Fantasy vs. RealityMuseums and Heritage

The Curious Case of the Weapon that Didn’t Exist

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.

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!