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The siege engines of medieval warfare were adopted and adapted from Roman military practices, which itself included was comprised of the accumulation of innovations dating as far back as the time of the Assyrians, who utilized battering rams in the 23rd century BC/BCE. Medieval besiegers employed scaling ladders and siege towers like their martial forebears, but the Roman inheritance that proved the most important to medieval siege warfare was the catapult, which launched a variety of deadly projectiles at the enemy. In the Middle Ages attacking armies most commonly used them to bring down the walls of a besieged fortification, though defenders might also place them in towers to use against the enemy at the gates. They could hurl a number of deadly substances into or over walls: rocks, fire pots, arrows, even human and animal corpses in early forms of biological warfare. Various types of catapults abounded, rising and falling in popularity and usage across the period. Below are just a few of the different types of catapults used in medieval warfare:
- Onager: a Roman siege engine that derived its projectile power from its ‘kickback’ action and torsional ropes, thus its being named after the wild donkey. In the Roman era the main arm supported a sling that held and flung the projectile; in the Middle Ages it was a bowl-shaped bucket.
- Ballista: developed circa 400 BC from classical Greek and Roman siege weapons, this complex and sophisticated catapult used two levers with springs consisting of twisted ropes. Thus, like the onager, it got its energy to hurl projectile from torsion. The ballista saw its heyday in the Roman Empire. Their use declined after the empire’s fall when it became too expensive to build and maintain, and medieval warriors opt for cheaper and more efficient machines like the trebuchet or mangonel. They remained a part of warfare throughout the Middle Ages, however, with giant arrows or bolts tipped with iron. It was used more often as an anti-personnel weapon, piercing armor and felling soldiers rather than bringing down walls.
- Mangonel- Also a classical innovation, the mangonel was adopted and adapted for medieval warfare. Though it could not boat the accuracy of other catapults like the trebuchet, it was an essential weapon in castle sieges. It utilized a fixed counterweight to hurl projectile, flinging a projectile with a lower trajectory and higher velocity in order to break through walls rather than to throw things over them. It was loaded by pulling down on a rope (a difficult task—undertaken by teams of men numbering up to 20!) connected to a pulley or gear compound to lower the main arm, attached to which was the sling or bowl-shaped pail. The projectile was placed in the sling, and the rod was released. Projectiles included rocks, fire pots (medieval Molotov cocktails). The term “mangonel” could also sometimes refer to a machine utilizing ropes and torsion, but which only had one arm as opposed to the ballista’s two.
- Trebuchet- a counter-weight driven siege machine that appeared in the twelfth century almost simultaneously in Christian lands of the West and the Islamic East. Unlike most other engines that utilized ropes to create torsion, the trebuchet relied on gravity and a swinging weight to rotate the throwing arm.
- Springald- Innovation of the late 12th/early 13th century, it threw large bolts, stones, and even Greek fire, essentially combined the designs of the ballista and the crossbow. It was the most powerful weapon of its type in the Middle Ages- Took two minutes to prepare between shots, but compensated for this with its deadly accuracy. Also used wound up ropes that, when released, hurled 4 foot bolts, with claims reporting a range up to a quarter of a mile. A report from 1304 has it that one bolt fired from a springald pierced 4 to 5 men at once. A springald was used at Castle Conwy to repel Welsh invaders.
Gerstelle, William. The Art of the Catapult. Chicago: Chicago ReviewPress, 2004.
Nossov, Konstantin. Ancient and Medieval Siege Weapons. Guilford: Globe Pequot, 2005.
Jennifer Lynn Jordan is an author and medieval blogger. She is also a doctoral student in medieval history and teaching fellow at SUNY Stony Brook.