So. You’re a Medieval warlord and you want to crush your neighbors like little Medieval bugs. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. There were plenty of men (and a few women) just like you in the Middle Ages. Everywhere you turned in the Middle Ages someone was trying to take over someone else’s land, whether at home or abroad. So what is the best way to crush your enemies into submission?
Siege their castles.
Siege warfare was one of the most common military tactics in the Middle Ages, and well into the Early Modern Age too. As I discussed two weeks ago, castles were build tough. They often had several layers of walls and moats. So how does an invading army get around those sorts of defenses? You don’t. You make life as miserable to the people inside the castle as possible and wait for them to break and come out.
The first step in sieging a castle is surrounding it and blocking all the exits. This is the easy part. If you have enough men you can simply show up and plant yourself where you are. Oh, sure, you’re going to have to deal with the inhabitants of the castle firing arrows at you, throwing stones, pouring boiling oil over the walls, and hurling things that are on fire at you, but you’ve got shields and shelters and things to ward that off. And besides, you’re going to be hurling the same arrows, rocks, and things that are on fire right back over the castle walls.
This is why it’s important for you to have things that can hurl things with speed, accuracy, and force. Catapults were great for this sort of work. They hurl like a frat-boy at a party. Okay, well maybe not exactly. They were good for chucking stuff over walls, be that big-ass stones, fire-bombs, or plague-riddled bodies (I’ll get to that in a minute). Catapults were a siege essential. But if you wanted a little more accuracy and force to your attacks then you needed a trebuchet. Trebuchet had the advantage of being able to fling objects further and harder than your average catapult, plus they were surprisingly accurate and could hit the same target over and over.
Another class of weapon that you needed to have were your battering rams. Sometimes you just don’t want to wait for the enemy to cave so you have to help them along. Battering rams did just what the name implies. The rammed into things with the intention of crushing them. A battering ram could be as simple as a log wielded by a dozen men to a complicated contraption with housing to protect the men from having boiling oil poured on them that had a sharp metal cap to cut into wooden doors or walls.
But if you wanted a little more finesse to your attack you could always try tunneling under the castle walls. Groups of men called sappers who specialized in fast digging would work during the night or behind the cover of a movable palisade or fire-proof hut. Tunneling, or “mining” as it was sometimes called, could have two purposes. First, you could dig your way up to the castle wall and hollow out an area under the wall. Then you could set the tunnel on fire. This would collapse the tunnel and hopefully a large section of the castle wall with it, clearing the way for your army to march in. Or you could tunnel all the way into the castle courtyard and pop up for a surprise attack with your army.
Tunneling had its drawbacks though. Once your men were in the tunnel, if the enemy poured boiling oil over them or hurled things that were on fire or even water into the tunnel or collapsed it somehow you’d lose a lot of men in one pop. The inhabitants of the castle could also generally tell that you were tunneling. Containers of water would be set around the edges of the wall and if they were vibrating more than they should chances were someone was tunneling underneath you.
If you happen to be the one being sieged there were a lot of things you could do to resist. First of all, even though the iPhone wouldn’t be invented for a thousand years or so, people usually had word when a sieging army was on the way. They could stockpile as many supplies as possible within the castle and send runners to find help from neighbors. Once the siege started it could last for months or even years if there were enough supplies. Sure, it was depressing to watch your comrades-in-arms get picked off one by one by sharpshooters, and constantly having to put out fires and rebuild walls was no fun. Neither was it any fun to run out of supplies and start to starve and be forced to eat rats and dogs and who knows what else. But if you could hold out long enough there was a chance that a friendly army would come to your aid.
Of course then there was the problem of biological warfare. Perhaps one of the most successful instances of biological warfare ever was the result of a Medieval siege. It wasn’t uncommon whilst sieging an enemy castle to hurl diseased animals or body parts over the walls into a trapped castle. When the Mongol hoards were invading the city of Kaffa in the Crimea in 1346 they had the brilliant idea of hurling the dead bodies of plague victims over the walls. Well, it worked. It worked so well that this strain of bubonic plague spread … and spread and spread and spread. It became known as the Black Death and killed an estimated 30% – 60% of the population of Europe. Ouch. But more about that next week.
The Age of Siege began to diminish as the weapons used to attack improved. And by that I mean gunpowder. With the introduction of gunpowder from China and the invention of cannons in particular the relative thickness of defenses mattered less and less. If you could blow your enemy to smithereens in a couple of days there was no need to siege anyone’s castle or town for months or even years on end. Maybe this was a good thing. Maybe it just made warfare that much more awful.