Shields: Terminology and History
Extract from Tarassuk and Blair's (eds.) Complete Encyclopaedia of Arms and Weapons
Shield: A generic word covering all defensive weapons - of hide, wood, or metal - which are carried either on the arm on in the hand opposite to the one holding the offensive weapon. The fact that shields were in use as long ago as the Bronze Age is well established by both material evidence and pictorial sources over an extremely wide area, including Europe and the Middle East. Shields were used by the ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, and Persians in a variety of shapes - rectangular, oval, and round - and materials - leather, leather-covered wood, and wickerwork, often overlaid with decoratively embossed or engraved thin metal plates. Proof that several types of shields existed in Crete and Mycenae in the second millennium BC were found in scenes with which other weapons were decorated. A particularly interesting example can be seen on a Mycenaean damascened dagger (Archaeological Museum, Athens), dated to the 17th century BC, which depicts scenes of a lion hunt and clearly shows two types of shields: rectangular, with an incurving upper edge, and bilobed. These were probably made from layers of oxhide, which was sometimes covered with metal plates; the edges were reinforced with decorated metal strips, and a wooden reinforcing spine ran down its entire length, broadening out in the middle to form a boss or UMBO.
Homer gave detailed descriptions of the shields employed by the heroes of the Trojan War and, of them all, the most widely used were either the great oval or the bilobed shields, the aspis, made from layers of hide and reinforced with metal fittings. As time passed, the aspis became smaller and circular, and was adopted by almost all the armies, in coexistence with a light wicker shield, introduced by the barbarians, known as a PELTA [pelta mentioned in Screen 2]. From the inception of the aspis right up to the Hellenistic age (356 - 146 B.C.), the field of this shield was invariably richly decorated with geometrical motifs, hunting and battle scenes, family crests, mottoes, and amuletic symbols.
Before the rise of Rome's power, the shape of shields in Italy was strongly influenced by the forms prevailing in Magna Grecia, the area in southern Italy colonized by the Greeks. It is known that a round shield, similar to the aspis, was also used extensively by the Etruscans. The Samnites, however, used an elongated wooden shield, appropriately known as the 'Samnite shield'. From the beginning of Roman history, two basic types of shields were used by foot soldiers: the great scutum, in either its oval or rectangular form, and the round bronze CLIPEUS. Mounted troops, however, were equipped with a smaller round shield, the PARMA, which was soon superseded by a light oval shield of wood or leather. About the fifth century B.C., the round shield was almost completely replaced in the Roman army by the scutum, which remained in use until the fall of the western Roman Empire (A.D. 476). During the imperial period, however, many different types of shields were adopted, for use by the auxiliary military forces and in circus games. These ranged from the hexagonal ones of Germanic origin to the gladiatorial type, produced in a wide variety of styles and smothered in decoration.
In the Byzantine world, a large oval shield was extensively used. A good example can be seen depicted in the mosiacs of San Vitale in Ravenna, held by a soldier in Emperor Justinian's retinue (c 532 - 540) with the chrismon (a religious symbol signifying consecration with holy oil) occupying the whole field and richly decorated with gold and precious stones.
There is considerable evidence throughout the continent of Europe to show that predominantly round shields made of leather, wood, or wicker, with metal fittings and a metal boss or umbo, were being used from the time of the Bronze Age. Within the Germanic countries particularly, round or slightly oval shields with metal reinforcements were being employed. A variation was made which combined the shield with a weapon of attack: a sharp iron or bronze spike protruding from the center, in place of the rounded boss. The Celts of western Europe adopted a distinctive large oval shield, rather elongated, made of wood.
During the centuries following the fall of the western Roman Empire, the people of central and northern Europe were mainly using round shields which were frequently decorated in bright colors to distinguish between various ethnic and family groups. This type of shield, usually made of leather-covered wood and about 70-80 cm. (27 - 32 in.) in diameter, was equipped with a rather large boss, suitable to use as an offensive weapon.
It was not until about the 12th century that Europe was to see a new type of shield, which was kite-shaped. This became known as the 'Norman' style, as it appears several times as a typical Norman weapon in the Bayeux Tapestry (1066 - 1077), that great piece of embroidery celebrating William the Conqueror's victory at the battle of Hastings. The Norman shield is shown as an elongated triangle, the top edge and sides being slightly convex. The field is occupied either by an applied cruciform metal fitting with a boss or by a decorative painting. In addition to ENARMES, it was furnished with a GUIGE or looped strap at the top by which the shield could be suspended from the neck during fighting, thus giving greater protection and allowing more freedom of movement. The kite-shaped shield became a typical shield for mounted troops for about three centuries, since its elongated shape provided good protection for the left side of the body, the area most vulnerable to lance thrusts. In the course of the 13th and 14th centuries, it gradually evolved into a true triangle, becoming smaller in the process (sometimes described as 'heater-shaped' because of its resemblance to the bottom of a flatiron). This was the period in which the field of the shield became emblazoned with heraldic devices, which, apart from serving decorative and symbolic functions, enabled the wearer to be recognized even when his face was completely covered by a helmet.
From the 15th century, a complex increase occurred in the types of shields - a trend which was to continue for several centuries. It is possible however to distinguish three different categories, each of which includes several types: (1) large shields able to stand on the ground as shelters for soldiers on foot (pavise); (2) shield to wear on the arm (targe); (3) shields to be held with the hand (buckler).
Buckler: A small shield used mainly in the 13th to 17th centuries, designed to protect the contenders in foot combat. Its basic structure consisted of a strong iron plate - round, square or occasionally trapezoidal - fitted on the inside with a hand strap, the ENARME. Its border was reinforced with a strip of metal riveted all around it, while a hook or spike sometimes projected from the center to break or jam the opponent's blade. This device is frequently referred to as a SWORD-BREAKER. The spike of hook was often fixed in the middle of a group of metal strips attached to the main surface with a slight clearance; these served the same purpose of catching the blade and were arranged in various ways, such as concentric circles, trellisworks, etc. Some bucklers were equipped with a long steel spike which was fixed on a hinge and could be folded when not needed. In close combat, the buckler with a spike could also well serve as an offensive weapon. A small hook on the upper part of the buckler was used to suspend a lantern to light the bearer's way at night. Other bucklers had a small built-in lantern with a hinged door to hide the light when necessary. Some bucklers of the mid-16th century were combined with a wheel-lock or matchlock pistol. A remarkable group of such gun shields produced by Giovanbattista da Ravenna is preserved in the Tower of London.
Enarmes: Also called braces, the handles by which the shield is held. In their most common form, there are two loops, the first of which is fixed - and held with the left hand - and the second, in which the left arm is placed, is movable and can be adjusted by means of a buckle. Usually made of leather, or more rarely of wood, they are attached to the inside of the shield with rivets.
Guige: A long buckled strap fitted at the inside top of a TARGE to suspend the shield from the shoulder, or, in the case of a horseman, from the bard while on the move. It was also used to hand the shield around the neck while the lance was couched. Most 15th century shields had a notch, called the bouche, cut into the top right-hand corner to support the couched lance.
Pavise: A large oblong shield used mainly by archers and crossbowmen from the 14th century to the beginning of the 16th. It was also widely used by other foot soldiers. A typical feature was the central groove on the inside to hold a stake that was inserted in the ground to act as a prop: this groove was nearly always emphasized on the outside by a raised panel running the full height of the pavise. The purpose of the support was twofold: it freed the bowman's hands to enable him to shoot and provide the crossbowman with temporary shelter while spanning and loading his weapon. There is evidence that the shield, and hence its name, originated in the city of Pavia in northern Italy. Soon thereafter the pavise was extensively used throughout Europe. The shield was generally rounded at the top and sometimes at the bottom too, with straight sides widening slightly towards the base. The central groove was either straight or broadened out toward the bottom. The whole shield tended to be concave on the inside, and two straps, called GUIGES, or chains were fitted there so that the soldier could carry it on his back from place to place. The framework was generally made of wood and faced with cloth, parchment, or cuir-bouilli, although a few were reinforced with iron bands. The pavise was also used as an assault defense, and for this purpose special spikes were fitted along the bottom edge to enable the shield to be thrust into the ground as the attacking force advanced. There was also a metal observation grille at the top. A hand pavise was a smaller version of the pavise, fitted on the inside with the ENARMES. It was customary for the front of the pavise to be decoratively painted in a wide variety of designs, including city or personal armorial bearings.
Pelta: The Greek and Latin word [sic] for a light, half-moon shaped shield made from woven osier wands (wicker) and covered with leather. From classical Greek sculpture, vase paintings and literary sources such as Virgil and Livy (1st century B.C. - 1st century A.D.) it is known to have been regarded as the typical defensive weapon of barbarous people such as the Thracians who probably developed it, and the Macedonians. It was also regarded as the weapon of the Amazons, who were often referred to by the poets as petliferae, 'pelta carriers', and their shield was usually represented as a double crescent. Thracians who fought in the ranks of the Greek armies used the pelta and were known as peltastai. (The word has been absorbed into English as the botanical term 'peltate', which refers to shieldlike structures.)
[pelta mentioned in Screen 2]
Targe (or Target): A general term used to cover various types of shields carried on the arm by infantry troops from the 13th to the 16th century. Strictly speaking, however, the targe was a round or squarish shield, concave toward the body, fitted on the inside with two straps, ENARMES, through one of which, adjusted by means of a buckle, the left forearm passed, the other being fixed and held by the left hand. There was also an oblong pad against which the forearm rested. This type of shield was usually made of iron or of iron-plated wood. From the 15th century, when the use of targes by warriors notably decreased, the word 'targe' was also applied to several types of variously shaped shields used for the German jousts. A specific form of targe was the 'Hungarian' shield, which was also used in Germany in conjunction with eastern European armor. It was rectangular at the bottom, but the upper edge sloped up to the left in a concave curve to form an elongated point with the vertical left-hand edge.
Umbo: A boss applied to the center of a shield. Usually made of iron or bronze, the umbo was in use since very early times as a reinforcement and, when appropriately designed, as an offensive device to be used at close quarters. It was generally more or less hemispherical and often supported on a ring base or truncated cone, while many old examples were integrated with a spike protruding from the center. The umbo was secured to the shield by means of metal studs, often placed so as to form decorative motifs. It was sometimes heavily ornamented, especially on parade shields, with engravings and metal laminae molded to produced elaborate designs in relief which were then silvered or gilded. By the late Middle Ages, however, the umbo was gradually disappearing from the shield, but was still occasionally used as a decorative element.
Top of page
Back to main shields page