Fantasy vs. Reality

Fantasy vs. Reality

Solving the Curious Case of the Weapon that Didn’t Exist


Back in May I published an article here about the one-handed military flail that got a little bit of attention. And by “a little bit of attention”, I mean that it got about 200,000 unique page views. It wasn’t Kim-Kardashian’s-butt level of breaking the internet, but it sure broke me a little.

And obviously this brought a lot of commenters as well, some with thoughtful, incisive criticisms (though to be expected, some… not so much). I took the good-faith comments into consideration and set about improving my ideas, and turning over other rocks looking for the real origins of the one-handed military flail. For example, it helped me realize that the real issue isn’t that the weapon is impractical to the point of nonsense (though it sure is), the issue is that the only ones that exist are a scant few very-late medieval manuscript images and a few museum pieces that were either never meant for the battlefield or nineteenth-century fakes. Whether or not the weapon might have worked is irrelevant when faced with the fact that there’s no proof that it was ever actually a thing.

But, I’ve found one possible origin story for the weapon. I’ll give you a spoiler—while it was certainly a weapon that never existed in the forms we are most familiar with today, there is an answer to be found on the steppes of Eastern Europe, Russia, and Mongolia.

And thanks to the good people over at Medieval Warfare Magazine, I’ve had another crack at it. Check out my article—“The medieval weapon that never existed: The military flail” in their latest issue. It’s also chock full of articles on (in-no-way-relevant-to-today) subjects like the violent popular uprisings of the 16th century by none other than Kelly DeVries. Go check it out!

Medieval Warfare vi 6

Importantly, I want to thank Nickolas Dupras of Northern Michigan University for his help analyzing the extant flails, and Zsuzsanna Reed Papp and Andrei Octavian Fărcaș, both of Central European University, for introducing me to the Eastern European context for these weapons! And thanks, finally, to all those who read, shared, and commented on the original article. It makes me incredibly excited to see that there is so much interest in uncovering the mysteries of the medieval world!

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Fantasy vs. RealityPast and PresentWhat is History For?

This Conspiracy will Put Medievalists Out of a Job! (No, it won’t…)


Engaging with the public directly puts you in contact with a lot of interesting people. In the public lectures and museum work that I’ve done, I have met a large number of really compelling people, most of whom are more knowledgeable and passionate about history than the professoriate would fear.

But, as any public historian will tell you, occasionally you encounter a fun one.

One of mine occurred during the Q&A section of a public lecture I gave several years ago on the depiction of Robin Hood in film and television. In the back of the room, a perfectly normal-seeming man stood up and, with a twinkle in his eye that I couldn’t quite place, asked me a question that I won’t soon forget:

“What if it’s all a lie?”

I’ll admit, I didn’t quite know what to do with that question.

He then launched into a monologue describing a bizarre theory—one which I have come to find out is not just his own—that concludes simply: the Early Middle Ages did not exist.

This man was describing to me (and a group of increasingly confused audience members) the Phantom Time Hypothesis. In short, the Phantom Time Hypothesis, developed and promoted by journalist Heribert Illig and historian Dr. Hans-Ulrich Niemitz, posits that the historical period between 600AD and 900AD simply didn’t exist.

It’s a fascinating load of crap.

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Fantasy vs. RealityGames and The InternetUncategorized

Banished: The Medieval Game that Isn’t

Banished header

One of the most venerable genres of computer games is the city-building simulator. SimCity is the great-granddaddy of them all, of course, and many kids in my generation wasted plenty of recess hours hunched over a computer program which, somehow, managed to make urban planning and civic zoning fun.

SimCity’s breakout success made its makers at Maxis a household name among many gamers. And Maxis went on to launch a number of sequels (though the shambolic failure of the most recent iteration has threatened to derail its future), as well as a number of other Sim-games (SimEarth, SimLife, SimAnt, SimFarm). Other companies also took up the mantle, often asking their players to build cities in exciting historical locales: Pharaoh for ancient Egypt, Caesar for Rome, Tropico for the 20th-century Caribbean, and the Anno series had titles set in 1701, 1404 and 2070.

The remarkable thing about the gameplay of SimCity was its lack of external conflict. In short, by contrast with the vast majority of games then and now, there were no bad guys to shoot, no race cars to overtake, no bosses to defeat, no princesses to save. The fundamental challenge was in creating a perfectly-balanced system, where each of the metaphorical gears would run in time with all the others. That is, until this guy showed up to ruin everything:

By contrast, city-Sims set in the Middle Ages typically restored the external conflict. Medieval cities, it seems, were less interesting as whirring, dynamic urban centers, and more interesting as fortifications against plundering hordes. The successful Stronghold franchise is a testament to this trend, where, in only the medieval context, the city-sim was replaced by the castle-sim.

And so it was no small interest that I recently began playing Banished.

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Fantasy vs. RealityGames and The Internet

It’s What You Do With It That Counts: Factual accuracy and mechanical accuracy in Crusader Kings II


Guest post from Robert Houghton. Robert mainly researches urban and episcopal history in Italy in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and also has a strong interest in the portrayal of the Middle Ages in the media. He currently works at the University of St Andrews and as a research consultant for Paradox Interactive.

 A few weeks ago, Paul posted about the mechanics of historical computer games and how it’s more important to have accurate mechanics than it is to have accurate facts. I’d like to elaborate on this with the example of Paradox Interactive’s Crusader Kings II, a game which I have had the pleasure of working on since January 2013.

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