The medieval ball and chain, the one-handed flail or “morning star,” beloved by roleplaying teenagers and Ridley Scott epics, may have never existed.
In fact, it was largely the creation of artists and metal workers of later centuries, a pseudo-weapon only ever meant for display. It represented their idea of how bizarre and warlike the middle ages must have been: it was a meme, in other words, not a real fighting tool.
As I’m sure you can imagine, this information made me question great swathes of my childhood.
Historian and “friend” Scott Manning, creator of the excellent site Historian on the Warpath, decided to write a post specifically designed to hurt me: to prove, conclusively, the morning star’s non-existence.
Paul B. Sturtevant recently published an article at the Public Medievalist that argues the use of the ball and chain, technically called a one-handed military flail, is greatly exaggerated. More to the point, “they never existed.”
This has caused heartache for some of my friends, such as Daniel Wallace, who have a romanticized vision of the medieval knight and his choice of weaponry.
Sturtevant’s Case Against the Medieval Ball and Chain
In his article, Sturtevant makes 4 damning points against the medieval ball and chain:
- As a weapon, it is just too impractical to use.
- The most damning evidence is that it never appears in medieval descriptions of weapons nor does it appear in any armory catalogues, both of which we have plenty.
- While there are some in museums, those that do exist in places such as the Met are post-medieval “copies” (likely fakes), which never saw combat.
- That is not to say that the ball and chain does not appear in medieval art. Citing examples from the 15th-century, Sturtevant makes the astute observation that the appearance of the ball and chain is mixed in with the fantastical, and downright mythical.
I accept these “facts,” of course. Life, sadly, requires us to accept FACTS.
But, deep inside, the giggling child in my soul continues to swing his magical flail, crushing orcs with every blow.
Check out Scott’s excellent blog for more images, research, and links to further reading.