Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Shield Construction

The shield of the Black Prince
..made of poplar wood glued on both sides with layers of linen, on the front with paper finished with gesso. The applied heraldic charges are made with boiled leather shaped in high relief fixed by small tacks. It is painted and gilded; the fields are punched over with numerous small crosses.
Steane, John The archaeology of the medieval English monarchy 1999
The Black Prince’s Shield is 73cm tall and about 60.5cm wide. The shield body is made from 15mm thick poplar and is slightly concave. It is made from two separate boards connected together. The wood core is covered with several sheets of canvas. Over the canvas is a top coat of paper(!), which in turn is topped with leather. The leather forms the top coat, and is held on with shield mounts and with brass nails. On the front side of the shield are the Arms of England and France: Right top and left bottom, on a blue field golden fleurs-de-lis; and left top and right bottom on a red field, three gold leopards stacked over each other.

The arms are built up of molded leather relief, then gessoed and gilded. The claws, eyes and tongues of the leopards are additionally painted. The background of the arms is painted. The individual quarters were originally separated by appliquéd turned cords. All of the blue and red fields are stippled with numerous small punched crosses. On the French quarters they are diagonal, and on the English quarters arranged horizontally. The back of the shield is covered with canvas and painted green.

There are no remains of the hand or arm straps, or of the guige. Only four holes in the shield indicate the points where these must once have been fastened. According to the reconstructed version made at the Tower of London the shield only had one hand and one arm strap.

Chamberlin, John M. V , trans. “The Shield of the Black Prince,“ Der mittelalterliche Reiterschild. Kohlmorgen, Jan. Karfunkel Verlag. 2002.
The shield is made of poplar, covered with successive layers of white canvas, plaster, paper and leather. To the leather surfaces of the front are applied the quarterly charges of fleurs-de-lis and leopards, boldly modeled in leather in high relief, and affixed by small brads. Traces of gilding and of red colour on the tongues of the leopards can still be seen. The ground of the four squares is punched with a spotted diaper to enrich the effect. The cruciform punch marks have been ingeniously slanted at different angles in the quarters of France and England respectively to give variety. Curiously enough there is no trace of the label of cadency ever having been on the shield. The back of the shield is covered with canvas originally painted green or blue, of which faint trances remain. Any hand-straps (or “enarmes”) which it may have had are gone, but holes show where they may have been fixed. The two loops near the top were probably placed there for attaching the shield above the tomb. The only other comparable English shield is that associated with the monument of King Henry V in Westminster Abbey. In this case the charges on the front have vanished completely, but the velvet pad at the back for the hand and wrist have survived.

Mills, Dorothy and Sir James Mann. Edward The Black Prince: A Short History and The Funeral Achievements. J.A. Jennings LTD: Canterbury. 1975.

Note that Steane, above notes that although there is now no trace of a label on the shield, a drawing c. 1600 shows one.

Jousting Targe of John of Gaunt
Illustrated in Dugdale, page 90
Bolton, in his " Elements of Armories," states that the first named article "is very convex towards the bearer, whether by warping through age or as so made. It hath in dimension more than three quarters of a yard in length, and above half a yard of breadth. Next to the body is a canvas glued to a board; upon that board are broad thin axicles, slices or plates of horn nailed fast, and again over them twenty and six pieces of the like, all meeting or centreing about a round plate of the same in the navel of the shield, and over all is a leather closed fast to them with glue, or other holding stuff, upon which his armories were painted; but now they, with the leather itself, have very lately and very lewdly been utterly spoiled."
Two 14th century shields from Sweden 

The shield of Henry V

Three layers of coarse linen are covered with a padding of hair felt, then two linen layers and finally silk brocade. The arm pad is of crimson velvet with the arms of Navarre (for Henry’s Queen) in silk.*


The front is covered in the remains of four layers of linen and gesso, originally painted.

Gravett, Christopher and Graham Turner English Medieval Knight 1400-1500 Oxford : Osprey Military, 2001.

* Joanne of Navarre was Henry V's stepmother

An Early 15th Century Targe at the Met

15th c. "Vous ou la Mort" Shield
KNIGHTLY Shield formerly in the Schutz family at Shotover House, Oxfordshire, now in the collection of the Rev. J. Wilson, D.D., President of Trinity College, Oxford. This very curious relic of the fifteenth century is formed of wood, lined with leather and faced with canvas, on which is laid a gesso to receive the painting and gilding. Its section longitudinally is concave on the face ; transversely it is convex. At the upper corner is a notch (or bouche) for reception of the lance-shaft. The height is 2 ft. 8 in., the breadth 1 ft. 1 in.: the inside has two rings for suspension round the neck of the champion. In its decoration, the whole face of the shield has been first gilt, and the design then painted upon the gilding, the steppling in the background being crimson, and the colours here and there heightened with gold. The lady's dress is pale yellow, the pattern of flowers and leaves, brownish crimson picked in with gold, the border of ermine.

Hewitt, John Ancient armour and weapons in Europe from the iron period of the Northern nations to the end of the thirteenth[-seventeenth] century. Oxford, 1855-1860

Here is a modern examination of the shield.

15th century shield at the Musée National du Moyen Âge, also known as the Musee Cluny. Later damage gives a good view of the different layers and the beveled edge of the wood.

A German jousting targe, ca. 1450

Targe, mid 15th c. 3.7 kg

Jousting Shield, c. 1485 4.7 kg

Jousting Shield, ca. 1490. Linden wood. 21 cm thick

Jousting targes faced with stag horn, 1443-1510

Karen Larsdatter's linkspage on painted shields


The linden or lime wood frequently described as a shield material in Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian literature and found in several surviving medieval shields is commonly called basswood in North America.

The yellow poplar or tulip polar commonly sold as lumber in North America is an entirely different tree from the European poplar. Although both are soft, light and easily carved, yellow poplar may not be as well suited for the purpose.

Linden and poplar are both light and easily worked, and Taillevent refers to "light wood (like that from which one makes pavises)" Wood that was strong in relation to its weight was also obviously desirable. Relatively soft wood was clearly acceptable: the medieval wooden shield was very much a multi-layer composite getting much of its strength from an outer layer of linen, leather and/or parchment glued to its surface.

Here is Theophilus on making panels:


The tablets of altars, or of doors, are first carefully fitted together with the joining instrument which carpenters or vat makers use; they are then joined with the glue of cheese, which is made in this manner. Soft cheese is cut very small, and is washed with warm water in a small mortar with a pestle, until, being frequently poured in, the water comes away pure. Then this cheese, compressed by the hand, is put into cold water until it hardens. After this it is very finely ground, with another piece of wood, upon a smooth wooden table, and in this state it is again placed in the mortar, and is carefully ground with the pestle, water mixed with quick lime being added, until it is made as thick as lees. The tablets of altars fastened together with this glue, after they are dry, so adhere together, that neither heat nor humidity are able to disjoin them. They should afterwards be smoothed with a planing iron, which, curved and sharp inside, has two handles, so that it may be drawn by both hands, (with which doors and shields are shaved,) until they are made perfectly smooth. They are then covered with the untanned skin of a horse, or ass, which is soaked in water; as soon as the hairs have been scraped off, some water is squeezed from it, and thus moist, it is superposed with the curd glue.

Theophilus. An essay upon various arts, tr., with notes, by R. Hendrie London 1847

The choice of glue is important. Glue of cheese, better known to modern readers as casein, hardens by chemical reaction rather than evaporation of a solvent.

The problem with using evaporation based glues like modern carpenter's wood glue is that the damp canvas, parchment or rawhide shrinks as it dries. While it is still damp it prevents the evaporation based glue beneath if from hardening, and the fabric or hide can then pull away from concave surfaces.

Casein has largely been replaced by other glues in modern use, but is still used as an artist's medium.

1 comment:

Wendy McLean said...

The lime tree, or Linden, or Basswood has similar characteristics to the ubiquitous "poplar". It is light in color and light in weight. Easy to manipulate. But not particularly attractive in finish. Tends to be fibrous and fuzzy - not shiny and hard like walnut etc.. It is, however, in an entirely different family from the "true" poplars (Betulacea) and the tulip poplars (Magnoliaceae).

Tilia americana is what we have in North America. Tilia occidentalis is what is native to Europe.