The “Halpschilt” – Halbschild (Half-Shield)

One of the most prominent terms in the book I.33 is the “halpshilt” or in modern German “Halbschild” translated as “half-shield”. At the same time the term like many others is not explained at all. There are several approaches to getting closer to the meaning of the term. This article will put a light on the “Halpshilt” and what it may have meant to the creators of the I.33.

The Halpshilt in medieval literature

Polyphem WickamThe naming of a half-shield in the medieval literature is to be found by the 13th century translation of Ovid by Albrecht von Halberstadt (13th book). The original manuscript is fragmented and great parts are lost. The part with the term “halpshilt” is of the Oldenburg library and was already transcribed in the 19th century.

hoch ûf gein dem hirne
mitten an der stirne
merre stât daz ouge min,
dan ein halpschilt müge sin

The bookmaker Jörg Wickram of Colmar refreshed the verses and printed the them in Mainz (1545, 1551). Further editions had been printed in Frankfurt (1581, 1609, 1631, 1641).

ich han inn mitte meiner stirn
eyn aug ston, das ist grösßer zwirn
dann zwen halber schilt mögen sein
gantz zierlich sthet mir das aug mein

6th century bc. female? warrior with peltaThe secondary literature following Jacob Grimm names the greek pelta as the origin of the term “halpschilt” of Albrecht von Halberstadt. The pelta is a shield that looks like a halved hoplite round shield. The early researches had the idea that this was a light wicker shield covered with leather or cloth used by fast light armored troops on foot. In fact it was not the case. The pelta had been in use with spear and axe by (female) warriors well armored.

The visual anlogy with the pelta and an eye is striking. Looking at the latin version of Ovid “Unum est in media lumen mihi fronte, sed instar ingentis clipei” we see that the eye is like a “mighty shield” and not small like a buckler. The assumption that the greek pelta was known in any kind to Albrecht von Halberstadt is well covered by the meaning.

The term Halbschild was more prominent in the 9th-10th century. It was a common to translate the latin “pelta” from bible texts into German. We find the pelta translated in multiple old German (mostly old Bavarian) glosses.

  • halpscilti, Wien Codex 2732 35r, BSB Clm 14689 39r, BSB Clm 18140 44v
  • halpscilta, Göttweig Codex 46/103 53v, BSB Clm 13002 221 v1
  • halpscil, Wien Codex. 2723 28r
  • halpscilt, BSB Clm 4606 113v
  • haschilt, BSB Clm 22201 239r
  • halpschilten, BSB Clm 17403 22v(b)
  • halpscklt, BSB Clm 9534 108r

The Features of Halpshilt in the Language


Those kind of translations are called “feature-translation”. The translater picks one feature of the term/object and uses it for the translation.

  • Feature “half the outline”
    The pelta has the outline of a halved circle, therefore it can be seen as the halved hoplite shield (“hoplon”). Both are strapped to the arm.So the pelta is the half-shield of the hoplon.
  • Feature “outline like an eye”
    Albrecht von Halberstadt picked the outline of the pelta that resembles the outline of an eye for his translation. The pelta is no small shield and matches the mighty eye of the giant Polyphem. He fills in the “half the outline feature” for the term.
  • Feature “half the size”
    Another source not known to me sees the buckler as the half sized “parma” (parmula) of the romans, that matches somehow the hoplite round shield but has a central handle and may feature a scutum. So the buckler is the “half[sized]-shield” of the “parma”.
  • Feature “half the prize”
    According to P. Lang’s research the prize of a pelta was half of a scutum.

The Features of Halpshilt in Martial Context

If we look at weapon an fencing terms we find similar and different meanings of the word “halp”. We have the “halbe Stange” or “halbe Pique” which is a short or half version of a long weapon. And we have the “Halbschwert” wich is shortened by putting the hand on the blade. Outside the world of fencing masters the latin term “semispata” for half-sword has the meaning of a short knife or dagger (see O’Sullivan for references).

In fencing terminology in which the term is clear to us in meaning the feature “half the size” is always used. The intended meaning is “short” or “small”. None of it uses it in regard of “half the outline”.

The Features of Halpshilt in The I.33


The feature used in the I.33 cannot mean that the shield is exchanged by a smaller shield. The shield called “scutum” is named after the first appearance of Halpshilt in the repeated rule “Dum ducitur halpschilt cade sub gladium quoque scutum”. While the translation of the verse due the multiversum of meanings in the verb “cadere” is open to discussion, it is obvious that the “halpshilt” is connected to both “sword as well as the shield” be it the one having a “halpshilt” or the one opposing it.

“Half the Outline”

If we look at the drawings at folios 2r or 3r we could state the theory that the outline of the shield is halved by the sword. But looking at other drawings like those of 8r (image next to this text) we can easily see that the sword does not halve the buckler at all. More to it there are dozens of images in that book, which suggest an sword position halving the buckler’s outline without being named that way. In addition the feature of “half the outline” is not common usage anyplace else in fightbooks and the word is because spoken in German, a technical term of the art.

In summary the assumption that the term “halpshilt” was a descriptive name to a sword in a position in which it would half the outline is unlikely matching the intention of the author.

Half the size (Short)

As written already the shield itself is not made smaller, but the the term could mean as well “short”. A shortened position would bring the shield nearer to the body. But all images suggest that the position of the shield is not shortened at all. They have long arm positions. The blade itself is pointing high up (or down), so the point of the blade is indeed short.

While the position of the blade’s point is a short one, the term is alongside the shield. The shield itself is elongated in the front. Therefore the meaning of “shortened shield” seems to be very unlikely.

Half the size (small)

di grassiAs the object itself does not change the size the question arises: What is the full shield?

1. Smaller protection

One theory is that the shield is turned in an axis such that the “full protection” is not given anymore and the outline from the frontal viewpoint may look half the size.

A shield that is frontal with the flat to the opponent presents the largest size of protection as it is suggested in the drawing found in some late Renaissance books (see Di Grassi to the right of this text).

But the buckler is often turned in the techniques of the book and in many other illustrations of medieval fencing books, without making it a technical term. Furthermore is the best protection not always the front.  A strike or thrust may best be caught on the space between the boss and the shield’s body, therefore changing the angle is good and not making the protection smaller.

While the idea of changing the size of protectional area makes sense in a optical way, it is of no use in a martial way if no other advantage is won. The concept of protecting the sword hand while using reach would enlarge the protective area and not half it by putting it far away towards the attacker.

2. Hiding one shield behind the other

A number of texts in the fighting books name the displacement done by a sword as a shield.

  • “Haw nahent was du wild | kain wechslär kumpt an deinen schilt”, Liechtenauer Zedel, 44a8
  • “Der ober schilt zu dem tegen nehmen”, high displacement by the dagger, Talhoffer Berlin
  • “Wiltu In pnemen Mit lerer handt wer nemen Zuck wechsel ob du wilt Dy wach hab hinter dem schilt ….”, displacement done by the Messer, Hans Lecküchner, BSB Cgm 582)
  • “hab deyn schillt das ist dy versatzung woll fur deyn haubtt ….”, displacement done by the Messer, Hans Lecküchner, BSB Cgm 582
  • “So stestu yn zwaien schilten”, displacement by shield and sword simultanously, Liegnitzer, 44a8
  • “Setz vor wellen fus du wilt / Mit der pforten mache du eyn schilt”, GMN3227a, 44v

This suggests that the strength of sword is seen as a second shield if it is ready to do a displacement or is in a displacement position. The strength of the sword is in the first half of the blade. This part is greatly hidden by the positioning of the buckler while in halpshilt according to the images of the I.33.

If the full shield is seen as a combination of buckler and sword, as it is suggested in other fightbooks, the buckler is taking the shield of the sword out of the play. Any binding done in the shield/strength of the sword is done on the outside of the shield arm by the buckler or on the outside of the sword arm. An analysis of the counters to halpshilt shows that the response is never on the buckler, but on the outside of the sword arm or by a strike to divide the sword and buckler.

halbschild counter

Other images as well seem to hide the strength of the blade behind the buckler. But the following images show a binding situation on the inside, which suggests that the strength/shield of the sword is free to do the defense.

The concept of two shields, that become half the number or half the shields by hiding one behind the other is fully covered by images and the plays of the book. From the current point of analysis it is the most likely one.

Tactical implications

By hiding the shield of the sword behind the buckler, the fencer wants to predict the attack done by his opponent by reducing the options to get a bind to his weapons.

Using halpshilt the fencer avoids the bind to the inside at the sword blade by a simple mean. Avoiding the bind to a certain part of the blade or avoiding it completely is an essential part of sword fighting. The saying “Haw nahent was du wild | kain wechslär kumpt an deinen schilt” (Liechtenauer Zedel, 44a8) is applying the same concept but uses the means of strong and fast strikes in an approach to give the opponent no time to bind to the shield of the sword.

In a situation in which a fencer is approaching while in motion of a halpshilt the opponent may now

  1. bind to the buckler and thrust around it,
  2. bind inside to the weak of the blade and catch the weak in the own strength by winding,
  3. try to separate the sword from the shield by a strike,
  4. try to bind to the strength of the sword at the outside and work from there.

In the book the first two options are seen as not worth trying from this position. The tactical disadvantages are too big. While working against the weak and winding makes sense in other plays, it is not recommended when the opponent is in halpshilt.

The 3rd option is named and displayed together with a simple counter such that it is not recommended too.

The 4th option is in fact recommended and displayed in more than one play with different answers and outcomes.


Every interpretation of an unexplained term is a more or less educated guess. This article showed multiple theories on the term “halpshilt” and argumented by using other references of other fightbooks, that the term means to half the number of shields to only the buckler. It says that there are two shields because the displacement/strength of the sword is named as a shield as well. The tactical implications of that concept are reflected in the plays of the book.

Books used in this article:

(1) Zeitschrift für deutsches Alterthum und deutsche Literatur, Band 8, p. 397, Weidmann’sche Buchhandlung, Jacob Grimm, 1851
(2) Ouidij Nasonis deß aller sinnreichsten Poeten Metamorphosis: Das ist von der wunderbarlichen Verenderung der Gestalten der Menschen, Thier vnd anderer Creaturen, Publius Ovidius Naso, Albrecht (von Halberstadt), Jörg Wickram, 1545
(3) Sämtliche Werke, Bände 12-13, Hans-Gert Roloff, Walter de Gruyter, 1990
(4) Abrogans-Studien, Jochen Splett, 1976
(5) Die Althochdeutschen Glossen, Band 1, Elias Steinmeyer, Eduard Sievers, Berlin, 1879
(6) Waffenbezeichnungen in althochdeutschen Glossen: Sprach- und kulturhistorische Analysen und Wörterbuch, Angelika O’Sullivan, Walter de Gruyter, 22.07.2013
(7) Europaische Hochschulschriften. Reihe 1: Deutsche Sprache und Literatur, Ausgaben 645-647, P. Lang., 1983

2 thoughts on “The “Halpschilt” – Halbschild (Half-Shield)

  1. A nice selection of related sources, especially the use of halfshield in other contexts. I wonder whether or not the popularity of the term might have facilitated its use in I.33, despite having a different meaning there (first analogy that comes to mind is the re-enactors’ use of “headshot”, IMHO video game vocabulary, to describe hits to the head/helmet in re-enactment fighting).

    However, I cannot follow at the point where you first cite Liegnitzer: “So stestu yn zwaien (sic) schilten”, displacement by shield and sword simultanously (sic), Liegnitzer, 44a8

    …and immediately afterwards claim that “the full shield [i. e. only one, CB] is seen as a combination of buckler and sword, as it is suggested in other fightbooks”. Have I overlooked the references for this assumption which then becomes your favoured educated guess (and is contradicting Liegnitzer’s phrasing and, if you will, the idea of the blade’s strength as a shield on its own)? The way I interpret your sources, there is no tangible proof for the idea of a “full shield” consisting of sword and shield, attractive as this theory may sound.

    What might indeed be a fruitful approach, though, is thinking in terms of function, as you already (unintentionally?) suggested; cf. the use of the term “schützen” in e. g. Hs. 3227a. A shield might then be understood as “a shielding” to put it bluntly. So I.33’s halfshield might—swords and shields as objects aside—a position of a 50% cover, not as secure as the actual schützen positions because no lines are really closed, but still a veritable guard.

    Cheers, Cornelius

    1. Dear Cornelius, I will reply to you at length by mail in German and copy Roland in as well. Let me just state one thing. I am the first who uses fightbook quotes to get to the meaning of the term. Therefore I explain what a “shield” is or may be. It is simple logic if there is a half of something that there must be a full of something.
      The idea of “halfshield” being 50% cover in comparison to “Schützen” is identical to what I say. So you got me right here. But that would leave the terminology. More in my mail.

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