The medieval flail – does any other weapon conjure up gruesome battle the way it does? Who can forget that scene in Return of the King when the Witch King swings his heavy flanged-headed flail and smashes Eowyn’s shield to bits? He chose wisely in picking a weapon of intimidation – flails just look nasty.

Modern rendition of medieval flail
Modern rendition of medieval flail

The flail was a wooden handle with a spiked ball or balls attached on the end by either a flange or chain. A single-balled flail was known as a morning star, and while other models featured more balls, they were all rare weapons, only appearing in art in the very late 15th century. Hence, they were likely never used in medieval battles.

The more common type of flail came from the peasantry, namely from harvesters of grain. Used for threshing, the long wooden stick had a flange at the tip which connected to a smaller wooden club. The peasants would beat the grain on the threshing floor to separate the useable wheat from the chaff. When it came time to fight, the peasants would grab whatever weapons they had; hence the flail developed its second purpose. Often, spikes were added to the club end.

The ball-and-chain flails proved just as dangerous to the wielder as to the enemy; due to the chain that could go slack, these weapons were unwieldy (as anyone who’s ever messed with nunchucks can attest). The pole versions were not much better in the hands of a novice, but the peasants who used them day in and day out brought their experience to wielding them as a weapon, and proved formidable indeed.

Peasants threshing wheat with flails
Peasants threshing wheat with flails
Book print, c. 1545-1547  Photo credit: britishmuseum.org © The Trustees of the British Museum
Book print, c. 1545-1547
Photo credit: britishmuseum.org
© The Trustees of the British Museum
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