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Editor’s Note: Since posting this, I’ve done more research and updated my thoughts on this subject in an article for Medieval Warfare magazine. Check it out here.

Just about everybody interested in the Middle Ages, who has played Dungeons and Dragons, or read historical and fantasy novels knows what a military flail is. It’s one of these:

A one-handed military flail (modern reproduction)
A one-handed military flail (modern reproduction)

A military flail is a medieval weapon consisting of a short handle attached to a chain, at the end of which is a metal ball. This is not to be confused with a two-handed variant, often also called a flail, which derives from the threshing implement of the same name. Varieties of the one-handed version have multiple chains or spiked heads. They have appeared in a range of medieval movies and books, and they are held in the collections of museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Only problem is: they never existed.

Despite the weapon’s popularity in pop cultural depictions of the Middle Ages, the flail was almost certainly an invention of the imaginations of later people.

But, of course, it’s much harder to prove a negative- that something did not exist – than something did. Military Historians Kelly DeVries and Robert Douglas Smith demur on the question in their book Medieval Military Technology:

“This ball-and-chain weapon has attracted a great deal of comment from modern historians, some claiming that it existed, while others dismissing it as a fantasy. It was likely that a weapon like this was used but was not common.”

Philip Warner, writing in 1968 in his Sieges of the Middle Ages was more blunt, calling all existing examples of this weapon “fakes.”

Let’s look at the evidence.

Firstly, as a weapon of war, the flail is not a good design. The element that makes a flail unique—its chain—is the biggest drawback. The chain and swinging ball make this theoretical weapon extremely difficult to control. In a tightly packed formation, a swinging weapon would be as likely to brain your fellow soldiers as it would your enemies. If it were to rebound, say off a shield or even a successful strike, it would be likely to hit you. God help you if you miss, and hit yourself or the thing flies out of your hand.

And in terms of physics, the swing certainly gives the metal ball a higher speed than the head of, say, a similar mace. However, the mace, being rigid, allows the fighter to follow through the swing with their whole body. Any follow-through with a flail would just make the potentially disastrous rebound hit you even harder. Also, the chain is a weak point that could break or be broken by your enemy, or find itself wrapped around their sword, or the handle of a larger weapon.

“But wait,” you may ask, “what about those flails at the Met that you just mentioned?” This is where the story gets interesting. My working hypothesis is that all the flails at the Met, and those in similar collections occasionally found elsewhere in the world, are, as Warner asserted so bluntly, fakes.

I call this a hypothesis because I have not (and likely will never) examine every single one. And, the possibility that fakes can exist in museum collection sets many curators’ teeth on edge. The art world has acknowledged (and even occasionally celebrated) the fakes in their museum collections for decades now. But history museums have been far slower, generally quietly correcting their catalogues rather than taking this particular bull by its horns. To their credit, due to the questions over their provenance the Met no longer displays their flails in the museum.

I looked at the Met’s flails with the help of Dr. Nickolas Dupras, an expert in medieval arms and armour.

This one, Dr. Dupras, says, takes its form from a horsewhip (a “goad”) instead of a military weapon.

Military Flail, 15th century (?) German, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of William H. Riggs, 1913 (14.25.1366)
Military Flail, 15th century (?)
German, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of William H. Riggs, 1913 (14.25.1366)

“The chains look relatively flimsy,” Dr. Dupras said, “these three-ball flails are based on manuscript illustrations depicting early ‘cat-o-nines’ or whips, also depicted as instruments of torture in Passion and martyrdom illustrations.” It’s important to note as well that a real goad would have been made of wood and rope—why this one, a copy of the form, is made of steel is unclear.

The next one in the Met’s collection is very different, with very fine workmanship.

Military Flail, ca. 1500 (?) German, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1904 (04.3.48)
Military Flail, ca. 1500 (?)
German, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1904 (04.3.48)

But this one, too, probably never saw military action. Dr. Dupras described is as “probably also decorative or ceremonial. Consider that by 1500 [when the Met dates it] arquebusiers and pikemen are the mainstays of the army.” In a world of guns and 20-foot-long spears, this flail would have been worse than useless on the battlefield.

This one is perhaps the most telling of the bunch:

Military Flail, 16th century (?) German, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of William H. Riggs, 1913 (14.25.1365)
Military Flail, 16th century (?)
German, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of William H. Riggs, 1913 (14.25.1365)

Here, the Met describes it as “probably mid to late 19th century in style of 16th century”. It is, in essence, a copy—but a copy without an original—more art than weapon. And interestingly, flails attributed to later periods keep cropping up, such as this one at The Future Museum:

Flail, 17th Century, The Future Museum, Kilmarnock (MA/M7)
Flail, 17th Century, The Future Museum, Kilmarnock (MA/M7)

Interestingly enough, however, there is one source of evidence that complicates matters: art. A military flail of this kind is depicted in a very small handful of mostly late-medieval manuscript illustrations.

At first that would seem to settle the debate: flails certainly existed, otherwise what could these artists be doing putting them in their art? But a peculiar common thread ties all of these depictions together, however: they are all depictions of the exotic or fantastical. The first two are from manuscript editions of The Travels of Marco Poloand the flails are held by warriors from the Middle East.

Livre des Merveilles du Monde, 253r, 1400-1420
The Battle of Mari, from The Travels of Marco Polo

The other is from the first manual of military technology Bellifortis by Konrad Kyeser—surely a more reliable source.

Bellifortis of Konrad Kyeser, MS.1360, 025v
Bellifortis of Konrad Kyeser, MS.1360, 25v

But unfortunately Konrad, and his the artist here also wanders into the fantastical, like with this, my favourite of the images in the manuscript.

art-konrad-kyeser-bellifortis
Bellifortis of Konrad Kyeser, MS.1360, 10r

The artist certainly had quite an imagination.

These weapons are also neither described in medieval literature or chronicles, nor are they listed in armoury catalogues. They simply aren’t discussed.

This leaves two real possibilities. The first is that the military flail was a very late-medieval technological experiment that never really took off due to its inherent flaws. The few that we have dated to that period are authentic, but they are rare in collections because they represent a dead end.

The more interesting possibility is that they were figments of an active artistic imagination, and that the examples we have are artistic or ornamental. This is a fascinating possibility, because it means that the flail could be an example of what French philosopher Jean Baudrillard called simulacra: copies of something that had no original.

If it is a simulacrum, the original inventors were not weaponsmiths but illustrators. The weaponsmiths who made them—in the sixteenth, nineteenth, or twenty-first century, were just copying an idea rather than a thing. Its realest life has been its afterlife.

In either case, the flail persists in the imagination for the very reason it was invented—whether by artists or smiths—in the first place: because it looks cool, dangerous, unpredictable, unwieldy, and uncivilised. These attributes have made it so successful in its afterlife because they fit so perfectly into the vision of the Middle Ages: the one that is inexorably dark, crude and violent.

Sir Walter Scott deployed this idea when he put a flail into the hands of an unhinged Crusader in his 19th-century novel The Talisman:

“I am Theodorick of Engaddi,” he said,—“I am the walker of the desert—I am friend of the cross, and flail of all infidels, heretics and devil-worshippers.” […] So saying, he pulled from under his shaggy garment a sort of flail or jointed club, bound with iron, which he brandished round his head with singular dexterity.

“Thou seest thy saint,” said the Saracen, laughing, for the first time, at the unmitigated astonishment with which Sir Kenneth looked on the wild gestures and heard the wayward muttering of Theodorick, who, after swinging his flail in every direction, apparently quite reckless whether it encountered the head of either of his companions, finally showed his own strength and the soundness of the weapon, by striking into fragments a large stone which lay near him.

“This is a madman,” said Sir Kenneth.

For similar reasons, flails have featured in medieval films that present the world as brutish and uncivilized. One features in Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail.

Another can be seen in Ridley Scott’s 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven, wielded by a knight attempting to assassinate the hero:

And, In The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Peter Jackson famously armed the Witch King with the mother of all flails. In the video here, Richard Taylor calls the weapon that Jackson asked for “ridiculously large” and so unwieldy even the prop was practically unusable.

The flail is not a weapon so much as it is an icon. It exists, and will continue to exist, because it so vividly paints the Middle Ages not as it was, but as we believe it to have been. That the medieval military flail exists at all is probably the most fascinating thing about it.

Editor’s note: I know this topic stirs up some heated passions among those on both sides of this issue. Think I’m wrong? Prove it in the comments…

Editor’s note II: Quite a few people have been leaving comments talking about the existence of the two-handed flail. That sort of flail– developed from the agricultural threshing implement– is very well attested. It was generally had a 1.5m long handle, a hinge of leather or rope, and a long head about the length of your forearm. They were very much a thing. They also are not what I’m talking about above. Thanks for the comments! 

© Copyright 2016 Paul B. Sturtevant, All rights Reserved. Written For: The Public Medievalist
Paul B. Sturtevant

The author Paul B. Sturtevant

Paul B. Sturtevant is Editor-in-Chief of The Public Medievalist. He is a researcher and historian for the Smithsonian Institution, where he helps the institution better understand its visitors and itself. He is an author, a medievalist, and a consultant, and has completed research projects as diverse as exploring the Caliphates of Muslim Spain, the history of American health care reform, and the peculiarities of American-style barbecue. He is unabashedly passionate about the place history has in current conversations.

  • K.C. Schell

    Interesting! I read some similar debunking of chastity belts earlier this year. What will be left once we peel away all the fake dark ages stuff? https://sarahemilybond.wordpress.com/2015/06/05/unlocking-the-dark-ages-a-short-history-of-chastity-belts/

  • Bořek Zelinka

    There were fairly fine documented peasant flails hobnailed and used over the vagon barricades by the czech Hussites forces in 15.century
    https://cs.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okovan%C3%BD_cep#/media/File:Jan_%C5%BDi%C5%BEka_v_%C4%8Dele_vojsk.gif

    • Nicholas Friend

      The Bohemian peasant flail, as I understand it, was an adaptation of an agricultural tool used for separating grain from chaff, and seems to be a very different sort of animal. One, it’s on a long staff and so its area of lethal effect is held safely past the head and hands of the wielder. Two, its connecting chain is quite short compared to the military flail under discussion, allowing in theory for better control. Similar implements also appear prominently in the Maciejowski Bible, c.1250, indicating its lasting presence in medieval European culture. (Students of Asian martial arts will recognize its kinship to the Japanese rice-flail-turned-weapon, the nunchaku.)

      • Scott Schwartz

        Those flails always seemed to be pretty unwieldy to me anyway. Definitely not something for the well dressed knight to bother with. I would think a mace or warhammer would make far more sense.

      • To that point, there are chain-and-weight type weapons in Japanese-style martial arts. Do those have a pedigree from their feudal period (like the nunchaku and whatever that thing like a short scythe is called) or are they modern innovations?

        • Nicholas Friend

          I believe you’re thinking of the kusarigama (kusari = chain, gama/kama = scythe), but I can’t speak to its origin. Much of what we think of as “ninjitsu” is muddled by modern pop culture, and it isn’t my field in any case.

          • Dehaene Luc

            The kusarigama was at its origin a tool to trow into a bush (that was to height to get from the ground and to weak to support a ladder), that had to be cut short. The chain managed to get the scythe at a high placed twig and with a short pull on th chain it should be cut of th bush. Later indeed those type of tools (nunchaku, kusarigama, kyoketsushoge, tonfa, etc) got used in warefare by peasant troops. When ninja needed new concealable weapons that should not reveal what they really where they devloped techniques and modifications of these tools to get the job done. It’s like using a sicor to stab some agressor today.

    • Forrest Johnson

      From the Bauernkrieg.

  • Denís Fernández Cabrera

    While I am in no way an expert in the matter of the flail, I will note that martial arts sources (manuals, essays, often very extensive) from as late as the XVII century do mention the flail, such as «Oplosophia» by Diogo Gomez de Figueiredo («mangoal» – portuguese) or «Resumen de la Verdadera Destreza de las Armas» by Miguel Perez de Mendoza («mangual» – castillian).

    These give a length for the flail of 175cm in total, by the way — the handle is supposed to measure about 42 centimeters, so that’s like 130cm of mostly chain. You can see it lying on the ground here:

    http://hroarr.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/mendoza.png

    These authors compare its usage with the «montante» (the iberian baroque two-handed sword, ~175cm tall and weighing about 2.5 kilograms, with the obvious caveat that you can’t thrust with it. Montante usage, itself, is desgribed mainly against multiple opponents, as a weapon of crowd control or to break formations or to defend a spot (a door, something or someone lying on the ground) against a group of attackers, etc, which allows us to assume that the flail was used similarly.

    Montantes were also relatively uncommon –the main sword by then was the rapier– and the authors state that it is rare that you will face someone using them, and only a few (10 that I know of) authors wrote about it. I would assume flails were even rarer, since nobody left written specific instructions for its usage.

    You can read more about the montante, and a couple of notes on its relationship with the flail, here:

    http://ageaeditora.com/en/2016/04/24/an-overview-of-the-iberian-montante/

    I will be happy to provide further information on these matters if you need it.

    • Paul Sturtevant

      Thanks for the interest. That weapon is later than the ones I’m describing, but interesting outside this conversation. How well attested are they? They seem like a very impractical design for anything but hitting yourself.

      • Denís Fernández Cabrera

        They are solidly described as weapons one would master to be a fencing master of the times (along with single rapier, rapier and dagger, rapier and rotella, rapier and gauntlet, rapier and cape, the montante, the halberd and in the case of Figueiredo, the master’s staff) in several sources.

        The mention is tangential, however: whereas for the montante explicit «rules» [think «katas»] are given (36 for Figueiredo, 15 for Godinho, etc), the flail is just mentioned as being handled in the same way, but you wouldn’t thrust (obviously).

        Since the main use for the montante in the context most of the rules describe was crowd control (to defend someone from a mob, to defend something or someone lying on the ground, to clear space around you or your friends, to swipe a street clean of people), I’d assume the use for the flail would be similar: you aren’t so concerned with hitting someone in particular, or even with hitting anyone at all, as you are with scaring them away, swiping their weapons apart, or keeping them at a distance. The basic movements include wide sweeps, continual movement and not a lot of aiming. You can see some videos for the montante here:

        I would expect that if a flail did hit someone, it would cause serious damage but impend your usage (you need to put it again in motion, which can be more clumsy due to its flexible nature) whereas the montante, being rigid, can be pulled back into action with more ease after striking home.

        At any rate, neither of them were «common» weapons, at least for the time, and I assume the fencing masters wrote about them because they were supposed to know about everything fencing-wise.

        But that does show that they did exist within the context of XVII century Iberia.

  • Rick Carufel

    If it doesn’t exist why are they in museums and depicted in Medieval art? How stupid do you think people are? Granted it may have had little use because it is a poor design. But it has definitely existed for a long time.

    • Hannah Ledlie

      He addressed both of those points in the article.

    • Matthew Thomson

      Sounds like someone raced to the comments without reading anything.

    • Scott Schwartz

      That argument doesn’t work though. We have depictions of Dragons but there were none. Artists were often priests with little to no ,military experience so their depictions may be suspect. I am not saying it is definately but I think an open mind to the possibility must be allowed.

    • There are also large collections of Iron Maidens and other torture devices that might have all been creative exercises in propaganda.

  • Alec Eiffel

    I’ve been told that flails were used to pass shields, wrapping around the edge and breaking the bearing arm, it seems credible but could also been another myth…

    • jg collins

      This was exactly what flails were for; you were told rightly. They were a way to get around a shield, either over the top or sweeping beneath it to entangle the legs. Flails were speciality weapons, often teamed up with other, longer-reach weapons.

      • MichaelZWilliamson

        That is exactly wrong.

        Shields were not that common, especially amongst levies. Unless it’s long enough to reach the man behind the shield, it will be of no effect. There are much easier weapons to learn to use that will reach past the shield with less practice (flexible weapons are much less predictable and more complicated than fixed weapons), and momentum is lost on impact–there is very little follow through with even a massive flail.

    • The chain of the typical flail depicted in media was nowhere NEAR long enough to strike the bearing arm over the top of the shield. At BEST you might catch the shoulder, but it’s dubious how much energy the ball will maintain if it’s being redirected by the top of the shield.

    • Scott Schwartz

      I don’t think they would break an arm like that. The arm is set down in the center of the shield and protected by the curve of it. With its close distance to the body during combat I don’t think the flail would be able to get back there with enough impact to matter. It would most likely hit the head or perhaps the back it striking sideways.

  • Kyle Edwards

    The use of the flail was indicated in Hans Talhoffer’s Fechtbuch in 1467. The Fechtbuch is one of the many texts that modern active HEMA enthusiast reference for their training. Talhoffer has been speculated to be a founding member of the Frankfurt-am-Main-based Marxbrüder fencing guild even though there is no indication of their existence before 1474. If you want a confirmed yea or nay I woudl contact Michael Chidester @ wiktenauer http://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Talhoffer_Fechtbuch_%28MS_78.A.15%29

    • Rhoanna

      That isn’t a one-handed weapon with a ball on a chain. It’s a staff-length weapon with a very short chain attaching a club/baton type object.

  • Mark Ryan

    My guess is that, if they existed, they were anti-shield weapons. In an applicable weapon, the chain would’ve been short enough to pose no danger to the hand of the wielder, but still allow the energy of the swing to be transferred into the head whereupon the spikes would grip the inside of the shield or even stick into it, if wood, so it could be ripped away, or break the shield arm. Similar to a pike or halberd, but not so unwieldy in close quarters as long as it was used for overhead strikes only.

    • Christian Fabris

      That’s what they thaught me but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be the best weapon of choice to fight someone with sword and shield, it is too slow and too short to do some kind of damage

  • Scott Kent

    I suspect the flail had religious overtones and was therefore more of a ceremonial or “for show” piece for the pious knight.

    • Maybe like a weaponized censer? A 400 year old precuser to the over the top religious images of Warhammer 40K perhaps?

    • Paul Sturtevant

      That seems like a plausible idea for at least the extant ones and one of the manuscript pieces (possibly due to its similarity to a censer). However the ones held by the Saracens in the Polo manuscript are pure fancy.

  • Nergal

    Something the author missed: Both manuscript depictions of the military flail show it being used from horseback, where formations may not have been as tight. Also, swinging from horseback at a gallop, into a formation, the impact of a flail head would have been substantial. Armor of that period was capable of stopping the bullet of an arquibus (early guns replaced bows for economic reasons, not military reason) and so an armored knight on horseback may have been capable of closing with a formation. Over all, I do agree with the assertion that it was a dead end, as were many military developments found in various fechtbooks from the period.

    • MichaelZWilliamson

      Also, with the chain wasting momentum, it means one could get the impact from the charge, with far less damage to one’s wrist. Assuming they can be documented.

      • Scott Schwartz

        One argument for the chain is the ability to wrap around a shield

        • MichaelZWilliamson

          I would disagree with that on several grounds. Shields were not that common, especially amongst levies. Unless it’s long enough to reach the man behind the shield, it will be of no effect. There are much easier weapons to learn to use that will reach past the shield with less practice (flexible weapons are much less predictable and more complicated than fixed weapons), and momentum is lost on impact–there is very little follow through with even a massive flail.

        • Parker

          In asia there were similar flails that were used not with brute force, but rather quick precise movements. While not necessarily effective in terms of harm, the were used to instead ensnare weapons. Though lacking the spikes these weapons too had a head the end of a chain.

    • M. Alan Thomas II

      And from horseback, you couldn’t have used a two-handed design easily. Cutting it down to a one-handed design would be a reasonable experiment. Perhaps one that failed, but not to be ruled out as purely illogical.

    • Scott Schwartz

      But bounce back against your horse would have been a huge issue

      • Nergal

        Probably true, which could be why it fell out of favor. Barding armor may have been sufficient to protect a horse from a recoiling flail ball; but I’d need to see experiments in that direction. I’d add that Barding armor would have been very expensive, and someone who could afford it, could also afford a sword. Also, the length of the chain is another factor. A longer chain has greater potential for a harder bounce back, but the chains on some of them don’t look very long. Would a slightly longer handle, with a short chain seem out of the realm of possibility?

      • Cringeworthy

        I doubt there would’ve been much bounce-back, because the idea behind the flail was that you swung it overhead, over the top of the opponent’s shield. The sudden change in momentum as the chain wrapped down and around the shield added to the impact. Now, if you swung it at the wrong time… I dunno. As others have pointed out, it could be the reason why flails never became “standard issue.”

    • Doug Leary

      Used from horseback against infantry as you describe, I wonder if the flail could have been a disposable weapon, sort of a hand-delivered cannonball. A rider charging into a formation would look even more frightening swinging a spiky mass of metal around on a chain, about to let it fly.

      • C.Technical

        Thats an interesting thought. They did occasionally employ metal bars and metal balls as thrown fake grenades, sometimes with deadly accuracy. A weapon thrown from horseback like that could probably break an arm at least

    • Kathy Stuart

      Perhaps the flail, used from a mounted position, was not at all about making contact with the enemy, but the enemy’s horse. Such a device would certainly break a horses leg in short order and the dynamics of it would diminish the possibility of the weapon bouncing back.

      • David Beveridge

        It makes me wonder if it was intended as a one-strike weapon (break & entangle the opponent; bearer lets go on a successful strike)….

    • Paul Sturtevant

      It’s possible, but I don’t see how a flail gives you anything that you don’t already get from a stout mace, and the unpredictability of the weapon’s recoil would make it very difficult to control after a strike at speed. The lance, sword, and mace were always better ideas.

      And that doesn’t really counter the issue that we don’t really have any from that period that saw combat. Arguing that something is plausible doesn’t get around the fact that we don’t have the evidence for them existing as a combat rather than ornamental/ceremonial weapon.

      Thanks for your interest!

      • Paul Hoogeveen

        Since you mention recoil: One potential advantage may be that the flail design reduces the recoil force that transfers back to the user’s hand, thereby reducing fatigue. (Compare striking a target with a nunchaku versus striking a target with a club hammer.) Provided that a one-handed flail would have been used primarily on horseback by a warrior trained in its use and familiar with its properties, it isn’t a far leap to assume that the trained warrior would have a fairly good understanding of the weapon’s post-impact properties.

        Above all, we don’t want to fall into the trap of dismissing an implement’s probable utility because we lack a contextual understanding of its actual use. No less an expert than George Cameron Stone fell into this trap, writing that Chinese war swords were undoubtedly clumsy and unwieldy, when anyone who has ever watched a trained expert handle such a weapon knows this to be far from the truth.

        • Gordon Permann

          Plus, these affairs tended to last hours and swinging a sword overhead for 3 hours may *sound* like fun but most folks couldn’t do it. Far less energy used to swing a flail, plus if you dent in a helmet, the skull goes with it. My intrusive thought here is that it may have been a lightweight, discardable weapon, one of several different tools in the belt for a fighting man looking for any extra edge. I was an occasional machine gunner, but that said, I carried an Uzi in my flightbag, a .45 in my vest, and at least three knives. If I had a flail, I’d probably have carried it as well.

      • David Beveridge

        It gives two things:
        1: the ability to hit over/around a defensive shield/strike
        2: as Paul Hoogeveen notes, below, a lack of inertial transfer through the shaft.

        It still seems dubious to me, however, for two reasons:
        1: From horseback, the LAST thing you want your weapon getting tangled around something (like an opponent’s block, and torn from your hand (or worse)–this seems likely with a flail’s design.
        2: I struck a shield w/a 3-headed flail to have one of the chains break . . . the spiked ball shot backwards at face level (missing mine by inches), missed the head of another observer who was 20′ *behind me* by inches . . . . not good.

        • Talyn

          Many horseback weapons were meant to be released. a single devastating kill could have dire implications on the morale of their opponents and cavalry was already intimidating enough.

      • Talyn

        The flail is heavy, it delivers a thud, not a rebound. Have you ever rebounded a heavy chain? They overcome the rebound through gravity and fall. Footman’s flails (Modern term) were meant to be used against charging riders. The idea was that the weapon would hinge and wedge between a horses legs bitin in, and breaking them as they got tangled. this allowed infantry time to break formation and regroup at worst, and kill the rider at best. (This usage had them thrown, and would explain why many have spikes on the bottom and top of the handle (I saw a few when I was in Europe)

        On horseback, the sheer momentum of a charge with a swinging flail would kill most people, and the momentum carrying through would not skip back, but deflect and keep going.

        Also, look into Dueling Shields, these weapons were designed to remove the edge of trained fighters in duels with commoners. This was achieved by their unique design and awkwardness that flew in the face of traditional training. As a tournament weapon, the flail would nicely fill that role.

        I’ve used many weapons in recreation and sport fighting. the disadvantages of the unwieldy flail are offset by the fact that it is even more difficult to defend against. It doesn’t tangle in my experience, mostly because it powers through most obstacles. They would also be very hard to block with a shield. My shield was made out of modern plastic against a blunt and padded flail. It nearly broke my arm and numbed me out for over an hour. It dented another person’s shield boss. this was with a “safe” weapon we were trying as an experiment… conclusion… it was not safe. It was unpredictable and hard to defend against and delivered so much impact that even a light swing could seriously hurt someone.

        I would argue that they were not common weapons, and not very practical, but just like the two handed sword… Useless to the untrained, but absolutely dominating to someone who has trained with one.

        Please I encourage you to contact your local SCA or other reenactment group and ask for a demo. Strap on some Armour and try out a flail. you will see what I mean. (I know the SCA is not accurate for fighting, but its a good gauge in this case)

      • Dehaene Luc

        Here in Belgium you can find some in flanders if you are interested. I can find you some specific information about where you can see them if interested.

      • Marc Rosen

        Ever hit a solid object with a bat and get anything from the tingles to complete temporary loss of the use of your arm?

        It’s worse whacking something from a moving car or horse. A section of chain between the impact surface and the handle would damp that out completely. There’s a possible real and concrete benefit over a mace, one cannot afford 5 min shaking your hand out mid battle.

      • Nergal

        A type of military flail known as a “kisten,” which has a non-spiked head and a leather thong, rather than iron chain, attaching it to the haft is attested in the 10th century in the territories of the Rus, likely having been adopted from either the Avars or Khazars. Looking at the design of the flail, one could suppose that when it was no longer needed, it may have been scrapped and turned into a more civilian tool, or simply discarded, which would have meant that there might not be very many (if any) left, if they were not common to begin with. On the flip side, they could have simply been used until they couldn’t be used any longer.
        This isn’t the only case of this. We have few surviving falchions, despite that being a -VERY- popular weapon, which is named in numerous sources.
        The problem I am seeing here is that we simply can’t prove or disprove a negative.

      • Anon the Anonymous

        Think about it like a cavalry saber. Regular swords were seen as hard to use on horseback due to the fact that cutting into someone with a regular sword on horseback causes your sword to most likely catch. However as we began to have more and more units that were mounted only, they used curved swords since after cutting a target it makes it much easier to pull the sword out from a target. Transferring that logic over to a flail, look at is counterpart the mace. Although a flanged mace is strong hitting it against a target while on horseback would really hurt your arm since most would have armor meaning that the impact would be even harder. But a flail would deal even more damage for the first part, since you would also have the momentum of swinging it as well as the momentum from the horse. Also with a flail, since you wouldn’t have the bounce-back from the mace you could hit a target more and more with your flail.

  • Siegfried Heydrich

    The only real flails that were used in period were threshing flails that the peasants had because, well, what else did they have other than pitchforks? Those were short polearms, essentially, with a maybe 4′ – 5′ haft and a 1′ -2′ flail arm.

    • Tann

      Well, the also had axes and pruning hooks, and even spades, if it comes to that. There were all kinds of agricultural implements that could be suitably sharpened and turned against people; that, indeed, is what happened.

  • kevinks

    Hmm, this article has interesting parallels with Nikolas Lloyd’s Morningstar/Flail piece from 2014: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-y6oirEsZA

    • Brian Michael Hartman

      This is suspiciously similar, indeed. That’s very disappointing.

      • enteecee

        I don’t think two or more different researchers arriving at similar conclusions from similar sources is suspicious or disappointing.

  • Andy Reddson

    Interesting. I wonder if proof positive will ever be possible…

  • chrisbrady

    The one handed flail was actually called a ‘Morning Star’. What D&D calls a ‘Morning Star’ is in fact nothing but a spiked mace. Which is actually a redundant title because all maces had various styles of ‘spikes’ and flanges on it’s head/striking surfaces.

    I will not attest to the Morning Stars existence however, as I’ve no evidence claiming it did exist.

    • MichaelZWilliamson

      Flanges are not spikes, and there were also ball maces that did not have any protrusions.

      Also, if you can’t attest to its existence, you can’t authoritatively furnish a name.

      • Tedronai

        Dragon. Pixie. Mermaid. Zombie. I do not attest to their existence, but I am reasonably confident that they are so named.

  • Scott Schwartz

    Very interesting article. Food for thought. It would be interesting to see an actual metalugical study done on existing examples.

  • James Campbell

    I remember a book series some years ago called Falcon which related the adventures of a former crusader named Draco DE Montefalcon who was a leader of a band of mercenary warriors, one of the book characters carried a flail of the ball and chain variety with the spiked ball. His usage of it was unique he would either work in tandem with another soldier and use the ball to stick to a shield pull it down while the other soldier cut the fellow down. In personal combat he used a buckler and instead of swinging the flail he would snap it it out and back much the same way you would work a bullwhip. The author of the series described how he trained in a few paragraphs to make it read more realistic. not a bad series they can be purchased on Amazon I think they had five or six novels.The article made me remember about the weapon and the series

    • PhasmaFelis

      If anyone else goes looking for this, it appears to be by Mark Ramsay (a pen name of John Maddox Roberts). Had some trouble finding it, as the name “Draco de Montefalcon,” with an E, appears nowhere on the internet but this post. 🙂 I eventually guessed the correct spelling, “Draco de Montfalcon,” and even that only appears twice; but one of them mentions the name of the author, so here we are.

      • James Campbell

        It has been some years since I read the series so memories fade on somethings

  • Steve Fillmore

    I make no claim to being anything like a weapons expert just interested and I may have missed this in my quick read but although this article is about European weaponry bluntly stating that they were impractical leaves out a valid melee weapon of the East. nunchakus which are well documented.

    • Paul Sturtevant

      Thanks for your interest. I’m not arguing against the possibility of any hinged weapon, just that this particular one did not exist as it is commonly understood to have. However it is also my understanding that there is quite a bit of controversy over the extent to which nunchaku were ever used in warfare, with apologies to Bruce Lee and Michelangelo.

  • kennethone

    Just like with some weapons of nazi germany, these flails most certainly HAVE existed, but most certainly did not become mass produced and were not effective in combat, thus they were often abandoned to rot in the field. If people went to battle with rocks tied to a stick, they most certainly used a primitive weapon like this at a certain point. The problem is thats its neither cheap to produce, nor effective to use. I can see where some cheaper variants may be easier to build than an axe or a hammer. But the main selling point of some of these fancy weapons was their ability to disguise as farming tools. The flail was just not able to do this

  • Chris T.

    I call “Black Swan”! (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_swan_theory)

    Military flails are pretty well documented in China from the 900s, and textually even further back.

    Take for example, this illustration based on the famous Song Dynasty (960-1279) compendium of military knowledge that was rich with illustrations of military equipment of the day. The image is from “中國古代兵器圖集” (Ancient Chinese Weapons – a Collection of Pictures) published by the PLA.

    As for the musings about being unwieldy, especially the “Lord of the Rings” examples. What can be said? Perhaps: You’re right! A *real* super-powerful, magical dark elf would *never* do that.

  • Forrest Johnson

    Widely used in Germany, particularly during the 16th Century Bauernkrieg. Also an Asian weapon. From “A Glossary of the Construction and Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor” (Stone):

    • Paul Hoogeveen

      I love Stone’s book and consider it a valuable resource. That said, some of his work is flawed and should taken with a few grains of salt. His estimations of the utility of some Chinese weapons, for example, suffer from a Eurocentric lack of understanding of their use.

  • Robert King

    Interesting points, somewhat akin to those made about some medieval torture instruments (like the Iron Maiden) and Victorian inventions of chastity belts. A couple of points to make about the morgenstern though. While you are doubtless right that it is unweildy, there are other cultures that use flails in battle: notably the Japanese where peasants, forbidden from carrying swords, used variants of rice flails and threshers (e.g. the famous nunchaka)
    Secondly, while the mace has the follow through, the morning star has the ability to strike over and round a shield. As it does so the chain shortens, accelerating the head, and allowing you to smash the arm holding the shield. Possibly it had a somewhat specialist use in this fashion?

  • Scott Plumer

    Next thing you’ll tell me is the Bohemian Ear Spoon wasn’t real! Seriously though, I used one and it seemed really unwieldy. I can see it causing a lot of damage if it connected, but if you missed, it could be a disaster. However, I know in D&D, one can use a flail to disarm an opponent, so the chain wrapping around an enemy’s sword would have that advantage.

  • deathbunny

    One characteristic of a weapon like this is the angle at which the impact would be delivered. Unlike a more usual impact weapon like, say, a mace, which the force would be delivered to the side aspect of whatever target you’re looking at or possible the front, if a flail’s user was within a relatively limited range, the articulated head would impact the rear of the target.

    If there were a large difference in what parts of the body were being armored–breastplates vs. a complete set of plate–this might be an advantage. However, it would require the user to get pretty close.

    “Consider that by 1500 [when the Met dates it] arquebusiers and pikemen are the mainstays of the army.”

    Pistols and sabers were still cavalry weapons into this era and beyond, both short ranged weapons, with the idea that the cavalry had the mobility and/or shock action to close into short range against arquebusiers/musketeers and pikemen and disrupt these units at a range these other weapons are as hazardous to one’s unit-mates than to the cavalryman.

    So, if these weapons were in fact used in any large number, it would likely be as a form of armor-avoidant weapon for short range fighting.

    If there were an older version using rope instead of chain, a sharp bladed edge (to cut the rope) along the edge of helms or other armor might be an artifact to look for to identify both the use of and the origins of this sort of weapon. (Assuming armor more likely to make it into the museums compared to weapons).

  • Pheardom

    All good and dandy, but the main aspect of the ball on chain, from a mounted position, is that I can hit the head of my shielded opponent, and or, grab the back of his shield and pull it away from him…. The flail reaches where the spear and sword and mace, do not.

    • PhasmaFelis

      I’ve heard this said a lot, but most of the flails I’ve seen don’t have terribly long chains–a foot or two, generally. Obviously a long chain would be very hard to control, but a short one doesn’t have the reach to hit a skull from behind a shield.

      Also I don’t see how you’d grapple a shield with a flail. You could certainly wrap it around a sword, but a shield is broad and has nothing to tangle the chain. I guess you could make a flail with back-curved arms like a grappling hook, but I’ve never seen one of those attested.

  • John Stepp

    Some of these look as if they could be used as a bolo, a fling and forget weapon that would take down a horse. I can see this being banned from tournament.

  • Pete Christman

    If it was such a worthless weapon,then,why did Pope Clement VII in 1530 outlaw it’s use in warfare and during Turneys, and at joisting matches?

    • curiouslorax

      Can you give a source for that please? That sounds like a really solid piece of evidence.

  • Pete Christman

    And the flail was used to get around the face of the sheild,and hopefully braking arms of the sheild holder

  • Lord Runcibald

    Yes don’t know about flails but interestingly I thought churchmen used maces as they weren’t allowed to spill blood. William the Conquerors brother Bishop Odo of Bayeux was supposed to have used one at Hastings. Maybe it was just a metal club though.

    • PhasmaFelis

      Odo does seem to have favored a mace, but the “not allowed to spill blood” thing seems to be based entirely on wild speculation about why he might have done so. If nothing else, maces spill *plenty* of blood; they’re meant to break bones and skulls. There’s no documentation of other fighting priests preferring bludgeons, and no mention in contemporary literature of such a restriction.

      • Lord Runcibald

        Yes you are probably correct about the mace/priest story-I seem to remember my tutor at college, Revd Cowdrey who seemed to know everything there was to know about the Normans told me about the belief that as maces crushed rather than cut it was seen of as acceptable for cleric warriors to use them.

      • Lord Runcibald

        Yes you’re probably correct-can’t recall where I heard the warrior-clerics using maces story. Always quite liked the way medieval clerics evaded restrictions on their activities and thought the use of maces would be fairly typical behaviour for worldly churchmen.

  • Benjamin Rodriguez

    Makes sense, it’s like saying that the Gunbai Fan was somehow a weapon.

  • Valery Belayev

    There’s a big corpus of Russian research on Russian and Asian one-handed flails. There’s a lot of archaeological evidence of such weapons. I’ll give some highlights from the Russian Wikipedia article and then invite you to read it through Google Translate:
    https://ru.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%9A%D0%B8%D1%81%D1%82%D0%B5%D0%BD%D1%8C

    The weapon is called ‘kisten’ in Russian. These weapons almost always used a leather belt or a rope instead of a chain, but besides that, they were very much like the flails that you described here. Many such weapons had a bone head or a lighter metal head, and were primarily for civilian use. Others were heavier, found in warrior graves, some of them had significant impact marks, some of them had engravings which had marked them as belonging to lord’s military retainers. It looks that in the military use the weapons were intended as a cavalry secondary weapon, so they were one of the array of weapons to choose from for a particular situation. Also, having many backup options, using a leather belt instead of a stronger chain was non-critical and economical.
    There are literary sources which describe them. Most are Russian, but one of them is from 16th century by an Austrian baron (from modern Slovenia) who has visited Moscow is of the particular note. He gives a very particular description of the kisten: as opposed to a lance, axe, bow, which are just named, kisten is described as if it would not be familiar to his readers. So it may very well be a rarely-used or non-existing weapon to the Europeans to the West of Poland, supporting your article. However, the claims about the practicality of this weapon are probably misplaced, as it had seen a lot of use in some parts of the world.

  • RambaRal

    Check out this https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saracen_Joust
    In the text there’s written “Saracen holding a cat-o’-nine-tails” but it’s incorrect. I’ve personally seen it and I can assure is a flail with three balls at the end.
    The italian version shows more correct information. If you are interested in it I can translate something more about, maybe from official site of Giostra del saracino.

  • surprize

    I was interested in the argument about the manuscript illustrations being fantastical representations of warriors from the ‘middle east’. Given the lack of understanding in Europe about the non-European world is it possible that as it WAS a weapon in China there was a belief it was just a ‘Eastern’ weapon? (I.e. another example of European medieval scholars just assuming everything East of Damascus was interchangeable). Thus why it is shown in those illustrations as being something characteristic of the exotic East.
    If that hypothesis is true then it would mean at some level the Chinese weapon was not totally unknown in Europe as a concept. That would further lead to the possibility (or likelihood) that some weapon smiths would have tried to replicate it. Then the various practicalities mentioned would be reasons for its lack of popularity.
    As you start by saying it’s difficult to prove a negative. I think a good case could (has) been made for it never being standard issue, or even that popular. But given it did exist in similar forms elsewhere in the world, did exist as a two handed version in Europe and was depicted in contemporary manuscript illustrations (however fantastical) I think it’s a hard sell to say “didn’t exist” as in no-one ever gave it a go in battle. Seems like there is enough of a plausible vector for knowledge of it, coupled with natural human ingenuity/stupidity to suggest at least one ambitious idiot would have tried one.

  • ohminus

    While use in tight formations was certainly impractical, that says little about the use in single combat. We know from the manuals by Talhoffer that some pretty unusual weapons were used in some ordeals, and the weaknesses of the flail are certainly only greater in the “rock in a sock” design for the combat of man vs. woman. ( https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/57/Ms.Thott.290.2%C2%BA_080r.jpg )
    and it’s not like stranger weapons weren’t apparently used in some of these:
    http://wiktenauer.com/images/thumb/a/af/Cod.icon._394a_84v.jpg/300px-Cod.icon._394a_84v.jpg

  • Dave Satterthwaite

    That is an utterly awful article, and is an indictment of the dangerous attitudes that some ‘historians’ have.

    1) You don’t make factual assertions about things you can conclusively not prove – ‘they didn’t exist’. You don’t know that. You’re creating clickbait, not historical comment – and attempting to spread an idea that has the same, or less, evidence than the one you’re trying to disprove.

    2) Sources that have as little evidence as yourself to back their points of view do not add veracity.

    3) Those arguments about why it is a bad design apply to plenty of other alleged weapons of the period – and a proper historian would know that firstly, not all weapons are designed to be employed in the limited fashion you describe (for example the ‘tightly packed formation’ isn’t an issue for mounted troops), and secondly, apparently sub-optimal weapons are not uncommon – meaning either humans did things that weren’t 100% a good idea (Gasp!) or that whatever they were doing, we don’t know precisely what it was but they thought it worked just fine.

    4) The mass flail collection conspiracy, or how the New World Order and Lizard People decided that inserting fake flails would advance their nefarious plans. Your first example sees Dr Dupra’s quote make no sense at all – or disproves your point. He’s assuming it isn’t a weapon and then wondering why it has steel chains. Well, yes. Why would something that isn’t a weapon have steel chain? Maybe because it is actually a weapon?

    Your second example is the most terrible exemplar of how terribly myopic historians are. “probably also decorative or ceremonial. Consider that by 1500 [when the Met dates it] arquebusiers and pikemen are the mainstays of the army.” In a world of guns and 20-foot-long spears, this flail would have been worse than useless on the battlefield.”

    Well, no. Any historian worth their salt should know perfectly well that the (assumedly Western European) armies of 1500 were far from uniformly equipped. That many of the poorer troops went to war with weapons that ranged from long knives to agricultural implements, while many of the richer ones carried equipment that would not have been out of place in armories of centuries before. A decent historian would also know that this could quite possibly be a symbolic baton used to denote rank and/or direct troops, as in many places these were modelled off forms of historic maces.

    And then, you have the temerity to produce a bunch of what are most definitely fakes, created specifically AS fakes, and then claim that their provenance some how disproves the existence of the actual weapons they were purposefully created to imitate. If anything, they add more likelihood to the existence of actual military flails (otherwise why bother making them) but that aside, trying to suggest that something from five or six centuries later provides a historical argument for a given period is the worst kind of historical dishonesty.

    5) The manuscripts. Apparently you’ve never seen a medieval manuscript before, and are utterly unaware of the conventions of the time. The addition of fantastical beasts does not in any way invalidate the other content. It will blow your mind to hear this, but the folks back then had different ideas about how communication – and the world – worked. I’ll assume ignorance, because for an actual medieval historian to claim that fantastical illustrations negate the content they are accompanying would be pretty damn criminal.

    Now, the ONLY point you have that has anything approaching historical validity is the lack of mentions in records and armoury inventories.

    For this to hold any water, you would first of all need to analyse the regularity of which various weapon types were mentioned in these sources in the given time periods, then you would need to cross reference that with the actual uses of these weapons, paying close attention to purpose, cost, social standing and other factors that would impact upon their likelihood of depiction. For example, a weapon that was rarely used and only by specific classes of people would only appear in certain areas of record as opposed to weapons in more common usage.

    Given we don’t know in which periods of history or physical areas the flail was used as a weapon, and that they are quite possibly eras in which record keeping was not extremely comprehensive, this isn’t a workable task – and returns to the initial issue of being unable to prove a negative.

    All in all, well done in writing a clickbait article. As a marketing and communications professional, I give you an A+.

    But in terms of making any historical commentary, do not do these things again. This biased, lazy approach not only brings disrepute to the profession but creates a dangerous precedent that turns historical analysis into ideological fiction.

    • Talyn

      *applause*
      Well said

    • GameOgre

      /mic drop

    • Brian Michael Hartman

      Your arguments would be stronger without the ad hominems. There’s no reason to degrade the person you’re talking with unless you have a weak argument that can’t stand on its own logic alone. You have a strong argument, so leave out the personal attacks.

    • It’s a pretty weird move for the author to argue that evidence for the existence of flails is actually evidence of their non-existence.

  • Peter Blatchford

    Maces were often used by clergy ,as they did not spill Christian blood.the similarity noted earlier to an incense censer may have extra religous overtones .I have experimented with a simple flaill mace for my own education , keeping the chain to 6 inches long with a handle no longer than a foot produces a fairly useful weapon , able to crush armour plate 16 gauge to 2 gauge with moderate effort (formed pieces too) ,as a “throw away ” cheap close range weapon for the melee on horse (after the charge with the primary weapon , the lance) where a sword may be too cumbersome. I found straight armed blows with no fancy whirling (as in hollywood!) Would have been quite effective , and despite wearing a close helm for safety ,suffered no recoil or out of control strikes to my head or body , from horseback against lighter armoured infantry the results I believe would have caused shocking head and upper body injuries

    • Tann

      The whole “Churchmen didn’t use weapons that shed blood” thing seems to be largely a myth. I suspect it was almost literally of whole cloth, being derived from the depiction of Bishop Odo with a club on the Bayeux tapestry. Contrary to that, there are numerous references to clergymen using edged weapons, e.g., Bishop Turpin in the Song of Roland. I do recall a clerk in Joinville’s Life of St. Louis who is excluded from clerical life after he kills two men with a sword, but it is clear that it’s the killing, not the sword, that is the matter. When Richard I threw Philip of Dreux, the Bishop of Beauvais, into prison, he sent the Pope, not Philip’s sword, but his mail-coat, to show that he was behaving like a “son of Mars.” There are several bishops depicted with swords in the Grand Armorial of the Toison d’Or; though their depiction there is largely symbolic, it at least demonstrates that the idea of a bishop bearing an edged weapon was not considered dishonorable.

      • Peter Blatchford

        Possibly for the less concerned or pious , edged weapons were definitely an option , but likely as postulated about the whole “mace on a chain” it was a fad or affectation limited to a certain time period or persons or simply an ideal spoken of and then ignored , like the whole chivalry thing! I have the same idea using crossbows on Christians was frowned on at one time
        But there are many documented wars where this was ignored.

        • Tann

          Crossbows were forbidden to be used against Christians at the Second Lateran Council (1139), with the prohibition being repeated at the Fourth (1215). Philip II of France’s official historian, Rigord, represents them as having been introduced into France by Richard, which is why the Fates (literally, the Fate Atropos) ordain that he is to die by a crossbow bolt himself.
          As to the “flail,” I suspect that, it was developed from the horseman’s goad or whip, which Dr. Sturtevant mentions in passing, directly into an ornamental form as a symbol of authority (not unlike the small flail carried by the Pharaohs of Egypt), showing that the commander (?) literally had the whip hand over his men; I imagine it would not have been meant as an actual weapon, any more than the rod of a herald.

  • Jason Inman

    IF they did exist they would not have been useful in formation… but in one on one combat they would be quite effective… a shield would have been almost useless against it, and you could entangle a sword, spear or axe quite easily. If it was more of a duelists weapon that would explain why they were not issued to troops…

  • Kyle Yadon

    There is one more possible source, or inspiration, for the flail not explored here: the Asian martial arts weapon the nun-chaku. It’s a weapon that certainly does exist, and would have existed at the time referenced. And Marco Polo would more than likely have either encountered them, or at least stories of them. The nun-chaku is a highly effective weapon if you know how to use it properly, but it is also an incredibly easy weapon to defend against. So it’s possible that at least a few of the flails from around the time of Marco Polo’s journey were attempts to make the nun-chaku more difficult to defend against. But the result is the same, dead end.

  • VH

    b.s. article, flails are legit and probably used from horseback as a backup weapon

  • Jérôme Piroué

    “The few that we have dated to that period are authentic, but they are rare in collections because they represent a dead end.” What does this mean???

    • curiouslorax

      I had to re read that sentence a couple times. Pretty sure he’s saying that one possibility is that, contrary to some of his earlier claims, the ones in museums are authentic, but it was a very uncommon weapon used only briefly. As opposed to the other possibility that they are all fakes.

  • Barking dog

    Opinion opinions, so wrong opinions. Even if these weapons were rare (like armor, swords etc) they still existed.

  • Okay, I haven’t read all the comments, but I can’t not think about one thing: the assumption that this would be unvieldy and dangerous. If you’ve seen anyone using a nunchaku, who doesn’t KNOW how to use it, you will undoubtely have seen them hitting themselves in various very painful places.

    It would be safe to assume (I think, given the lack of provenance of the weapon) that users of the flail would also be well-versed in its usage – like quite a few of the old weapons.

    While many old weapons could be used without knowledge (like a broadsword or a quarterstaff), they would be a 100 times more dangerous if the user knew how to wield them. Perhaps they weren’t as dangerous as a flail to the user, but still.

    As others have pointed out, there are plenty of unvieldy instruments of destruction from old, and some of them are viewed as complete nonsense today – mostly because we fail to see how they could have been of any use.

    As for the physics of the flail, I do think that those who comment on the usage from horseback, and that the rebound and such not necessarily would be that harsh, are quite right. There are multiple ways one could arrest a rebound, although that would involve actually knowing how to handle the weapon. And the fact that you have a momentum to a relatively small metal ball gives you a bigger impact with less weight – which would be of importance if used from horseback, where you’re mostly stuck with using one handed weapons.

    I don’t know if the flail was in much use (probably not), but I hardly see any evidence of it being a modern invention.

  • whitehound

    I would have thought “find itself wrapped around [your enemy’s] sword] would be the point of such a weapon: if it existed its main use would be to drag your enemy’s weapon out of their hand, or wrap round their arm and pull them off their horse. Then there wouldn’t be much risk of rebound because you would be aiming to make contact using the chain, not the ball – the ball would just be to make sure the chain kept on wrapping, like a sort of short bolas. If the ball did hit a target, the spikes would tend to make it stick, further reducing rebound.

  • fgalkin

    Always fun to see some article on the internet insisting that the traditional weapon of one’s homeland (of which numerous examples exist, and which was still in use as a civillian self defense weapon as late as the early 20th century) never existed

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fd/Russian_flail_16.jpg

  • Axel

    The Leibrüstkammer in Vienna has a “Schlachtgeißel” from 1515, which amounts to a one handed flail (Saal III/A177 – in 1976).
    It has no spikes but just a metal ball on a pretty short chain. The weapon IS unusal and probably rarely used, but not non-existant or fictive.

    On another note, the warfare around 1500 saw some of the heaviest armoured knights (aka Gensdarmes) in history right next to arquebus and pike, using no shields. Maces – as often blunt as spiked – were one of the weapons of choice for mounted combat against armoured opponents, and it seems that the Schlachtgeißel is a variant for this – effective for blunt impact against armour plates. Stating that a flail is useless against guns and pikes is just a non-argument vs its existence, or worse.

  • Dehaene Luc

    The question is did these weapons exist? And if you take it i this sense the right question is, no they did not. BUT, if the question is: did flails exist? Then the answer is, yes they did? Confused about my answer, let me explain.

  • Dehaene Luc

    The question is did these weapons exist? And if you take it i this sense
    the right answer is, no they did not. BUT, if the question is: did
    flails exist? Then the answer is, yes they did? Confused about my
    answer, let me explain. The first question to ask is, what was considered as a weapon during those ages? Weapons where carried by soldiers, noble knights and highter ranking nobles, so we are talking about conscripts weapons (pikes, lances, bow of certain types,crosbow, halbarts, etc) and noble weapons (bastard and longsword, cavalry lances, two-handed swords, dagger, etc) so you can notice that they are verry few. On the side of that peasant troops that reenforced these troops durring wartimes came with the best they could find to fight the battle, mostly their tools of every day (that is where we find the flails). When war became an habit in some areas, peasant tryed to preapare themselfs better, for example by pulling some long nails true the wooden ends of their tools. When soldiers saw how those disorganised bands plowing true a wall of shields (at great loss of compagnions) by pulling the, meanly, wooden shield away with those spiked tools it gave them some ideas of their own and so devloped their own version (some better than the other) to do the same. The idea was to break the ennemy line and fight the rest with the more conventional weapons. So it was not really used as a weapon but more as a tool, just as was a ladder to climb the castle wall. That is why there is such a discusion about it. Later on some created indeed some verions for show and impression but not as weapon. In 1530 pope Clement VII indeed made a decree that outlawed this but not only this “weapon” from war and jousting for two reasons. He declared that is was not noble or cristian to use a “weapon” that killed in such an inhumain and horrible way. In jousting, he added, noble and cristian knights die due to the incontrolable nature ot these weapons, when jousting was a occasion to prove ones hability to fight not to kill and a moment of enjoyment that was tarnished by the manny deads. He also refered and urged all to use only the noble weapons to avoid unneeded killings.

  • RM

    You missed the final fight from 1952 Ivanhoe, where the bad-guy uses one of this – again, the bad guy with the evil weapon? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NS1Fhzy1Ss8

  • Andrei

    I believe we should not haste to classify these artefacts as fake. There is an extensive scholarship throughout Europe regarding this weapon, which has been often found in archaeological excavations. Labelling all such artefacts as fake, despite the clear dating for some of them, can only show a superficial understanding of this issue. I would draw attention on a recent article published in 2008, about war flails (kistens) from Poland (Piotr N. Kotowicz, ‘Early Medieval War-Flails (Kistens) from Polish Lands’, in ‘Fasciculi Archaeologiae Historicae’, Fasc. 21 (2008): 75-86). There are also other Polish authors who dealt with this type of weapon (J. Gruba, A. Czerepinski, A. Szpunar), and aside Anatoli Kirpichnikov, who proposed the first typo-chronology for war-flails, there are also studies on similar archaeological material from Central Europe (see P. N. Kotowicz, ‘Uwagi o znaleziskach kiscieni wczesnosredniowiecznych na obszarze Polski’, in “Acta Militaria Mediaevalia”, vol. 2, 2006: 51-66). The existence and use of the war-flails in Medieval Europe (at least in Central and Eastern Europe) is rather obvious.

    However, as per their use, we have little to no information. Concerning its practicality it is not to be connected with tight formations. According to the works cited by Piotr Kotowicz (too many to include them in one Facebook comment), this weapon has an Asian origin and was widespread among the Rus populations, but was also widely used by the Avars and Khazars (P. Kotowicz, ‘Early Medieval War-Flails…’: 75-6). Hence, this weapon was mainly used on horseback, so the movements were slightly different than those described in the article. And to refer to the previous comments, employing written sources from the 15th century is not viable for 10th-13th century weapons.

    The examples from the Metropolitan Muesum may be fake, as I have no knowledge of war-flails later than the 14th century in Europe. But they may as well be authentic, and pertaining to a European area with a different military tradition than East-Central Europe.

    In conclusion, the war-flail (or kisten) very much existed and was in use, but not throughout entire Europe. There are sufficient archaeological evidence of its use, but it cannot be found in any military treatise because it fell out of use by the late middle ages. It was a weapon for fighting from horseback and in loose formations (which is inexactly said, because the people of the eastern steppes did not have the same concept of ‘military formations’ like in western Europe).

  • Steven Mark Diatz

    I thought it was also called a ‘morning star’…?

  • Pavel

    Sorry man I was reading this artical and I do not get it. I come from the Czech Republic and this weapon was commonly used by organised rebels called Husité in 15th century. It is called řemdih and every kid which was attending elementary school knows it.There are also lot of these in our country still left. It makes this conversation useless.

    • enteecee

      Some kind of source would be great. Every school child here in the US learned that George Washington cut down a cherry tree as a boy, but it didn’t really happen.

  • kaboomNYC

    I don’t thinthink one can or cannot prove with 100% accuracy the existence of somethinsomething like this. At the same vtime the author’s test seems to be whether it works on the battle field. There are plenty of extremely odd weapons use for contests and personal defense that were unsuitable to the battlefield.

    Also, I’ve been visiting the Met for about 40+ years and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like a flail on display.

  • peter name

    maybe it was just like a pitch folk ie a farming tool that a poorper would use because he had nothing better ?

  • Sardondi

    I still remember as a child reading a fairly detailed illustration-rich coffee-table sized book on medieval warfare and weapons which I think was written in the 1950’s or very early 60’s. There were photos of several different examples of spiked maces, flails and “morning stars” which I recall as being housed at various European medieval armories and museums. I find it difficult to believe that all such examples could both be fakes and to have deceived all known experts of the day. But then I recall that this same book tried to tell me that the largest of medieval two-handed swords could weigh up to 100 pounds (!?!?!). Now perhaps this is my faulty memory or a misreading as a juvenile. I have no explanation.

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