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Did Normans have battle advantage with strapped kite shields over Saxons and Vikings with their grip-centered shield style of fighting?

What often comes to my mind are battles like Hastings (1066). It seems to me that grip-centered round shields were designed especially for single-combat. So do you think the reason Normans(and later whole Europe) began using the strapped kite shields was due to the fact that single-combat wasn’t as popular in their culture anymore? Were kite shields superior to the center-grip round shield when used in mass-combat? What do you think?

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    I have read that kite shields were better for mounted combat because they gave more protection to the legs. (Plus, straps help when you're on a horse.) So it could be related to the use of cavalry. The Normans relied on it, the Vikings almost never used it. But I'm sure someone else will be along soon who actually knows this stuff in better detail. – Random Jan 2 '18 at 6:22
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    Recall that the Normans were only four generations removed from Viking in 1066. The Duchy of Normandy was granted to Rollo in 911 by Charles the Simple, the King of France at that time, founding the House of Normandy.. – Pieter Geerkens Jan 2 '18 at 10:32
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    There seems to be an assumption in this question that the outcome of Hastings was clearly down to equipment differences. Likely far more important was that Harald had just had to fight off an entire other invasion from the Norse. Defeating both of them would have been a tall order. If he'd taken on those two invasions in the opposite order, would you be today asking a question about the superiority of Norse equipment? – T.E.D. Jan 2 '18 at 18:25
  • The single-combat aspect is quite certainly untrue. Round shields were used in shield wall tactics (basically the only tactics the north men properly employed), i.e. formation battle. This is likely also why round shields were sometimes rather big, as they had to be wide enough to properly form a continuous shield wall in front of you (and your buddies) while still giving you enough room to move (a little). – fgysin reinstate Monica Jan 4 '18 at 9:47
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It's important to note that concrete information on how shields were used is scant, so a large part of any discussion on this subject is speculation and logic.

That said, kite shields had an obvious advantage in extending protection to the lower half of the body. This was especially relevant to the cavalry, and particularly so in a period when leg armour was not common, since the height of their legs make them natural targets for an enemy. Of course, the downsides of kite shields are equally obvious: they were heavy and awkward to maneuver.

That is, the benefits were less meaningful, and yet the drawbacks more serious, for leg infantry.

Round shields did not actually "fall out of use" until the Renaissance, and they also continued to be held in a central grip. It was the weight of kite shields which necessitated strapping them to the users, rather than inherent potential tactical advantages per se. Later manuals indicate that the smaller, and lighter round bucklers were extended in a fist far out from the body, so as to be ready to block any incoming blows with little movement. Strapping them to the forearm would've considerably limited this.

See this depiction from the late 13th century Boulogne-sur-Mer BM MS.131:

enter image description here

Anyway, returning to kite shields. It's probably a safe bet that it was not a coincidence that kite shields became common around the time cavalry began to dominate in Medieval Europe, and declined once leg armour became widespread. The heater shield that largely replaced them are noticeably shorter. In other words, once the benefits for leg protection diminished, kite shields were replaced by lighter and more maneuverable, shorter shields. Note that round shields remained in use throughout the same period.

For illustration, consider the knights with kite shields from the Bayeux Tapestry:

enter image description here

Compare and contrast with these from the Rochester Bestiary, circa mid-thirteenth century:

enter image description here

In the latter, we can see the legs were protected by chausses. This is conspicuously absent from most of the armoured figures depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, most of whom only wore knee-length hauberks.

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    Why are those horses hugging? – MJeffryes Jan 2 '18 at 13:49
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    @MJeffryes symbolism to signify the knights dismounted bravely but with no horse dead. – LamaDelRay Jan 2 '18 at 16:06
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    In fact, the wiki page for Hastings specifically claims the Normans were using the kite shields for their mounted lancers, and the round ones for their infantry. – T.E.D. Jan 2 '18 at 18:30
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    @NajibIdrissi If you don't know what logic is, sure. – Semaphore Jan 3 '18 at 17:55
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    @NajibIdrissi One often sees people speculate without bringing much logic into it. ;) – Luke Sawczak Jan 3 '18 at 23:57
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From personal experience using both kite and round shields, the corners on kite shield allow small forearm movements to create an effective block, and allow the wielder to take control of the opponent's weapon briefly. Although the same weight, the kite is less tiring to wield and gives more options for active versus passive defence.

  • Interesting. Do you know the dimensions of the shields you were using? – Semaphore Jan 2 '18 at 21:01
  • Sorry, it's been nearly 2 decades. I think both were 30 inches across. – pojo-guy Jan 2 '18 at 21:56
  • I'm just puzzled how they can be of the same weight if the round shield isn't wider, given that the kite shield would be substantially longer. – Semaphore Jan 2 '18 at 22:15
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    @Semaphore perhaps the kite shield they used was thinner.... – Erik Jan 2 '18 at 22:36
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    @Erik Perhaps; but there's an implicit assumption of "all else being equal" when such comparisons are made. Otherwise it's not really a fair comparison since the larger size and weight was the pro and con of kite shields. – Semaphore Jan 2 '18 at 22:56
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Kite shields were used to protect the legs for cavalry. Also vikings used round shields for not only single combat but group combat as well, the famous shield wall being a great example of this in play.

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A kite is more similar to the shape of the user. To put it another way, once a circular shield is above a certain size, a fair bit of it is protecting nothing but fresh air.

Also circles don't tessellate well - if you're trying to do a shield wall or testudo you'll have more gaps or overlaps than with, say, rectangles. Kites aren't perfect in this regard but still better.

  • Hi, welcome to History.SE; I have noticed that you've been participating as an unregistered user for some time. Several of your answers are either partially or wholly better suited as comments, which unfortunately you cannot make until you have 50 reputation. Please consider making an account so that you can accumulate reputation and unlock these powers, thank you. – Semaphore Jan 3 '18 at 18:05
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Round shields were actually more effective in tight formation style fighting. Think about the Greek Phalanx. The left side of the Hoplite's Aspis was vital in protecting the right side of the man next to him. Whereas the use of the rectangular Scutum of the Roman Legionairy was utilized with the soldier needing atleast a 3 ft area around him to give room for the Legionaire to operate and wield his gladius. The kite style shield is in many ways, a scaled down version of the Scutum and perhaps the Normans fought in a looser formation similar to the Roman Maniples, whereas the Vikings'(and numerous other "barbarian" people's) fighting tactics nearly mirrored that of the Classic Greeks and the late Romans. A looser formation is far more flexible than a tight shield wall because the loose formation can adapt quickly to changes in terrain, enemy cavalry or heavy infantry charges, and enemy missle fire. I don't know if the Normans fought in open order, but it WOULD make sense due to their equipment and cavalry superiority.

  • Sources would improve this answer. Why did the scutum require more space than a round shield? Is this a function of design or of tactics? – Mark C. Wallace Jan 3 '18 at 15:39

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