Medieval Shields - Sarah Woodbury

Medieval Shields

While we’re on the topic of medieval warfare, the medieval shield was not a standard item, but evolved over a period of time depending upon the needs of the warrior who held it.

“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.”

A portion of the Bayeux Tapestry displaying warriors on horseback and their use of the kite shield.

A portion of the Bayeux Tapestry displaying warriors on horseback and their use of the kite shield.

The following are the most common medieval shields:

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 and 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

or heater-shaped shield is a form of European medieval shield, developing from the early medieval kite sheld in the mid 13th century.

Smaller than the kite shield it was more manageable and could be used either mounted or on foot. From the 15th century, it evolved into highly specialized jousting shields, often a bouche containing a notch or “mouth” for the lance to pass through. As plate armor began to cover more and more of the body, the shield grew correspondingly smaller, until by the mid 14th century, it was hardly seen at all outside of the tournament. Heater shields were typically made from thin wood overlaid with leather. Some shields, such as that of Edward, the Black Prince from his tomb in Canterbury Cathedral, incorporated additional layers of gessocanvas, and/or parchment.

The Targe

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 Buckler

A buckler differs from a shield in that the latter is carried by straps and worn on the arm whereas the former is held in single-hand in a “fist” grip.  It is difficult to trace the history of the weapon as many times any type of round shield or small targe would be called buckler, regardless of whether it was held in the fist or worn on the arm.[2]  The buckler was a small, maneuverable, hand-held shield for deflecting and punching blows. It was usually round and made of metal but occasionally of hardened leather or layers of wood. (Tarassuk & Blaire, p. 105).  Bucklers were typically round and frequently between 8 to 16 inches in diameter, but octagonal, square, and trapezoidal versions were also known.

Considerable varieties of bucklers were developed.  Often a pointed spike protruded from the central boss or umbo.[3]  Many bucklers were pointed with a central tip or several smaller “teeth”.  These points could be used offensively to great effect as well as aided in binding and deflecting an opponent’s weapon.  John Stow wrote in 1631 how using the buckler’s long “pyke” (a spikes 8- 12 inches long) it was the habit of the old fighters “either to breake the swords of their enemies, or suddenly to runne into them and stab”. (Aylward, p. 17).  An English Royal proclamation in 1562 even complained of “bucklers with long pykes in them.” (Norman, p. 24) and a spiked buckler from c. 1607 was even found at the Jamestown settlement fort in Virginia.  Some 16th century bucklers also had raised metal rings, hooks, or bands that allowed for the catching or knocking of opposing blades.


The Pavise

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.

4 Replies to “Medieval Shields”

  1. Never had heard about these kinds of shields. But i really found it interesting as these unique equipments are hard to find. Well, i need to know more about it & if you have some more stuff like these please share the same as i really fond of ancient warfare.

  2. oh, didn’t we all think it when we first read the heading “the heater shield” –

    cold, muddy battlefield – up above Llangollen – early February; turn on the heater shield, and all warm and toasty, ready for the fray

    Welsh history could have been totally different….

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