We all have primal instincts. Hard-wired impulses that are key to our survival. The search for food. The need for shelter. The fear of spiders (okay, that may not be hard-wired in everyone, but it is with me). And, an often overlooked instinct: The overwhelming desire to not get hit with something really heavy or really sharp. Or really heavy and sharp, for that matter.
Humans have used a variety of methods to address this impulse. They have developed leaping skills. Learned to dodge and duck. Mastered the ‘look-out-behind-you’ technique. But perhaps our most successful tool for avoiding death by sharp-and-heavy is the shield.
Examples of shields go as far back in history as we have the ability to look. But perhaps the most well-known shield from classical history is the Greek aspis (or hoplon if your lips are feeling frisky).
The aspis was round shield, made of wood and often covered in leather. Sometimes a layer of bronze was added for added nose-breaking strength. This shield was the template for most of the shields in the Greek and Roman empires for centuries. In fact, the round shield is the most common style in all of history. Something about holding a wheel in your hand just feels right, I guess.
The Romans extended the shield, making it oblong for better coverage of the body and to show the Greeks they didn’t need their damn round shields. These shields were called the parma, and tasted great on pizza. After a while, the Romans decided that an oblong was still too similar to the damn Greek shields, so they added corners and made them rectangles.
The scutum is the shield normally associated with the Roman legions, and it was *way* effective. While the Greeks had created the phalanx (a shield wall held in place by ranks of soldiers), the Romans perfected it. The legionnaires were not only good at the phalanx, they came up with trick formations, like the testudo.
What is the testudo? Well, it’s not a battle formation used to guard the male genitals. (Found that out the hard way). It’s box of shields formation. The first rank kneels, setting the bottom edge of the shield on the ground. The second rank stands, holding their shields above the first rank. The third rank holds their shields straight up in the air. And the formation is mirrored behind and to the sides. Opponents see nothing but shields no matter where they look. Take that, Greeks!
And since we’re talking about Greeks, we should probably mention the Persians, who became the arch-enemies of the Greek city-states. Soldiers in the Persian army typically used oblong wicker shields. Wicker shields? Like, wicker? Patio-furniture wicker? Yeah, it may sound kind of useless, but the Persians kicked the crap out of just about everyone (using those wicker shields) and had one of the largest empires in the history of the world, so who’s laughing now? Besides my crazy neighbor in the room next door.
Let’s move up in history to the next big Shield Event: The kite shield, made famous by the Normans. These shields were what armor scholars like to call “roundish” at the top, and tapered to a point at the bottom. They were great for horsemen because they weren’t *round.* And the human body, as we know now, is *not* round either. Except for my high school shop teacher. But I digress. The longer shields covered the torso and legs of a rider. Footmen liked them because they *weren’t round.* And they could protect much of their body in combat. They could also be hung around the neck and worn as a sort of armor wall, leaving their hands free to fight or drink beer or whatever.
The Viking shield was popular around this time, too, and a century or so earlier. These shields were round, often with a metal boss at the center and painted in the colors of the user. Vikings brought back the whole phalanx thing with their shield wall. What is a shield wall? Well, imagine a rugby scrum with weapons. Sort of. Vikings would meet their enemies on a field of battle by crashing into them, their shields slamming into their opponent’s shields. The front lines of both armies would shove at each other, while simultaneously jabbing with swords and spears at legs, over the top at heads, and basically through any crack they could find. The description of these shield walls made them sound absolutely hellish. If you were up front, you couldn’t retreat. Think a mosh pit where you’re being shoved toward a blender.
The kite shield and Viking shield eventually gave way to the heater shield, which was especially popular in the winter. Okay, I made that up. Heater shields have nothing to do with heat. Except that fighting in armor makes you really hot. Okay, that has nothing to do with heater shields either. They were named that because they look kind of like the bottom of an iron. Yeah, I don’t know. I’m not in charge of naming stuff, or I would have named it the Gruelthorpe shield. Because it sounds bad-ass. And stuff.
Anyway, the heater shield was typically flat on top, and curved to a point at the bottom. It’s the shield most people think of when they imagine a medieval knight. Me, I imagine a person-shaped shield, made of diamonds. Because why shouldn’t your shield be shaped like you? And because diamonds. These shields were popular from the 12th century to about the 14th century. Because in the 14th century, plate armor started getting silly hard to penetrate (which reminds me of a girl I knew in high school…). So, knights ditched shields and started carrying big-assed swords and axes that could be swung with all their might in the hopes of maybe scratching another knight’s breastplate.
Another shield that was popular at this time was the pavise. These were huge shields used by crossbowmen to hide behind while they reloaded, or prayed, or cowered. Pavises had spikes on the bottom edge that could be driven into the earth so they would stand on their own, or they could be held up by assistants.
Bucklers started becoming popular around he 15th century. These were small shields (10-18 inches or so in diameter usually) that could be held easily and used to block attacks, and to strike with. Although typically made of metal, buckler shields were light, easy to carry and gave rise to the Frisbee craze of the 60s. Sword-and-buckler combat became wildly popular in the 16th century, and dozens of manuals on fighting techniques were written.
After the 17th century, shield use became less and less popular. There were some shields still in use after that, most notably the Scottish targe—a small round shield used highlander’s against the British. But guns kind of took away our hard-wired impulse to block sharp-and-heavies, and replaced it with the new duck-and-cover impulse.