The Sunday Section: Snippets of ... Medieval Weapons - Shield

One of the most basic defensive weapons, the shield is basically a hand-held barrier used to repel blows and protect from assaults.  

This may not be historically accurate, but I love the movement it conveys; and the Scorpion on his shield is an added bonus :)

Shields varied in size, depending on their use, from large panels to protect the entire body to small ones for hand-to-hand combat.  They also varied in shape, and could be round, oval, rectangular, square, even triangular.  Earliest shields, from prehistory, were made of wood, animal hide or wicker.  Later shields were made from split-resistant timber, like poplar, and would, in time, usually be covered with leather and reinforced with a metal boss and rim.  They were held either by a central grip, or by straps that went over the user’s arm.

Replica of Anglo-Saxon shield (British Museum)

In Ancient Greece, while the general term for shield wasaspis, the heavy wooden shield used by the infantry was called ahoplon, which is what the term ‘hoplites’ is derived from.  The hoplon was a deeply dished shield made of wood.  Even though it measured just over 3 feet in diameter, its large size was not a hindrance as its shape made it possible for it to be supported on the shoulder; it stretched down to the knees, giving the soldier more than adequate cover.  Also the grip, known as an Argive grip, afforded the hoplites more mobility – the ‘handle’ was placed at the edge of the shield, while the centre of the shield sported a leather fastening through which the forearm was placed.  The hoplites could capitalize on their offensive capabilities, while better supporting the phalanx.  The shields made it possible for the hoplites to form a well-armoured human wall and push forward, en masse, into the enemy.

Greek hoplite

The Roman shield, or scutum (Latin for ‘shield’) was made by laminating wood into a curved rectangle.  In training, wicker shields which were twice as heavy were used to prepare soldiers for prolonged use of shields in combat.  The Romans regularly used the testudo formation (Latin for ‘tortoise’); Plutarch describes this as used by Mark Antony during his invasion of Parthia:

Then the shield-bearers wheeled around and enclosed the light-armed troops within their ranks, dropped down to one knee, and held their shields out as a defensive barrier. The men behind them held their shields over the heads of the first rank, while the third rank did the same for the second rank.  The resulting shape, which is a remarkable sight, looks very like a roof, and is the surest protection against arrows, which just glance off it.

'Testudo' formation

When the Romans withdrew from Britain in the 5th century, ideas such as the ‘shield wall’ continued to be used.  This was basically a ‘wall of shields’ formed by soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder, and holding their shields up in an overlapping fashion.  Every man had, not only the protection of his own shield, but that of his neighbour’s, usually to his right.  If the shield wall held, and the men did not lose heart, it was capable of thwarting a cavalry charge.  However, the Normans had developed a teardrop-shaped ‘kite’ shield by the 11th entury that protected the cavalry as they turned, and proved effective against the shield wall by allowing them to make repeated charges at it.

A Saxon shield would need to protect its user against arrows at long and medium range; light throwing spears; and swords and spears at arm’s length.  To accomplish this, the shield had to be light yet strong.  The Saxons achieved this by combining two materials – they glued a number of lime-wood planks together and covered this with leather; lime wood was light and flexible, and leather strengthened it.

At the Battle of Edington, 878, a Saxon shield wall was used.  England, at this time, was divided into a number of smaller kingdoms, some with native kings, others settled or held to ransom by the Vikings.  The kingdom of Wessex was ruled by Æthelred and his brother, Alfred.  After clashing repeatedly with the Danes, Æthelred died and Alfred became sole ruler.  In exchange for payment, the Danes agreed to leave Wessex alone, which they did for 5 years.

Around 876, the Vikings under Guthrum, resumed their attacks on Wessex.  Lack of success caused them to turn their attentions to other parts of England.  But in 878, they returned, aiming to finally conquer the West Saxons.  Their successful attack at Chippenham in Wiltshire resulted in the shires of Hampshire and Wiltshire submitting to the Danes.

With a price on his head, Alfred withdrew to the Somerset marshes and his base at Athelney; from there he harassed the enemy, and gathered his forces.  The Danes moved south to deal with Alfred and set up their base on the high ground of the Edington ridge.  Alfred marched to meet them, approaching from the west, using the undulating landscape as cover.  On learning of Alfred’s approach, Guthrum ordered his men to form a shield wall.

If Alfred had more troops, he would have been able to attack Guthrum’s shield wall from the flanks.  However, with his troops equal in number to the Danes, he could not afford to do this.  It would appear that he decided on a frontal attack using his own moving shield wall.  Small gaps would open up for groups of attackers to race out and harass the enemy, then retreat behind the safety of the moving ‘wall’.  On identifying a sufficiently weak spot in the enemy’s defences, Alfred’s shield wall would, most likely, have changed shape into the ‘boar’s nose’ or a ‘V’-shape to charge Guthrum’s wall like a battering ram.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles records that Alfred ‘fought against the entire host and put it to flight.’  The Peace of Wedmore followed this battle; Guthrum accepted defeat, and both sides agreed on their territories, with Guthrum becoming a king of East Anglia.

Alfred, an astute diplomat and competent king, devoted the latter part of his reign to education and learning, and came to be known as Alfred the Great.

Some famous shields of myth and literature ~

Svalinn, from Norse mythology, the shield that stands in front of the sun; there is an account of it in the Grímnismál (The Speech of the Masked One): ‘Svalin is his name, he stands a shield before the sun, the shining deity.  I know that the hills and the sea would burn, if it were to fall from its place.’

Aegis, the shield of Athena and Zeus.  When Perseus was told to kill Medusa by King Polydectes, the gods bestowed on him Hades’ Helm of Invisibility, Hermes’ Winged Sandals, a sword made by Hephaestus, and a shield from Athena.  The shield is called either a mirror or a shield of bronze; it was so highly polished it reflected easily.  Perseus used the shield to look at Medusa’s reflection; as she was not staring at him directly, he was not turned to stone and was thus able to kill her.  Perseus returned to Polydectes and gave him Medusa’s head; the king looked at it and was turned to stone.  Perseus then returned the shield, the helm and the winged sandals.  Athena also asked for the Gorgon’s head, and he gave it to her.  She fastened it to her shield; every time she went to battle, her enemies were turned to stone.  Zeus sometimes uses the shield, wearing the head on his goatskin breastplates; the Aegis is basically anything with the head strapped on.

Fragment of a marble replica of the shield of Athena, with the head of the Gorgon in the centre

The Shield of Achilles was the shield he used in his fight with Hector.  In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles lost his armour after lending it to his companion, Patroclus, who was then killed in battle by Hector; the weapons were taken as spoils.  Achilles’ mother, Thetis, then asked the god Hephaestus, for armour for her son.  

'Achilles  fighting in the Trojan War' ~ Charles-Antoine Coypel

Homer details the imagery which decorates the new shield, starting from the centre and moving outward:

            The Earth, sky and sea, the sun, the moon and the constellations

            ‘Two beautiful cities full of people …’

            A field being ploughed for the third time

            A king’s estate where the harvest is being reaped

            A vineyard with grape pickers

            ‘A herd of straight-horned cattle …’

            A picture of a sheep farm      

            A dancing-floor where young men and women are dancing

            The great stream of Ocean

Achilles' Shield

Ancile, the shield of Mars, the Roman war-god, is a small, oval shield, which was said to have fallen from heaven in the reign of Numa.  A prophecy stated that the stability of Rome was bound up with the shield, so Numa had 11 others made exactly like it by Mamurius Veturius.  Once a year, the shields were carried through the city amidst various ceremonies, at the end of which the name of Mamurius was invoked.  It is thought that the name, Mamurius, conceals that of the god Mars (Mamers).

The Shield of Joseph of Arimathea was said to have been brought to King Arthur’s castle by three maidens, and left there for Perceval.  He used the shield to defeat the Knight of the Burning Dragon.  This knight was so named because his shield had a magic dragon’s head on it that could breathe fire.  It was said that only the shield of Joseph of Arimathea could protect against it.  Thus protected, Perceval managed to cut off the knight’s sword hand, and thrust his sword into the mouth of the dragon.  Enraged, the dragon turned on its owner, burning him to death.

The Shield of Evalach was a shield that had been given to King Evalach of Sarras by Josephus, son of Joseph of Arimathea.  When Josephus was on his deathbed, his nose began to bleed; he used the blood to paint a red cross on the white shield so that Evalach would always remember him.  The shield was passed down through the ages until it was placed in an abbey for safekeeping, awaiting the arrival of Sir Galahad who was prophesied to claim it.

When Galahad met with King Baudemagus and Yvain the Bastard at the abbey, they discovered that the shield could not be removed from the abbey without being challenged by a White Knight.  Wanting to test this, King Baudemagus took the shield, and when he left the abbey for the forest, was attacked by the White Knight who seriously wounded him.  The White Knight reprimanded Baudemagus for taking the shield and handed it to Baudemagus’ squire, Melias, and ordered him to give it to Galahad.  When they returned to the abbey, Melias handed the shield to Galahad.  The White Knight then appeared and told Galahad why he was the one fated to take the shield.  He told him of King Evalach, who had used the shield in his war against the Egyptian king, Tholomer.  When Evalach converted to Christianity, he changed his name to Mordrain, and was baptised along with his brother-in-law, Nascien; Galahad was a descendant of Nascien.

Galahad and the Shield of Evalach

And that wraps up this segment of 'The Sunday Section' ... I had fun putting these posts together, hope they were informative and interesting enough.