Medieval Shields: More Than Meets The Eye

During the Middle Ages, shields were a hot commodity to one’s armament.  Both mounted knights and foot soldiers alike sported these defensive pieces.  Not only shields offer protection against opponents’ blows, they also boasted an attractive appearance with ornate images and designs in vibrant colors.  Their artistic flair was a major characteristic that put medieval shields in a class of their own.  However, they didn’t have cool designs just for the sake of being artsy.  The symbols (also known as heraldry) and colors on these pieces actually served the vital purpose of identification for knights in battle.

Seeing as how knights were heavily armored with helmets that covered their entire face, they were virtually unrecognizable to family, friends, and adversaries.  If it wasn’t for the heraldry of the medieval shields they carried, one knight would like exactly like another.  Therefore, each shield design was not random, but featured symbols and colors that were specific to an individual knight, identifying their character, accomplishments, family order, and lord or king.  More often than not, these things were encompassed in a coat of arms decoratively displayed on the shield’s surface.

Among the revealing aspects of medieval shields was color.  Through the centuries, additional meanings were attached to each color, but the base quality still remained the same.  White represented purity and peace while black stood for wisdom, prudence, and mystery.  Cruising down the rainbow, red was the color of passion, confidence, and strength.  Orange signified ambition and happiness.  Yellow was representative of optimism and creativity.  Green meant growth, abundance, and independence.  Blue indicated loyalty, trust, and inner calmness.  And purple was associated with royalty and depth.  Other colors, such as silver or gold, were occasionally spotted on shields, but the main palette was derived from the colors mentioned.

SCA Medieval Battle Shields

In addition to colors, symbols were another component of identification on medieval shields.  There was a wide array of possibilities to choose from, including shapes, plants, animals, structures, and other objects.  Each symbol was chosen with care and had a specific meaning.  Among the most common emblems used was a sun representing glory, a heart indicative of honesty and charity, a cross standing for faith and protection, a crown signifying authority, a dagger standing for power and honor, and a helmet for wise defense.  Popular animal symbols on shields included an eagle for a person of action and lofty affairs, a horse for strength and loyalty, a lion for courage and justice, a dragon for discovery and protection, and a bear as a symbol of the great warrior.  As was the case with colors, these heraldic symbols were given multiple meanings and some of them changed over time.  These, however, are still associations that have stuck.

Along with colors and symbols, line patterns were also given special meanings on medieval shields.  For example, wavy lines signified water while zig zag lines indicated fire.  Additionally, thicker lines, or stripes, played a role in dividing a shield into different sections and even this component was not void of meaning.  A few of these worth mentioning are a horizontal stripe representing honor and a vertical stripe representing military strength.  An angled stripe was a symbol of protection and loyal service while a diagonal stripe was a symbol of defense.  Each line and stripe was selected to compliment the rest of the shield’s design.

As you can see, medieval shields were not just mass produced carbon copies of one another, but individual works of art.  Each shield was unique and truly embodied a person’s character, history, and legacy.  A thorough examination of one of these shields will prove there is indeed more than meets the eye!

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