Collections: The Siege of Gondor, Part V: Just Flailing About Flails

This is the fifth part of a six part series taking a military historian’s look at the Siege of Gondor in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Return of the King. Parts I, II, III and IV can be found here, here, here and here. Last time, we looked at cavalry mechanics with the Ride of the Rohirrim. This time, we’re going to at the physics of some of our supernatural creatures and their equipment. The popular perception of pre-modern weapons and armor is often shaped by fantastic portrayals of their weight, durability and effectiveness in fiction. How did these objects hold up?

Book Note: This entire sequence I am assessing in the next two sections does not occur in the book. By the time the gate comes down, the effort to sow terror and despair has left the ground behind the gate completely undefended, save for Gandalf on Shadowfax although the tops of the walls were still manned (RotK, 112). The Witch King enters alone, without any orcs or trolls and is stopped by Gandalf.

This sequence in the book where Gandalf challenges the Witch King is fascinating for how Tolkien represents a power-duel between supernatural creatures. As with the Balrog, victory is marked not by an exchange of fireballs or blows, but by an ‘outside’ event that confirms the winner’s greater supernatural power. In the earlier case, Gandalf declares that the Balrog “cannot pass” and indeed – as the bridge collapses – it becomes clear that the Balrog very literally cannot pass (FotR, 392). We do not see the final battle between the two – but Gandalf has already proved the stronger, and wins the final confrontation (if only just) as well.

At the gates of Minas Tirith, Gandalf again makes a declaration, “You cannot enter here” (RotK, 113), not a plea or an order, but a cold statement of fact by Olorin, wisest of the Maiar. And again, he is correct – the Nazgul mocks him and threatens him, but does not enter. He is instead drawn away by the arrival of the Rohirrim, to his doom; Gandalf’s victory is decisive, though not total for the loss of Théoden (which it is implied might have been averted had Gandalf been able to ride out rather than having to return to counter the madness of Denethor). If this seems too much important to place on words, remember that this is a world where all spells are spoken, there are ‘words of power’ to command objects to action and the curse of a king might bind a people in undeath. In staging this confrontation for the extended edition, Jackson commits one of his rare errors of adaptation, and reverses the victory of the confrontation, breaking Gandalf’s staff.

The next we see of the men of the city is after Théoden has fallen, where we are told, “out of the City came all the strength of men that was in it, and the silver swan of Dol Amroth was borne in the van, driving the enemy from the Gate” (RotK, 130). It thus seems likely no orc or troll set foot in Minas Tirith – instead the men of Gondor appear to have attacked out of the city as soon as the Witch King was drawn away. There is certainly no space for the extended street-fighting of the film.

Trolling Physics

I want to start with the trolls. When the main gate of the city is smashed open by Grond, the scene in the film is quite different from the books. Gandalf has gathered a dense mass of heavy infantry, supported by archers, to defend the position. This formation is almost immediately overrun by a combination of trolls and orcs, essentially brushed aside by the power of the army of Mordor.

Pictured: Every website comments section ever.

The trolls are shown to be monstrously strong; they stand roughly twice the height of a man and can easily smash armored Gondorian heavy infantrymen into the air with their clubs. Now, on the one hand, fantastical creatures are fantastical and that’s fine. On the other hand, as noted, many people’s only exposure to how historical arms and armor (or fantasy versions of them) might function is in contexts like these, where the CGI team is utterly unconstrained by any real limits of weight or speed. So let’s do some science to the trolls. This is, perhaps, the only time one should not ignore the trolls.

Starting with their clubs. Most of the clubs we see have stone heads, which makes things very difficult to estimate: stone can have a very wide range of densities and strengths. But there is one troll, later seen bashing down a gate, with an iron hammer that we can use to get a sense of how strong these trolls are supposed to be. Note: this section is going to be math heavy. If you do not care about the math and foolishly trust me, you can skip below to where you see the bold, END MATH notation, to get the results.

Pictured: Forum Troll Attempting to Get Through Moderation.
Also, what is the point of that spike on the top back of the hammer? Is he planning to stab someone with it, because it barely projects further than the flat haft of the weapon. Looks like a great way to hurt yourself on your back-swing though.

Estimating the size of things here is always difficult, but we can try. The metal gate’s iron reinforcement is composed of five sections of that repeating pattern of circles and straight lines, and the hammer’s head is about as tall as one of them; we can see from the other side the gate is about 10ft tall or so – just short of twice the height of the soldiers defending it. So the hammerhead would be about 2ft tall on the large front face. Accounting for the thick front face, but also the thinned center and the hole for the shaft, we might estimate something like 1.5 cubic feet (around 42,500cm3). How heavy is that?

Iron, it turns out – and this is going to be a theme – is really dense. In particular, pure iron is 7.86g/cm3. Steel densities vary around that figure, but steel is still mostly iron (just 0.5% carbon content in iron is mild steel; 2%+ is pig iron – useless for most weapons), so it will be close enough to this figure for our purposes. So the iron alone in that club (7.86g/cm3 * 42,500cm3) is 334kg, or 736lbs (just over a third of a ton). Obviously, no human could lift this weapon, much less swing it – the heaviest clean-and-jerk lift in Olympic history is just 263kg. And that’s just to get the thing off the ground, much less swing it.

But trolls are much larger and stronger than humans. How much? Put another way: is it reasonable to expect a creature this size to be able to wield that hammer? A lot of things influence strength, but muscle force is closely tied to the cross section of the muscles involved. Again, it’s hard to get a clear estimate of how big a troll’s arm is across from the film. Let’s assume a troll’s arm is three times as thick as a human arm – trolls are twice as toll as men and orcs, and have bulkier frames, three times seems fair. Muscle strength scales with the cross-sectional area (we’ll simplistically assume a circle shape, so A=πr^2) of the muscle, so instead of being three times greater, it’s going to be roughly nine times greater (note: yes, I know that animal strength doesn’t scale this smoothly and there are all sorts of other factors, this is just a ballpark).

For our point of comparison, we might use a heavy modern sledgehammer. Sledgehammers are far too heavy to be used as weapons. While fantasy games – looking at you Elder Scrolls and Warhammer – often represent warhammers as essentially weaponized sledgehammers, real warhammers were nothing of the sort. Actual warhammers, such as the one pictured below, were relatively slender. For comparisons, the three war hammers in the Wallace Collection weigh 0.64, 1.22 and 1.51kg each (including head, haft and everything), while just the heads of normal sledgehammers can range between 4-9kg.

A warhammer, inv. A976, from the Wallace Collection, massing 1.51kg. It dates to c. 1510. Note the relatively slender construction.

And those of you doing the math in your heads already know where I am going: if a troll really is around 9 times as strong as a strong man, we might figure that a troll sledgehammer might be something like 81kg, and a troll warhammer only 5.76 – 13.59kg. Wildly short of the massive clubs and hammers the trolls wield in these scenes.

Likewise, the tremendous impacts we see – literally tossing men around like rag-dolls – probably exceed the strength of trolls. Armored men are, it turns out, quite heavy and hard to fling. How heavy? We can do a fairly quick estimate. Let’s assume a 170lbs (77kg) man, first off. Then we add armor – Gondorian soldiers wear a kind of mass produced plate armor that in early modern Europe was called almain rivet (discussed here). Some of the partial sets of armor in the Wallace Collection can give us a decent sense of what this sort of ‘half plate’ weighed – e.g. A30 at 16.3kg or A37 13.53kg. To which we must add weight for the mail shirt they wear under it (c. 5kg). Then a sword and spear (c. 1kg and c. 2.5kg respectively). And the shield – Gondorian soldiers carry a fairly large, semi-rectangular shield similar to a Roman shield, the scutum, which weighed around c. 10kg. So all in, a battle-ready Gondorian soldier might weigh around 110kg (242lbs).

Pictured: How 4chan users imagine themselves. Note the normal human, 20 feet up in the air. Fortunately, in the real world, no one actually cares about trolls.

Now we see one unfortunate Gondorian soldier tossed what looks like more than 20ft in the air (he is well over the heads of the trolls) – how much energy does it take to do that? In our own simplified high school physics sort of way, we can figure this out, very roughly. The energy required to lift a thing is equal to its potential energy after being lifted, which is equal to it’s mass, times the gravitational constant, times its height, in this case 6,576J (110kg * 9.8m/s^s * 6.1m); the hit must have imparted at least this much energy (more, in fact – we haven’t accounted for friction or air resistance). Since the club is still moving very fast, we might assume it retains something like half of the energy of impact (again, this is almost certainly a low-ball figure), so the initial kinetic energy of the club the moment before impact is c. 13,000J – the equivalent energy to a bit more than 3 grams of TNT.

As noted above, we might expect a trollish warhammer to be around 13.5kg tops – so how fast does the troll have to get it moving to launch a man? Kinetic energy is equal to 1/2 mass times velocity squared, so (13,000J = 1/2 * (13.5kg) * (v^2)), solve for ‘v’ (velocity in meters per second). 43.9m/s (98mph). That is very fast – for comparison, professional golfers, using long and quite light-weight clubs cap out under 130mph for the highest speed of the head of the club in their swing – and golf clubs are made to maximize head speed. And we have made a lot of favorable assumptions for the troll (for instance, a lot of the energy of impact is going to be absorbed by the body as it crumples or recoil into the hand of the troll; we also assumed the entire mass of the hammer is up at the point, which it isn’t). I think it is fairly safe to say that a troll’s one-handed swing is probably not sufficient to get the impact surface of a club or hammer moving at 100mph.

END MATH. So what is our conclusion? Mainly that it seems very unlikely that – as real, non-magical but monstrous creatures – trolls could actually function as they are shown. The weapons they are shown using are so heavy that they aren’t even on the right order of magnitude even when we assume a troll essentially has the strength of ten men. Moreover, even with such tremendous strength, it’s unlikely that trolls are going to be able to produce and impart the sort of energy necessary to – for instance – toss armored men high into the air with each hit. Casually smashing their way through a battle-line by tossing multiple men out of the way with their hammers isn’t something trolls can do without magic.

“Alright” I hear you say, “but you’re supposed to be a historian, not a physicist. Who cares?” I think this exercise is valuable because trolls – for all their limits – represent a fantastical extreme in size and power. If trolls can’t do it, no human, horse or camel can. And that is my point.

This man here on the lower left is about to have some serious troll problems. He should not have looked at the YouTube Comments.

In popular media (especially video games), we often see weapon strikes or horse impacts send men flying from the impact (the Total War series is a particular offender here). Hammer blows – or gunshots – send hapless ‘mooks’ flying through the air (the latter makes no sense when you remember that basic physics means that the recoil from a gun that powerful should also throw the shooter as hard in the other direction!). Dense infantry often simply gets ‘bowled’ out of the way and I’ve heard people thus question if dense infantry formations were just a fool’s game entirely as a result. Many modern reenactments or group spars do not help in this, because the groups are small and so the lines are drawn up with very little – if any – depth to them, so it seems possible to just ‘red rover’ your way through.

In practice, the physics work very differently. Trying to ‘push over’ or actually shove back an infantry line requires a lot of force – consider that, at ~8 men deep, a file (a single line of men from the front to the back) of Gondor-style infantry closed up together is essentially a c. 1-ton object with a huge base (around 72 square feet) and a low center of gravity (around 3ft off the ground). Even before you remember that those men are trying to kill you, there are very few natural things that can push through that – that’s the point.

The only real way to shock (as distinct from softening them with missile fire) close-order heavy infantry out of position was with other close order heavy infantry, and even then, it is going to be a slow, grinding affair of close-in fighting (as it was, for instance, when Roman legions met Macedonian phalanxes, or the ‘push of pike’ between early modern pike squares).

Troll Tactics

So troll strength, as shown, doesn’t seem in keeping with the laws of physics as we understand them. Trolls should be dangerous and massively, massively strong, but not so strong as to be able to casually toss armored men into the air. Yet a troll would also be a huge problem for a dense mass of infantry. How can we probe what that might be like? What is the nearest equivalent to trolls in terms of size, strength and ability to disrupt a formation in the real world? War elephants.

First off, war elephants could be even larger than a troll – the Indian elephant (Elephas Maximus Indicus – my choice here over African species will make sense in a moment) can be more than 10ft tall (capping out around 11.5ft) and weigh in excess of 4000kg (4.4 tons). While elephants obviously do not use weapons, they will use tusks and trunk as weapons (J. M. Kisler’s War Elephants (2006) has some shocking accounts of elephants using trunks as weapons to smash, crush and even tear apart humans). Elephants could also be armored, and (unlike trolls) have warriors mounted on them.

My favorite war elephant plate, again.

But unlike the Mûmakil in the previous post, the trolls at the gate are not deployed alone. Instead, they advance with the support of large numbers of orc infantry. So the best comparison here would be a situation where disciplined, close-order heavy infantry, somewhat but perhaps not entirely unfamiliar with elephants, encountered them used in close concert with supporting infantry. Fortunately for our curiosity, exactly such an encounter occurred on the banks of the Hydaspes River in the spring of 326 BC between the army of Porus, a powerful Indian king, and Alexander the Great. Normally I don’t go into tremendous depth on these comparisons, but I’ve found some descriptions floating around online – and even some translations – to rather miss the mechanics of the confrontation. So I want to go follow this through, step by step, with reference to the ancient sources.

A typical illustration of the Macedonian Sarissa Phalanx. This is a more robust formation than what we see the Gondorian soldiers adopt, but then again, the average Macedonian soldier was far less armored. He needed the protection of five layers of overlapping pike-points.

The Macedonians were formed up into their traditional sarissa-phalanx, a deep pike formation (see image). We are less well informed about the equipment of Porus’ infantry, but Arrian does tell us that they were heavy (Arr. Anab. 5.15.6). The main body of the infantry was arrayed in a strong line directly behind the elephants, but with advance companies in the spaces between the elephants (5.15.7) – this is important: Porus is deploying his infantry like a sawblade, with the elephants in between the teeth of the saw, so the elephants cannot be surrounded (as would be the later Roman anti-elephant tactic).

The battle is joined with cavalry at first, but when the elephants come up, the Macedonian cavalry has to retreat and be rescued by the phalanx, which now finds itself facing this elephant-tusk sawblade. Here is where many some interpretations fall into error – they reason from later tactics that the Macedonians might have loosened up their formation, let the elephants charge into the empty spaces between them, and then surrounded and destroyed them. But Arrian – the best source for the battle – is in fact quite clear this is what they do not do. Instead, the Macedonian formation stays tight (Arr. Anab 5.17.3).

The elephants clearly push through the wall of pikes, because Arrian reports that the elephants do serious damage to the phalanx (5.17.3), but that end up confined to the space between the lines of opposing infantry (5.17.5), closer to the Indian troops than the Macedonian ones (5.17.6), eventually turning on both in panic and rage. Critically, the Macedonians were able to give ground when the elephants would attack and then push forward once the animal’s charge was spent (I have seen this interpreted wrong – the Greek is quite clear that this is an ‘retreat and advance’ tactic (5.17.6), not spacing out the lines as against the chariots at Gaugemela(3.14.5-6)). They also continually harass the elephants with javelins. We can be sure Arrian does not imagine the elephants have been let into the Macedonian formation to be surrounded because they remain closer to their own troops than the Macedonians. The Macedonians win the struggle in the end, as Arrian notes, more due to their superior cohesion and experience than anything else (5.17.4).

A look at the Gondorian defense line. At least six men deep, in heavy armor, and stretching from wall to wall. This would be a tough formation to push through. Expect heavy losses.

What does this suggest for our trolls? Porus’ elephants were able to shove through the Macedonian pikes, we know (otherwise they would have inflicted no casualties), but not dislodge the entire formation. They could force it back and do damage, but the rain of missile fire and the hedge of pikes prevented any sort of overrun, while at the same time, the mass of supporting Indian infantry prevents the Macedonians from quickly surrounding and killing the elephants. We might expect the same for our trolls and orcs.

This isn’t to say the trolls and orcs are doomed to failure as Porus was against Alexander. The men of Gondor are not the hardened veterans of Alexander. Moreover, they are spear-and-shield infantry and their spears are a lot shorter than Macedonian pikes (though, to be fair, their armor is much more protective). On the flip side, as we’ve seen in the last post, orcish cohesion and discipline leaves much to be desired, compared to Porus’ heavy armed and quite effective infantry. Gondorian cohesion seems to hold – this is one of the last shots we get of the fighting at the gate on the ground:

Note how the Gondor soldiers are still fighting in good order in the foreground and the background, but in the middle there is this coursing river of orcs just shoving their way through. Pushing through a solid block of infantry like this is not typically possible.

This is one of those shots that show up in all sorts of movies (and shows) but make no sense. In the foreground and the extreme background, we have solid blocks of good guys, still fighting effectively, but in the middle somewhere, is just a never-ending column of orcs shoving straight through that line – despite there being no break. If you see crane-shots of these scenes as they are filmed (or if the director is careless) what you will see is that the extras from both sides are simply letting the other group through. Presumably the intended effect is to show stubborn but hopeless defense against an unstoppable tide, but as we’ve seen above, dense heavy infantry cannot be casually shoved out of the way like this, no matter how deep the formation you send at them.

So what should we see? Since the Gondorian formation doesn’t break and run, we should probably see it pushed back with heavy casualties, as parts of the line are forced to withdraw from the trolls. It would be a grinding forward push by the orcs – probably at heavy casualties given that the Gondorian soldiers seem to be better trained, more cohesive and better armed than they are – until they either the Gondorians broke and ran, got pushed back far enough to be enveloped, or were simply whittled down too far by casualties. But assuming they hold tight, we should not expect the ‘men of Gondor’ to simply be swept away.

(Note: If you are wondering why there was the eventual adoption of light-infantry centered ‘let them through’ anti-elephant tactics (since the Macedonian pikes, supported by javelins seemed to have worked eventually), I suspect it was to avoid the heavy losses the Macedonians seem to take fighting elephants at closer quarters. While the Macedonians win at Hydaspes, Arrian is clear the elephants inflicted serious damage. by contrast, the Romans will later get sufficiently good at elephant neutralization tactics as to effectively take them off of the field altogether.)

Just Flailing About Shields

Meanwhile, on the Pelennor Fields, the Witch King returns for Théoden. The Witch King’s mount is clearly some kind of magical beast, so I won’t spend too much time on it, except to note that the way it casually ragdolls Théoden and Snowmane both at once strikes me as unlikely. The muscles in that creature’s relatively thin neck would need not only to move Théoden (something like the same 110kg armored man we calculated above), but also a roughly 800kg destrier (Snowmane) and probably 10-15kg of tack and horse armor – altogether, about a ton. I do not think that creature’s neck looks muscular enough to casually lift a 1-ton object. Fortunately, the winged beast suffers catastrophic neck failure at the hands of Eowyn shortly thereafter, so we may move on.

Book Note: In the book, Snowmane is not slain by the Witch King’s flying beast, but rather “Snowmane wild with terror stood up on high, fighting with the air, and then with a great scream he crashed upon his side: a black dart has pierced him” (RotK, 126). The ‘black dart’ here could mean a javelin or an arrow, possibly fired/thrown by the Witch King himself in his descent.

Eowyn then swiftly grabs a prop shield and – yes, we have to talk about the shield. I know – you are here for flails. We’ll get there. But this shield is a pretty poor prop to be featured so prominently, especially since much of the armor and weapons for the ‘good guys’ in the film are actually fairly sensible, for fantasy fare. First, the good: as a round shield with a prominent central boss, the shield has the correct grip. Many games and shows will show these shields as being held via two straps like a knightly kite shield or a Greek hoplite’s aspis. But here, the shield is correctly center-grip, held by a bar running down the center of the back of the shield, with the hand resting inside a hole in the wooden core, protected by the metal boss.

Eowyn grabbing a shield. Note the grip – a single bar vertically along the shield’s back face, with thehand in the center gap left behind the boss – this is correct. Note also the much larger prop shield shed does not grab. The latter is a more typical size for this kind of shield, but since the production department made these shields way too thick, it is probably fearsome heavy.

The issue is with the construction and thickness of the wooden core. The shield looks to be a bunch of 2×4 wooden boards held together by nails or rivets passing through the rim; you can clearly see the breaks in the wood boards on the front of the shields. This is not how such shields were made. Instead, the wooden boards – much thinner – were glued together against a leather facing (very thin – almost parchment). This is then reinforced with a leather – or rarely metal – rim to prevent de-lamination from the edges. From the front, a well-made round shield should not show the joins between individual planks of wood (or, indeed, any wood at all – being covered by leather).

Look at how thick that shield is! Also you can see that the boss doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the shield very firmly. I wonder if this was part of the mechanism to have the shield break apart.

The other problem is thickness – this shield looks to be about two inches thick, whereas historical viking shields were much thinner, between 1/2 and 1/4 of an inch thick. Some of them were carefully shaped so that they were thicker in the center and thinner on the edges. This shield is at least four times (and as many as eight times) too thick. It is also on the small size in terms of width – not out of the normal range for such shields (which is quite wide – anywhere from 70 to 100cm wide). You can see when Eowyn picks it up that there are larger shields strewn around, one assumes that the reason we only ever see these smaller ones carried by anyone is that they were already far too heavy.

This cuts to a general issue about prop version of weapons from the pre-modern period: they are almost always made much too heavy. Sometimes that is simply a misunderstanding of design, as it is here. Sometimes it is for safety – stage ‘blunts’ (prop swords and the like designed to be safer for stage combat) are generally a fair bit heavier than the real thing because the blades are made thicker so that they are not sharp. But the result has often been a deceptive emphasis on very great weight of these objects when, in fact, they were far lighter historically. There are, for instance, a number of interviews where the Game of Thrones cast comment on the great weight of their weapons – which from the descriptions they gave were far, far heavier than the ‘real thing.’ Yet these observations are often treated by journalists and fans alike as statements of some real truth about the tremendous weight of medieval weaponry.

The Epic Flail

And that, at last, brings us to the main event: the Lord of the Nazgûl ‘s epic flail. The cast and production team actually discussed the process by which this absurdly large prop was created and also revealed that swinging it required the assistance of people off-camera. Though I am amused by one person declaring “some people call it a mace, some people call it a morning-star” given that both names are incorrect. Both a mace and a morning star involve a metal object hafted atop a wooden shaft, not attached via a chain. This is a flail.

While this weapon is absurd, this shot is amazing.

Book Note: In the book, the Witch king does not have a flail, but rather “a great black mace” (RotK, 126). He swings it only once, to shatter Eowyn’s shield. It is not clear if the shield shattered because of the force of the blow, or perhaps because of some magic. Eowyn’s sword, after all, explodes into splinters upon killing the Witch King.

As distinct from a flail, a mace is simply a metal weight, hafted on a wooden shaft. Unlike the (very rare) flail, the mace is a common weapon throughout history, essentially a high-tech club. In the Middle Ages, the mace’s popularity was a response to the ability of mail armor to render many cutting weapons much less effective.

We can dispense quite quickly with the actual design. Obviously, this weapon is too large. Were it made of a single large piece of iron, I doubt anyone could lift it (don’t worry, I’m not going to send you through the density-of-iron math problem again). Even the prop version couldn’t actually be wielded by the giant of a man they got to play the Witch King on screen. Moreover, the discussion (linked above) of the construction of the flail indicates that it was produced in cast iron, which is much too brittle for use as a weapon. Iron and steel weapons had to be forged, not cast, to withstand the stress of use in combat.

And if you watch carefully, you can see part of why this design is silly – the fight choreography only works because Ewoyn keeps throwing herself away from the Witch King to dodge the weapon. But the chain is short enough that she has the reach with her sword to lunge the c. 3ft chain and simply strike when the Witch King wiffs his shot and lands weapon in the dirt. The chain is nowhere near long enough for him to simply ‘zone out’ Eowyn as he does, without the fight choreographer making Miranda Otto let him.

All of that aside, what I want to address is what is a flail and was the flail a real thing? Flails are ubiquitous in fantasy and historical fiction. Functionally every D&D cleric has one, typically of the ball-and-chain variety. So it may surprise you to learn that these weapons seem to have been so rare that a number of serious historians doubt whether they were ever used in battle at all.

Peasants flailing about with some grain. Yes I will keep making these puns. You can’t stop me.

The flail originated as a farming tool, for threshing grain. Two wooden sticks (neither is a metal ball) were attached via a chain, almost like an oversized set of nunchaku. The chain is typically very short. It is not hard to see how a farm tool like this might find itself reinforced and converted into a weapon in the event of a peasant revolt or other sudden need. This converted version – a long handled flail with a very short chain (often just a pair of links) attached to a cylindrical head – is by far the most common version of the weapon. It is this version that appears in late medieval and early modern fighting manuals, for instance (such as the 16th century Arte De Athletica by Paulus Hector Mair). And it is, by and large, a peasants weapon: if you could afford something better, you did.

Plate from Paulus Hector Mair’s Fechtbuch (fighting manual) showing what happens if you flail to dodge.

This, of course, is not the version of the flail that appears in nearly all of popular culture. What we see is what is sometimes called a ‘military flail’ – a small round (often spiked) ball at the end of a slightly longer chain attached to a short, one-handed handle. There is, in fact, serious argument by serious historians that this weapon simply did not exist – perhaps the most sustained effort available openly on the internet is here, by Paul Sturtevant. To sum up the evidence he presents:

Many of the so-called medieval flails in current museum collections appear to be later fakes. Sturtevent demonstrates fairly well that the three famous flails in the MET are probably not authentic medieval weapons – at least one such weapon has had its date changed on its information card. Many other such flails lurking in museum collections are of uncertain provenance (we don’t know where or when they are from) and may also be later forgeries.

One of the very probably fake flails from the MET, Acc. 14.25.1365. Now, please someone with computer art skills – I need a photoshop of Ambassador Vreenak from Deep Space Nine holding this and declaring, “It’s a Faaaaaaaaake!”

Moreover, at Sturtevant and others have pointed out, a flail like this wouldn’t be a very practical weapon. The chains they have are just long enough to let you strike yourself with the weapon, but not long enough to provide any kind of reach advantage or tactical options (compared with, for instance, East Asian chain weapons like the Japanese kusari-gama, which allows for attacks to entangle an opponent’s weapon with its much longer chain).

Other scholars are split on the question. Kelly Devries and Robert Douglas Smith (in Medieval Military Technology (2012), 30) suggest that military flails probably existed, but were very rare, while Philip Warner in Sieges of the Middle Ages (1968) calls all examples of the weapons fakes. John Walderman, however (Hafted Weapons in Medieval and Renaissance Europe (2005), 146-150), identifies a number of military flails appearing in contemporary medieval artwork and at least one museum example that seems genuine (or at least, is damaged in a way to suggest use). He concludes – and this seems to be the most prudent course – that while the converted peasant weapon was common, the ‘military flail’ was exceedingly rare. It properly derived from a similar (but still rare) Eastern European weapon (the kisten), but never found widespread use in Western Europe.

Which makes it very strange that this extremely uncommon and by no means typical medieval weapon has often come to stand in for the weapons of the entire period. Why does this matter? Because it contributes to an impression about not only the weapons of this period, but also the society – one which is primitive, brutish and honestly a bit dumb. In particular, it feeds into this sense that even professional medieval warriors (like knights) were essentially untrained brutes just bashing away at each other.

One of the real lessons the study of the past has to teach us is – to quote L. P. Hartley, “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” What I mean by that is that so much of how we assume all societies work and all people think is just how our society works and we think. Properly done, the study of the past can disabuse us of this silly notion and show us that smart people in different times and different places did things all sorts of different ways. But this lesson is ruined if we construct caricatures of the past wherein people living long ago were just big stupid brutes with big stupid weapons.

Conclusion

This sort of analysis that we have been doing of the physics of the battlefield really entered modern military history most forcefully with John Keegan’s The Face of Battle (1976) – where he called this sort of thing ‘military mechanics.’ And it is a useful exercise in trying to decode accounts of battles fought with weapons and tactics long out of use. It helps to remind us that the one thing we know for sure about many of these weapons and tactics is that they worked (at least some of the time). In particular, it is important to try to engage these questions carefully, rather than simply assuming that we know ‘how it was’ based on fictional representations or fictionalized accounts.

Ancient and medieval close-order infantry tactics were not a suicide pact, but in fact highly successful for thousands of years, so long as cohesion could be maintained. Medieval weapons could be fairly heavy, but were not ludicrously so. In any case – they mostly worked. And weapons – even those you might see in movies (or even sometimes museums) – which look absurd might well be later forgeries or the fanciful imaginings of a 21st century production crew. Though there is care in this last point – I have also seen some exotic looking weapons (especially polearms like glaves, bills and guisarmes) dismissed by well-meaning internet warriors as the creations of fantasy, when in fact those weapons are very well documented.

Next Week: Aragorn finally gets here, and we wrap this thing up.

6 thoughts on “Collections: The Siege of Gondor, Part V: Just Flailing About Flails

    1. Actually, using your cross-sectional argument, if a troll was built like a gorilla it would have but 2^2 the cross-section of a gorilla, or 5x the area to be generous. Still, though, 5x * 4-9x could easily be 45x the strength of a human.

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  1. One difference is that trolls are smarter or more human-like than elephants: with hands and using weapons, less likely to panic, more able to execute intelligent and coordinated strategies. “10-12 feet high armored guy with mace or proportionate spear”.

    An imperfect analogy would be to consider adult humans vs. a mass of toddlers. How much stronger are you than a 3 foot high human? Can you pick one up and toss one?

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    1. I can pick one up and toss one (its one of their favourite things!). I could knock them tumbling with a blow but I don’t believe I could send them flying. Certainly not several at once.

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