MEDIEVAL SIEGE WEAPONS
The Middle Ages (or Medieval Period) lasted for approximately 1000 years from the 5th century to the 15th century. Due to its timeframe, the Middle Ages in Europe is divided into three smaller periods referred to as the Early, High and Late Middle Ages. Throughout this time period castles played an important political, social and military role in European society. A castle is a fortified structure (usually out of stone) that was mainly for the nobility or royalty in European societies. While fortified structures existed for centuries, the classic Medieval Castle is considered to have first emerged in the 9th or 10th century. This is a highly debated topic among historians however by the 11th century there were many castles being built across Europe. At the time, Europe was divided among many different kingdoms which were often in conflict. As such, castles allowed for protection from attack.
Due to the use of castles throughout the Middles Ages, European societies developed a wide array of different medieval siege weapons. These weapons were designed and used throughout the Middle Ages in battle in order to destroy the fortifications of a castle or to damage the defenses of the defending army. For example, the siege weapons were used in major conflicts from the Medieval Period such as the Crusades and the Hundred Years War. The most common or popular siege weapons of the Middle Ages included the following:
- Battering Ram
- Siege Tower
The ballista (also sometimes known as a bolt thrower) was a siege weapon that essentially launched a large projectile (bolt) at a distant target. In general, it can be thought of as a large crossbow. It used the tension of a series of springs, which allowed a single person to launch the large bolt. The ballista as a weapon had existed throughout much of Europe long before the timeframe of the Middle Ages. More specifically, it was first designed and used by Ancient Greeks and was a commonly used weapon throughout the Roman Empire which stretched from 27 BCE to 395 CE. However, variations of the ballista remained in use in the Middle Ages. With that said, later inventions such as the trebuchet made the ballista obsolete.
The battering ram was a siege weapon that was used to smash the fortifications (walls and gates) of castles and other encampments. In its simplest form, the battering ram was simply a large wooden log that was carried by several people and used to smash the defenses of the defending army. While this method proved effective it meant that those carrying the heavy log were defenseless against attack from above. For example, defenders on the wall of a castle could shoot arrows or drop rocks and other projectiles to injure and kill the people carrying the battering ram. As a result, over time the battering ram designs in the Middle Ages came to include canopies that protected the attackers operating the siege weapon. As well, these later designs included wheels to increase the speed and force of the battering ram.
The catapult was a device used to launch a projectile over a great distance in order to smash or set fire to enemy defenses. Similar to other siege weapons, the catapult was actually in use long before the timeframe of the Middle Ages. For example, the ancient Greeks and Romans used different versions of the catapult in their conflicts and wars. In the Middle Ages, catapults were ideal siege weapons as they allowed the attacking forces to launch projectiles into or over the high castle walls common throughout Europe. Besides heavy projectiles, people in the Middle Ages also launched incendiary (fire) projectiles in order to light fire to the interiors of a castle. The following other siege weapons from the Middle Ages are considered to be variations of the traditional catapult: ballista, mangonel, onager and trebuchet. Each was used at different times throughout the Middle Ages.
The siege tower was a siege weapon that looked and operated exactly as its name suggests. Essentially, it was a wooden tower on a frame with wheels that allowed it to be pushed up against the walls of a castle or other fortification. This allowed the attacking forces the ability to climb ladders or stairs inside of the siege tower while being protected from arrows and other projectiles from the defending forces of the castle. Siege towers were large structures and often took a long time to construct. As a result, they were usually only used after earlier attempts to take a castle by ladders or other attack were defeated. As well, the siege towers were generally constructed at the location of the attack since they were so difficult to move. Siege towers were used long before the time of the Middle Ages, especially by ancient Romans, Assyrians and Babylonians. With that said, they remained in use into the Middle Ages and even became more elaborate in their design and function. For instance, some siege towers in the Middle Ages were known to carry as many as 200 archers and their own line of catapults. Siege towers were always susceptible to fire but the use of gunpowder in cannons and firearms made the siege tower obsolete as a military tactic.
The trebuchet was a type of catapult that was commonly used throughout both ancient history and the Middle Ages. In general, the trebuchet is a siege weapon that launches projectiles such as rocks with the use of a large swinging arm. As such, it is considered to be a petrary which is a term for launching devices or ‘rock throwing machines’ from the timeframe of the Middle Ages. There were a few different types of trebuchets but they generally used similar methods in their operation. For instance, the traction trebuchet (also sometimes called a mangonel) was operated by using manpower to swing the arm of the device and launch the projectile. While the counterweight trebuchet used a heavy weight and gravity to swing the arm and launch the projectile. The traction trebuchet was more commonly used during the first few centuries of the Early Middle Ages, which occurred from approximately the 5th century to the 10th century. On the other hand, the counterweight trebuchet was in use during the years of the High and Late Middle Ages which occurred from approximately the 10th century to the 15th century. Similar to other siege weapons of the Middle Ages, the use of gunpowder eventually made the trebuchet obsolete.