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A cat at the tomb of the poet Hafiz in Shiraz.

I am not writing new posts for this blog right now due to some personal emergencies, a summer I want to enjoy, and the death of my father. I have a post scheduled every two weeks until the end of September. But I seem to be getting some new visitors from Bret Devereaux’s blog.

So if you like big ideas about warfare before gunpowder, this week I would like to recommend a book by Eduard Alofs published as four articles in volumes 21 and 22 of the journal War in History in 2014 and 2015 (parts i, part ii, part iii and part iiii). Alofs did something which not many historians do which was write a general model of warfare from the Syr Darya to the Nile in the period 550 to 1350 CE. He sees two main military traditions in this region: the Iranian (the kind which the Strategikon of emperor Maurice describes, armies centred around armoured horsemen with bows and lances which come to the battlefield on foot, mule, or camel) and the Turanian (the kind which Frankish writers complain about Turks practicing, based on unarmoured horsemen with a string of spare horses and a few better-armed men with their own spare horses). To put this together, he read primary sources in Arabic, Greek, Persian, and Latin. Here is what he has to say about shields:

The various local types of standing shields were deployed on the ground and, if necessary, kept upright by a prop. They can be compared to the pavise used by medieval European infantry, but its Asian counterpart was larger and of lighter construction. The standing shield could also be carried by hand like an ordinary shield, but it was rarely used for close combat, as it was both too cumbersome and too flimsy to effectively ward off blows and thrusts. It was only carried in anger when the infantry formations slowly advanced in closed order under enemy fire. As soon as the foot soldiers attacked, they left the standing shields behind, so, unlike the ordinary shields and bucklers, the standing shields should be seen as a kind of portable palisade, not as the personal equipment of individual soldiers.

Like the horsemen, foot soldiers would often use a buckler in a duel. These parrying shields could be partly made of metal, but the standing shield was always of a light construction, wicker, reeds glued together with tar, or sheets of leather or quilted cloth stretched over a light wooden frame. The small, solid buckler and the large, light standing shield owed their popularity to the fact that they did not obstruct the use of the bow.

Variously shaped medium sized shield types were also known. Strong enough to deflect a sword blow or lance thrust and large enough to offer a crouching foot soldier a reasonable measure of protection against a hail of missiles, they combined the functions of standing shield and buckler. As its users could only return fire by throwing javelins or spears, this type of shield is especially connected with the military traditions from the western parts of the Roman and Muslim world, where a warrior fought with spear and shield. However, the Romans had also sent Berbers, Germans and Slavs to the Levant, from the eighth century onwards the Mediterranean tradition of spear and shield expanded further into the Middle East, and finally, from the tenth century onwards, the Daylami foot soldiers from north-west Iran brought their spears and oval shields even as far east as Central and South Asia.

The articles have a couple of quirks. There is one footnote per paragraph, so checking the source for a specific claim can take some digging even if you have access to your library at the moment. There are no maps or illustrations. But if you want a big theory of warfare in the early and high Middle Ages you might want to have a look.

Parts i, ii, iii and iiii of Eduard Alofs’ “Studies on Mounted Warfare in Asia” are available on JSTOR through a free account, on JSTOR through your local library, and probably other sources.

Further Reading: Mitchell, Russ (2008) “Light Cavalry, Heavy Cavalry, Horse Archers, Oh My! What Abstract Definitions Don’t Tell Us About 1205 Adrianople.” Journal of Medieval Military History Vol. 6 pp. 95–118

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