Jan 22, 2013

Weapons & Warriors: The Flail of the Hussites


There are many different variations of the Flail, but one of the most vicious and deadly was one of the earliest versions. The Flail’s original design was based from an agricultural tool of the same name. One of the earliest people to turn the tool into a devastating weapon were the Hussites in the early 1400’s. This group of people was not actually made up of warriors, but was driven into a civil war over religious beliefs.

Hussite Flail Art by TL Jeffcoat
The Hussites were one of the earliest groups to turn against the Roman Catholic Church in an attempt to return to a strictly bible based religious culture. This meant they did not accept several doctrines they felt were not originating from the bible that the Roman Catholic Church practiced. In a way, the Hussites were the harbingers of what Martin Luther eventually founded as the Lutheran Church, although there were several similarities, the Hussites were not early Lutherans. I’m not going to go into detail on the religious differences of these three churches, but anyone who knows history, knows the old Roman Catholic Church had a tendency to be influential in creating armies to fight religious wars (I.E. The Crusades).

After the execution of the Hussites religious leader Jan Hus, and then the death of King Wenceslaus a few years later, the Hussites claimed the lands they occupied for their own and did not acknowledge their late king's brother and the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, as their emperor. A war erupted and Sigismund, backed by the Pope, sent Crusaders to quell the uprising. The Hussites united through their religious beliefs and national pride and fought defensively for a dozen years. After defeating and tossing out the Crusaders multiple times, they had begun to attack their Catholic neighbors.

Even Joan of Arc’s attention was drawn to the Hussites at one point and she sent a letter to the Hussites to return to their Catholic faith or she would lead a crusade against them. She never followed through with the threat due to her imprisonment by the English soon after. I'm not sure she would have been very successful anyway.

How did the Hussites repel the heavily armored and superior trained Crusaders? The battle hardened knights of the Crusaders was not a force to be dismissed or repelled easily. The Hussites were not a born warrior culture of many generations like the Spartans or Norsemen; they were just farmers (although their ancestors may have been Norsemen colonizers). As farmers, they picked up what tools they had available and began turning them into weapons of war. There were two weapons in particular that allowed them to defeat foreign armies that were larger and better trained.

One of these tools was the Flail. It was made up of two wooden shafts with a short chain connecting them together. One piece was around four feet in length and the other was much shorter, possibly only a foot. The Hussites then added metal studs to the shorter end and in some cases replaced it with iron or steel bars. I don’t know the true weight of the Hussite’s Flail, but it was known to strike with enough force to crush the steel of a knight’s armor along with his bones underneath.

One of the biggest advantages of a Flail over the mace or hammer was that the wielder never felt the shock when striking that occurs in other weapons. The vibrations in the shaft when striking opponents would often cause muscle fatigue and wear down the warrior quickly. With the flail, this muscle fatigue did not occur until the warrior was simply tired of swinging the thing.

The Hussites used the range of the weapon to their advantage by striking at foes before they could close the distance between them. They could disable a knight’s horse and if they struck a shield at just the right angle, the chain would allow the shorter deadly shaft to swing around to crush the shield arm. The Hussites went to war against knights with improvised farming tools that became the most deadly weapons on the battle field. They crushed chests and shattered skulls despite the steel armor protecting them.

There are some disadvantages to using the heavy and slow Flail. Although it was a powerful force when it struck a target, it was also unpredictable. Chained weapons have a tendency to strike the person wielding them if the warrior is not careful or is untrained. Another problem is after the strike. The warrior would be exposed for a moment as he tries to recover the heavy weapon. This moment was enough that if he did not disable his opponent, they could step in and kill him with their sword. The Flail was purely an offensive weapon.

Over time the Flail evolved across Europe into dozens of variations of Flails that included multiple chains, spiked balls and even smaller one handed versions used on horseback to strike down infantry as the knight rode through.

Although the Hussites used this weapon effectively against the Crusaders, the Flail never really became a staple of European warfare. It was a specialty weapon only used in specific situations. The sword was still regarded as the superior weapon and in truth it was much quicker and accurate. The Flail however was a terrifying force to see swinging around the battlefield.

The other weapon the Hussites developed during this war was a revolutionary breakthrough that forever changed the art of infantry warfare. Look for that post in the near future.

I hope you enjoyed this edition of Weapons and Warriors, click here to view the entire catalog of weapons and cultures. Thank you, see you next week.

1 comment:

  1. Might I ask where you got the idea that Norsemen may have been the Hussite's ancesotors? Bohemians (Hussites - the group - were Bohemians - the "nation") are Slavs and before they colonized the Bohemia region, they resided somewhere in the East, possibly around Visla river. That is not to say there weren't Norsemen around here, they were usually in the employ of the royal court, so it is possible some of them settled, but that would be individual cases, not the majority of the population.

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