Kite shield

Norman-style kite shield shown in the enamel tomb effigy of Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou(d.1151) at Le Mans
Kite shields used by both sides in a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry

A kite shield was a distinct type of shield from the 10th–12th centuries. It was either a reverse teardrop shape or later on, flat-topped. The tapering point extended down to either a distinct or rounded point. The term is a neologism, created by Victorian antiquarians due to the shape's resemblance to an early European kite.

Typical early European kite shape. (1828)

Believed to be an evolution of the simple round shield purely to guard one whole flank of a rider when in combat, the shield gained popularity amongst professional soldiers as it allowed them to guard their foreleg when in a mêlée. It was either flat in section, or featured a gradual curve, to better fit the contour of the human torso, much in the style of a scutum. The shield is most closely associated with the Normans, who were one of the first cultures to use it widely, and can be seen throughout the Bayeux Tapestry.

The kite shield was an evolution in the development of shields, representing a change in the popular circular shape which had been dominant in Europe since at least 500 AD. The shield was still in widespread use throughout the 12th century, and is illustrated in art such as on the small Carlton-in-Lindrick knight figurine, but began to be phased out at the end of that century, and had largely disappeared by the 14th century as limb armour became more efficient, and therefore less leg cover was required of shields. Modifications to the kite shield occurred gradually, the top first being truncated, then the tail shortened and the resultant smaller shield that developed is referred to as a heater shield.

The kite shield predominantly features enarmes, leather straps used to grip the shield tight to the arm. Unlike a boss, or centralised grip, this allows a greater degree of weight distribution along the arm, rather than the weight pulling on the wrist. It also allowed the horse's reins to be gripped with the liberated left hand. Kite shields were strapped in a variety of different patterns, such as a simple left-right grip (where the left side strap is looser than the right, thus allowing an arm to be slid in and then grip the right strap), top-bottom (the same configuration but with the loose strap below the tight strap) and various cross-bracing (where two straps meet in an x shape). All these types of grips have appeared on various illuminated manuscripts, and it appears to have been a matter of preference which was used.

The shield sometimes featured a domed metal centrepiece (shield boss), but it has been generally accepted that this was decorative rather than providing protection for the hand as on a round shield. It is also taken that a large number of kite shields featured no boss, and this was also a matter of preference. However, the addition of a boss may have made the deflection of incoming blows easier. The shield was usually made from stout but light wood, such as lime, and faced in either leather or toughened fabric, such as canvas. Most shields featured some form of reinforced rim, generally toughened leather, although some historians believe the rims on certain shields would have been constructed from metal.

It could also be slung across the back with a guige strap when not in use. It was superseded by the small triangular heater shield by about 1250.

See Also

Medieval Armour