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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Medieval Weapon’s Part Three

*Please note the photos in this post have been removed. I will update with new photos once I have more time. Thank you.*

Last year I did a short series on medieval weapons called Is the Pen Mightier Than The Sword? Which you can find here http://ladyscribes.blogspot.com/search/label/medieval%20weapons

So I thought I would expand on it a little and offer some quick info on medieval siege weapons over my next several posts. Medieval warfare was quite complicated and intricate which is one of the reasons I love to research it. It’s a far cry from the way we fight battles today. I mean can you imagine standing at the base of a medieval castle as hot oil, rocks, and arrows rain down over you? You would need some massive...courage to do so.

The Crusades, the construction of hundreds of castles and the massive spread of Christianity, all helped bring about a new form of warfare — Siege Warfare. These weapons were unwieldy and difficult to transport but boy, did they pack a punch. In a siege situation, the siege commander and engineers would determine the best strategy and more often than not use the trial by error tactic. Often it would take several shots to line up these weapons before ever hitting the target. I’m certain many of them overshot or undershot – killing their own men.

I’m going to cover the most famous siege weapons here, one post at a time: Ballista, Mangonel, Battering rams, Trebuchets, Catapult, Siege Tower.

I’ll start with the Ballista – an invaluable attack weapon – which resembled a massive crossbow. Using Tension, the design was made to aim huge wooden, iron clad darts or arrows which were powered by twisted skeins of rope, hair, or sinew - the ballista design was based on a huge dart-throwing machine. These darts were designed to penetrate and skewer the enemy.

The word 'Ballista' is derived from the Greek word 'Ballistes' meaning to throw. In England siege weapons, including the Ballista, was also known as the Ingenium from the Latin word ingenium meaning ingenious device! Plural – ballistae.

The Ballista is probably one of the oldest siege weapons known to man, dated back to the Greek period (the scorpion) and later modified by the Romans. The weapon was introduced to England in 1216 during the Siege of Dover - as were many other types of siege engines. Louis the Dauphin of France crossed the Channel with a large force and laid siege to Dover Castle making a violent and incessant attack on the castle walls. He used the Ballista against the walls and men of Dover Castle. The constable of Dover castle was Hugh de Burgh - he refused to surrender.

This highly accurate weapon required expert building and design skills. The arms were made of wood, in which ropes were attached to each one and were the “springs.” The ropes were often made of twisted human hair or animal sinew. By “twisting” the ropes when the arms were pulled back it created the tension needed to create the projectile effect. The bowstring was pulled back by a winch. This short range weapon had a deadly effect.

The darts used were often darts with iron points, sharp wooden poles, body parts, and diseased and rotting carcasses. This baby could release up to a thousand missiles a day! It’s range approximately a couple hundred yards.

Sure you could find all this info on the web yourselves but this is something I could read about all day! And it gave me something to blog about. I’ve compiled a list of links and books to learn more about the Ballista here:

Medieval Warfare: A History by Maurice Keen

Medieval Warfare by Helen J. Nicholson

Ancient and Medieval Siege Weapons: A Fully Illustrated Guide to Siege Weapons and Tactics by K. Nosov

So two weeks from now, I’ll return with another post on medieval siege weapons and until then, what movie or book do you think best portrayed medieval warfare? I’ll give you my answer a bit later.


  1. Great information, great pictures. I'm sure this is a post I'll refer back to when I write my medieval novel. Thank you, Melissa!

  2. Thanks for stopping by Clarissa, hope it helps at some point.

    To answer my question that I asked, what movie best portrayed medieval warfare and my answer is "The Messenger: The Story or Joan of Arc." And while much of the historical detail is hollywoodized, the battles were pretty brutal and imho spot on.

  3. The work is very versatile, with so many concentrations intermingling,