Their use may be relegated to “punkin chunkin” tournaments today, but siege engines such as the catapult and trebuchet were the weapons of mass destruction of the Middle Ages. Although archaeological evidence suggests that Egyptian warriors deployed siege tactics as early as the 24th century B.C., siege weaponry became increasingly sophisticated and most widely used in Europe from the 11th through the 18th century. Leonardo da Vinci is the most illustrious architect of siege weaponry.
As the Middle Ages progressed, toe-to-toe, pitched battles became less frequent. Battle strategists and weapons engineers developed siege engines to overcome the defensive structures of walled cities and castles.
The earliest form of the siege engine is the battering ram. A large log on the shoulders of sufficient men could knock down wood gates and brick walls, but medieval technologists improved the ram’s design until it became a formidable, if cumbersome, weapon. Once the ram was suspended like a pendulum from a mobile frame, it could be swung repeatedly to pummel thicker walls.
The siege engine took a major step forward with the perfection of the catapult. The siege tower, inside of which warriors could shield themselves as they advanced upon a fortress, certainly had its place, but the catapult gave warriors a weapon akin to modern artillery, albeit lacking an explosive device as its driving force.
If an attacker wanted to hurl, for example, diseased livestock, human corpses or, later, petards over a castle wall, he would have chosen the nearest catapult.
Medieval attackers used several different styles of catapult. Although much larger and mounted, rather than handheld, the torsion-driven ballista foreshadowed the crossbow, and fired spears or other objects parallel to the ground, often directly at gates. Mangonels featured a large cup at the end of a long arm, as if forming a giant spoon. A team of roughly 20 men muscled the arm through its arc to fling its projectile.
The trebuchet introduced a superior mechanism, falling counterweights, as the driving force to the catapult. A trebuchet could sling projectiles weighing hundreds of pounds quite far over an enemy’s walls. In skilled hands, the trebuchet is reasonably accurate and has significant range. Many of today’s “punkin chunkers” and other creative anachronists devote themselves to building trebuchets.