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Medieval Warfare and Weaponry

In the Middle Ages, the nobility of many cultures had large fortifications built to house a small town as well as themselves. These fortification were called castles, and they were so well defended that some historians have called it “the most formidable weapon of medieval warfare” (Hull 1). As one can imagine, conquering such a colossal structure cost much money, even more time, and many lives.

There were three main ways to infiltrate a castle; each no more common than the other two. The first way to conquer to castle is known as the siege. In a siege, an army would bar passageways into the castle, and continue to pound away at the castle’s defenses until it was vulnerable to a final attack. In this form of assault, the attacking party did not have to approach the castle, as was required in a storm, the second way to attack a castle. In a siege, the ramparts of the castle were often bombarded by large projectiles from catapults. The defenders of the castle were killed off by hunger, plague, or actual weapons such as Greek fire arrows. Greek fire was a mixture comprised of highly flammable substances that was agonizingly hot. Bits of cloth were dipped into the Greek fire compound and wrapped it behind the head of an arrow, and then lit on fire. Yet another common tactic in the siege was undermining. Undermining was the digging of tunnels underneath towers. However, the purposes of such subterranean activity were not for passage, but to create instability in the towers, and in the end cause their disintergration.

The second, more certain form of attack upon a castle was the blockade. To blockade a place was to preclude all entry and departure from the site. In doing so to a castle, one limited their food supply, for a castle, unlike a manor, could not survive unless contact with the outer world could be attained. However, starving a castle out was costly in both money and especially time. For a long while an army waited for the castle to deplete their resources, the army itself had to continue to supply themselves with such resources, and the soldiers were to be paid for their vigilant act.

Although it was costly and lengthy, blockade did work. Richard the Lionhearted’s stronghold, the Chateau-Gaillard, which was built in only a year along the Seine River, was sacked on March 6, 1204 by blockade. The Chateau, like many great citadels, was regarded as invicible, for “the art of siegecraft had not kept pace with that of fortification” (Nofi 1). The man responsible for this zenith in French and English history was King Philip Augustus II. He set up “something more than a passive blockade, for he erected siege works and successfully stormed the outer walls” (Nofi 2). By the time the French made their final storming of the fortress, the defending army was not even two hundred men. Due to the changing of possession of the Chateau-Gaillard, Normandy’s capital, Rouen, and eventually all of Normandy returned to French rule. In addition, King Philip attained control of traffic along the Seine.

The third, and presumably most venturesome of all castle assaults was the storm. In storming a castle, the aggressive army approached the castle with a battering ram and literally hammered away at the stone aegis of the castle. Then, troops would traverse the newly created rubble and enter the castle. Another option was to take a cumbersome siege tower, known as a belfry, to the castle walls and climb over the walls into the castle. In storming a castle, an army could not steathily approach the stronghold. The belfry could not be hidden, for it was multiple stories high.

Once military tactics were of no use in the invasion of a castle, the attack became simply a ruthless and barborous man-to-man fight with weapons. Strategy was no longer applied. Men of the armies fought with double-edged swords, battle-axes, lances, slings, and weapons of archery. The weapons of archery were the short and long bows, and the most fearsome weapon known before the discovery of gunpowder: the crossbow.

A man with a sword had great status. “The Saxons considered a sword to have equal value of one hundred-twenty oxen or fifteen male slaves.” (Barber 63) They remained popular in many different forms throughout the Middle Ages. The battle-axe was a product of the Scandanavian Vikings of the nineth century. The axe was large and formidable and had no specific types of strikes as the sword did. One simply swung the axe in the general vicinity of a rival. The sling was a thin piece of leather with a thick pocket near the middle. A small stone was placed in this pocket, and the sling was set into spinning motion. Once the sling was released, the stone would flit through the air at an enemy. The short bow was used in the early Middle Ages until the thirteenth century, when the Welsh’s longbow appeared on the battleground. The Welsh had been using the longbow since the twelfth century, but in the Welsh Wars of Edward I, it was introduced to the English. With the introduction of gunpowder, only in England did the long bow survive. However, neither of these bows could ever compare to the brutality of the crossbow. This tool of death was smaller than a longbow, but more cumbersome.

“The purpose of this short, powerful bow was to give the missile greater initial speed and thus to increase the range of the shot and its power of penetration. It was not possible, however, to obtain increased tension when drawing the bow merely by hand. In order to set the arbalest ready for sooting, it was necessary to use various devices.” (Drobn 53).

The simplest tightening method was treading. When tightening the crossbow by treading, an archer placed his foot in a stirrup at the front, held the bowstring with clips of his archer’s belt and applied tension until the cord was caught in the notch of the arrow. Although this method was the most expeditious, the most frequently used method was the levor method. This concept encompassed a toothed-wheel turned by a handle which moved a rod with a hook of the end; the hook caught the cord, and stretched it. With the level method, an archer could load the crossbow by kneeling, which did not provide such an obvious target for the enemy.

The arrows shot from any bow were usually long, with a flat, leaf-shaped or barbed head. Feathers at the end of the arrow kept its path straight after its release from the bow. With the crossbow, shorter arrows were used; the crossbow was also capable of firing stones and darts.

Although the crossbow was powerful and more accurate with aim, one thing the weapon lacked was the ability to continuously fire rapidly. The longbow was capable of that, and this proved to be an important value in the longbow in the 1346 battle of Cr cy. English longbow archers in a fixed position proved to be more useful in battle than Genoese crossbowmen fighting alongside the French.

Regardless of its slowness, so dangerous was the crossbow that the church made an attempt to ban the crossbow. “In the 12th century, Pope Innocent II declared the crossbow to be ‘deathly and hateful to God and unfit to be used among Christians.’” (Sasser 21)

“The Lateran Council of 1139 outlawed the crossbow because that weapon allowed a peasant foot soldier to kill an armored knight — obviously not part of God’s plan, the churchman felt. The band did not work; crossbows continued to knock noblemen off their steeds with great regularity.” (Bova 15)

The crossbow was too popular and too useful in war for either participating side of a war to give up its use. “Neither corps obeyed the church and so the crossbow continued to go against God’s will.” (Gies 32)

Catapults of the Middle Ages were divided into two major groups: ballistas, and trebuchets. The ballista was, in essence, a giant crossbow. Huge javelins were placed on them, the bowstring was cranked to a taut position; when the bowstring was released, these javelins were sent 350 – 500 yards into the air. “-It was necessary that any such piece of siege artillery should outrange the arrows of the archers and stones of the slingers on the walls by a reasonable margin in order to be of much use when set up in an effective position.” (Haven 1). A crossbow device, larger than an arbalest but smaller than a ballista, was called a scorpion. It could propel eight foot spears a good distance.

The ballista had been around since the Roman times. They would mount the firing mechanism between rows of horses or mules for easy transportation. It was called the carroballista or “cart catapult.”

Although the ballista served its purpose well, it was not the most valuable in battle. “The trebuchet of the Middle Ages was the largest and most powerful of the whole range of hurling engines.” (Davidson 23). The trebuchet worked on the lever principle. A long beam rotated up and down on a crossbeam. The shorter half of the beam was heavily weighted down, and from the longer end hung a pouch of rope. Projectiles were placed in the pouch and flung through the air up to eight hundred yards. The long end was tied to a base which kept it from being thrown into the air by the counterweight. Once this rope was severed, the projectile went into motion. Possible projectiles of the trebuchet were living prisoners, jugs of Greek fire, rocks, and animals.

Another large weapon of siege was used primarally in storms, the battering ram. In its early stages, the ram was no more than a hefty beam with a mass of metal attached to the end. Men would hoist the cumbersome boom onto their shoulders and run into a wall or door as many times as needed until the surface under attack gave way. In the Middle Ages, it was developed into more of a machine, for the ram hung from the center of a tent under which the men operating the ram could hide. The ram could be swung like a pendulum much more easily than having to constantly run back and forth. Also, castle guards often poured hot oil or other things onto the ram and its engineers. The tent, which was on wheels, protected the men and the battering ram as well.

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