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I am told by my friend, who has some HEMA background, that real fully armored late-medieval to Renaissance knights generally did not carry or use shields. This was because of two reasons.

Firstly, there was little to nothing that the shield protected them from, that their plate armor could not protect them against. Look below for the exception to the shield not being good for anything, are blunt weapons like picks and hammers (to my knowledge).

Secondly, in the event that a fully armored knight were to encounter another fully armored knight, a 2 handed weapon would be far superior to a shield and one handed weapon.

He told me that really, the only thing a shield would be good for, for a fully armored knight, would be to ward off blows from war hammers and the like.

So, to clarify the question, how do I introduce a reason for fully armored people to carry shields with them?

Notes:

  • Late Medieval to somewhat Industrial age tech levels, but with fairly ineffectual guns
  • Magic weapons and armor would be somewhat common among those who can already afford full plate armor, but generally any magic weapon will be nullified by another magic armor of the same quality, so real life physics and good design trumps magic, in this scenario.
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    $\begingroup$ You said it yourself - protection from war hammers. Give the opponent a lot of hammer users, and shields would then be worth using. $\endgroup$ – Pyritie Feb 16 '15 at 12:41
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    $\begingroup$ Blocking from arrow volleys. Blocking heavy rocks thrown from siege walls. There are many important use cases for shields even if they get thrown away when the melee starts. $\endgroup$ – Peteris Feb 16 '15 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ Why are you trying to do this? $\endgroup$ – Preston Feb 16 '15 at 22:40
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    $\begingroup$ Many war hammers were basically long picks used to pierce a mounted knight's armor. So protection from hammers would be a darn good reason for a knight to carry a shield. It sounds like you really don't have to do any further explanation wrt knights and shields. $\endgroup$ – GrandmasterB Feb 16 '15 at 22:48
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    $\begingroup$ You could try to kill them if they don't carry the shields. I hear crossbows are quite persuasive that way. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Feb 17 '15 at 1:57

13 Answers 13

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There are a few reasons to consider shields.

  • Crossbows
  • Crossbows
  • Crossbows
  • Crossbows
  • Did I mention crossbows?

Shields are great for covering distance while under fire, that would be their primary use in the period you describe. They are also exceptionally useful in formation, you know, a phalanx or tetsudo.

With mid to late medieval tech these types of formations would have limited usage. But I can see a walled city's gate going down and the attackers facing a line of armed, shielded knights.

As mentioned before blunt weapons do serious damage to an egg...er knight. Either way they end up scrambled. As you mentioned landing a two handed blow is still the way to go.

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    $\begingroup$ And this exactly was why the pope forbade the use crossbows. Wait what, they are still mostly forbidden because they make mockery out of bullet proof wests. In fact the police get a bit nervous when you bring the subject up. $\endgroup$ – joojaa Feb 16 '15 at 20:11
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    $\begingroup$ And even longbows. But especially crossbows. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Feb 16 '15 at 23:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Twelfth well, more or less the same point. Also, sorry about the mereness of the peasants. $\endgroup$ – grimmsdottir Feb 17 '15 at 1:31
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    $\begingroup$ Are we repeating this urban legend again? Besides, everyone seems to be forgetting that a knight is primarily a mounted combatant, which is the main reason why they did away with shields - they are awkward to use on a horse and don't really protect the horse (not against crossbow bolts, either). When they were retained, it was mostly as defence against lances. Having them fight on foot is not much of a solution either, as fully armoured knights make poor heavy infantry. $\endgroup$ – Mike L. Feb 17 '15 at 10:13
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    $\begingroup$ Why would anyone bother with the significant expense of full-plate armor if comparatively cheap and plentiful crossbows were that overwhelmingly effective? By the time full-plate was developed, if your armor could not protect you, a shield heavy enough to protect you would be far too heavy to use (you would end up with a pavaise which isn't useful for melee combat at all). Don't believe those "amazing demonstrations of eXtreme weapons destroying armor (plate or mail)" videos - cheap ren-fest costume armor is not armor. It was worth the expense and trouble to wear because it worked. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Feb 7 '17 at 17:39
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War in the late medieval times was very much an issue of matchups. By having all of your troops identical, you leave an opponent to heavily choose its counter.

You said: Firstly, there was little to nothing that the shield protected them from, that their plate armor could not protect them against.

And that's not necessarily true. The 'traditional counter' to armour is picks, hammers, axes, and other weapons that focus a blow to a tiny area as opposed to slashing weapons that tend to spread the damage over a larger area. Maces and Flails also work well, following the idea that you can break the bones of the people in the armour instead of piercing the armor. Of course, a knights best defense to any of these weapons is a shield to block and deflect with as the opponents weapon is designed to puncture through the armour or shatter bones of the wearer beneath.

In the example of fully armoured knight vs fully armoured knight, your friend is likely correct...a two handed weapon is far superior. However, a knight vs 3 unarmoured men carrying pick axes would be far better off with a sword and shield.

'Infighting' is a combat skill where a soldier fights through a reach weapon in order to get into close combat. This is the skill that allows a traditional sword and shield infantryman to fight his way through a wall of pikes and into short ranged combat vs the pikemen. As far as I'm aware, a shield makes this tactic much more possible.

The need for diversity in troops will be a very good reason to keep some knights in a sword and shield format. If all your knights were using two handed weapons, then your opponent would be able to have a greater number of their troops with anti-armor weaponry to defeat them. Also might note that your knight most likely has his trusted steed, which means a knight can carry two sets of weapons with the horse carrying the unused set.

The other portion is army tactics. Two handed weapons fight poorly in large groups. The proximity of your allies tends to inhibit your ability to use two handed weapons. Additionally, a unit of troops is expected and trained to fight as one...the shield allows you to help defend the person beside you as much as it helps to defend yourself. And finally...arrow fire, especially that of long bows, are designed in late era medieval combat to puncture full armoured suits...a shield is really your only defense vs advanced arrow fire.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like your answer, but unfortunately, I can only accept one answer, there are so many great answers for this question today. Besides that I did mention that the exception to the shields effectiveness were picks and hammers. That aside, your point concerning army tactics, it depends on what two handed weapons the group is using. A group of people with zweihanders may be cumbersome, but a group of people with pikes or pole axes would work just fine. $\endgroup$ – grimmsdottir Feb 17 '15 at 0:59
  • $\begingroup$ @grimmsdottir - Fair enough, though the edit including picks and hammers wasn't in when I answered. Knights generally didn't get used as pike/pole-arm troops very often, simply because they had the training to do the advanced combat such as mounted/lance use...your basic men-at-arms were generally relegated to the 'here hold this pike' role. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Feb 17 '15 at 1:33
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    $\begingroup$ The point including picks and hammers was always there, the edit was just there to point it out. Also, that makes sense for knights to not be holding simple pikes $\endgroup$ – grimmsdottir Feb 17 '15 at 1:35
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    $\begingroup$ Longbow is ineffective against plate. $\endgroup$ – Nick Dzink Nov 15 '17 at 16:31
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I think you're falling into Plug N' Play Magic syndrome. This is where you want magic, so we add magic to our world (medieval in this case) - and now it's awesome, right? But you can't ignore the implications of magic - let's look at an actual example.

The Elemental Knight.

So I have a knight. Now let's make his armor stronger (earth), but make him faster by enchanting his boots (air). And let's give him two swords because dual-wielding is cool, one enchanted with fire and one with water (chilled to ice). And now we have a super fast, super tough guy wading through the battlefield, cooking other knights in their armor and freezing peasants. And your reaction is "That's awesome!" right?

And now we run into the problem with PNP Magic, and that's that it doesn't hold up to critical thinking. I mean, think about what we have for the above: super strong materials, a source of heat, and a source of water. Which means that realistically, the wizard who enchanted all that stuff should be making a better use of his time and create an Elemental Steam Tank. And now Elemental Knight is Elemental Tank Driver, which while cool isn't really what you're going for. You might think you can avoid this because the steam engine wasn't invented yet, but consider that Romans experimented with steam power. If they had magic to help power it, it probably would have happened almost 2,000 years earlier.

The fact is that technology drives design, and your tech (magic in this case) is going to impact whether or not shields are useful. You can't just ignore it because you assume it's going to be an arms race where things cancel out.

Now, there's nothing wrong with PNP Magic if that's what you're going for, and it doesn't prevent your story from being enjoyable. But in that case you might as well throw your hands in the air and use shields just because. So let's look at ways magic could make shields viable.

The problem with shields

In our reality, the problem with shields is the weight/effectiveness ratio isn't great for knights. If you make it big and strong enough to be useful, you can't carry the thing around. Make it light enough to use, and it's too small or weak to be effective. Magic can help this in several ways - stronger materials? Now you can have a big wooden shield that will hold up to another knight's blows, and suddenly our equation has changed - maybe it does make sense to carry that shield.

Another possibility is versatility. This depends on your enchanting system, but consider that maybe items can only be enchanted so far, and there's a lot of enchantments you want to put on armor, right? Beyond making it stronger you might want to make it self-cooling, self-repairing, summonable, operates in water... there's a long list. But a shield is pretty much just a shield - you can make that thing as tough as possible given your constraints. So maybe with magic it's not the case that a knight's armor can take the same blows a shield can - maybe your shield is much more effective at stopping blows, and the armor is there to keep you alive when you mess up.

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  • $\begingroup$ Actually your Elemental Knight sounds like a mecha, which (once it carries artillery or magical ranged firepower) is a funny-shaped tank. Tanks exist because the best weapons and armour are physically heavy, and a box with tracks is a good way to make huge weights manoeuvrable. Magic or high-tech can (as you say) take away the weight and re-establish the awesome. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Feb 16 '15 at 21:57
  • $\begingroup$ Great point concerning the Elemental Knight, I guess that if there are enchantments for weapons and armor, it would be better if you carried more weapons and armor, for more enchantments, but then it becomes more expensive, but if you were rich enough to afford full plate, then that should not be too much of a problem $\endgroup$ – grimmsdottir Feb 17 '15 at 0:56
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In general, make the shield either better at protecting the user, or improve its adaptability. By adaptability, I mean make it able to do something important that armor cannot do.

I've mostly been considering the super-hero Captain America. Why is his chosen weapon a shield in a world where there is crazy technology(almost magic)?

  • For one, it is created from a super-material which seems to be able to block just about anything, making it superior to armor. Too bad there is so little of this material, or they would make everything out of it though.

  • It is extremely light-weight. This makes it much easier to wield.

  • Because the wielder is so strong and the shield is light-weight, it is more adaptable - he is able to use it as a weapon.

  • Shields are great tools for protecting others as well as yourself, which Captain America seems to use to his advantage often.

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Spiritual/cultural influence

If your society has a spiritual element then you could have shields being blessed or shield carrying as an edict by the spiritual leader/deity.

Consider this:

One morning a Head priest/priestess/shaman wakes up and declares that a vision from the God/Gods/\$Deity\$ has decreed that shields are now to be the sign of the peoples Holiness. Size of the shield determines how much blessing the wielder will receive.

Now your soldiers have external pressure to carry a shield regardless of its usefulness. They even can be used to show status or piety.

This hinges on the setting of your society and will probably be different to their enemies which have different religions. This could be taken to the extreme depending on how important you want shields to be with some rock, paper, scissor-type opponents.

Other influences

I'd think if this were the case shields would show up everywhere including but not limited to civilian fashion and icons, children's toys and ornaments.

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A few reasons I came up with:

  • Magic like fireballs would make the armor very hot when hit and a shield would protect the knight from most of the heat. But your armor in this case would probably have some form of enchantment on it which would protect the knight from the heat.
  • The shield would protect areas like the neck, the face and under arms where the armor could be vulnerable to e.g. arrows. It really depends on if they are completely covered or not. (But there is always some form of opening for the eyes in a helmet, so VERY skilled archers would at least have a chance...)
  • Like you said, the shield protects against hammers, but also against other blunt weaponry like maces.
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A shield that displays the coat of arms or national emblem may be required for heraldry or identification (friend or foe).

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  • $\begingroup$ Ceremonial shields were my first thought as well. It's hard to carry a flag on your person, so the crest on your shield becomes the easiest way to identify which country you hail from. $\endgroup$ – bta Feb 20 '15 at 3:26
  • $\begingroup$ This is why soldiers wore tabards with the coat of arms of their lord. They were literally wearing their flags. $\endgroup$ – Rick Ryker Dec 28 '16 at 23:39
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Where do you store auxiliary weapons? One can strap knives to the leg or chest, but perhaps the back of the shield would work. Poison darts, knives, throwing stars, etc. could be affixed to the back of the shield, easily accessible to the free hand. The shield could have a retractable bayonet, too. Also, a flask of combustible material for use as a flamethrower.

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  • $\begingroup$ I have always enjoyed the idea of people stashing more weapons behind their shield, or weaponising it, but I am told that adding too many things to the shield generally makes it less effective as a shield. $\endgroup$ – grimmsdottir Feb 17 '15 at 1:00
  • $\begingroup$ Gundams store weapons in their shields all the time :P $\endgroup$ – Feaurie Vladskovitz Feb 17 '15 at 1:11
  • $\begingroup$ @grimmsdottir Confirmed. When first joining the SCA I was shocked to discover that 3 minutes into combat, I could barely lift my shield arm. $\endgroup$ – IchabodE Feb 17 '15 at 18:43
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    $\begingroup$ I see! Therefore one should use superstition to persuade the OTHER side to always wear a shield to wear them out and win an easy victory... $\endgroup$ – Paul Chernoch Feb 17 '15 at 21:07
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Here's how you could possibly encourage shield-carrying. You could use the basic marketing techniques that clothing companies use today. They put their impractical cloths on popular/famous people and the rest of us idiots follow suit by purchasing things we don't need and can't afford.

For example, you could outfit your strongest knight with a shield that is actually more of a weapon than a shield. You could design it that way. A strong knight would be able to carry and wield this visually impressive/effective weapon that looks like a shield. Over time, you could gradually modify it to function more like a shield than a weapon.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site Inquisitive $\endgroup$ – James Feb 16 '15 at 19:54
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    $\begingroup$ That's a pretty cool concept, I could possibly use that. We should never underestimate the power of marketing $\endgroup$ – grimmsdottir Feb 17 '15 at 1:02
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The enemy of the horse is the pike. The enemy of the pike is the shield. A knight fighting another knight on horseback would still have his shield stowed so that he would have access to a two-handed weapon, but when charging a line of defensemen, he needs to be leaning low over the back of his horse and holding his shield to push aside the pikeman's blade that would otherwise take down his horse. A knight laying in the mud underneath 250 pounds of armor and a dead horse is a worthless and expensive piece of any army.

When not mounted, never underestimate the power of the phalanx.

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How you should do this really depends on the tone of your narrative.

To make shield carrying by religious decree or social pressure is cool but will seem tacked on if this is the only item in your narrative that mentions religious decree or social pressure. One option that I was thinking of was that it would be a logistic requirement (my armor needs a magical battery of some sort) because my style of story telling would include all sorts of practical solutions to problems under unusual (ie magical) constraints.

If your narrative doesn't include much in the way of explaining why things are the way they are, then you should simply continue in this vein and not get into the minutia of this.

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The full steel armor you see in museums was either for parades or where largely worn by powerful people as they watched their minions get slaughtered in their name from a hilltop. Men who actually did the business of killing from classical times to the late middle ages tended to wear more usable and maneuverable armor that would allow them to survive if they found themselves without their horse.

Greeks had a glue infused linen they made armor out of. Even Romans had chainmail and the the legions where equipped usually with lorica made from leather. It is hard for us to appreciate just how rare and expensive metal was in this period. The 15th century probably saw the most up armored forces that actually saw combat and references from that time are loaded with shields.--think Henry V.

So the whole notion that shields where not helpful just is not true. It may have been true in certain times and at certain battles, but it was a mainstay of arms for thousands of years. You could debate that troops equipped with two handed or duel weapons would be more effective and since it is highly situational you would be right in some cases and wrong in others. However, one thing a shield also provided was the feeling of safety which probably meant troops went into battle with less hesitation and stayed in it for longer. Morale is always what wins and loses battles and wars.

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You might carry a shield because people are chucking stuff at you that you don't want to touch you or get on your armor, which does have joints.

Examples 1: Bags of filthy diseased goop. 2: Molotov cocktail 3: Acid or lye 4: Hot soup. I mean really too hot, and not good soup either. 5: Off brand cologne

A nice big shield made of green wood would help you ward off that stuff. When it got too chewed up you could get a new one.

Also there is the shield as riot gear. Maybe you have your knights controlling mobs you don't want to kill outright (women? kids?) you could have them keep people at a distance or push them with the shield.

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