A kite shield is a large, almond-shaped shield rounded at the top and curving down to a point or rounded point at the bottom. The term "kite shield" is a reference to the shield's unique shape, and is derived from its supposed similarity to a flying kite, although "leaf-shaped shield" and "almond shield" have also been used in recent literature. Since the most prominent examples of this shield have appeared on the Bayeux Tapestry, the kite shield has become closely associated with Norman warfare.
The first known illustration of a kite shield appeared in the Gospels of Otto III, made between 983 and 991, indicating it was in use with Western European armies by the late tenth century. The shield was developed for mounted cavalry, and its dimensions correlate to the approximate space between a horse's neck and its rider's thigh. A narrow bottom protected the rider's left leg, and the pronounced upper curve, the rider's shoulder and torso. This was a vast improvement over more common circular shields, such as bucklers, which afforded poor protection to the horseman's left flank, especially when he was charging with a lance. Though their great length and unwieldy nature made them cumbersome and inconvenient for foot soldiers, kite shields nevertheless gained popularity, spreading throughout Western Europe during the 1000s. In the Bayeux Tapestry, most of the English are depicted on foot with kite shields, while a minority still use round shields. Aside from Normandy, they also appeared early on in parts of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. It is unclear from which of these three regions the design originated. A common theory is that the kite shield was inherited by the Normans from their Viking predecessors. However, no documentation or remains of kite shields from the Viking era have been discovered, and they were not ideally suited to the Vikings' highly mobile light infantry. Kite shields were depicted primarily on eleventh century illustrations, largely in Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire, but also in the Caucasus, the Fatimid Caliphate, and among the Kievan Rus'. For example, an eleventh century silver engraving of Saint George recovered from Bochorma, Georgia, depicts a kite shield, as do other isolated pieces of Georgian art dating to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Kite shields also appear on the Bab al-Nasr in Cairo, which was constructed around 1087. Arab historians usually described them as tariqa or januwiyya.
Kite shields were introduced in large numbers to the Middle East by the First Crusade, when Arab and Byzantine soldiers first observed the type being carried by Norman crusaders; these left such a favourable impression on Byzantium that they had entirely superseded round shields in the Komnenian army by the mid twelfth century.
Around the mid to late twelfth century, traditional kite shields were largely replaced by a variant in which the top was flat, rather than rounded. This change made it easier for a soldier to hold the shield upright without limiting his field of vision. Flat-topped kite shields were later phased out by most Western European armies in favour of much smaller, more compact heater shields. However, they were still being carried by Byzantine infantrymen well into the thirteenth century.
To compensate for their awkward nature, kite shields were equipped with enarmes, which gripped the shield tightly to the arm and facilitated keeping it in place even when a knight relaxed his arm; this was a significant departure from most earlier circular shields, which possessed only a single handle. Some examples were apparently also fitted with an additional guige strap that allowed the shield to be slung over one shoulder when not in use. Byzantine soldiers frequently carried kite shields on their backs, sometimes upside down. At the time of the First Crusade, most kite shields were still fitted with a domed metal centrepiece (shield boss), although the use of enarmes would have rendered them unnecessary. It is possible that shields may have been fitted with both enarmes and an auxiliary hand grip.
A typical kite shield was at least three feet high, being constructed of laminated wood, stretched animal hide, and iron components. Records from Byzantium in the 1200s suggests that the shield frame accounted for most of the wood and iron; its body was constructed out of hide, parchment, or hardened leather, similar to the material used on drum faces.
- Drawing from Wendelin Boeheim, Handbuch der Waffenkunde (1890), p. 172, after a miniature from the Second Bible of St Martial Abbey (early 12th century).
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