Up until the turn of the millenium shields were either painted in a single colour or had simple geometric designs such as quadrants. There was no need to decorate them extensively as they were disposable items which would be unlikely to last a battle, rather than valued items which the owner customised. The design shown in the shield below is one of the most elaborate patterns we have evidence for (from an early eleventh century manuscript).
From roughly 1040 onwards, teardrop shaped shields (kite shields – shown above, between two round shields) start to appear, which offer greater body protection than the earlier round shields and can more easily be used from horseback. Our first records of kite shields come from some Northern French bibles, showing kite shields painted in a single colour or with two colour crosses. In the Bayeux tapestry most shields continue to be painted in this way, but some of the high status Normans are depicted with simple zoomorphic designs such as birds and dragons.
During the twelfth century kite shields become flat-topped as a result of changes in fighting style and fashion, and during the thirteenth century they also become smaller, because the increasing use of plate armour means you don’t need as big a shield. By the end of the thirteenth century shields have become what we today call a “heater” shield.
The early zoomorphic designs had also become a key part of the heraldric system and shields were decorated as a way for rich individuals to ostentatiously display wealth, and to show the allegiances of their retainers.
One of the only surviving examples of a shield from this period is the Seedorf shield (1180-1225), shown below. This particular shield has clearly been cut down from its original size, possibly so it is in the most fashionable shape. It is decorated with a silver-gilded raised lion design.
One of my recent commissions has been to make a planked shield based on this design for novelist Elizabeth Chadwick. The shield itself is constructed as discussed in my post on the construction of planked shields.
The relief design is formed using one hundred and forty individual leather strips to create raised areas:
The completed design before covering and painting:
Once the design was complete, I covered the entire shield in leather and painted it blue. In the medieval period, blue was most commonly obtained using lapis lazuli, but due to its high cost only the very rich could afford to use it in large quantities. As lapis is just as expensive today, this particular shield has been painted with a modern equivalent.
The relief design was then gilded in gold leaf (the original is gilded in silver):
In the Roman period shoes had separate soles which were hobnailed to the upper, and from the late sixteenth century shoes were welted, i.e. the sole was attached to the upper using a leather strip. In the intervening period, shoes are “turned”, which means that the upper and sole are sewn together while the shoe is inside out, and the shoes is then turned the right way so that no stitching is visible on the outside of the shoe, protecting the stitching from wear. The shoe pictured below shoes a shoe turned out so a new sole can be attached.
In Britain, we have a large number of finds dating from 850 onwards. Shoe styles from 850 to the Norman Conquest seem to change very little. Pre-Conquest, there are two basic types: Scandanavian period shoes tend to have a V-section heel extension on the back of the sole stitched into the back of the shoe, but between 900 and 1000AD this changes to a round, “modern” shaped sole with a heel stiffener, possibly simply because these are easier to produce than the earlier style.
At roughly the same time, toggles seem to fall out of fashion as a means of fastening shoes, and drawstrings become more common. Throughout this period, shoes mostly come up to the ankle bone or lower.
The toggle itself
As with many aspects of life and clothing, post-Conquest shoe styles appear to change frequently, presumably according to court fashion. Over the course of the following five hundred years shoes will vary significantly in height, length, fastening style, and practicality.
Below is an example of a post-Conquest boot. As you can see, unlike earlier styles this would come to above the ankle.
Although it seems likely that in towns shoes were frequently bought from shoemakers, some would have been produced in the home, and many would have been repaired at home. Many finds show signs of repair, and in fact many finds are of the sole alone, because uppers tended to last longer and therefore several soles might be wear out and be discarded for each upper. Large numbers of soles were repaired with a “clump sole”, i.e. by simply patching the hole. Other repairs include patches sewn into uppers, and toggles moved and slits added to improve the fit. Even once a shoe had reached the point of no return and could not be mended further, the leather itself would be reused for e.g. small knife scabbards and an archer’s brace. Other shoes show signs of adaptation for foot problems, primarily by slitting the upper or cutting sections out of it to relieve pressure on sore areas.
Modern re-enactment shields are typically cut from sheets of exterior grade ply as it is strong, durable, and widely available. Throughout the medieval period and beyond sheets of wood had to be constructed from planks of wood glued together, as the width of wood available was dictated by the size of the tree.
Unlike a modern re-enactment shield, early medieval shields were disposable, and designed to catch weapons rather than to withstand repeated blows across multiple battles. As a result of this, a professional warrior would have taken several shields to battle.
With this project, my aim was to produce a shield I could use for re-enactment combat using traditional techniques and materials. Historical shields were typically made from solid planks between 5mm and 10mm thick, but in order to withstand extended use, I needed to produce a more strongly constructed shield from ply-ed wood. Although there are no early medieval finds of ply-ed shields, a Northern French manuscript from the period describes shields constructed of ply-ed wood, and it was this technique which I used.
The shield shown above is 30 inches in diameter, which is at the top end of sizes from the archaeological record. It is based on a 2008 Danish find of an incomplete shield. The shield is covered with 2mm thick leather, again as per archaeological finds and written records.
The shield is constructed from three cross-laminated layers of seven poplar planks. I used poplar because it is the most common wood used in current finds. The planks are glued together using a casein-based glue (cheese glue).
Unlike the majority of re-enactment shields, the grip and boss are attached using clench nails rather than rivets and the grip is attached separately to the boss. This technique is based on archaeological finds.
Welcome to my new website!
I have been involved in models, re-enactment, and the production of period replicas from Roman to Victorian times for over twenty years. You can order a bespoke version of anything displayed on this site; if it’s not displayed, then get in touch anyway and I’ll make it!