When we look at medieval art but also movies that are set in the Middle Ages then one thing is quite interesting. While knights during the crusades are usually depicted fighting with a shield, other (later) depictions show knights fighting with two-handed weapons and without a shield.
But why did knights stop using shields? And when did that change occur? That will be answered in the following!
After 1350, new armor designs and technologies like hardened carbon steel allowed knights to fight with two-handed weapons instead of a one-handed weapon and a shield. A two-handed weapon had advantages against the lightly armored spearmen who made up the bulk of medieval armies and also against Plate armor. But even though knights used fewer and fewer shields after 1350 they did still use them during sieges or while jousting. And both foot soldiers and crossbowmen heavily relied on shields throughout the Middle Ages.
Let`s find out more!
When did knights stop using shields?
During the Early and High Middle Ages, the shield was an essential part of every knight’s equipment but also of the regular footsoldiers equipment. The reason for that can be found in the relatively low price compared to other types of medieval body armor (more on the price of medieval armor here) but also in the effectiveness of shields as protection.
When it comes to the effectiveness of medieval shields then it is important to remember that shields were not just a few boards of wood that were nailed together! A medieval shield was a highly sophisticated piece of armor! For more information on how medieval shields were built to provide such good protection you can check out my article here.
And even though shields remained common on Late Medieval battlefields for both regular footsoldiers as well as crossbowmen or men using early firearms, knights would start to use shields less and less after 1350.
Giving up the shield and a one-handed weapon for a two-handed weapon had several advantages that will be explored under the next headline. But it is still important to note that even though knights would use fewer and fewer shields after 1350, shields never went completely out of use!
Not only did the footsoldiers and men who used ranged weapons like crossbows or early firearms who made up the majority of a medieval army still use shields (in parts really large shields behind which a crossbowman could reload without making himself a clear target).
Even after 1350 knights in full plate armor would still use shields on occasions like sieges or while jousting.
The reason for that can be found in the risk-reward ratio that giving up a shield for a two-handed weapon had. A two-handed weapon gave you greater offensive power. But when you were besieging a fortification, more on how medieval sieges worked here, you could not use your hand-held weapons to harm the defenders on top of the wall.
So in the case of a siege, it made sense to keep a shield as protection against the projectiles that the defenders, who had the perfect cover on top of their wall, were shooting at you even when you were wearing a full suit of plate armor.
You can find out more about the effectiveness of the different medieval types of armor (Gambesons, Chain mail, Plate armor) in my article here.
So now we found out that the trend of giving up shields in favor of two-handed weapons (at least among knights) started in the middle of the 14th century, somewhere around the year 1350.
But that obviously bears the question of why knights would give up shields to fight with two-handed weapons. And while I have already hinted at one of the reasons I would now like to talk about the 3 reasons in more detail.
Why did knights stop using shields?
As mentioned, also knights would use shields less and less after 1350 shields never went completely out of use but were still frequently used during sieges or while jousting. And the regular footsoldiers would still heavily rely on shields throughout the Late Middle Ages.
So let`s now look at the 3 reasons why knights would gradually give up shields in favor of two-handed weapons like longswords.
New armor technology made shields less necessary
In the late 14th century knights who could afford it (here you can find out more about the price of medieval armor) were covered from head to foot in Plate armor. And the parts of the body at which plate armor could not be used (like the armpits) were either protected by pieces of chainmail or the knight wore a complete shirt of chainmail under his Plate armor.
But while Plate armor during the 14th century was only rarely made from hardened carbon steel the use of hardened carbon steel spread throughout the 15th century. As a result, the much more effective Plate armor made from hardened carbon steel became much more common during the 15th century.
Do you wonder how steel was made during the Middle Ages? You can find out more about that here.
The spread of full plate armor that was made out of hardened carbon steel and because of that offered much better protection during the 15th century was one of the reasons why knights would gradually give up shields.
Another, closely related reason can be found in new armor designs that compensated for the lack of a shield.
New armor designs made shields less necessary
Now Plate armor did not just come up overnight, it was a process until knights would wear full plate armor that covered them from head to foot.
Until the mid-to-late 13th-century knights were using suits of chainmail as protection. Only in the late 13th century did armorsmiths start adding metal plates to the chainmail to reinforce crucial and especially vulnerable parts of the body like the elbows. It would take until the 15th century that knights wore suits of plate armor that covered the entire body.
But in the middle of the 15th century these suits of plate armor were so complete, and thanks to the spread of hardened carbon steel so robust, that almost all potential weak spots were closed and a full suit of Plate armor offered excellent protection (at least when you could afford it).
For more information on the effectiveness of Plate armor and its strengths and weaknesses compared to chainmail I would like to recommend you my article here.
But simultaneously to making suits of plate armor more and more complete, the armorsmiths also included new designs like reinforcing the plate armor of the left arm so that the knight did no longer need a shield. But when a knight was fighting with a two-handed weapon than his left arm, the arm that would usually wear the shield, was still the closest to the enemy and as such especially vulnerable.
Ok, so now we have found out that new armor technologies and new armor designs made it possible for knights to fight without a shield and use two-handed weapons. But why did they want to use two-handed weapons? What are the advantages of a two-handed weapon over fighting with a shield and a one-handed weapon?
Two-handed weapons and their advantages against lighter armored opponents
When we talk about why handling two-handed weapons had advantages over fighting with a shield and a one-handed weapon then we have to look at the enemies that a fully armored knight would face during a battle.
Contrary to popular belief the completely armored knights only made up a small minority of most medieval armies. The bulk of medieval armies was made up of lighter armored foot soldiers.
In that case, a two-handed weapon had several advantages. Not only could a knight with a two-handed weapon do more damage than a man with a one-handed weapon, but additionally he also had a longer reach.
And that longer reach was especially useful since most of his lighter armored opponents would not be fighting with a sword (swords were generally not used as much as one might think, more on that here).
Instead, most footsoldiers in a medieval battle would be armed with spears or poleaxes. So in that case the knight needed a weapon that could be used to deflect blows but that also had enough reach to attack the spearman. Or in other words, when a knight was not dependent on his shield for protection then a Longsword had advantages over a one-handed arming sword like it was used during the Early and High Middle Ages.
So there we have it, the reasons why knights would use fewer and fewer shields and when that trend started. I hope you found our trip into the Middle Ages just as interesting as I did.
For more information about medieval warfare I would like to recommend you my article here where I go into detail about how medieval battles worked. And here you can find out more about what happened after a medieval battle.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Thomas Laible: Das Schwert. Mythos und Wirklichkeit (Bad Aibling 2008).
Malte Prietzel: Krieg im Mittelalter (Darmstadt 2006).