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12th Century Shields: More than Defense

On Saturday Blackwolf joined several of our 12th century and Varangian friends to put on a medieval demonstration at the Caltex Family Fun Day at Fort Lytton. It was a great, relaxing day that afforded us time to interact with the public and get in some good visits with our friends. It was excellent to finally be able to get caught up on each other’s medieval projects, personas, and backgrounds, sharing interesting tidbits from our historical research and great tips on where to find the necessary tools and materials needed to make our garb and encampments as historically accurate as possible.

As the Blackwolf scribe and chronicler, I also got the chance to interview several combatants from the Templars and Companie of Knights Bachelor about their 12th century shields.

In the 12th century in Europe and the Middle East four shields were in use: heater, kite, round, and buckler.

Each had its own attributes and was chosen based on the armor being worn and whether the combatant was on horseback or on foot.

For most combatants, their shield was like a business card, the heraldry (ie – colors and devices) revealing who they were and where they were from.

The heater shield below is owned by an Englishman from the Knights Bachelor, John Topping (aka Renouf), and is a scarlet dolphin rampant on a gold field.

This heater shield is also from the Knights Bachelor, used as a practice shield by Gavin Chandler. It only bears the colors of its owner, not the devices. Shields in medieval times were expected to only last through one battle, so the beautifully made ones would be saved for battle and not wasted in practice combat.

This heater shield is different from the others. It is a Templar shield and bears no devices at all, just the black and white colors of the Templar brotherhood.

“There is standard heraldry for the Knights Templar,” explained Templar Lawrence Mason. “We are all brothers, all equal, and there is no hierarchy. All the kit is set up so any of the brothers can pick it up and use it.”

The only exception to the rule was on the shield of the Templar Master. It bore a white cross set on the black field.

As mentioned above, each style of shield had its own attributes and was chosen based on the armor being worn and whether the combatant was on horseback or on foot.

For example, if the combatant had a full face mask to protect his face, he could use a shield with a flat top. However, if he wore an open helm without a mask, he would want a shield with a rounded top to provide greater protection to his face.

If he wore leg armor, he could wield a shorter shield, but without leg armor, he’d want the length of a kite shield to protect his legs.

The kite shield below is one used by Gavin Chandler from the Knights Bachelor, displayed by his squire, Philip Hanson, and provides excellent coverage from shin to shoulder.

The round shield, pictured below, although much smaller than the kite shield, would also provide excellent protection. The farther away from the body it is held, the greater area of protection is provided. And the steel center proved an excellent weapon when thrust into the face or against the arm of an opponent.

The buckler is the smallest of the shields, but it is no less effective. Used almost in a parrying role, it can effectively deflect sword thrusts and slashes and prove quite destructive when slammed against the fingers, wrist, or forearm of an opponent. “It traumatizes the arm and sends the muscles into spasms,” explained Gavin Chandler.

In medieval times, shields had a strap that went around the neck and shoulder of the combatant. This allowed the warrior to comfortably carry the shield on his back when not fighting, then easily sling it into position when danger arose. The strap also acted as a pivot and weight-bearing point, enabling the fighter to swivel and swing the shield as needed without the full weight of it on his arm. Even the lightest shields become heavy after a few minutes of fighting. Carrying the shield on their backs also provided back support for the combatants, forcing them to walk upright instead of slouching under the heavy weight of their armor.

Combat in the 12th century was dangerous and could be lethal, but its purpose had changed from slaughter to ransom.

“We want to disable and capture, not kill,” explained Philip Hanson. “Prisoners make money.”

While the flat of a sword could be used to disable an opponent, a shield was also effective. A swift blow could quickly render an opponent senseless allowing him to be taken prisoner and ransomed for a tidy sum to line the coffers of the victor.

“Cash is power,” Chandler said.

For more information on 12th century shields, contact any of the groups via the following links:


Companie of Knights Bachelor


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