Medieval shields were usually very strong because of the newly developed weapons which could easily destroy a light shield.

A shield's primary function was to defend a soldier against swords or projectiles. Projectiles were useless against shields (unless they were longbows, and the shields practically worthless). Additionally, foot soldiers could arrange themselves and box up - meaning that they could have protection from three sides by cooperatively aligning their shields which could help them progress slowly and steadily while minimizing damage caused from projectiles and swords.

The second main function of a shield was of recognition. A shield very frequently carried the emblem of the country to which the soldier belonged. Battles were often very confusing and recognizing who was a friend and foe could be a very tedious labor - hence the construction of shields with emblems for an easier recognition.

The third function of a shield was to attack. Even though this is quite unbelievable since a shield was mainly designed to be defensive, shields could also be offensive. Better shields would very frequently have a sharp side so the user could hit his enemy and kill him with one blow. A shield, since it was made of metal and very heavy, could easily kill an enemy in a single strike. Of course they were very slow - but that didn't matter as a strong wielder could easily move it fast enough to accomplish his main purpose of survival by killing.

As it can be noted, shields were very effective and thus their enormous use. There was a huge variety of shields - you can read more about them in the glossary.
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