By Danièle Cybulskie
I mentioned in an earlier post that sieges were much more common than the more familiar pitched battles we so often see in the movies, since the outcome was much less variable. A town or castle that is besieged almost always falls, sooner or later, while a battle in the middle of a field could go either way, depending on many more factors. In case you imagine a siege to be much less exciting than a pitched battle, I’m adding a video from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King to illustrate a siege for you. As I have mentioned before, J.R.R. Tolkien was a medievalist, himself, and borrowed many of his ideas from history. Although there were no mythical creatures in medieval sieges, this is a pretty good example of a siege in action. Much of my knowledge (and much of the information in today’s blog) comes from a really fantastic book: Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World, by Matthew Bennet et al. (This book even includes walk-throughs of some of the most famous medieval battles.) If you’re interested in medieval warfare, check this book out.
Sieges had been going on for thousands of years before the Middle Ages, and many of the tactics used in the Middle Ages derived from the ancient world. So, how does one attack a walled city successfully? The easiest way is, of course, to trick someone into letting you in (witness the Trojan Horse), or you could simply wait and starve out the city (another popular tactic). Much more exciting and honourable, however, is to breach the city through force.
The city you see in the video, the fictional Minas Tirith, is built like many well-fortified medieval cities, with walls in concentric circles, the castle in the middle, and a natural, geographical feature guarding one side. This allowed citizens to fall back behind wall after wall as they were being attacked, until the last place of retreat was the smaller (and therefore much more defensible) castle itself. To give you an indication of how serious medieval people were about building defensive walls, castles could have walls that were up to fifteen feet thick.
At about 0:39 in the video, you can see Minas Tirith does not have a flat wall to defend it. There are a few towers built into the wall, as well as an overhang along the flat part. The towers you can sometimes see at intervals in medieval walls were more often round than square (like the ones on Minas Tirith’s wall). The reason for this is that corners are very vulnerable to attack, and a round tower eliminates this problem. As for the overhanging section (the “machicolation”), this allowed defenders to drop objects on their attackers; objects such as rocks, refuse, and – you guessed it – boiling oil.
In general, there are three ways to attack a wall: go over it, go under it, or go through it. Attackers could go over the walls using a great many ladders at once, sometimes with grappling hooks on the end, so that the enemy would be too overwhelmed to quickly push all the ladders off the walls. Medieval people also used belfries: movable towers that could be pushed up to the walls of a city. These towers could be several stories high, filled with archers prepared to go up and over the city wall. In the Minas Tirith video below, you can see belfries approaching the wall at 1:57, and you can briefly see the back of a belfry at 2:09, just before it is obliterated. Since belfries were wooden structures, they would be covered with animal hides to protect them from fire. Belfries were a successful way of getting people over defensive walls, but they had another purpose: disguising attempts to go under them.
Miners, or “sappers,” were employed to undermine a defensive structure by tunnelling underneath it. Sound dangerous? It was. Miners could tunnel all the way through to give the attackers a way into the city, but more often they tunnelled right under the walls, propping the tunnels up with wooden beams until they were well underneath, and then setting fire to the props, causing the tunnel to collapse – sapping the strength from the wall. Corners were often targeted for these types of attack, since they were the weakest part of the wall.
If going over or going under didn’t work, there was always the much more destructive going through. Doors could be targeted by battering rams, of course. If you search around YouTube for the rest of the battle of Minas Tirith, you’ll see a battering ram made of metal and swung from chains to achieve greater force (the medieval contribution to the design of the battering ram). In addition, hurling machines were incredibly effective at destroying walls. As every elementary-school boy knows, medieval people employed catapults. Catapults, however, were actually mechanized slingshots, not the flinging baskets you may picture. Those machines (which you’ll see right at the start of the Minas Tirith video) were actually called “mangonels.” Catapults were capable of slinging rocks or bolts, and mangonels were capable of hurling rocks, debris, and even human remains (as you can read about here). These were both ancient weapons. Medieval people contributed to siege warfare through the invention of the trebuchet, which used a counterweight to hurl stones at the enemy, and was both incredibly powerful and accurate. According to Bennett (et al.), one trebuchet was capable of throwing a 25lb stone 200 yards. You can imagine how destructive a stone that size could be at that velocity. Have a look at trebuchets being used by the defenders of Minas Tirith at 1:28 in the video. It may surprise you to know that cannons were also being used all over Europe by the 14th Century, although they were much more difficult to drag to a siege.
What is probably the most mysterious, and one of the most effective, weapons in siege warfare was “Greek Fire.” Greek Fire was also used in ancient times, and was a liquid that burst into flames on impact, and could not be put out by water (some accounts said that water increased the flames). In a time when many of the structures inside the stone walls of a city were made of wood, Greek Fire was a terrifying weapon, indeed. Though Michael Crichton’s Timeline – book and movie – suggests that moderns gave the recipe for Greek Fire to some medieval people, we actually do not know the recipe today.
This has been my longest post, though I hope it is one of the most interesting ones. Having absorbed all that information, I hope you’ll sit back and enjoy this short clip of the siege of Minas Tirith, revelling in your knowledge of siege warfare.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist