Sunday, 6 January 2013

Anglo-Saxon and Viking Shield Words

Anglo-Saxon and "Viking" Shield Words 

The mark of the true warrior in Germanic society, strangely enough, was not the life-taking spear but the life-protecting shield. Warriors fought in the shield-wall and the worst disgrace was to lose one’s shield on the field of battle. As Spartan mothers had told their sons a thousand years earlier:
"Either (with) it (your shield), or on it"
Modern warriors have replaced the spear and the sword but our riot-police still use shields and shield-tactics which would be quite familiar to the Anglo-Saxon or Norse warrior.
To a large extent, the English and Norse names for the parts of a shield have been forgotten, even by historians. In this article I hope to shed some light on the names used by our ancestors for their shields, and their parts.

The epic poem Beowulf has much to say concerning shields:

hond rond geféng geolwe linde                             [Bw. 2609]
‘his hand grasped his shield, of yellow lindenwood .....’ 
líg ýðum for born bord wið rond                           [Bw. 2672]
‘....waves of flame burned the shield-board back to the boss;’ 
The word "shield" itself does derive from the Old English. It is spelt variously scield, scild, or scyld, and derives from the Proto-Germanic *skeldus. Similarly the Old Norse term is skjöldr, the Old Saxon is skild, the modern German Schild and the Gothic term is skildus.
These come from the Proto-Indo-European *skel- to divide, split, separate, which comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *(s)kel- meaning “to cut”. The concept must be of splitting logs to form flat laths of wood which can then be glued together to form a rough board.

The Shield board was the term used of the circular wooden dish of the shield. The Old English term was bord (interestingly the same name used for table) and the Old Norse term was borð. Both derive from the Proto-Germanic word *burdam which comes from the Proto-Indo-European *bhrdh- meaning “board”, which derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *bherdh- meaning "to cut" and so we are back to planks of wood once more.

Anglo-Saxon Lenticular Shield inspired by Sutton-Hoo
The wood used for the shield-board would have varied. The type of timber always quoted was linden or lime (Old English name lind, from the Proto-Germanic *lendá) but studies have shown that only about 25% of Anglo-Saxon shields were made from lime. In fact, over 50% were constructed from poplar or willow (æspe & wíðig) while the remainder were made from alder (alor), ash (æsc), beech (bóc), birch (beorc), maple (hlin) and even oak (ác).
Usually the board would be constructed fairly flat or slightly curved laterally (see project "Construction of a Viking Shield" by A.C.D. Lewis) but there are good practical arguments that some shields were made to be lenticular, in that they are much stronger. There are several Early Medieval artworks, including the lid of the Franks Casket, which appear to show lenticular shields, which are further supported by philological evidence.

‘Sceolde celæs bord’

On line 29 of the Finnsburh Fragment, we find the phrase ‘Sceolde celæs bord’ and on line 283 of the poem ‘The Battle of Maldon’, similarly we find the phrase ‘clufon cellod bord’. The first is usually translated as ‘the round shield-board’ and the second as ‘clove (through) the curved shield’. Unfortunately, no linguist has so far offered a convincing explanation of the words celæs or cellod.
Interpretations of cellod have included ‘concave’, ‘curved’, ‘keel’ or ‘ship -shaped’ (from ceol); ‘having a beak’ (like a ship - from ceole) or mis-spelled celced- meaning ‘whitened’ from cealc- chalk, lime. My preference is from cyll, meaning ‘skin or leather’. Cellod may be a Kentish form for cyllod 'leather bag or bottle'. Thus cellod bord would be a 'hide-covered shield' which, at least, makes some sense!

The Shield Boss

Early English poets often called the shield-boss the ‘rand’. This Old English word generally means “edge, border, margin, rim, shore” and derives from the Proto-Germanic *randaz, *randó meaning “edge, rim, crust”, which derives from the Proto-Indo-European *rent- meaning “to cut”.
The word however is used generally of a shield, denoting either the whole shield or the boss. This use is cognate with the Old High German ‘rant’ denoting the iron boss of a shield. In the Gnomic Maxims II, we learn that:
Rand sceal on scylde,
fæst fingra gebeorh
"The boss belongs on the shield,
the fingers' safe protection."
It is clear from this that ‘rand’ in this context MUST mean the boss rather than the rim. This is quite frustrating but unarguable. The term rand-beáh/-beág also refers to the the boss of a shield; literally the ‘boss-ring’.

Anglo-Saxon / Old-English Shield Words. Example; Sutton-Hoo Mound-1 shield (BM)

The Old Norse term for the boss was the skjaldarbukl, or just bukl. This is very similar to the Modern German schildbuckel and cognate with modern word ‘buckler’. This word may derive from the Late Latin word ‘buccula’ for a shield-boss and *bucculánus - ‘having a boss’, although it is perfectly possible that these terms are borrowings from Germanic, there being a perfectly adequate Classical Latin word for boss in ‘umbo’.
The Old Norse bukl would be cognate with the Old English ‘buc’, glossed as "pitcher, bulging vessel, object with a cavity" and originally meaning "belly". This comes from the Proto-Germanic *búkaz, from the Proto-Indo-European *bhou-, a variant of the Proto-Indo-European root *bheu- "to grow, swell". The lost Anglo-Saxon name for the boss could thus be *búc or *scyldbúc.

The iron boss is composed of a bowl (bolla), surrounded by a flange or rim (rima / *búc-rand). Early-period bosses might have a projecting spike (spícing) or a button (disc). The boss was attached to the board by means of four or more iron rivets. The Old Norse term for these were hnoð-saumr meaning “clinch-nails”. These were attached via iron clinch-plates (, pl. rær) Perhaps the Old English term for rivet would thus have been *clycc-nægl.

Old-Norse / Viking Shield words -grip, boss, handle etc. Shield by A Lewis.

The Shield Rim

The Old English term for the binding of the shield rim would seem to be lærig, but the word is only found twice; once in ‘The Battle of Maldon’; 
‘bærst bordes lærig’ [BoM line 284]
"the shield’s rim burst ..."
and once in the Old English alliterative poem,‘Exodus’;
ofer linde lærig’ [Ex line 239] "over the edge of the linden"
The term is glossed in the Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (Bosworth and Toller) as a word of doubtful meaning. The word, like rand, may mean the rim of the shield and also the body of the shield. Either rendering is admissible so far as the sense is concerned. It has also been translated as an adjective, meaning ‘hollow’ or ‘empty’ from Old English gelære, *lære (“empty, void, empty-handed”), from the Proto-Germanic *léziz, *lézijaz (“empty”). The use of this term is thus, at best, dubious.

In Beowulf (line 325) is the phrase:
síde scyldas rondas regnhearde
wide shields, the rims (or bosses) wondrous-hard
Now the Old Norse term for the shield-rim is skjandar-rönd. The term rönd (pl. randir) means rim or border and is used poetically to denote the shield. Thus, it would seem clearer to use the Old English word ‘rand’ to denote the shield-rim, that is if we do not use it for the boss!

The Shield-Grip

The shield was held by an iron grip, which spanned the central hole in the board behind the boss. There is no literary evidence of an Anglo-Saxon name for the grip but scyld-gripe would be logical. This would be skjaldar-grípe in Old Norse.

The Shield-Strap

Smaller, lighter Anglo-Saxon shields may not have had carrying straps, allowing the shield to be slung over the shoulder but larger ones (as evidenced by a fitting on the Sutton Hoo shield) certainly did. The Old Norse term for shield-strap is skjaldarfetill. By inference, the Old English name would have been scyldfetels.

Shield Decoration

Sutton-Hoo Shield (BM)
Early period shields quite often have longitudinal metallic strips riveted to the face of the shield (perhaps *scieldbendas). Shields can also be decorated with zoomorphic appliqués, such as the gold plaque showing two eagles holding a fish between them from the Staffordshire Hoard.
In Beowulf (line 2203) “under bordhréoðan” is usually translated as ‘under the cover of his shield’ but might be better translated as ‘under (his) ornamented shield’. The term ‘bord-hréoða’ (dative singular bord-hréoðan) is usually translated as ‘shield-covering’ or ‘shield-shelter’ but may be better translated as ‘ornamented shield’. Hréodan means ‘to adorn’ and its past participle hroden means ‘covered’ but also ‘adorned’, ‘ornamented’, or even ‘laden with ornaments’. Thus scieldhréoða might be a useful term in describing an ornately decorated shield.

This is a difficult topic from a linguistic point of view and it is impossible to be dogmatic with regard to the naming of the parts of the shield, particularly with regard to the Old English where there is much confusion, much of it caused by the use of terms which are only found in poetry and which are only there because of the need to alliterate. If this brief article awakens debate, so much the better.


J.R. Clark Hall’s Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary; Bosworth and Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary; 
Geir T. Zoëg’s Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic;
Steve Pollington’s invaluable ‘Wordcraft’, ‘The Warrior’s Way’ and ‘The English Warrior’; 
Richard Underwood’s ‘Anglo-Saxon Weapons & Warfare’ 
Kim Siddorn’s informative ‘Viking Weapons and Warfare’. 
The definitive ‘Anglo-Saxon Shield’ by I.P Stephenson 
‘Early Anglo-Saxon Shields’ by Tania Dickinson and Heinrich Härke.

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