The Moors were Arab-Berber people from North Africa who launched the conquest of Iberian in the early 8th century. Subduing most of Iberian over the subsequent decades, the Moors would continue to rule portions of Iberia until the 15th century.
The Moorish conquest coincided with a weakening of the Visigoth Hispanic kingdom in the 8th century. The Moors were also better equipped in military terms and their cavalrymen, with their uniquely-shaped shields, were formidable warriors on the battlefield. The most notable type of shield used by Moorish troops was the adarga, a rawhide shield which was exceptionally tough and was used in many variations in Moorish Spain.
The “Adarga” was the most common type of shield that was closely identified with the Moors in medieval Spain. The backbone of early Moorish conquests was the rapid use of light cavalrymen who could wreak havoc on enemy armies in no time. These light cavalrymen were typically armed with adarga shields.
Although these shields were made with reinforced hide, they were incredibly strong and could ward off blows from formidable weapons without incurring any significant damage. Moorish cavalrymen used the adarga together with their lances, allowing them maximum maneuverability on the battlefield and the ability to quickly respond to the enemy attacks.
The typical shape of a Moorish adarga shield was circular during the early period of the Moorish conquest of Iberia. Over subsequent centuries, the basic circular shaped evolved to become more heart-shaped, giving the shield a greater surface area and better protecting the soldier.
The heart-shaped design eventually evolved into a design featuring two overlapping ovals, looking similar to a kidney in its outlook. The kidney-shaped design essentially combined the extra surface area of the heart-shaped design and the consistent solidity of the circular design. By the time it had evolved into the kidney-shaped design, the adarga shield measured 69 to 80 cm along its longer oval axis.
The adarga shield was typically constructed from tough leather hide, usually that of the antelope. In making the adarga, two or more layers of the leather hide were glued together with a strong adhesive and firmly sewn together. Pieces of other kinds of leather were further used to reinforce the basic layers of the adarga.
On the inside of the shield, two leather grips were sewn with which the wearer could secure the shield to his forearm. The leather grips usually came with some kind of cushioning to further absorb the impact of blows.
Metal rims and rivets were also used in some cases to further reinforce the structure of the shield. Once the basic structure of the adarga was complete, it was extensively adorned on the exterior. Carved designs and gilded patterns were most commonly used in the decoration of the shield. Moorish inscriptions were also used to adorn the exterior, often done in bright colours.
The adarga shield proved one of the most formidable pieces of Moorish armour. Adarga was very resistant to blows from even sharp weapons such as swords and lances and could easily absorb the sheer impact of more blunt weapons. It was for this extreme usefulness and effectiveness of the adarga that it was soon adopted by the non-Moorish Spanish as well.