Shields are an important part of many soldiers’ equipment. Throughout the medieval period shields had many changes. The following will talk about why and how these changes happened. The earliest shield to be discussed will be the Greek hoplon. These were around a meter in diameter, made of hard wood, and were very heavy. They used 2 straps on the back to help distribute the weight of the shield. Later the Roman scutum was created. It was a tall rectangular shape, about shoulder to knee in height. This shield was even heavier than the hoplons but provided more protection because of its increased size. The Romans stand close together and create a wall of shields that allowed very little to penetrate . It protected the wielder’s legs meaning the Romans didn’t need to wear leg protecting greaves. Despite having larger and heavier shields the Romans had the fastest armies because they didn’t need leg protection. Around this same time, barbarians would usually have round shields similar to the hoplon. In fact, throughout most of the medieval period round shields were being used by many groups of people. A likely cause of round shields being a permanent shield type is circles are a very easy shape to make.
As time progressed the tall Roman scutum became less common. The next shield to replace it was the kite shield. It’s shaped like an upside-down teardrop and doesn’t weigh as much as the rectangular shield. Its pointed bottom allowed it to be stuck into the ground and stay put. When multiple of these are planted overlapping, it creates a wall that can stand by itself. This proves effective against charging cavalry that can’t jump over it and don’t have reason to hit the wall. Kite shields also can be effective at protecting a horse while on horseback. The long bottom provides a little protection for the horse. As armor for horses improved as well as leg protection for soldiers, tall shields became less useful. They shrank over time to become lighter and more maneuverable. The shorter shield is a heater shield, named after the shape of a clothes iron. These shields were much lighter and had straps on the back that would distribute the weight across the entire arm rather than just at the wrist like most other shields. Some shields even had a large strap that could be used to carry the shield on the back while not in use. Both kite and heater shields were used by cavalry.
As time continued and armor became more common, shields became smaller and lighter. The larger shields were being used for mostly tournaments and had a notch on the right side to rest a lance. Eventually the circular buckler became the most common shield. They were very small, about a foot in diameter, and often made of metal. They were very effective in smaller battles such as a duel or attacking another ship if you were a pirate. Bucklers could be used in many ways in a duel such as deflecting the opponent’s attack, pinning the opponent’s sword arm against them, or hiding one’s hand from the opponent making it harder to predict the next move. The pictures below show a examples of how they were used. A daring soldier could even try blocking an arrow flying straight towards them.
The buckler remained in use even after gunpowder for duels and some variations of fencing. Today, the only shield commonly used is the riot shield. It is very similar to the Roman scutum in both design and use. The most notable difference is it is held more like the heater shield with equal weight distribution.
Clemonts, J. (2002). The Sword & Buckler Tradition. Retrieved from Arma: http://www.thearma.org/essays/SwordandBuckler.htm#.XAmVQPZFx3h
Devries, K., & Smith, R. D. (2012). Medieval Military Technology. North York: University of Toronto Press .
Manuscript illustration of two men fencing with sword and buckler. From the ‘Tower Fechtbuch’. German, late 13th century. (n.d.). Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Royal_Armouries_Ms._I.33
Roman Shield (Scutum). June 17, 2005. From user MatthiasKabel. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Scutum_1.jpg
Richardson, T. (2011). Armour in England, 1325–99. Journal of Medieval History, 304-320.