About European Shields
Probably the most important item of defensive armor was the shield. You could be in real trouble if you were caught without one. But a shield is also a nuisance to carry, so a lot of people were caught without one. It is obvious from the sagas that the thickness varied a great deal. You can read of thin shields and some that are described as thick and strong.
Vikings shields were generally round, and varied in width from 20 to 42 inches. They were made of boards glued together on the ends. The center of the shield was cut out for the hand, and the hand was then covered by a bowl shaped piece of metal called a boss. Often the rim of the shield would be covered by a strip of rawhide that was laced, or even glued to the edges.
This was good protection, and also helped hold the boards together. On rare occasions the rim of the shield might be reinforced with iron. The shield was gripped in the center where there was a grip, usually of iron. There may, or may not, depending on personal preference, be a strap to secure the left forearm to the shield. While primarily a defensive tool, it could be used offensively, too. A punch to the side of the head with a ten-pound shield can easily break someone’s neck. The shield can also be used to drive an opponent’s shield in a direction that will open him up for a sword cut.
Although round predominated, it was not the only shape. You can have oval ones, and square ones, and later you will have the typical kite shaped shield that is referred to as “Norman.” There is very strong evidence that suggests that the kite shaped shield originated in the Near East, and was brought back to Europe by returning members of the Varangian Guard in Byzantium. Nevertheless, there was a lot of individual preference….
The kite shield began to dominate Europe by the 11th century [C.E]. It was ideal on horseback, as it protected most of your left side, and on foot it gave good protection to the left leg. True, it wasn’t quite as effective a weapon as a good round shield, but it could be used that way. As coverage of the body in armor increased, the shield became somewhat smaller, soon ending up in the classic flatiron shape so beloved by all. After all, it is a great way to display your arms, and looks really cool hanging in back of your high seat.
The kite shield was fairly thick, being close to an average of one-half inch in thickness. These were generally covered in leather and decorated in gesso, with a weight of ten to twelve pounds. They were very sturdy, and their primary purpose was to divert the lance of the opponent. Foot soldiers at this time carried all types of shields, but as armor improved and became more accessible, it was more important that they carry a weapon that could defeat the armor, a two-hand weapon, and so the shield began to lose favor. It never fully went out of use but its popularity did dwindle considerably starting about 1400.
— The Book of Swords, pp. 97-99
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