One could think that a medieval shield was a rather simple piece of armor that only consisted of a few wooden boards that were nailed together. But that was actually not the case.
Instead, a medieval shield was a highly sophisticated piece of protection that was built in a process that took several steps.
A medieval shield was a sophisticated and highly effective piece of armor that was made out of ½-inch thick, glued-together, wooden boards. A layer of glue and coarse hemp cloth functioned like modern fiberglass and made the shield both robust and flexible while a metal shield boss protected the hand of the shieldbearer. Rawhide reinforced the rim of the shield against chops and brought the individual parts even closer together.
Let`s find out more.
The effectiveness and price of medieval shields
Medieval shields were highly effective. The fact alone that they were used throughout the entire Middle Ages proves that. But apart from that shields also had two big advantages over other pieces of body armor like for example a shirt of chainmail.
Advantage number one was that a shield protected its bearer before the enemy’s weapon touched his body. And that was actually quite important since even though medieval armor was highly effective it did not make a man invulnerable. For example. Chainmail offered good protection against cuts. But blows that were delivered with enough force could still break the bones under the chainmail even without cutting through.
Because of that, it was better to deflect the enemy’s weapon with a shield instead of hoping that the body armor (like the chainmail) would stop the attack.
The second reason was the price of medieval shields compared to other parts of medieval armor. Shields were probably the cheapest piece of armor that was available during the Middle Ages. You can find more information on the price of medieval shields compared to other types of medieval armor in my article here.
So shields had a lot of advantages. Because of that shields would remain extremely common among foot soldiers even when knights started to use shields less and less. For more information on why (and when) knights stopped using shields and whether or not they actually completely stopped using shields you might want to check out my article here.
But let`s now look at the sophisticated process that was necessary to build a shield in the Middle Ages.
How were shields built in the Middle Ages?
So now we have found out that medieval shields were highly effective in protecting their bearer. And that effectiveness didn`t happen by chance but as a result of a sophisticated building process.
It took a total of five steps to building a medieval shield.
Step one: Gluing together the wooden boards
The first step on the journey to a finished medieval shield was finding suitable wood. Just like with other medieval armor the quality depended on the amount of money that the buyer could spend. Here you can find out more about the price of medieval armor and weapons.
The best medieval shields were made out of limewood but cheaper alternatives like fir, alder, or poplar could also be used. The majority of medieval shields were not made from the better but more expensive limewood but rather from the cheaper alternatives.
That had to do with the composition of medieval armies.
Since the bulk of a medieval army was made up of levied men who had to bring their own armor most could not afford the more expensive shields made from limewood. Do you want to find out more about the requirements for getting levied and what equipment a levies man had to bring depending on his wealth? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
The wooden boards were sanded down to around ½ inch thickness and glued together with a mixture made out of glue that was made from milk and quicklime. That glue allowed the individual boards some flexibility while reliably connecting them.
And that flexibility was important!
If the glue would not have allowed the boards certain flexibility but had become brittle then that would have caused the finished shields to break much easier when hit. But since the glue allowed the boards to bend a little without causing the shield to break apart the shield could absorb a lot more force without getting destroyed.
So that was the first step.
We now have several boards with a thickness of ½ of an inch that are glued together but are still somewhat flexible. Additionally, a hole had been cut into the middle of the shield where the handle would later be put so that the future bearer could handle the shield.
So let`s jump to step two!
Step two: Adding a protective layer of glue and cloth to the surface of the shield
At the beginning of step two, we have a shield that already had its outlines, a hole in the middle where the handle would be, and that was made out of glued-together wooden boards.
During the second step a coarse cloth, usually made from hemp, would be put over the glued-together boards and the already mentioned glue made from milk and quicklime would be distributed over the surface of the shield. The connection of the coarse hemp cloth with the glue created a similar effect to modern fiberglass and held the individual boards of the shield together while simultaneously allowing some flexibility.
Once again, it was absolutely crucial that the finished shield had some flexibility to it and was not too brittle. Otherwise, the shield would have cracked when protecting its bearer against heavy hits!
Step three: Adding a layer of linen to the surface of the shield
During the third step, a linen cloth would be added to the surface of the shield. That linen cloth did mostly have one purpose.
Adding a layer of linen cloth to the surface of the shield made it easier to paint symbols or emblems on the shield. That was important to keep apart friends and foes during a battle.
Here you can find out more about how medieval battles worked.
So after this step, the surface of the shield was finished. But there were still some missing parts. The hole that had been cut into the shield in step number one for example was still open.
Step four: Adding a metal shield boss
To be able to properly use the shield a wooden handle in the shape of a bridge was put over the hole that had been cut into the shield. But while that handle was added to the inside of the shield, the outside of the shield that faced the enemy still had a hole in it!
And that hole had to be closed so that the first of the soldier that grabbed the handle of the shield was well protected.
To protect the hand that held the shield handle a metal shield boss was put on the outside of the shield. That shield boss covered the hole that had been cut into the shield for the hand holding the shield.
These shield bosses were made by putting a flat shed of metal, usually iron, over a wooden bowl and then hammering the shed of metal into the bowl so that it took its shape.
So now we have an almost finished medieval shield that consists of glued-together boards which are reinforced with a fiberglass-like layer of glue and a coarse hemp cloth. Additionally, there is also a metal shield boss protecting the hand that held the shield.
There was only one weakness left that had to be reinforced. And that was the rim of the shield.
Step five: Reinforcing the rim of the shield with rawhide
So there is one last weakness left to reinforce. And that is the edge of the shield where the glued-together wooden boards are still laying open.
If the shield would have been sold now then these open boards would be a risk since every chop with a sword or, even worse, an ax against the rim of the shield could have caused the glued-together boards to split up.
And that would have extremely weakened the shield! A solution had to be found. And that solution was to add rawhide over the brim of the shield to make the brim more robust and less vulnerable to chops that could split the shield.
Rawhide was both cheap and easy to use since soaked rawhides were quite flexible.
The soaked raw hides were pulled over the rim of the shield and nailed to the shield`s surface. As soon as the rawhide dried it shrank and brought the individual pieces of the shield even closer together while simultaneously reinforcing the rim against chops from swords or axes that could have otherwise split the shields.
And there we have it, the process of making a medieval shield. Now obviously such a long and laborious production process had its price. But that price was still affordable when compared to other types of armor. You can find out more about the price of different types of medieval armor in my article here.
A medieval shield was a sophisticated and highly effective piece of armor that was made out of ½-inch thick wooden boards that were glued together. A layer made out of glue and coarse hemp cloth functioned like modern fiberglass and made the shield both robust and flexible while a metal shield bass protected the hand of the shieldbearer. Rawhide reinforced the rim of the shield against chops and brought the individual parts even closer together.
As a result of its effectiveness, the shield remained a crucial part of the equipment of medieval footsoldiers and even after knights had mostly stopped using shields in favor of two-handed weapons they would still rely on them during sieges or while jousting.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
David S. Bachrach: Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012).
Malte Prietzel: Krieg im Mittelalter (Darmstadt 2006).
Thomas Laible: Das Schwert. Mythos und Wirklichkeit (Bad Aibling 2008).