The Writer’s Guide to Shields

Today I will be covering some of the most common misconceptions of shields that I see in movies, TV shows, and books. Again, my focus is on medieval Europe since that is where most of my expertise is.

If you want a guide to types of medieval shields, please visit my previous post here.

As always, magic is the exception to the rules. Because magic.

Use in Battle

There were two main uses of the shield: personal protection and group formations.

Personal protection is exactly what it sounds like: an individual using a shield to protect himself. Group formations, such as the shield wall or the Roman testudo, were used on the battlefield. They were especially effective against cavalry charges or volleys of arrows.

However, the shield wasn’t only used for defense. It could also be used as a weapon. The shield bash has become a staple in video games, movies, TV shows, and books. However, we have limited information regarding how often it was actually used during the medieval period.

Shield bash. Photo source.

Tactics

For individual use, there are multiple tactics. A combatant can use their shield as moving protection, meaning that they can rotate it, opening it like a door, to provide opportunities to strike. Since it is usually held out in front, it provides almost complete coverage. The pointed bottom of the Norman kite shield can be angled toward an opponent, keeping them at even further distance than other types of shields.

Multiple types of weapons can be used in the main hand including swords, axes, spears, knives, and batons.

Writer’s Tip: Swords and axes have commonly been paired with shields. I would love to see other weapons, especially the spear, which is incredibly effective when paired with a shield because of the longer reach.

The most familiar group tactic is the shield wall. It was also the most used in history, likely because it was effective and didn’t require a lot of training. Often strapped shields were used because this method put the shield off center and allowed it to overlap with the one on the bearer’s right. This interlinking made the shield wall stronger. The shield wall could also be formed into V and slanted half V shapes. A V pointed at the enemy is an enfilade while one pointed away is a defilade. [1] There is also the tortoise or testudo formation that was developed by the Romans. Another tactic was the hedgehog, a circular formation that could also incorporate archers and polearms.

A shield wall used against a cavalry charge from the Bayeux Tapestry. Photo source.

Effectiveness

Just like armor, a shield was not perfect protection against an incoming strike. The effectiveness was heavily dependent on the type of attack and the construction of the shield. Shields were at their most effective when they were used to deflect incoming attacks, dissipating the energy rather than completely absorbing it. [2]

I recommend this video about the effectiveness of shields against arrows.

Construction

The construction of shields varied greatly depending on period and location. Early shields were usually just planks of wood held together by slats on the back. Later, they were covered with leather or canvas and could have a leather or metal rim. Further into the Middle Ages, shields were made completely of metal. Shields from other parts of the world were made of hide or wicker.

The construction of a round shield. Photo source.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Marine Rifle Squad. United States Marine Corps. 2007-03-01. p. 2.10. ISBN 978-1-60206-063-0.
[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1LScbpp9vM&t=179s

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