The Technology of Military Machines

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The Technology of Military Machines


Waging War. While medieval people used technology to redefine the ways in which they lived every day, they also used it to redefine the ways in which they wrought death and destruction. Warfare at the end of the Middle Ages differed more profoundly from military actions at the beginning of the period than early medieval warfare had differed from battle at any previous time in history. Until fairly late in the Middle Ages, people believed that warfare was predicated on one man attacking another and seeking victory using his own strength. The reality was not that simple. Throughout the Middle Ages, siege warfare, which relied heavily on machinery, was the principle method of waging war. Consequently, military technology was focused on developing and improving methods of laying siege, particularly machines that allowed the invader to attack a fortification from a distance. The first such developments were different sorts of mechanical catapults, but after the knowledge of how to make gunpowder arrived in Europe from China in the mid thirteenth century, guns slowly, but inexorably, became the main focus of technological development.

Catapults. Mechanical artillery dates back at least to the ancient Greeks. The Greeks were not terribly interested in technology for technology’s sake, but—as an indispensable element of civic defense—artillery was one of the few machines considered worthy of concerted development and description. The Middle Ages inherited knowledge of ancient catapults, which were simple devices powered by twisted ropes or sinews. By the late Middle Ages—before the cannon became the main siege device in the sixteenth century—medieval engineers perfected a type of catapult known as a trebuchet. Originating in China and reaching Europe through Islam, the trebuchet used a long beam of wood with a sling attached to one end to hurl stones and other substances at its target. The beam was mounted on a framework off-center and high above the ground in such a way that, when the short end of the beam was pulled downward, the long end swung upward in a wide arc, sending a projectile violently at a target. The earliest trebuchets, known as traction trebuchets, required a crew of many men—or even women—pulling on ropes attached to the short end to fling a missile. This method was limited by the number of people who could be crowded under the beam and by how much force they could apply.

The Counterweight Trebuchet. Medieval engineers discovered that replacing men with a large box filled with rocks immensely magnified the weight of the missile a trebuchet could launch. This counterweight trebuchet was the single most effective piece of pre-gunpowder artillery ever developed. Counterweight trebuchets with names such as “warwolf” and “wall breaker” appeared in the twelfth century and continued in use until at least the later part of the fifteenth century. They were so powerful that many residents of castles or cities surrendered as soon as they learned they were to be besieged by a trebuchet. These late trebuchets were capable of launching stone balls that weighed hundreds of pounds and could shatter a wall in a single blow. They could also lob disease-infested carcasses or incendiary devices over the walls into the defenders’ stronghold. By the late fourteenth century, the odds in siege warfare were for the moment strongly tipped toward the attackers, and the upsurge of castle building in the fourteenth century came in response to these powerful machines.

The Cannon. That the trebuchet continued to be used so late in the Middle Ages is a testament to its strength, as well as an indication of the slow development of the alternative form of siege “engine,” the cannon. Gunpowder is a mixture of charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter (a nitrate salt that

contributes oxygen and makes the compound burn rapidly). When mixed in ratios of about 1:1:6, gunpowder burns so quickly that, if enclosed in a strong-enough container, it will eject a projectile from the mouth of the container at supersonic speeds. Even though gunpowder was known in the thirteenth century, it was not until the end of the fifteenth that it made any truly appreciable impact on the art of war. Europeans knew how to use artillery and what they could do with cannons in a siege, but one of the key ingredients in gunpowder was rare.

The Search for Saltpeter. When the recipe for gunpowder appeared in Europe, two of its ingredients were readily available throughout most of the region: charcoal was easily prepared from wood, and sulfur deposits were known to form almost anywhere volcanoes or hot springs were active. Saltpeter, on the other hand, first came from Asia with the spice trade. Early reports suggested that saltpeter was mined, and because Europeans knew of no deposits in their region, it was available—if at all—in minute quantities from apothecaries and at high prices. Europeans eventually discovered, however, that the Chinese did not literally “mine” saltpeter. Instead, they learned, saltpeter forms on the deposits of dung, or guano, left by cave-dwelling bats.

The Saltpeter Industry. Saltpeter is a natural byproduct of bacterial decay of organic waste, chiefly animal dung. It took Europeans about a century and a half to learn to collect raw dung in sufficient quantities, store it in a cool, dry place such as a cellar or cave, water it fortnightly with urine, and collect the white salts that grew slowly on the cave or cellar walls. (The name saltpeter comes from the Latin sal petra, or salt of the rock.) Once such industries had been developed by the turn of the fifteenth century, the supply of gunpowder increased rapidly and its cost declined greatly. As gunpowder supplies increased, cannons initially became extremely large, in an attempt to hurl the largest stone possible and end a siege quickly. Once again, the technology of offense took the lead, and the technology of defense—castle building—was forced to respond in the sixteenth century. Smaller firearms, such as arquebuses and muskets, were not used in battle until the mid fifteenth century or later. Gunpowder also became more powerful as it was better refined. Initially seen as a complement to archers or crossbowmen, handgunners later became their replacements. As a spin-off of gunpowder artillery, incendiaries and “fireworks” became the mainstay of gunner’s training. Such flammable mixtures were useful in war for burning enemy defenses, ships, and towns, which were largely made of wood and often had thatched roofs. In peacetime the gunners were called upon to provide fireworks for fetes and celebrations such as weddings, coronations, and military victories. By the end of the Middle Ages, the main technologies of warfare had shifted from swords and catapults to firearms, and modern warfare was born.


Jim Bradbury, The Medieval Siege (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1992).

Ivy A. Corfis and Michael Wolfe, The Medieval City under Siege (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1995).

Kelly DeVries, Medieval Military Technology (Peterborough, Ont. & Lewiston, N.Y.: Broadview Press, 1992).

William Hardy McNeill, The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).

R. Ewart Oakeshott, The Archaeology of Weapons: Arms and Armour from Prehistory to the Age of Chivalry (London: Lutterworth Press, 1960).