types of shields

Medieval Shields: Designs, Uses, and Evolution

The medieval period, a time of intense conflict and dramatic societal changes, witnessed a surge in innovations designed to protect and fortify. Perhaps no innovation embodies this more vividly than the evolution of the medieval shield. These defensive instruments were not just crude implements of war. They represented the epitome of medieval craftsmanship, evolving in design and purpose to match the changing face of warfare. This article aims to offer an in-depth look at these fascinating artifacts, shedding light on their designs, uses, and evolution.

Understanding Medieval Shields

Shields have always been a mainstay of defense strategies in warfare across cultures and eras. However, in medieval times, they took on a heightened importance due to the prevalence of close combat. Medieval shields were designed for versatility and adaptability – to parry blows, to strike at the enemy, and to signal moves in formation combat. The construction of these shields often involved wood for the main body, leather for reinforcement, and later iron or steel for enhanced strength and durability. The sizes and shapes varied extensively, reflecting the different needs and strategies of warriors from different periods and regions.

Different Types of Medieval Shields

The diversity of medieval shields is a testament to their vital role in warfare and the ingenuity of their makers. The designs evolved significantly over the medieval period, with each type catering to a specific defensive need or a particular fighting style.

Round Shields

One of the earliest and most prevalent designs was the round shield. Popular amongst the Vikings and the Normans, round shields were primarily designed for offensive as well as defensive purposes. These shields were relatively lightweight and maneuverable, offering significant advantages in single combat. They were usually made from wood, covered in leather, and sometimes reinforced with a metal boss at the center, providing a practical and robust defense mechanism.

Kite Shields

As warfare tactics and armory advanced, so did the shield designs. Enter the kite shield. Emerging around the 10th century, the kite shield offered a larger body of protection, extending to cover a significant part of the user’s body. Its distinctive elongated shape, resembling a kite, provided greater protection against projectiles and was particularly effective for cavalry charges. Initially, kite shields had rounded tops, but they later evolved to have a flat top, improving the user’s visibility while still offering extensive defense.

Heater Shields

Heater shields, emerging during the high Middle Ages, are among the most recognizable medieval shield types, often linked with the image of the chivalric knight. Designed to be lighter and more compact than their predecessor, the kite shield, heater shields had a unique shape reminiscent of a flat iron or ‘heater.’ This shield was often used in combination with a lance in a joust, its distinctive curved top allowing for better control and movement. Heater shields were typically emblazoned with heraldic designs, demonstrating the knight’s lineage or affiliations.

Buckler Shields

Unlike larger, more cumbersome shields, buckler shields were small, usually only 15 to 45 centimeters in diameter, designed for handheld combat. Made from metal or wood and often reinforced with a metal boss, bucklers were highly maneuverable, used for deflecting attacks rather than entirely blocking them. Their compact size allowed soldiers to use them in tight formations or one-on-one combat, focusing on agility and precise defense. Despite their size, buckler shields played a significant role in medieval warfare and self-defense.

Pavise Shields

Pavise shields, also known as pavises, were large shields used during the late Middle Ages, often associated with crossbowmen and archers. The pavise was tall and wide, sometimes curved, designed to protect the whole body when set on the ground or a stand. This shield was especially effective in siege warfare or during an archery exchange, allowing the user to reload their weapon behind the safety of the pavise. Some pavises were beautifully decorated with intricate designs or the arms of the town or city where they were made.

Targe Shields

Targe shields were widely used in the later Middle Ages, particularly famous in Scotland. A targe was generally round, made from wood and covered in leather, with a distinctive spike, or ‘dirk,’ protruding from the center. They were used in one-on-one combat or in formation during a charge. Targes were smaller than most medieval shields, offering less body coverage but more maneuverability. They were also often ornately decorated, reflecting the high level of craftsmanship of the period.

Design Elements and Symbolism on Medieval Shields

Beyond their practical application in warfare, medieval shields also bore cultural and symbolic significance. They were a canvas for displaying heraldic symbols, signifying the bearer’s lineage, allegiances, and personal achievements.

Heraldic Symbols and Coats of Arms

The surface of a shield, known as the field, was often painted with unique designs or emblems known as “charges.” These could include animals, plants, geometric shapes, or other heraldic symbols. These designs were not just decorative; they communicated information about the shield-bearer’s identity and affiliations. The practice of using unique, hereditary symbols on shields was a precursor to the coats of arms used later in the Middle Ages.

Color and Symbolism

Colors, known as “tinctures” in heraldry, also held symbolic meanings. Gold and silver (or yellow and white, as they were often depicted) represented generosity and nobility, respectively. Red signified strength and magnanimity, blue represented loyalty and truth, while green stood for joy, love, and loyalty. Black was used to symbolize grief or resistance. These colors, coupled with specific symbols, created a powerful and individualistic message on each shield.

The Evolution of Medieval Shields

The medieval era spanned several centuries, and during this time, shield designs saw considerable evolution.

From Utility to Symbolism

Early in the medieval period, the primary function of shields was defense in combat. As such, their shapes and sizes were largely determined by practical considerations. However, as plate armor became more widespread and effective in the later Middle Ages, the practical defensive role of shields diminished. Instead, their symbolic and ceremonial roles grew. This is seen in the progression from large, body-covering shields to smaller, more personalized designs, and the increasing emphasis on heraldic display.

Technological Advances and Changing Tactics

The evolution of medieval shields also reflected technological advances in weaponry and changes in warfare tactics. The rise of powerful long-range weapons like the longbow and the crossbow necessitated designs offering more comprehensive protection, like the pavise. The rise of cavalry in warfare led to the development of specialized shields like the elongated kite and the compact heater. Over time, improvements in body armor reduced the need for large shields, leading to the popularity of smaller, more maneuverable designs like the buckler and targe in the late Middle Ages.

Impact of Socio-Political Changes on Shield Design

The evolution of medieval shields was influenced by more than just the changing dynamics of warfare and advancements in technology. In fact, shifts in socio-political landscapes played a critical role in shaping the design, usage, and symbolism of shields over time.

During periods of relative peace, for example, the emphasis on shields as purely defensive tools may have decreased. In such times, their role as status symbols and heraldic canvases often became more pronounced. This was particularly evident during the high and late Middle Ages, when shields increasingly bore intricate designs reflecting a knight’s lineage and allegiance.

In contrast, during times of frequent warfare or societal instability, the practical aspects of shield design – such as size, durability, and adaptability – likely took precedence. The Viking Age, characterized by extensive raiding and warfare, saw the dominance of simple, robust round shields ideal for both offense and defense.

Furthermore, as kingdoms and territories expanded, amalgamated, or were conquered, the styles of shields often reflected these changes. A conquered people might adopt the shield designs of their conquerors, or modifications might be made to existing designs to symbolize new allegiances or to incorporate elements of the conquerors’ technology.

Moreover, social changes such as the rise of professional armies also had an impact on shield design. With increased resources and a more structured military, the quality, consistency, and sophistication of shields improved. This is reflected in the progression from simple, multi-purpose shields in the early Middle Ages to more specialized designs in the later period.

Thus, by tracing the evolution of shields, we can gain valuable insights into the complex tapestry of socio-political changes that characterized the medieval era.

The Role and Impact of Shields in Medieval Warfare

Shields were much more than simple pieces of defensive equipment. Their influence was significant, shaping not only individual combat but also the broader strategies and outcomes of medieval warfare.

The Tactical Advantages of Shields in Battle

Shields offered several tactical advantages in battle, often making the difference between life and death for a medieval warrior.

Firstly, shields provided personal protection, defending the user from a wide range of attacks – whether a sword swing, a spear thrust, or an arrow shot. Their usage required skill and training, allowing a well-versed fighter to deflect or absorb blows, minimizing the potential damage.

Secondly, shields also offered offensive capabilities. A warrior could use the shield’s edge or boss to strike an opponent or to create an opening in the enemy’s defense. The sheer presence of a shield often forced opponents to alter their attack patterns, disrupting their rhythm and creating opportunities for counterattack.

Finally, in larger-scale conflicts, shields played a key role in formation tactics. The famous “shield wall” formation, where warriors would lock their shields together to form a virtually impenetrable wall, was a common tactic used in battles and sieges.

Shields: Shaping Strategies and Outcomes in Medieval Warfare

In the larger context of warfare, the use and development of shields shaped military strategies and could even determine battle outcomes.

The choice of shield greatly influenced a warrior’s mobility and fighting style. For instance, a knight equipped with a heavy kite shield would likely adopt a different strategy than a foot soldier armed with a smaller buckler.

Similarly, shield formations played a significant role in shaping battle strategies. The shield wall formation, for instance, was integral to the battle plans of Viking raiders. The “tortoise” or “testudo” formation, a protective ‘shell’ formed by aligning shields on all sides and overhead, was a tactical move often used during sieges.

Furthermore, the protective assurance that shields provided enabled warriors to wield two-handed weapons or use their free hand to guide their horses, significantly impacting the methods and maneuvers employed in battles.

In summary, the humble shield, with its multiple designs and uses, profoundly influenced the course of medieval warfare, testifying to its critical role beyond just defense.


The medieval shield, far from being a simple defensive tool, was a vital element of warfare, reflecting the era’s technological advancements, societal changes, and cultural values. From the round shields of the early Vikings to the heraldically adorned heater shields of the high Middle Ages, each design represented a distinct response to the challenges and demands of its time.

Their form and function evolved over the centuries, shaped by changes in weaponry, military tactics, and the broader cultural context. They were practical tools, personal statements, and strategic game-changers – embodying the complexity and diversity of medieval warfare.

Understanding the designs, uses, and evolution of medieval shields provides a fascinating insight into the dynamic and multifaceted world of the Middle Ages. It allows us to appreciate the ingenuity and resilience of the people of this period, who were continually adapting to new challenges and opportunities in their tumultuous era.

As we reflect on the history of medieval shields, we are reminded that they were more than just objects of war. They were symbols of identity, emblems of power, and testaments to the human capacity for innovation and adaptation in the face of adversity.