If you’re interested in the Viking era, then it makes total sense to know all there is about the tools they used at the time, both for war and daily uses. There is indeed a lot of interest in the Viking era, and it’s with good reason. There is a lot of representation of them in the media, and people want to know how accurate they are. In this article, we are exploring the Viking shield and answering various questions about it.
What is a Viking Shield
A Viking shield is different from the typical shield encountered in history for a few reasons. One of them is that they were round and wooden shields that had a grip handle at the back made from an iron boss. These shields also date back to the Iron Age. The shields found during this time were not all the same; there were variations that we shall discuss below. They also had multiple uses that we’ll explore to give you the complete picture when it comes to Viking shields.
The battlefield during the Viking Age was a formidable place. Warriors faced arrows coming from all directions, multiple attackers armed with various deadly weapons, and not all Vikings had armor. Even the best armor of that era could not withstand many direct attacks, so the shield was perhaps the most indispensable tool carried by the Vikings.
The shield served as both a defensive and offensive weapon. When adorned, it conveyed the user’s identity or purpose in battle and sometimes featured runes or symbols believed to bring victory.
In the early stages of Viking warfare, shields were essential because both sides were closely related in the most primitive battlefield. Swords, spears, or axes were paired with shields to break the enemy’s defense. Even the most ferocious berserkers used shields, and those wielding powerful Danish axes still carried shields, which became one of the most recognizable symbols of the Vikings, displayed on the sides of Viking ships.
What does a Viking shield look like
From the sagas that you find recording Viking warfare, you will find mention of shields made from linden wood. Linden, also called a Tilia tree, is native to the Northern Hemisphere in the temperate region. In the British Isles, the tree was referred to as the Lime tree, though it has no relationship with the tree that actually produces limes. Linden is what Europeans call this species, while the North American equivalent of the same is basswood. The reason that the Vikings would opt for this wood is that though it is lightweight and easy to work with, it is quite strong and stable too.
The reason linden got used was that it did not split the way oak tends to. When someone tried to cut through the shield, the fibers would bind around the blade. That would make it harder for the sword or ax to go further unless a ton of pressure got applied. During that time, it would give the Viking wielding the ax or spear enough time to retaliate with their weapon.
Even though the wood was strong, it was customary for Vikings to reinforce their shields further. They would use leather, but also from time to time iron around the rim of the shield. It is though the leather used weighed seven to ten kilograms, making the shield heavier. It was also said that the Vikings would apply oil on the shield to make it waterproof. The sizes of each shield found during this era tended to differ. The diameters were anywhere between 40 and 120 centimeters, but the most common was between 75cm and 90cm. The sizes were tailored to suit the men that wielded them.
When it came to how these shields look, most of the drawings show that they were painted a singular color though there were some patterns on it. Most of what got painted on the shields were something simple, such as a cross, divided into segments or derivations of sun wheels. However, there are a few shields that have survived from this type. Those found tend to have more complicated designs and also adorned with ornate gold or silver work around the boss and even the strap anchors.
How were Viking shields used
Viking shields are no different from any other shield used; the shields were mostly for defense. It was something soldiers would wield when they were going to war and used to protect themselves against incoming blows from the enemy. Equally, shields got used a lot for the formation of the shield wall. It was a line of interlocked shields that Vikings made, and from between the spaces, they would thrust spears at the enemies. It was a war tactic that ensured minimal casualties on the Viking side and allowed them to inflict more damage on the enemy.
The same shields got used in creating a wedge configuration that would be a strong type of wall that they would be used to break through the enemy’s front line of their enemies. Given that the shield is both strong and light, they were also used to hit the enemy to disarm them or create enough time to strike back with the ax or spear they had in hand. The point was that it wasn’t just for defense but also an integral part of the fighting.
The other application of shields found during the Viking era is on ships. There were shields that hang on the railing, fasted to remain there. These shields are referred to as shied lists. Their purpose was to protect the crew from the winds and the waves in the sea. Even with these shields, there was some decoration very much as those of the war shields.
The difference is that the decoration on those used on the ship tended to have gotten decorated with mythological scenes. That is perhaps the quickest way to tell what shield got used for what, simply looking at how it has been adorned. There were also decorated shields found that date back to the Viking era that is believed to show a person’s purpose or part of what they used to show their title or ranking during ceremonies. These weren’t used during the war, but rather, for ceremonial purposes.
Another interesting use for Viking shields was that it made for a makeshift stretcher that would carry the wounded from the battlefield. Equally, there is evidence that showed that while most soldiers lacked helmets or armor, one thing they did not fail to have was the shield, as it’s what that gave them maximum protection. Even with that, you would have found that a lot of Vikings had wounds on their feet and even heads.
Features and Construction of Viking Shields
Viking shields were circular, primarily made of wood, with a central bowl-shaped handle made of iron to protect the warrior’s hand while allowing a firm grip behind the shield. Compared to shields used by ancient Greeks or medieval knights, Viking shields had some disadvantages in stability and as weapons but had advantages in maneuverability and tactical choices.
The size of Viking shields ranged from about 24 to 38 inches in diameter, allowing each warrior to find a suitable balance between coverage and weight. Small shields were suitable for individual combat (similar to Renaissance-era bucklers), but they were not ideal for the battlefield. Heavy shields hindered rapid movement.
Viking shield characteristics and construction materials vary in archaeological findings and literary records. Legendary shields were often said to be made from the wood of the Yggdrasil tree, lightweight yet sturdy. However, many shields found were made from various types of wood, including common pine.
Later amendments to laws and a 10th-century Frankish poem specified that shields should be made by stacking thin wooden planks together. Interestingly, modern plywood, widely used today, may have originated from advances in shield-making technology during the Middle Ages.
So, typical Viking shields were constructed by connecting one to several supporting wooden planks. The wooden shield was often covered with a layer of leather or linen cloth, which, when solidified, tightened and strengthened the shield. The edges of Viking shields were also lined, typically with leather, to reduce the likelihood of splintering. Although it is widely believed that the edges of shields were reinforced with iron rims, there is little archaeological evidence to support this, and iron edges would increase the weight and cost of the shield.
Why Viking Shields Are Not Semi-Circular
Viking circular shields inherited the shield design of early Germanic tribes. The design essentially consisted of several lighter wooden boards forming a circle, with a central circular hole left for the warrior’s hand, protected by an iron boss. The boards were held together by a long wooden bar used as a handle. Sometimes, the edges were reinforced with animal hide or iron.
The Vikings, known for their raids on longships, often had to disembark and engage in combat. They were essentially light infantry, and their equipment needed to be suitable for infantry combat and not overly cumbersome (as they often had to carry their longships from one river to another). Thus, their circular shields reflected this need. These shields could protect the upper body and neck of the bearer while sacrificing lower-body protection for maneuverability. When needed, Vikings could form shield walls by interlocking their shields, acting as heavy infantry. The circular shape and width of the shields allowed them to overlap like fish scales, preventing enemies from breaking through.
Before mentioning “semi-circular” shields, it’s important to discuss kite shields. Kite shields were designed for cavalry combat and were elongated, with the lower part extending downward to protect the rider’s (non-weapon-bearing) side and legs. However, this also made them less suitable for infantry combat, though not unusable. Transitioning to the descendants of the Vikings, the Normans of the William the Conqueror era had been settled in Normandy, France, for many years. Like other Europeans, they primarily engaged in cavalry warfare, making kite shields more suitable for their style of combat. The “semi-circular” shield, or “heater shield,” evolved from kite shields. As protective helmets and upper-body armor became more prevalent in the mid to late medieval period, the need for lower-body protection decreased. Large-sized shields also became burdensome. In essence, the heater shield is a later development, derived from the shape of kite shields. The Vikings likely did not conceive of a distinctive shield shape; they probably followed the most direct early design, a circular shield.
We hope that this article about Viking shields has indeed given you a fuller picture not just for what they used to defend themselves during the war, but also the other ways shields proved to be both unique and useful.
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