In our previous article, we talked about the firearms of the Middle Ages. Now we are going to discuss medieval siege weapons.
In the Middle Ages, internecine feuds occurred quite frequently, which is why building castles and fortresses was a very popular activity back then. Builders also used to enclose towns with stone walls to protect their citizens. A siege of a castle could last for years, so military engineers developed and upgraded their siege weapons in order to crush an enemy’s defenses much more quickly.
The ancient Greeks used the term “catapult” to refer to all war machines that launched projectiles. The Romans, however, gave this name to machines that shot arrows specifically. Only in the latter days of the Roman Empire did siege engines that shot arrows acquire the name “ballistae,” while torsion-powered mechanisms were called “catapults.”
How did this siege engine work? Engineers used a lever to wind restraining ropes that pulled back the arms of the catapult. Then they placed a projectile into a special bucket or a sling. When the engineer let go of the lever, the ropes unwound, and the arms straightened so as to launch the projectile.
Catapults fired their missiles along a low trajectory, nearly parallel to the ground. That’s why these weapons were used for defending fortresses and in the field. Catapults weren’t suitable for sieges, as they couldn’t destroy stone walls or wall fortifications.
The onager was a torsion-powered siege engine with one arm and a sling for flinging stones. Like catapults, onagers also launched projectiles almost parallel to the ground, so people often used them to defend their castles and on the battlefield.
The structure of the ballista was similar to that of the catapult, but the principle upon which it operated was different. While the catapult would launch its missiles along a low trajectory, the ballista did so along a curved trajectory.
Commanders used ballistae to destroy enemy war machines and wall fortifications, such as turrets, protective sheds, and crenelations.
This automatic machine for firing arrows was invented by Dionysius of Alexandria in the third century B.C. The polybolos had a mechanism for delivering bolts and a windlass for adding tension to the drawstring.
The trebuchet was a gravity-operated siege weapon. It launched projectiles by using the energy of a falling counterweight that was attached to a beam. The other side of the beam had a sling that moved automatically and launched the projectile.
Warriors used trebuchets to crush walls during sieges of fortresses.
The battering ram was a weapon with a bronze or iron tip. The ram was either carried by hand, or it was attached to a wooden frame with chains or ropes. The frame had a canopy that protected warriors against enemy arrows.
There were also multilevel rams: wooden beams were placed on every level in order to smash walls in several places at once.
Warriors used this transportable structure to get to the walls of the fortress under siege. They would move the tower closer to the wall and drop a gangplank.
Massive siege towers were assembled during the siege of a fortress when other siege engines couldn’t crush the enemy’s defenses. To protect the tower from fire, warriors covered it with raw animal hides or, sometimes, sheets of metal.
If you missed the previous articles about medieval weapons, you can find them here:
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