Sword-based metaphors and similes are a pervasive part of our cultural vocabulary, from iconography to idiomatic expression. The buckler shield, or “buckler,” as a companion to the sword, shares many of these powerful images, and for many centuries was just as strong a metaphor as the sword. Some of these images and metaphors have survived into the modern day, while others have faded into history.
With European society very strongly shaped by its Christian cultural identity, one of the first places to look for buckler imagery is the Bible. The translators of the King James Version placed Biblical metaphors into terms their contemporary audiences would understand. One such example is 2nd Samuel 22:31, which reads,
“As for God, his way is perfect; the word of the Lord is tried: he is a buckler to all them that trust in him.”
More modern translations, such as the New International Version (NIV), choose to use ‘shield’ instead of ‘buckler’ as the translation – indeed, the word ‘buckler’ appears nowhere in the NIV. But, in an age where bucklers were extremely commonplace, the King James translators’ sought to use familiar literary imagery.
This imagery continues in Psalm 35, verses 1 and 2,
“Plead my cause, O LORD, with them that strive with me: fight against them that fight against me. Take hold of shield and buckler, and stand up for mine help.”
This same translation choice also exists in the 1599 Geneva Version. The Geneva Version makes several translation choices where the buckler is eponymous with properties of God, such as Psalm 3:3 which states,
“But thou Lord art a buckler for me, my glory, and the lifter up of mine head.”
Biblical buckler shield metaphors found their way into hymnals as well. Heinrich Schutz’s (1575-1672) Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, o Herr, SWV 348, is an adaptation of Psalm 18 which, as translated by the King James Version, reads,
“My God, my refuge, in whom I will trust; My buckler and horn, my salvation and protection.”
More than just a religious metaphor for the protective qualities of God, the buckler was used in many ways within secular literature.
William Basse, a 17th century English poet best-remembered for publishing an elegy for William Shakespeare in 1633, wrote a poem in 1602 entitled Sword and Buckler, or Serving-Man’s Defence. In this poem, Basse goes to great lengths to address the plight of servants and appeal to nobles to, as he writes,
Respect your servant, as your servant is
The instrument of every great affaire,
The necessarie vicar of your good,
Also within this poem, Basse speaks of the sword and buckler as a weapon of insurrection against injustice towards the Serving-Man. He writes,
Who is so void of loue, or bare of sence,
To thinke it any misdemeasne in us,
If we, to right our selves, doe fall againe
Into our ancient Sword and Buckler vaine?
Yet will we not an Insurrection make
Against our owne superiour Lords and Masters,
With whose kinde love we may more order take
By dutie, then by trying out with wasters;
Though in this case who need to feare our might
For we meane nothing but a speaking fight.
At the end of the poem, Basse writes that his defense of the Serving-Man is regarded only for those who do not succumb to odious luxury through the baseness of their condition and those who do not scorn the title of Serving-Man. He swears that in the defense of the Serving-Man,
And I will stoutly stand to ‘t till I dye,
Or till my Buckler rot, and Sword be worne,
This literary allusion to the buckler as a tool of insurrection in English literature went so far as to become synonymous with rabble-rousing and wanton violence. In Henry IV by William Shakespeare, Hotspur speaks of the Prince of Wales in Act 1, Scene 3, as “the sword-and-buckler prince.” This type of language gave rise to the term “swashbuckler” and its reference to a turbulent roister and their preferred weapon combination of choice.
Finally, the buckler found a spot in the realm of philosophical metaphor. Cardinal Armand de Richelieu wrote Emblema Animae or Morrall discourses reflecting upon humanitie, which was translated into English by James Maxwell in 1635. Discourse 7 of the treatise deals with the necessity of friends and how one should properly choose them. On the nature of friendship, Richelieu writes,
“Friendship is the companion of justice, the bond of Nature, the defense and safe-guard of a City, the comfort of old-age, and the quiet harbor of man’s life: Friendship is as the anchor to a Ship, a Buckler to a combatant, as a Bulwarke to a Castle.”
Throughout history then, we can see the buckler shield symbolize the mightiness of God’s strength, the defense of servants, the chaos of insurrectionists and brawlers, and the warmth of a good friend. Even today, the buckler as metaphor still pervades our lexicon. The buckler thus has a rightful place in not only our martial history, but also our cultural imagination.