Flail (weapon)

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This article is about the weapon. For other uses, see Flail (disambiguation).
Spiked versions of long-handled peasant flails. From Paulus Hector Mair's combat manual Arte De Athletica

The term flail refers to two different weapons: a long, two-handed infantry weapon with a cylindrical head, and a shorter weapon with a round metal striking head. The defining characteristic of both is that they involve a separate striking head attached to a handle by a flexible rope, strap, or chain. The chief tactical virtue of the flail was its capacity to strike around a defender's shield or parry. Its chief liability was a lack of precision and the difficulty of using it in close combat, or closely ranked formations.

The longer cylindrical-headed flail is a hand weapon derived from the agricultural tool of the same name, commonly used in threshing. It was primarily considered a peasant's weapon, and while not common, they were deployed in Germany and Central Europe in the later Late Middle Ages.[1] The smaller, more spherical-headed flail appears to be even less common; it appears occasionally in artwork from the 15th century onward, but many historians have expressed doubts that it ever saw use as an actual military weapon.

The peasant flail[edit]

16th century peasant rebels

In the Late Middle Ages, a particular type of flail appears in several works being used as a weapon, which consists of a very long shaft with a hinged, roughly cylindrical striking end. In most cases these are two-handed agricultural flails, which were sometimes employed as an improvised weapon by peasant armies conscripted into military service or engaged in popular uprisings. For example, in the 1420-1497 period, the Hussites fielded large numbers of peasant foot soldiers armed with this type of flail.[1][2][3]

Some of these weapons featured anti-personnel studs or spikes embedded in the striking end, or are shown being used by armored knights,[4] suggesting they were made or at least modified specifically to be used as weapons. Such modified flails were used in the German Peasants' War in the early 16th century.[5][6] Several German martial arts manuals or Fechtbücher from the 15th, 16th and 17th century feature illustrations and lessons on how to use the peasant flail (with or without spikes) or how to defend against it when attacked.[7][8][9][10]

The ball-and-chain flail[edit]

Modern representation of a one-handed flail
Detail from Battle between Heraclius and Chosroes, painted by Piero della Francesca circa 1452, showing a short flail with three spherical striking ends
Detail from Battle between Heraclius and Chosroes, painted by Piero della Francesca circa 1452, showing a short flail with three spherical striking ends

The other type of European flail is a shorter weapon consisting of a wooden haft connected by a chain, rope, or leather to one or more roughly spherical striking ends. Modern works variously refer to this particular weapon as a "military flail," "mace-and-chain" or "chain mace," and sometimes erroneously label them as simply a "mace" or morning star, terms which technically apply only to rigid weapons. Some historians refer to this weapon as a kettenmorgenstern ("chain morning star") to distinguish it from the rigid weapon.[11]

The haft is usually shown as approximately 1–4 feet long and the head can be a smooth metal sphere or a somewhat geometric shape, with some variants covered in spikes. The chain also varies, sometimes being no more than a few links to form a hinge, while others exceed the length of the haft and are several feet long. Artwork from the 15th century to the early 17th century shows most of these weapons having handles longer than 3 ft and being wielded with two hands, but a few are shown used in a single hand or with a haft too short to be used two-handed.

Despite being very common in fictional works such as cartoons, films and role-playing games as the "quintessential medieval weapon," historical information about this type of flail is somewhat scarce. A few doubt they existed at all due to the number of pieces sitting museums that turned out to be forgeries, as well as the unrealistic way they are depicted in art.[12][13][14][15][16][17] Archaeologically, however, a type of military flail known as a kisten, with a non-spiked head and a leather, rather than chain, connection to the haft is attested in the 10th century in the territories of the Rus, probably being adopted from the either the Avars or Khazars. This weapon had spread into central and eastern Europe in the 11th - 13th centuries and may be considered an ancestor of the ball-and-chain flail.[18] Waldman (2005) documented several seemingly authentic examples of the ball-and-chain flail from private collections as well as several restored illustrations from German, French, and Czech sources. He states that the scarcity of artifacts and artistic depictions, combined with the almost complete lack of text references, suggests they were relatively rare weapons and never saw widespread use.[19] One of the reasons was the hazard the weapon posed to its wielder, especially the varieties with long chains and short handles. A missed swing would still retain momentum, causing the striking end to continue its arc around, potentially into the user's hand or body.[13] A miss could also throw the user off balance, and even if a blow were struck, there would be a dangerously long recovery time before the user could ready another swing or defend himself.[19]

Variations outside of Europe[edit]

In Asia, short agricultural flails originally employed in threshing rice were adapted into weapons such as the nunchaku or three-section staff. In China a very similar weapon to the long-handled peasant flail is known as the Two-section staff, and Korea has a weapon called a pyeongon.[20][21][22] In Japan, there is also a version of the smaller ball-on-a-chain flail called a chigiriki.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the long-handled flail is found in use in India. An example held in the Pitt Rivers Museum has a wooden ball-shaped head studded with iron spikes. Another in the Royal Armouries collection has two spiked iron balls attached by separate chains.

Gallery[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Eduard Wagner; Zoroslava Drobná; Jan Durdík (5 May 2014). Medieval Costume, Armour and Weapons. Courier Corporation. ISBN 978-0-486-32025-0. 
  2. ^ Stephen Turnbull : The Hussite Wars 1419-36, Osprey MAA 409,2004
  3. ^ media:344Wagenburg der Hussiten.jpg media:Hussites massacre.jpg
  4. ^ Maximilian I. "Colored plate depicting knights fighting with two-handed flails.". Freydal. Retrieved 2016-01-19. 
  5. ^ Douglas Miller : Armies of the German Peasant's War 1524-26,Osprey MAA 384,2003
  6. ^ media:German Peasants War.jpg
  7. ^ Hans Talhoffer (c. 1450s). "Talhoffer Fechtbuch (MS 78.A.15) Folio 60r". wiktenauer.com. Retrieved 2016-02-01. 
  8. ^ Hans Talhoffer (c. 1450s). "Talhoffer Fechtbuch (MS 78.A.15) Folio 60v". wiktenauer.com. Retrieved 2016-02-01. 
  9. ^ Michael Hundt (1611). "Ein new Kůnstliches Fechtbuch im Rappier - Figure 88". wiktenauer.com. Retrieved 2016-02-01. 
  10. ^ Jakob Sutor von Baden (1612). "New Kůnstliches Fechtbuch - Page 108". wiktenauer.com. Retrieved 2016-02-01. 
  11. ^ DeVries, Kelly (2012). Medieval military technology. North York, Ont. Tonawanda, N.Y: University of Toronto Press. p. 30. ISBN 1-4426-0497-2. 
  12. ^ Dr. Paul B. Sturtevant (May 12, 2016). "The Curious Case of the Weapon that Didn't Exist". The Public Medievalist. Retrieved 2016-06-01. 
  13. ^ a b DeVries, Kelly (2007). Medieval weapons an illustrated history of their impact. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO. p. 133. ISBN 1-85109-526-8. 
  14. ^ Nikolas Lloyd (1 December 2014). "'Morning Star' flails". YouTube. Retrieved 2015-02-24. 
  15. ^ "Military Flail | German | The Metropolitan Museum of Art". metmuseum.org. Retrieved 2015-02-24. 
  16. ^ "Military Flail | German | The Metropolitan Museum of Art". metmuseum.org. Retrieved 2015-02-24. 
  17. ^ "Military Flail | German | The Metropolitan Museum of Art". metmuseum.org. Retrieved 2015-02-24. 
  18. ^ KOTOWICZ, PIOTR N. (2008). "EARLY MEDIEVAL WAR-FLAILS (KISTENS) FROM POLISH LANDS" (PDF). FASCICULI ARCHAEOLOGIAE HISTORICAE. XXI: 75–86. 
  19. ^ a b Waldman, John (2005). Hafted weapons in medieval and Renaissance Europe the evolution of European staff weapons between 1200 and 1650. Boston: Brill. pp. 145–150. ISBN 90-04-14409-9. 
  20. ^ "네이버 지식iN :: 지식과 내가 함께 커가는 곳". Kin.naver.com. Retrieved 2012-12-18. 
  21. ^ "네이버 지식백과". 100.naver.com. Retrieved 2012-12-18. 
  22. ^ "VOTE!". Dvdprime.donga.com. 2009-05-08. Retrieved 2012-12-18. 

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