We love ballock daggers! Despite being one of the most common and iconic weapons of the medieval period, they are also carry some pretty funny allusions. Carried by fighting men and peasants alike, the ballock dagger was geographically widespread across Europe and persisted in various forms from the 14th century through to the 19th century. These sidearms were named for the phallic shape of the hilt, with dual lobes where the wooden grip meets the blade. This iconic shape is easily seen below in the photo from the MyArmoury.com ballock dagger article.
Ballock Dagger circa 1550, Flanders. The Wallace Collection
The ballock dagger form emerged in the 14th century as one of five prototypical European medieval dagger types, which also included rondel daggers, ear daggers, baselards, and quillion or cruciform daggers. These were all fighting knives with broadly similar function. As on many of these types, blade shapes on ballock daggers varied from very sharp, single-edged blades with a fine taper, to double-edged blades, to very stiff diamond or triangular sectioned spikes. Though certain forms predominated in specific times and places, several of these forms had considerable overlap in popularity both geographically and historically. As in so much else, the primary reasons to prefer a ballock to another dagger form seem to have been primarily fashion-based.
One of the characteristic attributes of ballock daggers is that the hilt is usually made of a single piece of carved wood through which the tang extends. On earlier pieces the hilt was often entirely of wood, while later and more ornate versions incorporated metal butt-caps and short, curved, quillion arms. This example from the Metropolitan Museum features a particularly ornate grip with a relatively small metal hilt and a delicate butt-cap.
Although sometimes referred to as kidney daggers, this is a later term that reflects the rather prudish sentiments of Victorian collectors. Medieval aficionados of the ballock dagger were anything but shy about the phallic connotations of this style. The dagger was often worn at the front of the belt, as in the following illustrations. Ballocks worn like this were clearly and explicitly a sign of virility and probably a bit of dirty joke. Check out this article about material culture and sexual metaphors in the medieval period. The daggers were also sometimes worn at the back of the belt or through a purse.
Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of The Oakeshott Institute. He is a historical martial artist and a former university professor of cultural geography. He has given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.
Craig Johnson is the Production Manager of Arms and Armor and Secretary of The Oakeshott Institute. He has taught and published on the history of arms, armor and western martial arts for over 30 years. He has lectured at several schools and Universities, WMAW, HEMAC, 4W, and ICMS at Kalamazoo. His experiences include iron smelting, jousting, theatrical combat instruction and choreography, historical research, European martial arts and crafting weapons and armor since 1985.