The Shield: An Abridged History of its Use and Development
An article by Patrick Kelly, Greyson Brown, Sam Barris, Nathan Bell, Bill Grandy, and Alexi Goranov
Compiled and edited by Patrick Kelly

Here at the dawn of the 21st century we are experiencing a resurgence in the study of ancient arms. Not since the Victorian age has there been such an interest in the arms of the Middle Ages and the renaissance. Fine copies of swords, daggers, polearms, and a number of other weapons are being manufactured, and the craft of the modern armourer has also reached new heights of quality and authenticity. Students of the sword enjoy Web sites, discussion forums and exciting new books dedicated to this most famous of edged weapons. On the other hand, there is a dearth of new material on the shield. Books such as Medieval Sword & Shield (Paul Wagner and Stephen Hand), and The Anglo-Saxon Shield (I.P. Stephenson), are welcome additions to this field of study, but these works are in the minority.

This is truly unfortunate, considering the shield's historic role. For over two-thousand years it was a vital piece of military equipment. Everyone, from the lowest peasant to the highest noble, would have used one. In many cultures the shield was the mark of a warrior, even more so than the sword or spear. The Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus wrote, "To lose one's shield is the basest of crimes," and we have all heard the familiar legend of the Spartan mother telling her son, "Come back with your shield or upon it."

The intent of this article is to give the shield a bit of increased exposure. A myriad of types and styles of shields have been used throughout history, and it would be nearly impossible for us to cover them all here. Instead, we have chosen to cover several classic shield designs in use during key periods in history. Hopefully, we will be able to illustrate just how important the shield was to the ancient warrior.

The Greek Shield
Click to enlarge
A bell krater featuring Greek shields


Click to enlarge
Athena shown carrying her shield


Click to enlarge
Greek vase with
argive shields
Beginning in about the seventh century BC, the most common form of Greek shield was a large, deeply concave, circular shield made of wood and bronze. This was called a hoplon, and it gave its name to the Greek soldier, the hoplite. These shields are today often referred to as Argive shields, and, in many ways, they made the Greek phalanx possible. These hoplon shields seem to have been derived from a type of short-lived circular shield made entirely of bronze and having a single, centrally-mounted handgrip on the inside. The hoplon, like its predecessors, averaged about 31-39 inches in diameter, but unlike the previous type, was made with a wooden core and had a different method of being gripped. Instead of the single handgrip, it was supported by means of a bronze, or bronze and leather, strap in the center of the back face of the shield, and a leather or cord grip at the edge. This was large enough for the warrior's left arm to slide through up to the forearm, while the hand held the grip located at the edge of the shield. Because of the sharply concave shape of these shields, the inside of the rim could be rested against the warrior's shoulder, which would help both to brace the shield against powerful blows, and take some of the strain off of his arms. The last point is particularly important as these shields weighed around 15.5 pounds.

The core of a hoplon was constructed of a thin wood which was approximately 0.2 inches thick. They were lined with thin leather, and then the strap through which the arm passed was attached to the back of the shield. Occasionally, there was also a rectangular reinforcing plate mounted between the strap and the wooden core. The front of the shield was then covered with bronze and was usually painted. There are surviving examples of hoplon shields that have bronze figures or designs mounted on the front of them, but these were most likely intended for ceremonial or dedication purposes as such decoration would not have survived long on the field of battle. Because of the way the hoplon was gripped, a good portion of the shield extended past the user's left side. This meant that, in a phalanx, a soldier's shield would provide a degree of protection to the man to his left. It was very common for soldiers to shift to the right in an effort to take full advantage of their neighbor's shield and this resulted in a general crowding to the right to the point that the right wing of a phalanx would often end up past the left flank of the opposing formation. When this occurred, the right wing of the phalanx could turn and attack its opponent in the flank. This technique often resulted in the right wing winning the battle, and it is for this reason that the right end of a phalanx became a position of honor.

When used in the close proximity of a phalanx, a shield cannot be used to deflect blows, as was often the purpose of shields in other times and places. Instead, it had to absorb the force of a blow or projectile so as not to redirect that same attack onto the next man. The great weight of these shields would have helped in that respect, as more force would have been required to move the shield. In order to better protect the hoplites' legs and feet, this shield was sometimes fitted with a leather apron or curtain suspended from its bottom. Because of its great size, however, a hoplon could get in the way as a soldier advanced and this would be even more noticeable with the leather curtain attached. Hoplon shields are often described as covering a man from chin to knee, and it is easy to see that a soldier's legs would constantly be bumping into the shield when he tried to move forward. In order to avoid this problem, Greek soldiers would hold the shield horizontally while advancing. This technique would still provide some protection, but would also get the shield out of the way of the legs. When not in battle, these shields were very often placed in leather covers, but it is uncertain if they had any kind of strap for carrying the shield. It is likely that a soldier on the march would simply have rested his shield on his shoulder, holding it at his side rather than in front.

The hoplon, or argive shield, made the Greek phalanx possible. It was uniquely suited to the style of combat employed by the Greeks, and was such an integral part of their panoply that the soldier himself was named after this piece of equipment. According to Plutarch, a foreigner once asked King Demaratos of Sparta why it was that warriors who had lost their shields in battle were dishonored while those who had lost their helmets and breastplates were not. He responded by saying, "Because the latter they donned for their own protection, but the shield for the common good of the entire line." This story demonstrates the enormous value the Greeks attached to this particular item. To say that Hellenic tactics were heavily influenced by the shield would be too simple a statement. It is far more accurate to say that the Greeks recognized the great potential of the shield and built the tactics of the day around its use. With their overlapping shields forming a virtually impenetrable wall, the Greek phalanx was one of the most lethal troop formations in the ancient world.

The Roman Shield
Click to enlarge
A Roman scutum, second century


Click to enlarge
Late Roman
shield boss


Click to enlarge
A Roman soldier engaging barbarians


Click to enlarge
Legionaries marching, from Trajan's Column

The Roman scutum also helped to define the way in which an entire nation fought. This unique shield design actually pre-dates the Roman Republic, but was used into the third century AD. The scutum was a large body shield usually measuring about 2.5 feet wide by 4 feet tall. It featured a very sharp curvature, and is generally described as being semi-cylindrical. There are a few varieties of scutum including oval, oval with the top and bottom squared off, rectangular, and even a few more exotic examples, such as oval with squared off sides. It is easy, and for the most part, true, to say that the scutum of the earlier republic was oval, while the rectangular scutum was in use later, around the first century AD. This is not, however, a hard-and-fast rule, as there is evidence of rectangular scuti (the plural of scutum) as early as 500 BC.

The scutum was made of plywood covered with leather, making it both strong and flexible. The plywood construction of these shields consisted of three layers of thin wooden strips, about 2.5 inches to 4 inches wide. The outer two layers ran horizontally, while the strips of the inside layer were oriented vertically. This was sometimes backed with ribs of wood pegged or glued into place to help reinforce the shield. A horizontal handgrip was attached behind the centrally located boss. In earlier scuti, this boss fit over the wooden spine that ran down the center of the shield, later models did away with the spine and used a more simplified square plate with a hemispherical dome attached directly to the shield face.

The scutum was about 0.5 inches thick in the center, while its edges, measuring 0.4 inches, were slightly thinner. Obviously, the weight of these shields varied. In general, the oval scuti were heavier and weighed around 22 pounds, which is even heavier than the Greek hoplon, while the rectangular variety tended to weigh about 15 pounds. The earlier oval scutum usually had a rim of either bronze or iron only on the top and bottom edges, but the rectangular scutum most often had a full metal rim around. The scutum would have been decorated, usually painted, with the insignia of the unit, and often was stored in a leather case which bore the same insignia formed from pieces of leather sewn onto the face of the cover. Many such covers survive, and have helped provide information on the size and shape of the scutum.

Because of the curvature of a scutum, it would have been very difficult for a soldier to draw a sword—even one as short as the Roman gladius—from across his body. To avoid this potential snag, the legionary carried his gladius suspended on his right side. In battle, the Romans began an engagement by advancing close to their enemies, at which point they would deliver a volley of pila (singular pilum), a distinctive type of javelin with a long, slender head designed to penetrate or stick in an opponent's shield and make it too awkward to use. Depending on the situation, the Romans might hurl another volley of pila, and then they would charge the enemy with swords drawn. During the charge, the legionary would hold his shield in front of himself so that the force of the impact would, hopefully, knock his opponent to the ground. In this way, the scutum could serve as an offensive weapon by battering the enemy with the central boss and by hacking at him with the metal-bound edge.

Once he had reached, and overbalanced, his enemy, the legionary would often rest his scutum on the ground and fight from behind it while crouched. This would lower his center of gravity, making it harder for him to be pushed back or knocked off-balance, and would also allow for more of his body to be protected by the shield. From this position, subsequent ranks could also more easily fight or throw additional pila. It should be stressed that this technique would result in a rather static position, and Roman tactics tended to rely on moving forward, so the soldier might have advanced with subsequent short charges whenever possible, and it is certain that, when called for, he would have held his shield in front of himself and continued to press forward. Regardless of which method was used, it is clear that the scutum was a body shield used in a relatively fixed manner, and not something that would have been wielded like the smaller, lighter shields of the late medieval period.

In siege warfare, the scutum could be employed in a unique formation known as the testudo, or tortoise. In the testudo, the soldiers on the front and sides of the formation would hold their shields outward, while the remainder would overlap their shields above the heads of the formation. The result was a box enclosed on the front, sides, and top, leaving very few vulnerable openings. The testudo allowed the Romans to approach and undermine walls without much fear of arrows or rocks from above. It could be disrupted by weapons such as burning fat, but the testudo still served well as a quickly and easily deployed siege weapon.

The scutum was a very versatile shield that was well-suited to combat with tightly-packed or loosely-arrayed troops, and was also very useful in a siege. This shield played an important role in the conquest of the known world, and is more that worthy of the recognition that it still receives today.

The Celtic Shield
Click to enlarge
Celtic shield from Fayum, Egypt



Click to enlarge
Top: Two Hjortspring shields. Bottom: The Clonnoura and Chertsey shields



Click to enlarge
Celtic shield,
first century AD



Click to enlarge
Bronze-faced shield, circa 400-300 BC



Click to enlarge
A cauldron featuring
Celtic shields
In its classic form, the Celtic shield consists of an ovoid shield board with a long, spindle-shaped umbo with a spine extending vertically along the shield board. This style of construction is shared by the Republican era Roman scutum, as well as Etruscan and Iberian shield forms, suggesting a common ancestral type. However, as the centuries progressed, the form became less and less identified with the Mediterranean peoples. Both Greek and Roman art depicted the oval shield with the spindle boss as an identifying feature of the barbarian Celt's shield. Since the main components of these shields are organic, direct archaeological evidence is limited, and historians are often forced to extrapolate from meager evidence.

The Celtic shield is known from approximately the 6th century BC to the early centuries AD through artwork, scattered remains of fittings, and in a few rare instances, wholly preserved shields. The site of La Tène produced such preserved Celtic shields. Related finds in Celtic influenced areas—Hjortspring in Denmark and Clonnoura in Ireland—have provided more examples of preserved Celtic shields to provide rare insight. An additional find in Fayum, Egypt, near where Celtic mercenaries were given land, revealed yet another remarkably well-preserved shield. This last is not definitively Celtic or Roman, but has been alternately claimed as both.

This basic shield form varied little through the centuries. From 6th century Halstatt scabbard engravings to post-conquest British votive carvings, we see the Celtic barbarian armed with the spindle-bossed ovoid shield. On the Continent, the shape was generally seen as an ovoid: not a true ellipse rather more like a rectangle whose sides have been curved slightly. In some cases, the shape is very curved and ovoid, as seen in the Pergamon arch, the Chertsey shield, and the surviving shields from La Tène. The rectangular form with rounded corners is typified by those seen on the Civitalba frieze, the Bormio relief, and the surviving shields from Hjortspring. The victory arch at Orange shows both rectangular, ovoid, rounded rectangles, and elongated hexagonal shapes.

Several thin bronze votive shields have been found in Britain. One of these, the Chertsey shield, depicts a very typical ovoid shield with a spindle boss extending the length of the shield. However, the Witham and Battersea shields show a form that appears to be distinctly British: an elongated rectangle with rounded corners but slightly concave lines along its length. This waisted shape does not appear to have a Continental counterpart.

Typical of the Celtic shield is a spindle-shaped boss, with spines of varying length, in cases extending nearly the full length of the shield. On the shield preserved at La Tène, the spine extends only about 1/2 the length of the shield. In other instances, the spine is virtually nonexistent, making the boss shape more a pointed oval, as typified by the Hjortspring shields. In the last days of the Celtic culture, 1st century BC to the early centuries AD, the wooden umbo was increasingly supplanted by a domed hemispherical metal boss; shields of this form have been found at the site of Caesar's siege of Alesia (1st century BC). However, Alesia also yielded the strap-type boss, indicating that the spindle-shaped umbo was also still in use.

British shields show evidence of both the full-length spindle (Chertsey shield) and the pointed oval variety (several Salisbury votive shields). Nonetheless, votive shields and carvings seem to indicate a preference for a spherical umbo with or without attached spines. This does not necessarily indicate a metal domed boss as such metallic fittings are quite rare in the British archaeological record. The Irish Clonnoura shield, by way of reference, has a domed, nearly round boss of alderwood covered in leather.

Unlike the Roman shields, the barbarian Celtic shield was flat. Extant surviving shields possess a solid umbo of wood, and a shield body of plank construction. However, the surviving Fayum shield was of slatted construction, with a shield body composed of three layers of birch strips glued together at right angles: a form of primitive plywood. No existing Celtic shield of plied construction has yet been found. However, the carvings of the Pergamon arch and the Mondragon warrior both have carved detail depicting broad diagonal bands with grained texture. This may indicate planks set at diagonals, or may indicate diagonal slatted construction in a form of plied shield board not yet found.

The Fayum shield had a covering of glued and stitched-on wool felt. It is presumed that Celtic shields would be similarly covered in fabric, or in leather like the Clonnoura shield. Rims could similarly be reinforced with organic material: the Fayum shield had the wool felt fabric doubled up over the rim, forming a wide thickened band to strengthen the edge. The Clonnoura shield had a thin edging of stitched on leather to reinforce the edge. Either method of rimming would be effective for Celtic shields, and could explain the wide rim or binding carved on the Pergamon relief shields.

In earlier Celtic graves, the shields were all organic, as described above, since the only grave remains are the occasional metal grip reinforcement, or a pair of nails which would have attached the handgrip. By the early 3rd century BC, more metal shield fittings appear with grave goods. Shaped metal plates nailed onto the wooden umbo to strengthen it appear during this period, to gradually be replaced in the late 3rd century BC by a band-shaped metal strip which fit over the wooden umbo to reinforce the hollowed grip area. Metallic edge bindings also appear from time to time in this period; thin gutter-shaped strips in iron on the Continent, bronze in Britain. As the centuries progressed, the band-shaped boss became larger, and the flat portion attached to the shield board developed aillettes (or wings), making an almost butterfly-shaped boss. By the 1st century BC, some warriors had eschewed the wooden umbo altogether in favor of a hemispherical boss.

Generally speaking, the Celtic shield covered the warrior who bore it from just above the shoulder to the knee or upper shin, but surviving shields, few as they are, also show size variance. The Clonnoura shield is a tiny 22.8 by 14 inches; the Fayum shield measures 50.25 by 25.4 inches. The La Tène shields are more moderate, measuring about 43 by 24 inches.

Judging from surviving shields, and also surviving elements such as the nails securing umbos and metallic rimming, the thickness of a typical Celtic shield would be about half an inch in the center, tapering to about a quarter of an inch at the rim. A large shield like the Fayum would weigh about 22 pounds. A smaller shield like the oaken La Tène shield would weigh around 14 pounds. The shield was held via a transverse horizontal wooden grip beneath the umbo. Occasionally the grip is reinforced by a rather plain iron strip nailed at either end of the grip piece. The method of grip is palm-down, most clearly shown in the famous carving of the Flannery Celtic warrior brooch.

The Anglo-Saxon/Viking Shield
Other than in certain areas of aesthetic decoration, Anglo-Saxon shields and those used by the various Nordic or Viking countries were of the same design and construction, so they will be discussed together in this section.

Warfare was an important part of Nordic and Anglo-Saxon society. Men in these cultures were warriors first and foremost, farmers and traders second, and the shield was a powerful symbol of the warrior. Unfortunately, this important piece of equipment has been neglected in favor of the much more glamorous sword, and in some cases, even the common spear and axe. But the shield is by far the most common piece of military gear found in Anglo-Saxon and Nordic graves, being found in 45% of all grave excavations. It is unknown whether the shield that was placed into the grave was the personal shield of the deceased, or simply a representative piece. Indeed, the seeming fragility of some of these finds may indicate that they may have been made strictly as a symbolic addition to the grave goods, and were never meant for actual use.

Click to enlarge
Reconstructed Sutton Hoo shield, circa 625



Click to enlarge
From the Golden Psalter of St. Gall, 10th century




Click to enlarge
Shield boss,
7th century




Click to enlarge
From the Gyronny
Arrondi Tängelgårda
picture stone
One of the most characteristic details of this northern shield was its boss. Anglo-Saxon poetry gives us a clear indication of the boss's intended purpose in the line, "The boss belongs on the shield, the fingers' safe protection." To date, the archeological evidence indicates that the boss was circular in shape and made of iron. Early examples of the 5th through the 7th centuries were carinated, with later post-7th century examples assuming a cone or sugar-loaf shape. This change in design seems to have been intended to simplify production. Carinated bosses seem to have been formed of two pieces of sheet iron. One piece formed the cone that was wrapped around an apex which took the form of an iron rod, disc, or button. The second piece of iron was used to form the tube that supported the cone. Many cone-shaped or sugar-loaf bosses were evidently fashioned from one piece of sheet iron.

The boss's flange was set at an angle to the boss itself, so that it would seem that boards attached to the flange would have resulted in a cone-shaped shield. However, the flange's angle was instead meant to act as a spring against the shield board, keeping the rivets under tension and thus preventing a loosening of the assembly. The boss was attached to the shield board by a number of these evenly spaced rivets, which very rarely seem to also have been used to secure the hand-grip. Traces of textile have been found in the interior of several surviving bosses, indicating that padding may have been placed within the boss as an additional form of hand protection. Some recovered bosses display obvious combat damage. Often, this damage and the resulting repair work left no corresponding marks on the surviving shield boards. This gives a clear indication that ferrous fittings of the shield were often recycled back into new construction.

The other ferrous component of the northern shield's construction was the grip, although wooden examples may have also been used. The only depiction of the shield's grip is found on the Franks Casket, and this is far from a clear illustration. There is also an illustration in the Cotton Claudius B IV, an 11th century manuscript housed in the British library. All surviving Anglo-Saxon shield grips are made from iron, with the exception of one copper-alloy grip found in grave 25 at Orpington, England. The shield's grip tended to be formed of a piece with a supporting strip of iron. This component could either be short or long, and we do not know the rationale for length choice. This component was typically secured with two to four dome-headed rivets. More would be used as the supporting strip became longer. The grip was riveted to the shield across the grain of the central shield board, and usually in an off-center position in the board's hand-hole. There is no surviving evidence to indicate that carry-straps were ever used on shields of the Anglo-Saxon and Nordic cultures. Both the Franks Casket and Cotton Claudius B IV sources clearly show the shield being gripped with one hand, so from these we can assume the shield was normally held in this fashion.

All surviving Anglo-Saxon and Viking shield boards are of circular shape. Square, rectangular, or oval shapes do not seem to have been used by the northern peoples, and shields found in the Thorsbjerg bog deposit, as well as the Gokstad ship burial, bear this out. The cross-sectional shape of this shield type is far more difficult to determine. Some ancient writings seem to describe the shield as hollow, or curved, although this is open to debate. While all surviving shield board fragments indicate a flat circular shield, some excavated shield grips are curved along their length which might indicate a convex shield. The problem with this interpretation is that it is impossible to separate those grips that are intentionally curved from those that have been damaged or bent post-deposit. The shield found in Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo is convex. However, this convexity occurs only within the last few inches of the shield's outer rim rather than at an even rate across the entirety of the shield's surface. This feature has been determined through a reconstruction using the shield's metal ornamentation.

Literary evidence indicates that the shield's body was typically made from planks of linden, also known as lime wood. Sources such as the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf repeatedly speak of linden shields. Recent analysis of the organic composition of surviving shield boards has, however, indicated that a wide range of woods were actually used. Woods such as alder, beech, ash, birch, poplar, and willow were also used. The term "linden" may in fact have simply been used as a catch-all phrase to describe the general nature of shield construction, much like the term "Kleenex" is used today to describe facial tissue. All shields thus far discovered, with the exception of the Gokstad shields, have been found to be covered with leather of one kind or another. Given the age and find-composition of this leather, assigning it to a particular species of animal is doubtful at best. However, a comment in the 10th century laws of Aethelstan state that no shield will be covered with sheepskin, so perhaps cowhide was the preferred covering. The exact composition of this leather covering is further muddled by the fact that the Anglo-Saxons also used cuir bouilli (hardened leather) and rawhide in their goods manufacturing. A cuir bouilli shield covering may have been used on the shield found in Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, however, no evidence remains to indicate that rawhide was used. Still, the material was known to these cultures so its use should not be discounted. The leather covering seems to have been intended primarily as a means of adding structural stability to the shield, as well as a field for artistic expression.

The shield's rim construction is also open to debate. Many illustrations show a distinct rim to the shield. Whether this depicts a reinforced rim or simply a decorated one is debatable. U-shaped strips made of iron as well as copper alloy have been found in excavations. These items point to some kind of rim reinforcement. Leather and rawhide may have been used, although no definitive evidence survives. Whatever form the shield's rim took it was obviously meant as an attempt at reinforcing the structural integrity of the shield.

The size of Anglo-Saxon and Viking shields can be determined by the location of the ferrous elements within the find-place. The size of the shield seems to have varied widely from 1 1/2 feet to 3 feet. Whether this difference in size was due to availability of materials, personal preference or social station is uncertain. The shield's face was often decorated with artistic elements. The Nordic cultures seem to have preferred painting their shields in simple geometric patterns. Anglo-Saxon shields followed the same trend, although examples owned by high ranking individuals, such as the shield found in Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, display elaborate and costly decoration in the form of non-ferrous metals.

Anglo-Saxon poetry tells us, "A shield necessarily goes with a soldier." It is clear that the shield was more than just a piece of disposable battle gear to the Anglo-Saxon and Viking cultures. The shield was not only an indispensable piece of equipment for the warrior, it was also the hallmark of the man himself.

The Medieval Shield
Click to enlarge
11th century kite shield, the Bayeux Tapestry

Click to enlarge
Kite shields,
circa 1140-50

Click to enlarge
German shield,
13th century

Click to enlarge
Buckler use, I.33 manuscript

Click to enlarge
14th century
heater shields
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.

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).

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). Towards the end of the 13th century the shield became even smaller and the shape changed to the so-called "heater" shield, due to its resemblance to the bottom of a heating iron. 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.
Click to enlarge
Painted Bohemian
tournament shield,
circa 1450
Click to enlarge
Tournament shield,
early 15th century
Click to enlarge
Late medieval
tournament shield
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.

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.

The Renaissance Shield
Click to enlarge
Rotella, circa 1600-1610, Milan

Click to enlarge
Italian targets,
circa 1540-1560

Click to enlarge
From Marozzo's Opera
Nova, circa 1536

Click to enlarge
Parade shield of
Henry II, circa 1555


Click to enlarge
Circa 1700

Click to enlarge
Circa 1725-50

Click to enlarge
Circa 1730

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.

Some forms of shields were still used, however. The pavise, a long, generally rectangular or oblong shield, was still used to protect archers. It would generally be held up by a prop although sometimes a special shield-bearer would hold the pavise. Like earlier medieval shields, the pavise was often brightly painted and decorated, sometimes with a coat of arms or Biblical or martial scenes.
Click to enlarge
Burgundian pavise,
circa 1480
Click to enlarge
Bohemian pavise,
circa 1440
Click to enlarge
Hand-pavise,
circa 1485-1490
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.

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.

The small shield known as the buckler survived throughout the Middle Ages into the renaissance, both on the battlefield and in civilian life. One of the reasons for the long life of the buckler was probably its convenience. It could be hung on a belt, out of the way of an archer who kept a sword and buckler handy for when the enemy closed, and was compact enough for everyday civilian wear.

Bucklers were constructed, variously, of hardened leather, wood and metal or solid steel. Although the buckler is commonly imagined as round, it took on many shapes and sizes, including the square targa depicted in Italian fencing manuals. Many civilian variants featured cutouts or projections intended to trap sword blades. A targa in The Wallace Collection has on its face raised circular bars similar in appearance to the heating coils on a modern stove top. In theory, these could catch a sword and possibly even break it. Such devices were more common for one-on-one duels as opposed to the battlefield, where having one's shield immobilized by an opponent's weapon would leave one vulnerable to attack from other opponents.

The 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.

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.

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.

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 hand-grip and grasp a dirk (the popular Scottish fighting knife). Used in this manner, the dirk is held point-down and projecting for most of its length beneath the targe. The painting, An Incident in the Scottish Rebellion—1745 by P.D. Morier depicts this use, which has two advantages. First, the dirk is available for immediate use when needed. Second, the projecting blade of the dirk can be used to effectively parry oncoming attacks to the lower part of the body with a simple lateral motion.

Conclusion
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. 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.





Editor's Note
The term hoplon more correctly refers to the entire equipment of the Greek warrior. In period, the shield was called an apsis. Calling the Greek shield a hoplon is quite common and we have used that term within this article.

About the Author
Patrick is a State Trooper serving with the Kansas Highway Patrol. He has been fascinated with edged weapons, particularly the medieval sword, since early childhood. Not only is Patrick thankful for any opportunity to indulge in his favorite hobby, he is also blessed with a wife who tolerates a house full of sharp pointy things.

About the Author
Greyson Brown is a soldier in the United States Army, and a student of European history. He has been interested in arms and armour for as long as he can remember. That interest has also inspired him to become a hobby blacksmith.

About the Author
Sam Barris is a native of Northern California who has had a passion for military history for as long as he can remember. He received a BA in Political Science and History from the University of California, San Diego, where he was also a fencer on the men's epee squad. Following graduation, Sam was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Navy. In his off-duty time, Sam enjoys swordsmanship, fly fishing, hunting, horseback riding, music and reading as many obscure, eclectic tomes as he can lay his hands on.

About the Author
New father and Cincinnati native Nathan Bell has been interested in ancient arms and armour since before he hit double digits in age. His interests of late have been arms and armor of the Celts.

About the Author
Bill Grandy is an instructor of Historical European Swordsmanship and sport fencing at the Virginia Academy of Fencing. He has held a strong passion (obsession?) for swords and swordsmanship for as long as he can remember. He admits that this passion comes from a youth spent playing Dungeons and Dragons, but he'll only admit that if there are no girls around.

About the Author
Alexi is a doctoral student in the biological sciences at MIT. He has had an outstanding interest in medieval military history and weaponry for many years, but only started collecting in late 2003. His main interests lie towards European weapons and warfare practices of the 13th and 14th centuries.

Sources
The Dirk and Targe-Their Use Together, The Third Park Lane Arms Fair Catalogue, by Colin Rolland
Historical Guide to Arms & Armor, An, by Stephen Bull
Fighting Techniques of the Ancient World (3000 B.C. to 500 A.D.): Equipment, Combat Skills, and Tactics, by Simon Anglim, Rob S. Rice, Phyllis Jestice, Scott Rusch, John Serrati
Greece and Rome at War, by Peter Connolly
Archaeology of Weapons: Arms and Armour from Prehistory to the Age of Chivalry, The, by R. Ewart Oakeshott
European Armour, circa 1066 to circa 1700, by Claude Blair
Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight, by David Edge, John Miles Paddock
Anglo-Saxon Shield, The, by I. P. Stephenson
Anglo-Saxon Weapons and Warfare, by Richard Underwood
Arms and Armour of the Crusading Era, 1050-1350: Western Europe and the Crusader States, by David Nicolle
Medieval Sword & Shield: The Combat System of Royal Armouries MS I.33, by Paul Wagner, Stephen Hand
Ancient Celts, The, by Barry Cunliffe
Gourney II: Boucliers et Lances, by Rapin and Brunaux
Studies on the Oldest Shields in Europe, by Zbigniew Bukowski
Catalogue of Irish Iron Age Antiquities, A, by Barry Raftery
 














All contents © Copyright 2003-2014 myArmoury.com — All rights reserved

Open a printer-friendly version of this page

You must be logged in to access all the features of myArmoury.com.
Your name: I forgot my password
Register for an account
Password:  Log me on automatically each visit
Why register? See our Membership Plans for details.