Many of the Highland dances now lost were once performed with traditional weapons that included the Lochaber axe, the broadsword, a combination of targe and dirk, and the flail
The British central government’s policy of cultural suppression against Highland culture culminated in 1747 when the Act of Proscription, which forbade the wearing of kilts by civilian males, went into effect. The Act was repealed in 1782 and in the early 19th century, there was something of a romanticisation of Highland culture (or such as it was imagined to be). This revival, later boosted greatly by Queen Victoria’s enthusiasm for it, included the beginnings of the Highland games as we now know them. Highland dancing was an integral part of the Games from the very start of their modern revival, but the selection of dances performed at Games was intentionally narrowed down, mostly for the convenience of judges. Therefore, while the tradition of Highland games seemed at first glance to have fostered and preserved Highland dancing, many older dances got lost because nobody considered them worthwhile to practice, as they were not required for competition. The nature of these displays and competitions also affected the style of the dancing itself.
From the time of the Dark Ages in Europe, the simple wooden flail came to be a symbol of rural laborers, peasants, and those too poor to purchase or openly carry more expensive weaponry.
If you are poor, and only have one effective weapon readily available to help keep you alive in serious fights, you learn how to use it to its most effective potential.
Through the tedious ordinary task of threshing, even beginning laborers would quickly gain extensive practical hands on experience, in hitting things efficiently and precisely with their flails, experience they could later count on in more lethal situations.Using a flail is not rocket science, or some secret mystical wisdom passed from guru to guru, that is only decipherable by enlightened navel gazers.
Once a laborer got the basic flail strikes down, they would soon start to experiment with new swings and patterns just to help brake the tedium of the chore.
There is a physical limit to the number of different ways you can possibly swing a stick, needless to say, given enough time and boredom, even the most thickheaded thresher can figure them out on their own, and if you have a little creativity, all the better and faster the progress will be.
If you had lived in a community that had been hand threshing and fighting with flails for a generation or two, you would most likely have seen all the tricks a flail was capable of, by the time you were old enough to begin working as a thresher yourself.
As with swords and knives, flails came in many sizes and shapes, documented examples of rods that are forearm length, arm length, and longer are found throughout Medieval Europe, a flail could be a matched set or a combination of two lengths. Both the style of the rods and the flexible joining hinge varied widely depending upon use, the choice preference, and inventiveness of the individual craftsman.
On styles of flails with rods of an unequal length, the handle rod was not always the longest rod.
See for example in “Archaeologia aeliana, or, Miscellaneous tracts relating to antiquity” on page 112.
And in “Irish Folk Ways” by E. Estyn Evans, on page 214.
The flexible hinge joint allowed the flail to be carried folded in a more compact portable package.
And like with a stone sling used for throwing rocks, the force provided by the flexible hinge joint on a flail, delivered a rapid crushing power that would outmatch a comparably sized plain stick or club, this added leverage made it a choice weapon even for less heavily built females and youths, a point that was used as a humorous device in the 1745 satirical publication the “French Flail”.
The flail had a low cost for parts and manufacture, an ease of carry and maintenance, a hard-hitting reach, and by adjusting the strength with which it was swung, the lethality could be adjusted to suit the need.
A memorable incident from the 1400’s regarding the effectiveness of common flails is recounted in the history of the Scottish Clan Howison.
HOWISON. “The son of Hugh. The family are descended from John Howison, burgess of Edinburgh, 1450. The first ancestor of the family, and his son, were farmers and rescued James I from an attack made upon him when he had strayed from his attendants, while hunting near Cramond Bridge, and having saved the king’s life by beating off his assailants with their flails, held a basin and a towel to wash his wounds. For these timely services they were rewarded with a grant of the lands of Braehead, the redendo in the charter being “Servitium Lavacri”, a service that was complied with to George IV at the banquet of the Magistrates of Edinburgh in 1822″.
–Clifford S. Sims, “the Origin and Signification of Scottish Surnames”, 1862.
The above picture is taken from An Illustrated Dictionary of Historic Costume : From the First Century B.C. to C. 1760 by J. R. Planche. It shows a flail wielding sailor standing on the prow of a boat.
Even up to the time of Henry VIII (1491 – 1547), flails were still highly popular for use by sailors in sea battles.
The carpentry tools a ship kept on hand to fix and turn out replacement parts, were also good for the production of flails with parts similar to existing ship components, such as for example a “belaying pin” also called “tack pin” or “jack pin” these were a type of wood bar used aboard sailing ships for securing and tying the running rigging, a pair of rods patterned after belaying pins and fastened together would make good small size flails, handy in confined spaces and would fit in ones belt or jacket when climbing the rigging.
Stephen College (1635 – 1681) was a Protestant activist and an English Joiner, a word meaning a carpenter (or to use the classical biblical term, he was a “Tekton” from Greek τέκτων, meaning a person with tons of technical skill in their craft, a skilled carpenter, builder, or a master of any art, such as gymnastics, poetry, or medicine). Stephen College crafted and taught use of a weapon for self-defense at close quarters, which he called “the Protestant flail”, these flails were of a proportion small enough to carry concealed, while long enough when unfolded to be an effective match against even swords, what made this class of flail special, was that with his carpentry skills he had loaded lead weights into the ends of the rods, to give the rods an added impact effect, appropriately described in song as “Two handfuls of death with a thong, hung fast”.
Daniel Defoe (1659 – 1731) the English writer and journalist, best known for his novel Robinson Crusoe, wrote of carrying a Protestant flail.
In those days of lawless violence, it was hazardous for an honest man to appear in the streets by night, and many carried arms about them for their protection. De Foe, who was a spectator of these events, gives a curious description of a weapon then in use, from which some idea may be formed of the character of the times. ” I remember,” says he, “in the time of the Popish plot, when murthering men in the dark was pretty much in fashion, and every honest man walked the streets in danger of his life, a very pretty invention was found out, which soon put an end to the doctrine of assassination, and the practice too, and cleared our streets of the murthering villains of those days; this was a Protestant flail. Now, a Protestant flail is an excellent weapon— a pistol is a fool to it; it laughs at the sword or the cane; for you know there’s no fence against a flail. For my part, I have frequently walked with one about me in the old Popish days, and though I never set up for a hero, yet, when armed with this scourge for a Papist, I remember I feared nothing. So excellent a weapon it is, that really the very apprehension of it soon put an end to the murthers and assassinations that
then began to be practised in the streets and otherwise; as upon Godfrey, Arnold, Julian Johnson, and others. I remember I saw an honest stout fellow, who is yet alive, with one of these Protestant instruments, exercise seven or eight ruffians in Fleet-street, and drive them all before him quite from Fleet-Bridge into White-Friars, which was their receptacle ; and he handled it so decently that you would wonder when now and then one or two of them came within his reach, and got a knock, to see how they would dance: nay, so humble and complaisant were they, that every now and then they would kiss the very ground at his feet; nor would they scruple descending even to the kennel itself, if they received but the word of command from this most Protestant utensil.”*
* Review, viii. 614.
–Walter Wilson, “Memoirs of the life and times of Daniel De Foe”, Volume 1 – 1830.
The use of the Protestant flail was promoted by members of the “Green Ribbon Club”, as is described in the 1866 book by John Times “Club life of London”.
A more important Club was “the King’s Head
Club/’ instituted for affording the Court and Govern-
ment support, and to influence Protestant zeal : it was
designed by the unscrupulous Shaftesbury : the mem-
bers were a sort of Decembrists of their day ; but they
failed in their aim, and ultimately expired under the
ridicule of being designated ” Hogs in armour.” ” The
gentlemen of that worthy Society/’ says Roger North,
in his Examen, ” held their evening sessions continually
at the King’s Head Tavern, over against the Inner
Temple Gate. But upon the occasion of the signal of a
green ribbon, agreed to be worn in their hats in the days
of street engagements, like the coats-of-arms of valiant
knights of old, whereby all warriors of the Society
might be distinguished, and not mistake friends for
enemies, they were called also the Green Ribbon Club.
Their seat was in a sort of Car four at Chancery-lane
end, a centre of business and company most proper for
such anglers of fools. The house was double balconied
in the front, as may be yet seen, for the clubsters to
issue forth in fresco with hats and no peruques ; pipes in
their mouths, merry faces, and diluted throats, for vocal
encouragement of the canaglia below, at bonfires, on
usual and unusual occasions. They admitted all strangers
that were confidingly introduced ; for it was a main end
of their Institution to make proselytes, especially of the
raw estated youth, newly come to town. This copious
Society were to the faction in and about London a sort
of executive power, and, by correspondence, all over
England. The resolves of the more retired councils of
the ministry of the Faction were brought in here, and
orally insinuated to the company, whether it were lyes,
defamations, commendations, projects, etc., and so, like
water diffused, spread all over the town ; whereby that
which was digested at the Club over night, was, like
nourishment, at every assembly, male and female, the
next day : and thus the younglings tasted of political
administration, and took themselves for notable counsel-
North regarded the Green Ribbon Club as the focus
of disaffection and sedition, but his mere opinions are
not to be depended on. Walpole calls him ” the volu-
minous squabbler in behalf of the most unjustifiable ex-
cesses of Charles the Second’ s Administration.” Never-
theless, his relation of facts is very curious, and there
is 110 reason to discredit his account of those popular
” routs,” to use his own phrase, to which he was an eye-
The conversation and ordinary discourse of the Club,
he informs us, ” was chiefly upon the subject of Braveur,
in defending the cause of Liberty and Property ; what
every true Protestant and Englishman ought to venture
to do, rather than be overpowered with Popery and
Slavery.” They were provided with silk armour for
defence, ” against the time that Protestants were to be
massacred,” and, in order ” to be assailants upon fair
occasion,” they had recommended to them, ” a certain
pocket weapon which, for its design and efficacy, had
the honour to be called a Protestant Flail. The handles
resembled a farrier’s blood-stick, and the fall was joined
to the end by a strong nervous ligature, that, in its
swing, fell just short of the hand, and was made of
Lignum Vita, or rather, as the Poets termed it, Mortis”
This engine was ” for street and crowd-work, and lurk-
ing perdue in a coat-pocket, might readily sally out to
execution ; and so, by clearing a great Hall or Piazza,
or so, carry an Election by choice of Polling, called
knocking down!” The armour of the hogs is further
described as ” silken back, breast, and potts, that were
pretended to be pistol-proof, in which any man dressed
up was as safe as in a house, for it was impossible any
one would go to strike him for laughing, so ridiculous
was the figure, as they say, of hogs in armour”
In describing the Pope-burning procession of the 17th
of November, 1680, Roger North says, that “the Rab-
ble first changed their title, and were called the Mob in
the assemblies of this Club. It was their Beast of Bur-
then, and called first, mobile vulgus, but fell naturally
into the contraction of one syllable, and ever since is be-
come proper English.”
We shall not describe these Processions : the grand
object was the burning of figures, prepared for the occa-
sion, and brought by the Mob in procession, from the
further end of London with “staffiers and link-boys,
sounding,” and “coming up near to the Club-Quality in
the balconies, against which was provided a huge bon-
fire ; ” ” and then, after numerous platoons and volleys
of squibs discharged, these Bamboches were, with re-
doubled noise, committed to the flames.” These out-
rageous celebrations were suppressed in 1683.
— John Times, “club life of London”, 1866.
Aside from use of a ribbon in the hat to show group affiliation colors, I should note here the coaching trick of attaching a ribbon streamer for practice, to the end of your flail, when attached so, the ribbon provides feedback with a clear visual aid, that will speed your learning of proper form in your swings and combinations.
If you cleanly bounce the flail from the joint so as to quickly change direction of the swing, the attached ribbon can be made to impressively snap like the loud crack of a whip, or squib shot from a gun.
This social upheaval is best illustrated by the Swing Riots of 1830 in England, when impoverished farm workers lead by a rebel thresher named “Captain Swing” rioted. The rioters anger was aimed against the new mechanized threshing machines that would bring an end to their means of employment, taking away the pittance that had in the past, seen them through the cold winter months.
Threshing machines left the threshing motions of rural labor no longer widely required in the work of threshing grain, so just the basic principles of swinging and hitting with such a flexible tool would require extra time and practice for the average person to learn, this was time and energy the common industrial worker did not have.
And so for practical reasons the flail fell out of fashion, the rich had time and resources to indulge in swords and better guns, the upper-class did not dirty their hands with outdated lower-class work like threshing grain.
The poor made do with the new tools they now used in their daily industrial work, hammers, wrenches, crowbars, and the now inexpensive mass produced utility knives.
Before the late Bruce Lee glamorized flails in his movies, the refined use of the flail as a masterful art had practically vanished from the face of the Earth.
In the above poster art from the movie “Enter the Dragon”, the flail takes center stage; it was through Bruce Lee’s movies the forgotten flail became rediscovered as a supposedly new exotic Asian weapon.
In the West, among the remote and impoverished rural communities, a small number had continued to use flails out of necessity, and an even smaller number continued to practice with flails as part of traditional dance customs, some adding bells and or ribbons onto the flails, flail dancing became a footnote to a footnote on obscure folk culture.
The highly glamorized flails of Bruce Lee brought new worldwide attention, and with it an unfortunate increased illegality for flails, including widespread outlawing of even genuine antiques, these new laws were followed by confiscation and destruction of the now contraband flails. In Britain, media containing depictions of flails was censored.
Even in America (the “land of the free and home of the brave”) several states enacted unconstitutional laws to infringe upon the individuals right to both possession and carrying of flails, by the outright banning of manufacture, sale, import, or ownership of all such flails in those states. Let me emphasize this point, states where it is OK for the average citizen to own a firearm, made it highly illegal to own a pair of sticks tied together, let that sink in for a moment, in modern culture, a pair of sticks became more taboo then guns.
With the flails Western heritage suppressed and forgotten to the public eye, new generations came to only recognize and appreciate Flails through Bruce Lee derivatives and repackaged postwar Karate propaganda, the flail now became a stereotype symbol of Asian Kung Fu films.
This pushed Western flail use even further into obscurity, as now the public were only interested in the exotic Far East, the much lauded mystical mysteries of Kung Fu, Karate, and the Ninja. Feed by a steady wave of low budget fictional martial arts fantasy movies, the word Nunchaku became the new word to popularly describe any small hand flail, regardless of actual geographical origin.
An ironic outcome, as Bruce Lee while in the pursuit of truth to enhance his own skills, had studied fighting arts of both the East and West with an equal fervor, seeking to cut through the fairytale opera fantasy of Hong Kong cinema, and express with his own films the pure unencumbered functionality of the fighting arts.
In historical studies of Western battlefield weapons, the full-sized spiked war flail has long overshadowed the plain short flails. War flails were intended for use by infantry in smashing the legs out from under cavalry horse and knights, and crushing armored troops.
The large war flail was most notably used during the Hussite Wars, as the Hussite “national weapon”.
During impact, the long spikes on a large war flail had the effect of shredding, tangling and snagging on cloth padding, and flesh. Good if you just want to bring down cavalry in open fields, however for general use, spikes tend to reduce the flails overall versatility, spikes severely limit the number of techniques that can be safely executed, and can get inconveniently caught and tangled in foliage and furniture at the most inopportune times.
Long spikes make transport of the weapon awkward and even hazardous to the inattentive, and place additional time and cost on the weapons manufacture.
So while spikes can have their time and place for use, big spikes do not automatically make a flail better or more desirable for all around use.
Big spikes can even make the flail vulnerable to entanglement by a prepared opponent, for example throwing a heavy cloak or banner into the spikes, can effectively render the flail useless, long enough to close the gap, and land a good follow up attack on the entangled flail wielder.
How old is the use of small flails as weapons in Europe?One interesting conjecture regards the possible clues preserved in Norse mythology, suggested by the odd magical weapon of the god Thor, the “Mjöllnir” mallet (a hammer, club, or sometimes ax depending upon translator).
It is proposed in this speculative theory that Thor may have begun at least in part as an early agricultural deity of wide popularity among farm laborers, as a protector of crops against frost, and a strengthener of threshers.
This early version of Thor as a mighty thresher, would have been married to an early version of the Norse goddess Sif, a golden haired goddess of the harvest and corn, a deity perhaps even venerated with the last sheaf to be harvested from the field, in a tradition similar to other such harvest customs found throughout Europe, note the tradition in Germany where the last sheaf was made into a female figure, dressed, and carried home with ceremony to preside over the threshing, see also the common theme in medieval and early Renaissance art, known as the “Labours of the Months” where the Corn maiden Virgo rules over the month of August and its labor of Threshing.
The Old Norse word “Sif” and “sif”, is cognate with the English word “Sib”, as in Sibling, both meaning “family”, “related”.
Thus it can be hypothesized that Sif could be properly considered as the Sifter of the grain, the winnower Sister to the thresher Thor.
This sibling pairing of ancient agricultural deities, would be comparable to others, such as the Egyptian deities Isis and Osiris, Osiris just happens to also carry a flail in traditional depictions, and goes by the title of Khenti-Amentiu, which means “Foremost of the Westerners” (the Western regions being associated with the afterlife).
Following this line of speculation, the short handled mallet that the thresher Thor would have used to smite the frost spirits, would have been a short handled flail he could carry tucked away in his shirt, when swung lightning fast in a fight, the striking rod would fly out in a flash, and then be back in his grasp ready to lash out again, its impact like thunder and no frost spirit a match for its strength.According to this proposed theory, when Thor and Sif were later absorbed into Viking warrior Iron Age culture, Thor became the noble son of Odin. Sif no longer a leading queen, ruler of gathered harvest sheaves and winnower companion to the threshers’ labor, was marginalized in the myth, her importance omitted, to be left with only a passing bit part and a wig.
The pounding flail mallet of farmhand thresher was replaced with the pounding hammer mallet of an artisan blacksmith, a tool more fitting for a son of a noble Viking warrior. The poetic comparison of threshing with blacksmith work is not uncommon, for example from “Archaeologia aeliana, or, Miscellaneous tracts relating to antiquity” page 122.
whirling the flails round their heads, struck alternate blows on the ears of corn, like smiths on iron, the chaff flying from the floor like sparks from the forge.
Yet in the stories, this new blacksmiths hammer still retained properties upon which the old popular stories plot twists often hinged. This naturally would have lead to a magical rationalization for how the new hammers short handle could fly out and return to the wielders grasp in a flash, And how it could change size to fit hidden in a shirt.
This theory would also explain the Viking tradition that those warriors who fell in battle, were said to go to follow Odin in the afterlife, while farm laborers that died at home a “straw death” were said to go to follow Thor in the afterlife. Odin a god of warriors, Thor a god of farmhands, warrior Odin rides a horse, farmer Thor rides in a cart pulled by goats.
If this theory were correct, and I have found no good reason to doubt it in my own research, it would mean common European farmers were swinging flashy pocket size flails around, long before the post European contact Okinawa islanders ever adopted “Nunchaku” into their Karate, from whichever still unverifiable and highly contested source, the Okinawa rebels got their flails from.
My own guess is Okinawa islanders imitated flails carried by European visitors, much in the same way it is said, that playing cards were introduced to Japan by Portuguese traders during the mid 16th century, European cards which notably are said to have lead to the origin for the modern Japanese word for gangster, “yakuza”. Since in a form of blackjack known as “oicho-kabu”, the worst hand is an eight, a nine and a three, phonetically expressed as “ya-ku-za” 8-9-3.
The reconstructed Proto-Germanic name of the Elder Futhark u rune is Ūruz meaning “wild ox”, as in that which you grip by the horns, holding the bull by both horns. A good slang term for a short handle flail you hold by each rod (gripping the beast by the horns), and oxen were commonly used in drier regions to tread upon grain as a form of threshing, or to pull a threshing sled.
Pictorially the Rune shape of Ūruz can be interpreted as a short handle flail.
In the Old English Rune poem it says of the Ūruz Rune
The aurochs is proud and has great horns;
it is a very savage beast and fights with its horns;
a great ranger of the moors, it is a creature of mettle.
No fence against a wild ox. No fence against a flail.
Anyone that has had experience in raising cattle, will know that even with modern barbwire and electric fencing, keeping a full grown bull in a field that the bull does not want to stay in, can be a real chore.
This is why farmers traditionally did not bother with trying to fence in grown bulls, and instead put a ring in the nose of cattle, to provide a means of better control.
In practice you can attach a ribbon (preferably green like a serpent) to an end or both ends of your Ūruz “wild ox” flail, to provide visual aid in tracing out the path of each swing of the flail. If you want, you can also add “Cowbells”, small bells hung from the flail joint.
In the Norse Mythology we find the tale of how the Midgard Serpent called “Jörmungand”, swallowed a head of an Ox given to it by Thor, when Thor went fishing at sea and used the Ox head as bait, and thus the “serpent” ribbon came to swallow or bite onto the “Ox head” flail.
The Karate claims of a solely Asian origin for the nunchaku, fail to provide supporting evidence to back said claims, and even fail to agree among each other as to how nunchaku use began, and why Nunchaku use declined after Europeans were barred from entry to Japan.
These Karate claims have failed to provide examples of historical pre-European contact depictions of Asian nunchaku, preferably with the iconic symmetrical length rods as used by Bruce Lee.
These Karate claims lack a recorded historical kata using nunchaku, while for example, over a dozen historic traditional Kata for fighting with a staff, are known of today in Okinawa martial arts.
I am not saying that Karate is bad, what I am saying is that the evidence appears to point to Karate having preserved in part a form of flail fighting, that was derived from an imported European tool/weapon, thus the study of nunchaku can benefit Western martial artists in better understanding their own threshing heritage.