History of Medieval Shields
Since the appearance of mankind on the earth, there has been warfare. From Cain and Abel all the way down the centuries to the plethora of wars today, violence has been a hallmark of humanity. Even in the earliest humans, naturally, there existed a desire to protect against personal threats. As such a protection, the shield was invented. Some brilliant caveman of pre-history hatched the idea for a personal protection device, and apparently it caught on.
As with every item ever invented, the shield started as a crude instrument. Incremental refinement served to gradually improve the design and construction of the shield, and by the medieval period, they had become a work of art. Varied in its form and function, the medieval shield served an integral purpose in the soldier's arsenal.
The Material of Mediaval Shields
No medieval shield was created equal. Each shield was personally handcrafted for a specific function, therefore each shield was composed of different materials constructed in a unique manner. The most common materials used for early medieval shields were wood and animal hide. As the Middle Ages progressed, different metals became the preferred material of the shield.
Each shield was constructed to fit a specific purpose to the soldier who would use it. If the soldier relied on heavy armor and weapons, the shield itself would probably be made small and light. A knight in a full suit of armor could not possibly carry a body length shield. Obversely, a longbow archer would wear very little armor and would need to be quick on his feet. A tall, wide shield was adopted for archers to provide them with cover when they needed to restring their bows and arrows.
The Evolution of Medieval Shields
The early Middle Ages saw a quite crude form of armor and shield. Metal had not begun to be widely used, so both armor and shields were commonly made of wood and animal hide. The shields tended to be small, round objects that served a minimal level of close-range defense. As the Middle Ages passed, and advances in technology allowed the development of new armor and weapons, a new shield was needed.
Different shapes and sizes of shield were adapted, each to serve a specific purpose. Features such as handles were added to shields in order to make them more practical in battle. New methods of warfare continuously necessitated revisions of shield design. Let's now take a look at several of the most common medieval shield types.
The Kite Shield
Where early medieval shields were lightly constructed and tended to be small, the kite shield was a larger shield that first came into use around the 10th century. The kite shield was adapted so that the soldier could protect his foreleg while in combat. The shield itself was wide at the top, and tapered toward the bottom. Many kite shields possessed a gradual curvature, so that it would better fit the contour of the soldiers body.
An innovation that was added to the kite shield at a later point was the attachment of enarmes to the back of the shield. The enarmes were leather straps that allowed the knight or soldier to attach the shield to his forearm, rather than try to hold one strap with his wrist. Functionally, the enarmes greatly increased the likelihood that the soldier could hold on to his shield, an important consideration when in the heat of battle.
The kite shield is the type of shield featured on the Bayeux Tapestry, a medieval tapestry chronicling the Norman invasion of England in 1066. Thus, the kite shield bears a heavy association to the medieval Norman style of armor and warfare, a style heavily reliant on cavalry.
The Heater Shield
By the 13th century, body armor had seen a marked increase in effectiveness and durability. If the armor worn by a soldier could take the brunt of the defensive work, then the shield could be adapted once again. The heater shield was a revised version of the kite shield. The late medieval armor allowed the kite shield to be made smaller, and it's shape led to later historians dubbing it the "heater shield."
This type of shield is widely recognized as the type that was stylized with the medieval heraldry. Shields themselves fell by the wayside as armor became increasingly effective, but the heater shield was the type of shield preserved for ceremonial purposes in the late medieval period.
The buckler was a type of shield adopted by the common foot-soldier during the later medieval period. A small shield, the buckler ranged between 6 and 18 inches in diameter and was gripped with one hand because of its small size. Generally, the buckler was a round shield, though some examples of a rectangular shape have been documented.
The small size of the buckler allowed it to be constructed of more heavy material, so many bucklers were made of metal or had metal attached to them, an inclusion that strengthened the buckler shield. The buckler proved to be a quite effective defense when combined with a short sword in close combat. Because of the small size, however, a bucker shield was virtually ineffective against missile weapons such as arrows.
The targe was a variation of the medieval round shield that has become closely associated with the Scottish warrior. Normally, the targe was a slightly larger shield than the buckler, but it was used in the same manner. A targe was intricate in its construction and decoration and many of the exampled of Scottish targe's that we have today are beautiful. They were commonly constructed of wood and covered in black cowhide leather. The front of the targe was embossed with an intricate celtic pattern, part of the reason that the Scottish targe has remained so widely recognized.
The last type of medieval shield that we will cover was called the pavise. Most commonly used by bowmen, the pavise was a large, convex shield that was used as a full body protection. Bowmen and archers, because they were set at a distance from the main battle, rarely wore strong armor. The lack of armor necessitated some type of shield from the arrows of the opposing archers, and the pavise served that purpose marvelously.
It is thought that when the archer chose his position, the pavise was planted in the ground by using a spike attached to the bottom of the shield. He was then able to shoot by standing up and to restring his bow or nock a new arrow by squatting down behind the planted pavise, thereby shielding himself from enemy fire. Handles affixed to the back of the shield allowed him to grab it and move any time movement became necessary.
The large surface area of the pavise allowed them to be used as the canvas for artists, as well. Many examples of medieval pavises have the coat of arms for the city where the shield was made painted on them. Others have paintings of religious icons on them. The pavise saw a more prolonged existence than some of the other shields, because archery was a constant throughout the medieval period, up until the invention and wide use of gunpowder and firearms in the 18th century.
After the Medieval Period
I'll not delve into the details, but many of the shield types that we have looked at saw use even after the medieval period. Little changed until the advent of gunpowder and firearms during the late 18th century. Shields, then, served an important purpose, and still do though in a different form. The shields of the medieval period have a rich history, and we can learn much about the time period and the people who populated medieval Europe by looking at the shields they used.