Breaking the shield wall – how to paint Norman 11th century shields.

So, let’s say you’ve put your first Norman warband together and the room still smells of primer. After numerous basecoats and highlights on tunics, nasal helmets and maile, you will eventually end up with the task of painting the largest surface on these early medieval knights – their shields. But where do you start, and what colors should you use? How do we replicate historical motives, and what can we really know about 11th century shield design? In this article I will give you some basic know-how on Norman kite shields and show you how I painted the shields of my Hearthguards for the SAGA miniature game.

The kite shield – grade A protection for the early medieval cavalier.

Unlike its circular “viking” counterpart, the kite shield differ not only in size and shape, but also in its very way of use. The teardrop design allowed a rider to be protected from blows all the way from his upper torso and down along the leg on his shielded side. Thanks to its broad upper part (on both flat and curved variants) the shield could still be used to form a shield wall when fighting on foot. As knowledge of metalcrafting increased and medieval leg armour developed, the kite shield would later on transform into the more iconic, and smaller, heater-shaped shield of the medieval knight. Some theories, mainly based on experimental archaology and various re-enactment groups, also suggest that the kite shield could easily be slung over the back of knights performing hit-and-run manouvers into enemy lines, thus protecting the rider and some parts of the horse’s flank and back, when being showered with projectiles on their way back from the battleline. Since detailed historical accounts are scarce it’s hard to say whether or not such a use existed though.

The earliest remains of a medieval kite shield can be found in Switzerland, dated to the end of the 12th century, and is thought to have belonged to the knight Arnold von Brienz. The 87cm long curved shield is made out of 15mm thick wooden planks and is covered in rawhide on both sides to improve its durability. Since we have no remaining Norman shields to this date, we have to turn to depictions in manuscripts and contemporary medieval art in order to study earlier kite shields. Enter the Bayeux tapestry.

hastings2 tapestry
Note the kite shields being used as tables by knights in the field, suggesting flat shields were also in use. The Bayeux Tapestry, ca 1070.

The Bayeux tapestry (which can be found here in all its glory) is a 70m long embroidered piece of art and propaganda, that tells the story of how duke William of Normandy challenged earl Harlod of the Saxons for the throne of England. The story is told using both pictures and latin text throughout, and culminates with the battle of Hastings in the year 1066 AD. Even if we take the tapestry’s depiction of the historical events, such as duke Williams “heroic role in the battle, with a huge pinch of salt, it offers a first hand look into what kind of equipment was worn by both Normans and Saxons. Shields are shown from both sides, and given the fact that several different shield strap layouts have been depicted, the artist surely tried to reproduce what he or she saw around him/herself as good as possible. Shield decorations vary and although most Norman shields seem to have been plain, showing only the metal boss or a couple of rivets (probably for the straps), some are decorated with mythical animals, crosses or other types of colored patterns. Here’s a short summary of shield design from Norman knights depicted in the Bayeux tapestry: 16 are plain, 7 show mythical beasts such as dragons (1 shows a bird), 12 have a curved crosses which are also depicted on some of the Anglo-Saxon shields, 2 have “normal” crosses and 1 have different coloured triangles running down the side of the rim.

hastings tapestry
The final charge of the Norman cavalry at Hastings, as depicted through the memory of the victors, gives us a clear view of shield design and decoration. The Bayeux tapestry, ca. 1070.
As the Saxon line is broken, the remaining warriors are cut down in the field. Note the plundering scene and naked bodies underneath which shows the aftermath of the battle. The Bayex Tapestry, ca. 1070.


The luxury of multiple sources.

Even though the Bayeux tapestry is a fascinating piece of historical storytelling, it sure has its artistic flaws. In the end, some details are just too flawed and it is hard to know what should be understood as artistic freedom and what is to be interpreted as an honest attempt of depicting reality. Luckily enough we have another source to act as a cross reference to early medieval french warrior equipment. The manuscript Dijon BM MS14, also known as the Bible of Stephen Harding, from Citeaux in eastern France is dated to the early 12th century, and thus originates from the generation directly after William’s conquest of Anglo-Saxon England. As with other illuminated manuscripts and bibles, the pictures in the MS14 aim to depict religious stories and moments in ancient Judeo-Christian mythology. And as with many of its contemporary counterparts, it is filled with hints and details of equipment and fashion of the day. Since it was impossible for the artist to know what ancient jewish clothing and items looked like, the characters of the stories were clad in early medieval fashion, probably taken from what the artist saw around him/herself. This also made the stories identifiable for its reader, letting him/her tell who was the good and bad guys, and creating a tie between the mythological stories of the past with the culture of the present. For historians (and us miniature painters!) it gives an indepth look of clothing, equipment and color of early 12th century France. Lucky us!

This scene shows the epic battle between David and Goliath, clad in early medieval military gear! Dijon BM MS14, early 12th c.

Several illuminations show shields decorated in various patterns, from mono colored kite shields to striped and split markings. Red, green and blue seem to be the most common color-whise in this manuscript. But whether this is to be interpreted as “common” shield colors of the time, or just the paint that was available to the artist is hard to say, although research on medieval clothing shows that red, yellow, brown and green seem to have been fairly cheap colors to produce. Blue pigment would have been alot more expensive but certain characters seem to be depicted in tones of blue and purple to reinforce their status. Alot of helmets are also colored which suggest that painting armour parts for decoration, and as a way of protecting them from rust, was in practice. This theory is also supported from remaining helmets of later medieval periods that have been painted to different levels.

Bible of Stephen Harding, Citeaux, France early 12th c
A clear view of inverted striped shield markings and what could possibly be depictions of painted helmets. Dijon BM MS14, early 12th c.
Besieged warriors with “miparti” colored shields. Dijon BM MS14, early 12th c.
Dijon BM MS14
More shield and weapon details. Dijon BM MS14, early 12th c.


Getting down to brass tacks: how to paint 28mm shields.

Some different shield designs, inspired by the source material.

By this stage, you should have a basic idea of what early medieval Norman shields could have looked like. Here are some simple steps on how to paint 28mm shields with the historical knowledge in mind. First of all, decide on what kind shield markings you want. I went for crosses, mythical creatures, and split color patterns even if plain shields seem to be more common in the source material. The reason for this is that I really wanted my shields to “pop” and take away some of the focus from the horses themselves, who are basically just large airbrushed surfaces.

1. Basecoats.
As simple as that. Put down the base color of the shield. Make sure to water down your paint to get a smooth surface, as this will help out later when you paint the actual motif. I chose a couple of brown mid tones, green, and red, and usually work with a 1/1 ratio of color/water when basecoating.


2. Sketch out a rough design by hand.
Bring out your best detail brush and water down a drop of the paint you want to use as the main color of the shield marking – I used white and red here to contrast the bacground color. Make sure not to make it too thin, as it will ruin your control over the paint. Then apply a rough sketch of your pattern. Don’t worry about painting over the shield rim, or not getting 100% straight lines. We will clean them up later, and plus, painting over the rims helps you keeping those lines straighter. Keep in mind, not even a medieval shield artist drew perfect lines so don’t be afraid of freehanding.


3.Clean-up and highlight.
Now go back to your basecolors and clean up any lines that you’re not happy with. Then highlight the shield pattern if you used any other colors than white. When you are happy with the result, paint the shield rims. I prefer to paint the rims in natural colors like light stone or leather tones as the rims were probably covered in rawhide rather than steel bands.


4.Weathering, mud, blood, sweat and tears.
You can skip this step if you want to keep your shields lean and clean. If not, it’s time to apply battle damage and weathering to the surface. Use a sponge to stipple dirt colors onto the shields. Start with lighter tones at the top as this is were the splashed mud would dry out, and as you get closer to the bottom of the shield apply darker and “fresher” mud. Now is also a great time to bring out some washes to play around with streaks of dirty water, and blood if you prefer that. By applying lines and chips of dark brown color, filled in with a lighter gray, you can achieve the look of cuts and blows that have struck the shield in combat. Be wary though, less is more, and it is easy to overdo the weathering and go full retard. Don’t.


When the dust has settled, go back and clean up any of the patterns if you’re not happy with the overall result and weathering. I had to go back on some of the shields, since I thought I went to heavy on the dirt on some of them. It’s never to late to clean up a mess!

The finished unit of Norman hearthguard, all in its muddy glory!

Here are some close ups on some of my favourite shields.

The infamous curved cross design.


Look at this happy creature, flailing his arms and all!



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