opponent's weapon. To really understand the use of swords, especially on the battlefield, it is necessary to understand shields. (Yes, it is a little on the long side.)
“From the Greek hoplon to the Scottish targe, the shield was more than simply an afterthought in the warrior's kit. Not only was the shield an integral part of the soldier's equipment, but it was also responsible for the development of the basic tactics used by armies throughout the centuries.” (Kelly, 2017)
“Although they were all used in a general way, each type of shield that developed did so for a particular manner of combat. There are trade-offs with any size and shape of shield and those factors had to be weighed in relation to the user’s personal preference.” (Clements, 1998:90)
“The shields of the 11th to 15th centuries were not only used for defense but to also display the coat of arms and the wealth of the owner. It is likely that at first the fronts of the shields were simply painted, but by mid-13th century both sides were painted, with the fronts often containing tooled or molded leather adornment.” (Kelly, 2017)
The use of heraldry was originally designed so that a person could be easily identifiable on the battlefield. Most often this was so that a person could see who was fighting on whose side and therefore which people they should be fighting and which ones they should not be fighting. This is a point which is often underestimated in its importance. In the Renaissance armour improved, this resulted in the shield being used less and less by those who could afford better body armour.
“The shield of the Renaissance began to see less and less use on the battlefield. This at least partially owes to the development of better body armour. Since many soldiers and knights began wearing some sort of plate armour, the shield was an unnecessary form of protection, and a fighter could instead opt for using both hands on his weapon.” (Kelly, 2017)
Defensive and Offensive
“The shield was an important defensive weapon rather than a piece of armor. It evolved through the period and, at least in some forms, could also be used offensively in combat.” (Bouchard, 2009:85)
“Often in the Middle Ages the most effective defensive armament was the shield. It was produced in a number of different shapes, sizes, and materials, depending upon what it was likely to be defending against. The shield could also be employed in an offensive way, either in combination with another weapon, or even, in some circumstances, on its own.” (Bouchard, 2009:86)
More than Just a Defensive Tool
“More than simply a defensive tool, the shield was a weapon in its own right and the definitive symbol of the warrior caste in many cultures. For much of the history of edged weapons the shield marched hand-in-hand with the sword in terms of prestige and importance. It is an object worthy of intense study, and any collection of antique or replica arms is incomplete without it.” (Kelly, 2017)
“The [Anglo-Saxon] thanes brought other retainers, known as liens, with them to fight; these men were lightly armored (or not at all) and carried lighter, round shields and usually had both a spear and a short sword.” (Cummins, 2008:161)
“The shield is approximately one metre in diameter and made of pine planks, covered in treated pig leather, and trimmed in ox rawhide. On top of that, it has a whole lot of battle scars.” (Kusnitzoff, 2016)
Kusnitzoff (2016), much like Grant (2009), describes a wooden shield of planks which is covered in leather, and then further edged with toughened leather for reinforcement. He also notes that the shield is also quite large being a metre in diameter.
“Round shields These were made from linden wood planks riveted together and edged with rawhide, then decorated with hand-painted designs.” (Grant, 2009:57)
Again from Grant (2009) there is a caption for an image describing much the same as Kusnitzoff above; a wooden shield which is edged in rawhide for additional support. In this case the shield is painted on the front and there is a central boss of metal on the shield. This is the image of the Viking shield, a wooden shield which was supported by leather and sometimes reinforced by metal edging, which had a metal boss, and a hand painted face.
“The shield was an important part of the Viking’s battlefield armoury. Made from wood, they were covered in leather. Bound around edge with leather or iron. Brightly painted often with crosses once Christianity was adopted.” (Holmes, 2010:52)
“Carrying a shield on the arm allows it to be held close in against the body and suits it to both mounted and foot combat. It also allows the user to fight much closer to an opponent.” (Clements, 1998:91)
Having the shield on the arm means that the shield is like a large forearm, it can be extended from the body, but it can also be brought close to the body. This means that the shield becomes more a part of the user and thus enhances the strength of the shield. It allows a person to fight closer to the opponent because it does not have the arm in the way like the central grip does, the arm just folds in against the body.
“Further protection [of the Norman] was offered by a metal helmet with noseguard and a kite-shaped shield. The Norman cavalryman’s main weapons were a long lance and a sword, the latter being employed for close-in work after the lance was broken or lost.” (Cummins, 2008:160)
“The heart of the Crusader army – the killing force that their leaders depended on – was the cavalry, almost all of whom were knights. The knights fought with lance and sword; wore iron helmets and tunics made of chain mail; and carried huge, kite-shaped shields.” (Cummins, 2008:176)
We think of the battlefield as a chaotic place of clanging metal, the screams of wounded men, and actions of heroism and brutality combined all together in one. What is often not realised is that while the sword, lance and other weapons were the prime weapons of war, the shield was also used as a concussive weapon as well, as noted below.
“‘Shields, helmets, and coats of mail were shivered by the furious and impatient thrusts of his sword; some he dashed to the earth with his shield...’ Orderic Vitalis describing William fighting at the Battle of Hastings” (Grant, 2009:63)
While this description of the kite shield does not deal particularly much with its use and is more curatorial, and thus descriptive, in nature, it must be realised that the shield was also used as a weapon where opportunity was found. This is one of the elements that is often forgotten when dealing with shields, they were not a passive defense, they were very much active.
“The long kite-shaped shield, concave towards the body and with rounded top, is the typical horseman’s shield of the period, but many representations show a round shield used by the infantry and very occasionally by the cavalry. Both types frequently have bands radiating from the central boss and a broad edging, which may represent metal reinforces.” (Norman, 1970:9)
The example presented by Norman (1970), above, has all of the classic features of the kite shield of the period, with additions. The central boss on the shield is a feature which was present on the earlier shields but was removed on later ones, especially where they were curved. The bands radiating away from the boss are also reminiscent, like the boss, of the round shield from which the kite was based. What is common with all of these types of shield is that, “The main part of the shield was of wood covered with leather.” (Norman, 1970:10). What also needs to be noted is that, in general, they were quite large, 20 by 45 inches in size and 8 to 10lb in weight (Clements, 1998:95). This was not a small shield to be moved around quickly.
“The shield was held by passing the fore-arm either through a series of straps on the back or through a simple strap and gripping a bar set behind the hollow of the boss. A long loose strap allowed the shield to be hung up in the hall, or slung on the back when both hands were required in combat.” (Norman, 1970:10)
What will be noted is that there is a rather wide array of methods for strapping the kite shield. The combination of the solid bar behind the boss is an earlier form of gripping method which comes from the round shield. The series of straps through which the arm was passed is a later form, but the solid bar was not necessarily abandoned completely, “Kite shields were held in a variety of ways, and their grips were much more individual.” (Clements, 1998:97). On the same page as indicated, and several following, Clements (1998) indicates several other different strap configurations, and many of these can be found by examining extant shields and also manuscripts. What is known is that, “The two-enarme version is a fairly standard form of shield grip and existed on many types.” (Clements, 1998:99).
“Each housecarl wore a chainmail coat and carried a kite-shield, and his chief weapon was the long-handled battle-ax. In order to wield his ax in both hands, the housecarl had to sling his shield on his back [by the guige]; consequently, for protection, he was usually assigned a spearman,” (Cummins, 2008:161)
“By the eleventh century, the shield was often kite shaped. ... when on foot ... its sharp bottom edge could be “planted” in the ground, while its wider part was overlapped with a shield on either side, thus producing a shield wall – a favorite, effective tactic used against cavalry. Kite-shaped shields can be seen being used by Norman knights in the Bayeux Tapestry.” (Bouchard, 2009:86)
The Bayeux Tapestry is often looked upon as a great piece of art, and very infrequently looked upon as an effective piece of documentation. In the stitches of this fabric can be found evidence for how arms and armour were both used and also other smaller details like how it was removed from the body. This sort of thing should not be under-estimated. The kite shield remained popular for an extended period of use.
“The large kite-shaped shield of the kind used by the Normans was still popular in the second half of the twelfth century. In Scandinavia during this period its form remained unchanged, but further south it tended to be modified by having its upper edge made straight.” (Oakeshott, 1996:274)
The flattening of the top of the kite shield will be discussed below, as it is significant and alludes to the development and progression to the next stage of development of the shield, the heater. This change did not quite herald the end of the kite shield it was to hold on for at least another hundred years. Kelly (2017) gives an excellent presentation of some of the documentary evidence for the use of the kite shield available, from its beginning to the beginning of its decline.
“From the end of the Viking period at 1066 until the beginning of the 13th century the most widely used form of shield was the kite-shaped shield. The single best source for the shape and form of this shield during the 11th century is the Bayeux Tapestry. It portrays many of the Norman warriors carrying kite shields of half-body length. These shields have rounded upper edges, central bosses and an outwardly convex shape. During the 12th century the main shape of the shield remained the same, though not all depicted shields had central bosses. The so-called Temple Pyx bronze casket fragment from 1140-1150 shows knights carrying bossed kite shields much like the ones from the Bayeux Tapestry, but the Winchester Bible, 1170, and an illustration from the 12th century work The Life of Guthlac depict smaller size kite-shaped shields without bosses. The shields still featured a convex shape to offer better protection. As the 12th century progressed, the curve at the top of the shield became less prominent and at the beginning of the 13th century it flattened completely (Victory of Humility over Pride, 1200, from the Trier Jungfrauenspiegel, Kestner Museum, Hanover).” (Kelly, 2017)
“the evidence of innumerable documents shows that after 1150 a type of large triangular shield with a straight upper edge predominated. Some still had central bosses, some did not. This feature is occasionally seen as late as the mid-thirteenth century,” (Oakeshott, 1996:274)
This was the beginning of the change from the kite to the heater shield. Further development took place for the shield to change to its classic shape. One of the first things that happened was that it became more triangular, thus shorter in length. This improved its utility off the horse, and also lightened the shield, and the central boss began disappearing.
"With the flattening of the top, the shield of the 13th century acquired a more triangular form (see the effigy of William Longespée, 1240). It was still convex but became even smaller in length. The majority of depicted shields do not have central bosses, although some did (Relief from Church of St. Justina, Padua, 1210).” (Kelly, 2017)
Kite Not Gone
"Until the middle of the century [13th] the large kite-shaped shield remained in vogue, but already a smaller form, shaped like the base of a flat-iron, was becoming fashionable. Both types were usually slightly curved to the body. In Italy the kite-shaped shield remained in use by the infantry until the fifteenth century.” (Norman, 1970:14)
“By about 1250, somewhat shorter shields of a more triangular shape with flatter tops emerged from the larger kite styles. The heater ... is the shield so classically associated with the Medieval knight and heraldry.” (Clements, 1998:102)
The kite shield eventually changed shape into the classic style of the heater which is so well-known and so associated with knights and heraldry, but the shield itself cannot be just taken as being simple. There are varying complexities that need to be taken into account. “At first, they too were flat, but after 1300 or so heater shields commonly were convex.” (Clements, 1998:102). The heater also changed shape, if only on one plane and there were also larger ones and smaller ones present, though it was the smaller variety which were to last longer in the service of the armoured warriors.
Smaller and Gone?
“Towards the end of the 13th century the shield became even smaller and the shape changed to [heater] ... This is the shape that predominated until the early 15th century. This is, of course, an oversimplification, since in Italy the kite-shaped shield seems to have been as popular as the heater-shield. The heater shield was much flatter than its predecessors and did not feature the same convex shape. Towards the end of 14th century the top-right corner of the heater shield was notched. This allowed the shield to be used to guide the lance during mounted charge, likely during tournament jousting, but perhaps also on the battlefield.” (Kelly, 2017)
“Several surviving shields from the 12th to 14th century give us much detail about how the shields were constructed. One in the Landesmuseum, Zurich, dating from circa 1180, was made of lime wood covered inside and out with leather. Another shield from the late 13th century in the Armeria Real de Madrid is made from cedar-like wood with parchment covering on both sides, the parchment being thicker on the front. Both faces of this shield were painted black. Another late 13th century triangular shield bearing the arms of Von Nordech from Rabenau in the Nationalmuseum, Munich was made from three planks of wood, covered with leather and gesso (gypsum) and then painted. One of the most well-known examples of a surviving 14th century shield is the purported shield of Edward the Black Prince in the Canterbury Cathedral. This shield is thought to have been made especially for Edward's funeral achievements as it lacks any of the attachment straps that are required for military use. The shield measures 28 3/4 inches in height and 23 1/4 inches in width. It is made of joined poplar wood planks. The wood is covered with canvas and gesso, which are overlain by parchment and finally, leather. The front is painted and the Plantagenet coat of arms, made from molded leather, is glued on top. The three vertical metal bars on the shield represent Edward's rank in the family as first-born son. The back of the shield was painted green.” (Kelly, 2017)
“From the early years of the thirteenth century the shield was a good deal shorter – about 30 in. from base to apex – and considerably wider, often strongly curved to enclose the body in the manner of old Roman shields. Towards the century’s end a type of very small, flat shield seems to have been popular as an alternative to the big one. We find them on many English brasses and monuments dating between 1280 and 1325. They appear to be rather similar in purpose to the little flat fist-bucklers which were often used for fighting on foot, but they were of the flat-iron shape” (Oakeshott, 1996:274)
The comparison is made between the heater and the kite shield. This smaller shield was more mobile, thus able to complete quicker movements from one position to another. The smaller shield was also in response to an increase in the protection provided by armour. What was most interesting is that these shields were actually thicker than the previous ones in some instances.
“Shields were also made thicker. The smallest, lightest heaters allowed the warrior to release the second hand for use on a weapon. These smaller buckler-sized heaters were in use as early as 1280. Some Italian cavalry of 1300s also used a small shield called an ecu.” (Clements, 1998:102)
Like the kite shield, the heater could be mounted in various ways. Some of the same techniques were used, and some were not. The single central handle with a boss was left behind in favour of the enarmes, or arm straps. More specific examples can be found by examining extant examples, and iconography.
“The way the shields were carried is most easily understood by studying the effigy of Sir Robert de Shurland (1330) and a surviving shield from the first half of the 14th century, currently in the Tyroler Landesmuseum, Innsbruck, which retains all its original straps. Both shields have two sets of straps. The first set consists of two buckled, adjustable straps forming a single loop called a guige, which is used to carry the shield over the shoulder. The second set of straps consists of three loops called enarmes, through which the left arm of the user goes. The left-most strap is near the elbow, the middle one is near the wrist, and the right-most strap could be grasped within the hand of the user if his hands were not used to hold the horse's reigns. The distancing and location of the three enarmes appears to have varied according to personal taste.” (Kelly, 2017)
Kelly (2017) gives two examples of shields which retain all of their original strapping. What will be noticed is that in both cases enarmes and a guige are both used. These were both common on the kite shield, and no doubt were retained on the larger of the heater shields. Kelly notes that the arrangement of the straps varied according to personal taste and this is clearly noted by the different methods of locating straps on different shields noted in various iconography, and also extant examples. Time is still being spent to see how these shields were used correctly so that these straps could be properly utilised.
Target and Rotella
“although d’Evoli believes that the small round shield known as the rotella is a useful defence for infantry against pike, he is unimpressed by the cavalry’s targa or wooden shield. The latter has to be secured to the man using it with a leather strap and buckles so entangling him that he is no longer free to move about quickly. Moreover, because the targa is made of wood, the metal tip of a lance strikes it full on rather than slipping off safely to one side or another. Worse still, it defends only one side of the body, leaving the rest unprotected,” (Anglo, 2000:220)
In general, it could be said that d’Evoli is not particularly in favour of the use of the shield at all, but he has a preference for the rotella over the target due to construction and utility. Both of these shields come to prominence during the Renaissance period, primarily as infantry shields, but also in some instances as cavalry shields as indicated above. With the simple difference, the target being made of wood and the rotella being made of metal, it is possible to investigate both of these shields further.
“Other foot soldiers used the targe, or target, a fairly large, concave shield that came in a variety of shapes, although it was often round. It was equipped with enarmes, or leather straps, which allowed it to be attached to the left forearm and gripped with the left hand.” (Bouchard, 2009:87)
The target was most commonly round but was also found in square and other shapes. It had enarmes (arm straps) with which to hold it. Thus it was held on the forearm. This shield could be seen as a cross between the old round shield and also that of the heater in some ways, though it was often smaller than the heater. The target is most often related as a later development of the shield.
“Another type of small Medieval shield was the targe, or targatt, associated most commonly with Scots. Unlike bucklers, targes were worn on the arm, as were typical shields, and ranged in size from 20 to 23 inches.” (Clements, 1998:105)
Kelly (2017), once again, gives some very in-depth detail about the rotella. In the beginning of the statement about it there is a reference about how it is often referred to as a target and it often is, as far as the English are concerned, in the period. This blending between the rotella and target should be noted, and while the target may be either steel or wooden, the rotella was only steel; this is the real defining characteristic between the two types of shield. This is the same sort of blurry line that exists between the classifications of swords.
“Variants of the round shield existed and were known by names such as the Italian rotella, the Spanish rodela and the English target. In the late 17th century many European armies had units of targeteers, soldiers armed with sword and target whose job was to storm breeches in walls during sieges. Even though the shield no longer enjoyed as large a role as it had in the Middle Ages some armies still favored it. An account by Beranl Diaz, a soldier in Herman Cortez's 1519 expedition to Mexico, records that the vast majority of Cortez's troops during his campaigns in the New World were rodeleros, or shield bearers, and outnumbered arquebusiers and crossbowmen. This was atypical, as other armies in Europe relied far less on the shield, and may have more to do with other factors of the New World, such as climate or availability of gun powder.” (Kelly, 2017)
What will be noted is that these metal rotella and target only appear in the Renaissance period, usually in response to pike formations. Rather than having the opponent’s point stick to the shield, it is designed to slip off the shield, “Only in the later Renaissance did some large metal shields find limited use against pike formations.” (Clements, 1998:92). This meant that men armed with sword and shield could move between the pikes to attack the formations, within the pikes. The shield was losing its place on the battlefield as firearms were becoming more effective, however it became more popular as a civilian defence.
“While the shield may have become less popular on the battlefield, it became more popular as a civilian form of defense. An interesting point to note is that, with the exception of specialized shields and bucklers, there is no surviving manuscript detailing the use of the shield prior to the Renaissance, when shields were more common. Yet in the Renaissance, when the personal duel became more common, there are several fencing manuals explaining the usage of the round shield. While other weapon combinations seem more common in these manuscripts, it would make sense that some combatants would prefer the defensive qualities of a shield since gentlemen usually were unarmoured in the duel.” (Kelly, 2017).
“The targe (targaid) is the Scottish version of a small wooden shield worn on the arm. According to Dr. Stephen Bull (curator of the Lancashire County and Regimental Museum), the targe was in use in Scotland from the 12th century until late in the 18th (long after shields had disappeared from military service elsewhere) but most of the surviving examples date to the 16th century or later. The Glasgow workshops appear to have made the majority of mass-produced targes. The overall shape and face embellishments on the targe make it one of the easiest shield types to spot and distinguish. This type of shield is almost invariably circular with diameter of about 20 inches. The face of the shield is usually covered with leather, often heavily ornamented by tooling elaborate patterns onto the leather and/or by developing complicated designs with metal tacks. Stewart Maxwell recently developed a typology of the Scottish targe based on these decorative elements. The targe often featured a central boss sometimes fitted with a metal spike projecting forward. Such spikes were removable and could be stored in scabbards in the back of the targe. Carrying straps appear to have been uncommon.” (Kelly, 2017)
The Scottish targe is a classic accompaniment to the Scottish broadsword especially in the 18th-century. Images of this can be found in literature and discussed in manuals into the 18th-century, but as has been noted the targe has a much longer history. This is the shield that most people think of when the word “targe” is mentioned. Their construction was much the same as other shields of similar periods.
“According to Collin Rolland, most surviving targes appear to have been made from oak or pine. The oak examples appear to be a bit thinner, as oak is heavier. On average targes were about half an inch thick. Damage or X-ray inspection of surviving examples reveals that all targes were of two-ply construction. Each ply consisted of irregular number of boards simply butted together. The boards were of different width, and were laid cross-wise to the other ply. The plies were held together by concentric rows of wooden pegs.” (Kelly, 2017)
The two-ply construction is similar to that found on early round shields along with the thickness of the wood used in the construction. The major difference is that while the round shield was glued in place or held by the outside covering, wooden pegs held the Scottish targe together resulting in a much more solid construction. The covering of the shield was in much the same fashion as the round shield, using leather to cover the front and back.
“The backing of the targe varied from simple leather and calf or cow skin, to dear skin, seal or mountain goat skin. Often the skin used for the backing of the targe retained some of the animal hair. It typically also was stuffed with hair, straw, animal skin, etc. under the portion of the backing contacting the user's arm. The stuffing was held in place by a pair of parallel leather bands about 7 inches apart.” (Kelly, 2017)
The strapping for the targe works by the use of enarmes as can be expected, with a handle for the hand. These were placed for the greatest utility of both the shield and the arm so that even with the shield on the arm, the hand could still be used. This concept is also seen on previous shield types.
“The targe is usually depicted as worn on the left arm to protect the upper body from cuts and thrusts. It was secured to the user's arm by a wide leather band (or two narrow, closely spaced bands) at the forearm (arm-loop) and by a leather or metal handle held in the palm (hand-grip). The forearm loop was secured to the targe by means of a metal staple or nails and so were the hand-grips when made of leather. These leather hand-grips had the thickness of a sword grip (by virtue of the wooden or rope core of the grip). The metal grips (the less common of the two types) were attached to the targe by means of two split pins and usually were inwardly concave to allow the user to pass his arm through the handgrip” (Kelly, 2017)
“Often in the Middle Ages the most effective defensive armament was the shield. It was produced in a number of different shapes, sizes, and materials, depending upon what it was likely to be defending against.” (Bouchard, 2009:86)
A smaller shield may be more suitable for the close-in situation of the melee, whereas a larger shield may be preferable for better protection during a siege. There was also the consideration of whether the individual was mounted or not. A longer shield may impede his movement while mounted, yet a shorter one would not give as much protection while being on foot. While it is likely that each individual had their preference for armament and shield, it is also likely that this would have changed depending on the particular scenario that they faced. Of course it should be noted that each shield had its own characteristics.
“Although they were all used in a general way, each type of shield that developed did so for a particular manner of combat. There are trade-offs with any size and shape of shield and those factors had to be weighed in relation to the user’s personal preference.” (Clements, 1998:90)
The particular manner in which a shield was used along with its particular characteristics would be a reason to choose a particular shield, or even change to a different type of shield for a particular encounter. There is no doubt, as stated each combatant would have had their preference, but this preference would have also taken into account different situations which they would have faced. Thus changing shield to suit a particular scenario is not that unlikely. Most importantly it should be noted that there were a wide variety of shields which were used, and that they were not as restricted as some would like us to believe.