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After watching the BBC show The Last Kingdom, depicting conflicts between Saxons and Danes in the 800s AD, I was surprised by the multi-layered shield walls depicted. For example: enter image description here or even: enter image description here

I had always imagined shield walls as much looser and only one shield high, likeenter image description here

Is this just Television writers having trouble staging the pushing and grinding forces of shield wall combat, or were there actually shield wall tactics in this period where soldiers knelt to protect the legs of their compatriots, forming an almost literal wall?

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    I think that the adversary provided feedback to the tightness of the shieldwall. I think that if the gaps in the shieldwall were larger than a spearpoint, the members of the shieldwall received ... pointed...feedback. – Mark C. Wallace Jul 20 '16 at 20:09
  • The Roman "turtle" would have been well known to the Saxons. Why, and for that matter how, would and could they engage in a remarkably and visibly less effective technique than one they knew well. – Pieter Geerkens Jul 21 '16 at 2:32
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    Picture one and two show static formations, with the frontmost rank kneeling down, and subsequent ranks adding to the height of the shieldwall. Picture three shows a moving (and much more thinly spaced...) formation, where all the shields available to cover the front of the formation are those of the first rank. Where, exactly, do you see the inconsistency? -- I would like to also point out that the formations in picture one and two are severely limited in their ability to fight back. If you want to bring your weapons to bear, you have to open up your defenses. – DevSolar Jul 21 '16 at 13:31
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    The top picture is a bit confusing and it's be interesting to see what that looked like from the other side. You have a man knelt down bracing a shield, a man overtop of him in the second row of shields, and somehow a third man standing over that to get the 3rd row of shields going...and of course this is all being done with shields completely overlapping so very little side to side room. Their weapons would likely be getting in the way...how they could be fully braced in that setup is beyond me. – Twelfth Feb 15 '18 at 16:21
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according to bayeaux, pretty tight:

enter image description here

The shield wall tactics are not entitled only to roman origins, almost any culture that develops heavy shields will develop a close formation to take advantage of them.

Taking in count the influences of roman military in Brittania, and that during the late empire ( ~400) those tactics were still used and adapted to more "barbaric" combat forms like spear + shield

enter image description here

A shield wall formation could be as tight and as complex as the officers in charge would have been able to imagine and to teach, adapted always to their combat style, ofcourse.

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    Given that the Bayeux tapestry portrays the Saxons as equipped like Normans, it is clear that the seamstresses never saw any Saxons in actual combat. Hence it is an inadequate source for an answer to this question. – Pieter Geerkens Jul 21 '16 at 22:08
  • given that we don't have time machines,contemporary artist drawings / sewings / sculptures and scholar's records, both groups that, in general, almost never touched a battlefield, are our best shot, along with archaeology ( but you would never find a formation of soldiers "posing" for hte future generations, wouldn't you?) , at understanding the past. – CptEric Jul 22 '16 at 6:07
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Best explanation of a shield wall I've ever seen can be found on YouTube.

It was rows of men standing...no one in their right mind would try one of those triple-stacked "shield walls" shown on "Vikings" or "Last Kingdom," since you'd be immobilized and blinded. The Roman "testudo" was a formation specifically for siege warfare, and it was mobile because the first row of shields was NOT on the ground.

Remember that neither the Danes, nor the Saxons, nor any Germanic force (aside from the Frankish army) were full-time professional soldiers. Any formations used had to be simple enough not to require constant large-unit training, ans flexible enough to react to attacks from different directions. Armies were small (5,000 was a HUGE force), so one would almost always have open flanks. An immobile, complex, blind formation like these triple-stack shield walls would simply not work.

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The typical Viking shield would be an awkward tool to put in a wall. They were light weight and held out straight (like one might mimic with a trash can top) ideal for jabbing an opponent... and defensively could easier deflect the force of a blow... as compared to a heavier hardwood or steal shield, which were held by a handle and forearm strap, which had more limited mobility but could absorb more force without redirecting it. Much better choice for a sturdy formation like a true shield wall. That doesn't mean formations of men might not each purposefully cover the guy on their left, but an actual wall only makes sense in fiction.

  • The sources for the Battle of Stamford Bridge state that the Norse army led by Harald Hardrada formed a shield wall and held off the forces of Harold Godwinson for many hours. That's not something that any fighting force can do without practice! – sempaiscuba Feb 24 at 18:27
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The circular shields, in my opinion, also were wrong in the depiction of a testudo formation against arrows... which was a Roman formation..

My point is that if you kick into one shield, it won't matter because you kick into 3, since there are nearly 50% of two other shields pressing forward too. That makes the operator of a shield able to work the spear or axe at better and more relaxed conditions.

Since they had axes (as well as spears), the shield wall would benefit them since destroying a shield is best done with an axe.

Their own shields were made of relatively soft wood, light and fairly easily destroyed, but also things get stuck in it and would take energy to both pull out and strike back in. Their axes do huge damage and can also be demoralizing because the pain and energy from each axe blow is felt very well.

I may also add that it's most likely the two shield-men who are behind each side of the front shield that do the attack, as they are only support and can lower their shield to strike hard with their weapon.

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    This answer would be greatly improved if you cite some sources. – sempaiscuba Jun 17 '17 at 22:53

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