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Fencing and History Nut Extraordinaire. While I am tending toward 16th century at the moment, I am and have been interested in history for a long time. Hence the fencing focuses more on the Renaissance period than the modern. This explains two out of three of my blogs. The third is a more personal one focusing on fibromyalgia. What I write in these blogs, I hope will be of use to people.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Medieval Shield


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)
          When items of arms and armour are discussed and researched, the significance of the shield seems to be left behind. Most people do not realise the significance of the shape and size of the shield which is carried by the warrior and how it shaped how an army would function.
The Romans started off with shields which were reminiscent of those carried by the Greeks, but when this form of battle of the Greeks could not be matched against their opponents they had to change. One of the first things that changed was the shield, from the hoplon to the scutum in its earlier form. This changed how the Romans fought and forged a different kind of army which would eventually conquer most of the ancient world. This is the significance of the shield. Armour and weapons of other kinds tend to be far more exciting and interesting so the shield tends to be left behind. “The shield has been undeservedly overlooked as a weapon and tool of martial study.” (Clements, 1998:xx). This is disappointing as much of the history of warfare is the history of the shield.
          Many people talk about the medieval shield, “as with Medieval swords, we should refer to shields in the plural, for there were many types that saw use during the period.” (Clements, 1998:89). This will be noted in the research and presentations of the different types of shield that follow. What should be noted here is that this discussion is primarily focussed on shields rather than bucklers, and infantry shields rather than cavalry shields. What will be noted is that there is some cross-over between the two, but there is also some instances where the two are definitively separate.
“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)
          A larger shield will cover more by virtue of its size, but it will also be heavier. A smaller shield will cover less, but be more mobile because it is smaller. The larger shield was usually fought around while the smaller shield was often moved about. These are some of the different characteristics of shields, and only general ones at that. Just as with swords they changed over time.
“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)
          What should be noted is that the shield did not completely disappear. It still found a place on the battlefield, as will be noted, and was found to be useful against pike formations. Further, the shield found its way into the civilian combative situation where we have most of our information about how the shield was used. Information about how the medieval shield was used comes from iconography and the very few sources which mention the use of the shield.

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)
          When the shield is discussed, especially with regard to its use, thoughts of a defensive nature are automatically brought to mind. What needs to be noted is that while it is true that the shield was exceptionally good at defending its user it also had offensive capability as well. This aspect of the shield is often forgotten and the shield assumed used in a passive sense, but the shield was sometimes designed for use as an offensive device.
“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

          Shields appear in many places in many different cultures. They marched hand in hand with offensive devices as symbols of warrior castes around the world. There are few cultures which did not use the shield in some format at some point in time. Yet as a piece of historical evidence it is infrequently studied, thus leaving a hole in the understanding of systems of defence and also the understanding of the warrior cultures also. This is an item which requires and indeed deserves as much attention as any weapon in the arsenal of the medieval and Renaissance warrior.
“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)

 Round Shield

 “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) 
With regard to shields, the round shield was a common sight on the battlefield especially in early periods. They were common with the Anglo-Saxons, as indicated above and also with the Norsemen, “They [Vikings or Norsemen] carried round shields and most wore helmets; many wore mail as well.” (Holmes, 2010:52). This form of shield was also used on and off throughout the medieval period and regained popularity in the form of the rotella and targe in the Renaissance and later periods. While these two later shields may be indicated in the following discussion, they will be discussed in more detail in a later section.


When discussing the round shield it must be emphasised that it is a “round” shield which is being discussed, thus oval shields are also included in this description. This being said, the most common shape was round shield ranging from 14” to three-and-a-half feet; the flat, round 28 – 32” diameter, weighing 8 – 12 lb among the earliest (Clements, 1998:93).
In movies we see these shields being splintered by the blows of opponents, what needs to be noted is this is not particularly realistic at all. The shields were made to withstand such blows. They were sturdy in construction. The shields were made from planks glued together, very few were made from a single piece, this was a layered construction, to ¾ of an inch thick (Clements, 1998:92). This means that the shield even in this form was not a flimsy piece of wood ready to be destroyed by the blows of an opponent’s weapon.
What is also known about these shields is that the thickness and layered construction was not their only means of inherent strength. They were also reinforced around the edges. Many were only leather-covered wood, but some trimmed with iron, rims ¾ to 1¼ inch wide, leather to absorb, metal strengthens the shield (Clements, 1998:92). This was designed to strengthen the edge of the shield against the blows of the opponent’s weapon, and also the leather was to assist to hold the entire construction together.
The early forms, both round and oval had a boss in the middle to protect the hand, the later shields had straps with boss attached to face, but not for protection (Clements, 1998:91). The strapping of the shields will be discussed further along. The boss remained on the front of the shield both as decoration and also as an additional defensive device.


“large rounded shields used by the Anglo-Saxons (also noted for their shield walls), with a wooden frame being covered with leather and a metal boss, and possibly trimmed with a metal rim.” (Bouchard, 2009:86)

Bouchard (2009) gives a classic description of a shield of the Anglo-Saxon, and also of the shield described in the construction above. It will be noted that a wooden frame is covered in leather for reinforcement, and then metal trim is added for additional reinforcement to the edge. This idea is further reinforced by the image presented and captions given by Grant (2009) in which he describes the shield as being a “Shield of wooden planks riveted together” (Grant, 2009:61), with “Rawhide edging” (Grant, 2009:61). There is also a central metal boss on this shield.


“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)


          While the above gives all great descriptions of how the shield was constructed and how the shield looked, it gives the reader no idea how the shield was carried. This is often one of the mistakes made when discussing shields, only the front is discussed, not discussion is made of how the shield was carried. The strapping can have a great impact on how the shield can be used.
          There are two styles, a rigid central handle and leather straps (Clements, 1998:91). The rigid central handle sits behind the boss on the shield, while the straps are attached to two different spots on the shield and the arm is usually slipped through one of them and the hand holds the other.
The central handle is the older of the two methods. The fixed handle of metal or wood was riveted to the shield. “Protruding over the handle on the front of the shield was a protective bowl-like, metal cup called an umbo or boss.” (Clements, 1998:91). This method of holding the shield means that the whole arm could be used to move the shield about, and it also kept the shield further out from the body, “A single-center grip allows the shield to be more maneuverable and kept farther out from the body.” (Clements, 1998:91). The problem with this is that the user had to have a good grip or the shield could be turned by the opponent, thus this method relies more on mobility in its use.
          There are two types of strap, the hand strap or enarme, and the shoulder strap or guige. Needless to say, both do different jobs. The hand strap is the one by which the user holds the shield. The shoulder strap is the one by which the shield can be carried over the shoulder and take the weight of the shield, or simply sling the shield when it is not being used.
“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.
           Of course then there is a combination of grip and strap, “Some shields had both arm straps and a rigid hand grip.” (Clements, 1998:91). In this case, the front strap was replaced by a rigid hand grip for the user to hold on to. This was a sort of middle-ground between the two except the method of use was still by the strapped method, eventually the round shield went to two enarmes (Clements, 1998:94), and the use of enarmes became standard for most shields.

Kite Shield

“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 classic image of the kite shield is seen in the Norman cavalryman as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, as depicted above. He is noted for his conical helmet with simple nose-guard protection for the face. His neck to knee chain hauberk with padded gambeson underneath, his long cruciform sword, and his kite shield. These are the essential elements. What is most interesting is that this format was the standard for many Western European military forces in the period and for quite a while afterward as well.
“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 teardrop, or kite-shield, was among the most popular forms of shield (Clements, 1998:95). This can be seen by its longevity and presence in manuscripts of the medieval period. It was a large shield, this made it easy to protect upper or lower parts, and this made up for less mobility (Clements, 1998:95). We must look at the shield in context to really understand it. The “long kite-shaped shields intended to provide maximum protection on horseback.” (Holmes, 2010:59), thus it was not really designed to be used on foot, though it was used quite effectively for this particular purpose. This was a shield originally designed for the Norman cavalryman.


          Of the construction of kite shaped shields we have a little to go on due to the construction materials being perishable in an archaeological sense. Luckily there have been some good examples found. The first thing that needs to be noted is that, “Medieval shields were made in both flat and convex forms” (Clements, 1998:95). This is regardless of their type, shape and also the period in which they were constructed. Some later shields were made flat, while some earlier examples of the same type were convex, so one cannot say because it is “x-type” it will be either flat or convex.
“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).


          The guige is a shoulder strap. It is primarily used when the shield is not in use for slinging the shield over the back. It is also useful for hanging the shield up. It is also useful for freeing the hands up so that a weapon can be used with two hands while using the shield for protection. This is demonstrated in an image from Grant (2009) in which a Norman foot soldier with his kite shield held close has his hand free to use a spear because the shield is slung by the shoulder strap (Grant, 2009:63). One could say on the opposite side of the Battle of Hastings, a similar approach using a similar, though slightly different method of using the guige was also used.
“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)


          Thanks to manuscripts, documents and the few extant examples of kite shields left behind, it is possible to trace the rise of the kite shield, and also the process of its decline. The beginnings of the kite shield, and its documentation are found in the eleventh century, by this time the kite shield was established.
“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)

Flattened Top

          Previously it was indicated that the kite shield had round tops and then they were flattened. “Kite shields at first had round tops, but by 1150 they had gradually flattened out.” (Clements, 1998:96). What was not known at the time was that this was actually the beginning of the end for the kite shield. The top was flattened to allow the user more vision of the opponent, and thus make them more able against the opponent. Next the shield became smaller, and shorter. The kite shield was used into the 1200s until a smaller, shorter, more triangular-shaped shield appeared (Clements, 1998:96). This was the heater.


          The “heater” shield is the one which is most likened and related to medieval history. It is related to heraldry and it is related to the medieval knight. As soon as someone says the word “shield”, or at least “medieval shield”, it is usually this shield which comes to mind. How did it get its name? Quite by convenience of its shape, “the so-called "heater" shield, due to its resemblance to the bottom of a heating iron.” (Kelly, 2017). A fine example of a heater shield is depicted in Figure 1.


To find the beginnings of the heater is to examine the kite shield which came before it, and was also a contemporary of it. The heater was a modification of the kite shield, rather than the rounded top edge, it was changed to a flat top edge, so it was easier to see over.
“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 LongespĂ©e, 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)
          What needs to be noted is that the kite shield did not vanish suddenly, or even quickly. This style of shield was to remain in use with some popularity with some troops for an extended period of time. Often it’s assumed that when one type of weapon or armour or shield comes in another simply vanishes, this is not actually the case, most often the former one lingers and sometimes remains, if in a lesser amount.

"Classic" Heater

 “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?

          A trend can be noted in the change in shape of the shield. In the 13th century “the shield began to evolve into a shorter and wider triangular shape.” (Bouchard, 2009:86). This is where the change went from the kite shield to the heater shield, and this is discussing in very general terms. The 14th century knight’s equipment included both, a shield and a sword (Grant, 2009:67), the shield being in the classic smaller heater form. Of course at this stage armour was improving for foot combatants. This in the 1300s and 1400s, foot combat became more common, due to better armour, the heater became smaller and smaller, and eventually abandoned due to need for both hands on weapon, because of the better armour there was no need for the shield (Clements, 1998:104). It would seem that the shield, according to Clements (1998) disappears almost completely, but this is not exactly true. Kelly (2017) gives a good review of the heater from its beginning through its use to its later prime use in tournament jousting, thus it is noted that the shield does not quite disappear, especially as it reappears in the forms of the Renaissance rotella and targe.
“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)
          Kelly (2017) gives some excellent sources and examples of the construction of heaters from various museums. This provides a great over view of how they were constructed, and also supplies some specifics also. This form of information is most useful especially should a person want to reconstruct a shield from this period because it can be compared against historical examples. On the other hand, for a more general approach, it can be said that heaters and later shields were ½ to ¾ inch thick, they were covered front and back with linen, parchment or rawhide, which was glued or tacked on (Clements, 1998:92). In both cases it can be seen that these shields were made to last and were not the flimsy items that some movies would like us to believe that they were.


          What will be noted of the heater is the size, which is smaller as compared to the kite shield as a result the weight is also smaller. This is especially the case with regard to the smaller variants with a weight of 3 to 6lb, 20 x 30 inches for the larger and 14 x 18 inches for the smaller (Clements, 1998:102). This is a reduction in size, but an increase in mobility. This change in size is also noted as significant by Oakeshott (1996).
“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. 
Oakeshott (1996) notes that on the effigy of Sir Robert Shurland c.1330, previously noted by Kelly (2017) multiple straps were used: guige, long strap fixed by rivet to top right-hand side, shorter with buckle on top left; enarmes, loops through which arm is passed, three straps - one at elbow, one at wrist, one held; held strap could be discarded to hold reins, or other, if required (Oakeshott, 1996:274). This description gives us some idea how some of these straps may have been utilised and some of the reasons why a strap may or may not have been added to a shield.

Target and Rotella

The two classic Renaissance shields are the target or targe and the rotella. Often they are considered to be the same type of shield simply just in a different format. What is important is that there are some differences between the two and even period sources note these differences. Cesare d’Evoli (1583) Delle ordinanze et battaglie which is an obscure resource in comparison to most, makes note of the difference between the targe and the rotella, especially in their utility.
“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).

Scottish Targe

“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)

Other Shapes

          There have been three different shapes of shield and essentially four different types of shield which have been investigated in this discussion. This would almost give the impression that they were the only kinds which were used. In actual fact, this is far from the truth, “Like the Medieval sword, the Medieval shield existed in great variety over many centuries.” (Clements, 1998:89). There were many different shapes of shield which were used throughout the medieval and Renaissance periods.
          The featured shields which form the previous investigations only form a very small portion of the shields which were used during the period. This is an important note that needs to be made to ensure that it is understood that while there were some dominant forms of shield there were others also which were used. The particular shield that was used at the time could entirely depend on what was required in that particular circumstance.
“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.


          The shield is one of the most under-rated and under-researched objects known extensively to historians and western martial artists. More than just a companion to another weapon it was a weapon of its own with its own development and changes over time. While often accompanied by another weapon, it could be used to defend and could also be used to offend the opponent. Some shields were even designed to be used alone with not accompaniment for offence and defence. These were a specialised kind of shield which were not mentioned in this study.
          There were four main types of shield which were investigated in this discussion of the shield, as the final part of the discussion makes known, it should not be assumed that these were the only shapes of shield which were made or used. There were many other different types of shield which were made and used. The only reason that these four types of shield were used and discussed is because they were the most populace of the types of shield available. They also provide the greatest amount of data about them, which can be used to infer about other shield types.
          The use of a shield was specific to its shape. A large shield gave better coverage but was heavier and thus moved slower. A small shield had less coverage but was lighter and thus moved quicker. These characteristics of the shield makes it important that while some general ideas can be made about shields, it is important to be more specific when discussing them as their use changes with their shape.
          The shield is known as a defensive device. It was primarily designed to protect the wielder from incoming attacks from an opponent or opponents. What needs to be noted is that this most often was not a passive defence and it also does not take into account the offensive capabilities of the shield. The shield can be used to strike out at an incoming blow in defence, but it can also be used to strike out at an opponent as well. This capability of the shield should not be underestimated.
          Shields were not as weak as Hollywood would have us believe. In movies we see shields being shattered and broken. This is simply not the case for real shields, they were designed to last. They had reinforced edges and faces, the destruction of a shield would take a great amount of time and effort. Opponents did not try to go through shields, they went around them.
          The round shield was the most common shield, especially in the early periods. What will be noted is that the same shape appears again in later periods as well. The rotella for example is a round shield and appears in the Renaissance. These shields were used by the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, at least these are where we have the best examples of round shields from the earliest medieval periods. These shields were solidly build, glued together, often multi-layered, edged with leather or metal. Obviously they were designed to last. Strapping was in the form of a solid handle behind a boss or two leather straps, some had both. There was also a shoulder strap which could be added.
          Next is the kite shield which held popularity for an extended period of time, evidence for this type of shield can be even found in the fifteenth-century. The prime users of this shield were the Normans. The prime place where they are often seen is on the Bayeux Tapestry. Again, this was a solidly build shield following a similar pattern of construction to the round shield. Multi-layered, edged and then covered with linen or leather. Strapping was with a handle or straps with a supporting shoulder strap where required. Later kite shields had flat tops so that they could be more easily seen over. Eventually, these lost ground in the main to the heater, a smaller shield, which was based on the kite.
          The heater started out as a shortened but broadened kite shield. This was the change from one to the other. The flattening of the top of the kite shield was the start of the process. The use of the shield in foot combat meant that the shield was more convenient shorter, thus the kite lost its tail and the heater came about. The heater is the greatest expression of the medieval shield. It is what people think of when the term “medieval shield” comes up. It is also heavily related to heraldry. The same construction process that was established previously follows through with the heater shield. For strapping, the heater, except in the larger examples mostly dispensed with the shoulder strap and primarily used the straps for holding it. They were in many different configurations. For the most part the organisation of these straps would depend on personal preference.
          So the rotella and target are not medieval per se, but they form the end of a selection of shields which were used in a particular fashion and present the end of the shield on the battlefield. The rotella is really the only metal shield to see full-scale use. These were primarily effective against pikes where they could be used to deflect the pikes and thus move in and strike against the pikemen. The target in its “classic” form saw use in the Scottish rebellions and other places; it is really the last western wooden shield. Both of these had straps on the back.
          The shield moves through the medieval and Renaissance periods changing as it goes. Some designs continue, others disappear, and others get left behind. What is known is that the shield was an item which was not a single-use and throw away item. It was used often repeatedly by the same user and a lot of work went into its construction to make it so. The shield should not be underestimated as a legitimate item of research or collection, learning how to use the sword in sword and shield is only half of the study, the shield also needs to be learnt. Effective use of the shield is essential and appreciation of the ability and the history of the shield is also essential for understanding.


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Bouchard, C. (2009) Knights in History and Legend, Global Book Publishing Ltd, Lane Cove

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Holmes, R. (ed) (2010) Weapon: A Visual History of Arms and Armour, Dorling Kindersley Limited, London

Kelly, P. (ed.) (2017) “The Shield: An Abridged History of its Use and Development”, myArmoury.com, https://myarmoury.com/feature_shield.html

Kusnitzoff, J. (2016) “Archaeologist discovers a new style of Viking combat” in Science Nordic (Oct. 30), http://sciencenordic.com/archaeologist-discovers-new-style-viking-combat

Norman, V. (1970) Arms and Armour, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London

Oakeshott, E. (1996) The Archaeology of Weapons: Arms and Armour from Prehistory to the Age of Chivalry, Dover Publications Inc., Mineola