Morning star (weapon)

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The terms morning star, goedendag, and holy water sprinkler are used to describe medieval club-like weapons which included one or more spikes. Each used, to varying degrees, a combination of blunt-force and puncture attack to kill or wound the enemy very effectively.

The morning star is a medieval weapon consisting of a spiked club resembling a mace, usually with a long spike extending straight from the top and many smaller spikes around the particle of the head. The spikes distinguish it from a mace, which can have, at most, flanges or small knobs. It was used by both infantry and cavalry; the horseman’s weapon had a shorter shaft. The mace, a traditional knightly weapon, developed somewhat independently, became all-metal with heads of various forms, while the morning star retained its characteristic spikes, with a usually wooden shaft, often found in longer two-handed forms measuring up to six feet or more, was popular among footmen.

The morning star first came into widespread use around the beginning of the fourteenth century, and the term is often applied to the military flail (fléau d’armes in French and Kriegsflegel in German) which consists of a wooden shaft joined by a length of chain to one or more iron balls or an iron shod wooden bar, in either case with or without spikes (heavy sword pommels have also been used as weights).

Although it is often assumed that the morning star was a crude peasant weapon, that is not entirely correct. There were three types in existence, all differing in quality of workmanship. The first was the well crafted military type used by professional soldiers, made in series by expert weaponsmiths for stocking in town arsenals. The second and much simpler type would have been hand cut by peasant militiamen, rather than turned on a lathe, from wood they had gathered themselves (for which reason forests were often known as “arsenals of God”[citation needed]) and fitted with nails and spikes by the local blacksmith. The shaft and head were usually of one piece but sometimes reinforced at the top with an iron band. The third type was decorative in nature, usually short hafted and made of metal (one sixteenth century example being of steel and damascened with inlaid gold and silver, in the Wallace Collection of London).

Two impressive examples of the military type are housed in the museums of Vienna, both from the sixteenth century. The first measures 2.35 m (7′ 9″) in length including the top spike which is 54 cm (21″). The head is a separate wooden cylinder slipped over the top of the shaft and reinforced with steel bands, with five metal spikes in symmetrical arrangement. The second example has an all steel head of complex craftsmanship with four V-shaped spikes mounted on a long shaft that measures slightly less than two meters in length. A twisted and braided steel bar joins the socket to the base of the top spike. There are also 183 surviving specimens in Graz, made in series and delivered to the arsenal in 1685. They are comparable in length to the previous examples and have three rows of spikes around the head. The wooden shafts of most morning stars of the military type are reinforced with metal langets extending down from the head. Still others can be found in the Swiss arsenals of Lucerne and Zurich.

These types of morning stars are also depicted in medieval art. For instance, one is shown being carried by an armored knight or soldier in the Caesar Tapestries in the Historical Museum of Bern, depicting Julius Caesar’s battle against the Germanic leader Ariovistus. These tapestries were woven in Tournai between 1465 and 1470, and taken as plunder from Charles the Bold after one of his defeats during the Burgundian Wars against the Swiss. In the poem Le Chevalier Délibéré written by Olivier de la Marche and first published in 1486, there is an anonymous woodcut depicting a knight carrying a rather simple morning star with spikes mounted in an asymmetrical pattern as well as a flail equipped with a single spiked ball, known in German as a “Kettenmorgenstern” which, despite its name, is a type of military flail.

The Goedendag, Godendac or Plançon was a Flemish weapon which is often described in modern sources as similar to the morning star. However, this is a misconception, It was an infantry weapon in the form of a thick wooden shaft between 1.2 m to 1.8 m (4 and 6 feet) in length, slightly fluted toward the top, topped with a stout iron spike, mostly squared in diameter. The name itself is thought to be a sarcastic reference to the revolt of Bruges in 1302; as Goedendag (or “Godendac” in the French account) is Dutch for “Good Day”, and the guildsmen of Bruges took over the city by greeting people in the streets, and murdering anyone who answered with a French accent. Most likely, all derivations of the name are spurious, as this name only happens once in a French account from shortly after the Battle of the Golden Spurs.

The weapon was used to great effect by the guildsmen of Flanders’ wealthy cities against the French knights during the Guldensporenslag or Battle of the Golden Spurs or Courtrai on 11 July 1302. (Still now the celebration of the Flanders’, Brabant’s and Antwerp’s independence.) It is depicted in the carvings on the Courtrai Chest (located within New College, Oxford, England) being used against the French knights. There is also a now faded fresco in the main church of Ghent. These two pictorials are the only sources for the looks of the weapon. As to its use, speculation is rife. Kelly DeVries states in Medieval Military Technology that it was used to spear horses or knights.

The thicker knob under the spike, a safeguard against the mount impaling himself and then go on running into the defenders on foot, served the same purpose as the cross barr on a boar-spear. The godendac was probably handled the same way: Set in the ground secured by the fighter’s foot and aimed with both hands.

Once the rider was dismounted, the godendac itself or other clubs, maces, swords, knives, or whatever a guildman would have for a low-operating weapon, were used to crush skulls and bones or to pierce exposed flesh. The iron-ringed knob holding the spike was well suited as a club, hence this weapons confusion with the halberd, morgenstern or Zürcher hammer (a halberd with a hammer instead of an axe blade). The citizens’ army consisted mostly of weavers and butchers, so heavy wood parts and all sorts of cutlery were abundant, whereas real weapons of war were not.

The Hammer of Zürich, halberd and morgenstern were expressly built for professional warriors, to rip a rider off his horse while he was charging or passing by. Such weapons were much more effective but also more expensive; they required greater craftmanship to make. They were the weapons of regular infantrymen. This is why he godendac saw limited service, used exclusively by the Flemish “burgers”, while regular Flemish troops abandoned the weapon at the beginning of the fifteenth century.

The holy water sprinkler (from its resemblance to the aspergillum used in the Catholic Mass), or goupillon in French, was a morning star popular with the English army from the sixteenth century and made in series by professional smiths. One such weapon can be found in the Royal Armouries and has an all steel head with six flanges forming three spikes each, reminiscent of a mace but with a short thick spike of square cross section extending from the top. The wooden shaft is reinforced with four langets and the overall length of the weapon is 6′ 2″.

The term can also be used to describe a type of military flail. Rather than a steel ball on the end of a chain, however, it features a short iron bar covered in sharp spines. It was (according to popular legend) the favored weapon of King John of Bohemia, who was blind, and used to simply lay about himself on all sides, as one does not need to see one’s opponent. It is easy enough to just “flail” until hitting something.

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