The shield is nearly as representative of the medieval knight as the sword. Colorful, sturdy, and considered by many cultures to be the mark of a warrior, the shield was ubiquitous throughout medieval warfare. However, despite its popularity—both in actual historical combat and in the imaginations of modern readers, role-players, movie-goers and re-enactors—the medieval shield and its use remains one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented areas of medieval combat research today.
Shield Term Glossary
What About the Other Shields?
Which Shield Should I Bear?
Certainly one of the earliest forms of defense devised by warriors in history, the shield is as old as human records of combat. The earliest shields were likely constructed of toughened animal hide stretched over frames, or basket-woven frames augmented with layers of hide. Shields of wood replaced those, followed by many forms of composite-shields constructed with both wood and metal elements. By the Renaissance, shields made completely of metal were not uncommon, and today riot police carry shields made of specialized high-impact plastics and ceramic.
A shield was more than a simple portable wall behind which a warrior would hide; those with even a passing acquaintance with Greek history are familiar with the legend of the Spartan mother who told her son to “come back with your shield, or upon it.” The Roman historian Tacitus wrote of the Germanic tribes combated by Rome that amongst the barbarians, “To lose one’s shield is the basest of crimes.” Clearly, the shield bore a significant symbolic importance even before the Middle Ages.
By the medieval era, the shield had come to be associated with all manner of Christian symbols—often Christ in his shielding capacity of Man from the devil. However, a shield was also a weapon to be used against one’s adversary. Whether rimmed with iron, rawhide, or left raw-edged, the edge of a shield could break bones, crush armor and shatter teeth when used properly. Locked together with other shields, it could become part of a nearly impenetrable wall—an infantry formation which formed the basis for many early medieval battles.
As with armorers, shield-makers had to constantly balance between making a shield heavy and sturdy or light and maneuverable. This duality of functions demanded by warriors at the time gave rise to a few major designs. However, shield design and function was probably never as crucial an issue to the medieval armorer as was the armor itself.
Shields—like swords and other weapons—could be either very general in use or built as highly specialized tools intended for specific situations. From small, hand-held bucklers to door-sized pavisses, medieval shields ran the gamut of shape and size. Their construction and intended usage varied just as much. This presents some challenges for the modern student of medieval combat, and for combatants in the MMCG.
How closely should shield composition mirror that of actual medieval shields? How much leeway should be allowed in the construction of sparring shields to account for the safety of combatants? Is it better to simulate the weight and handling of a medieval shield, or to design it in such a way that combatants can strike with the face and edge of shield simulators without incurring injury? What type shield is appropriate for the weapon and armor combination used by a particular combatant? How should damage to shields be considered while mock combat continues?
This article—like the weapons and armor for beginners articles—is not intended to be an exhaustive catalogue and examination of all extant medieval shield types. However, it will attempt to present the major kinds of medieval shield, as well as types of construction, peak era of use, the social level associated with the shield, and pros and cons.
As a reminder, this article will focus on the shields used during the European Middle Ages. That is to say, the shields discussed will be those in use in Europe between 800 and 1500 A.D. While many effective and interesting shield types existed both before and after this time frame, and outside of Europe, such shields are beyond the scope of this article’s examination. Thus, shields or shield terms used in other re-enactment groups such as Scottish targes, Roman scutums, and Indian madus will not be discussed.