By Nathanaël Dos Reis / Translation : David Tétard (Dawn of Chivalry)
Three years ago when we decided to build our own military equipment, the problem of the shield design therefore arose. What shape did it take at the end of
the 12th century? What material were they made of? What material also to cover the face of the shield? Should the shield be painted? We thus started to do some research and to study the
historical sources available. The question of the positioning of the straps was not then at the forefront of our considerations. As a consequence, based on information from forums and our own
pre-conceived ideas primarily coming from popular culture, we built our straps like many others do in the reenactment circles, that is to say a strap for the forearm (i.e. a strap that holds the
bearer's forearm) and a starp for the hand. We also added a guige, a strap that runs around the neck and that is represented on numerous illustrations of combatnats for our period (late 12th
century to early 13th century).
Surprisingly, the absence of forearm strap does not diminish the stability of the shield being held. It is in fact perfectly held by the guige
alone. The hand strap is used to change the orientation of the shield rather than to hold it up. The weight of the shield is therefore carried by the
shoulder of the soldier (thanks to the guige) rather than by its arm. The guige must be tailored to the soldier so that in its loose position, the top edge of the shield reaches the same
height as the shoulder, maybe slightly lower. As the guige is the only strap that holds the shield, the leather used for its manufacture must be robust. If that strap happened to break during
combat, the soldier would find himself in a difficult situation, struggling to use the shield in an effective manner.
On an illustration in the manuscript Psalmenkommentar mit Bilderzyklus zum Leben Davids can be seen a group of soldiers fleeing,
their shield being carried in their back. This shield protects them against potential blows for their pursuers. It can be noted that one soldier is holding the guige
with his free hand, possibly to hold the shield against his body or to move it up towards his neck.
Not being horsemen ourselves, we can only propose our interpretation of historical sources in order to open a new field of study and experimentation to interested
Numerous illustrations indicate that this straping arrangement was also used by soldiers on horseback. There however appear to be one
difference: the hand strap is much larger. Clearly, this allows the horseman to squeeze the hand through and hold the reigns. In a combat situation, the horseman can slide his arm back in order
to hold both the reigns and the shield strap with the same hand. This may help the rider to move the shield closer to the body and protect himself.
It appears that the same straping arrangement is found for soldiers on foot and on horseback (the difference being the size of the strap as previously
mentioned). The horseman should therefore be able to use his shield even when dismounted.
We asked Baptiste Bauer to test our hypotheses during the 2016 edition of Tournoi XIII. According to him, the experiment was conclusive. The shield
stayed stable when moving the arm through the strap. Also, he noticed it was relatively easy to remove the forearm from the strap to hold it with the
hand if necessary.
We do not claim that the straping arrangement that is presented here is the only one that was available or even that it is valid. This arrangement that we have been
testing and experimenting with for two years is only one among others. It can still be found in historical sources until the end of the 13th century, but becomes more
Reading historical sources, there exist other methods to anchor the guige and the hand strap. The guige can be anchored symmetrically on the top edge of the shield,
the hand strap can be located lower down or more centrally.
There exist illustrations of shields with straps for the forearm but in that case a guige is not present. Finally, some illustrations let us see the hand strap but
not the anchoring point of the guige nor the possible presence of forearm straps.
Even if the system comprising guige and hand strap only is the one that appears to us to be the most representative in the 12th and 13th century, there does not
exists ONE single system. So many more investigations to undertake! We present below other sources that we discovered during our research.