Crusaders, Condottieri, and Cannon: Medieval Warfare in Societies around the Mediterranean

By Donald J. Kagay; L. J. Andrew Villalon | Go to book overview

THE HYBRID TREBUCHET: THE HALFWAY STEP
TO THE COUNTERWEIGHT TREBUCHET
Paul E. Chevedden

Introduction

A new type of artillery—the trebuchet—had a powerful impact on world history. The trebuchet was in active service longer than any other piece of artillery. It played an important role in warfare; it contributed to the development of the centralized state; and it influenced both the development of clockwork and theoretical analyses of motion. Developed in China between the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, it reached the Mediterranean by the sixth century CE, just in time to play a critical role in one of the greatest turning points in history: the Islamic conquest movements. Thereafter it was prominently featured in siege warfare across Eurasia and North Africa and held its own until well after the coming of gunpowder ordinance. The cannon finally supplanted it during the course of the fifteenth century, but it was resurrected in the New World in the sixteenth century for one last siege of a great city, Tenochtitlan in 1521.1

____________________
1
This study of the trebuchet has been supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, an independent federal agency. I thank Les Eigenbrod, Vernard Foley, and Werner Soedel of Purdue University, Donald J. Kagay of Albany State University, and Theresa M. Vann of the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library for their discussions and comments on this article. On earlier forms of artillery and their replacement by the trebuchet, see Paul E. Chevedden, “Artillery in Late Antiquity: Prelude to the Middle Ages, ” in The Medieval City under Siege, eds. Ivy Corfis and Michael Wolfe (Woodbridge, Eng., 1995), pp. 131–173.

On the development of the trebuchet in China, see Herbert Frankle, “Siege and Defense of Towns in Medieval China, ” in Chinese Ways in Warfare, ed. Frank A. Keirman, Jr. and John K. Fairbank (Cambridge, MA, 1974), pp. 151–201; Joseph Needham, “China's Trebuchets, Manned and Counterweighted, ” in Bert S. Hall and Delno C. West, eds., On Pre-Modern Technology and Science: Studies in Honor of Lynn White, Jr. (Malibu, CA, 1976), pp. 107–145; Sergej A. Skoljar, “L'Artillerie de jet a l'époque Sung, ” Etudes Song, series 1, Histoire et institutions (Paris, 1978), 119–142; Robin D. S. Yates, “Siege Engines and Late Zhou Military Technology, ” in Explorations in the History of Science and Technology in China, ed. Li Guohao, Zhang Mehgwen, and Cao Tianqin (Shanghai, 1982), pp. 414–419; Joseph Needham and Robin D. S. Yates, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, pt. 6, Military Technology: Missiles and Sieges (Cambridge, 1994); and Yang Hong, ed., Weapons of Ancient China (New York, 1992).

For a discussion of the historical development of the trebuchet outside of China, the following studies are of fundamental importance: Guillaume Dufour, Mémoire sur l'artillerie des anciens et sur celle du Moyen Age (Paris, 1840), pp. 87–112; Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, Études sur le passé et l'avenir de l'artillerie, 6 vols. (Paris, 1848–1871), 2:26–61; E. N. L. Viollet-le-Duc, Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture du XIe au XVIe siècles, 10 vols. (Paris, 1854–1868), 5:218–242; Gustav Köhler, Die Entwickelung des Kriegwesens und der Kriegführung in der Ritterzeit von Mitte des II. Jahrhunderts bis zu den Hussitenkriegen, vol. 3 (Breslau, 1890), pp. 139–211; Rudolf Schneider, Die Artillerie des Mittelalters (Berlin, 1910); Henry Yule, ed., The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East, 3rd ed., 3 vols. (London, 1926), 2:161–169; Bernhard Rathgen, Das Geschütz im Mittelalter (1928; reprint, Düsseldorf, 1987), pp. 578–638; Kalervo Huuri, “Zur Geschichte des mittelalterlichen Geschützwesens aus orientalischen Quellen, ” in Societas Orientalia Fennica, Studia Orientalia, 9/3 (Helsinski, 1941); Claude Cahen, “Un traité d'armurerie pour Saladin, ” Bulletin d'études orientales 12 (1947–1948): 103–163; J.-F. Finó, “Machines de jet médiévales, ” Gladius 10 (1972): 25–43, and Forteresses de la France médiévale: construction, attaque, défense, 3rd ed. (Paris, 1977), pp. 149–163; Donald R. Hill, “Trebuchets, ” Viator 4 (1973): 99–115; Carroll M. Gillmor, “The Introduction of the Traction Trebuchet into the Latin West, ” Viator 12 (1981): 1–8; D. J. C. King, “The Trebuchet and other Siege-Engines, Château Gaillard 9–10 (1982): 457–469; Paul E. Chevedden, Les Eigenbrod, Vernard Foley, and Werner Soedel, “The Trebuchet: Recent Reconstructions and Computer Simulations reveal the Operating Principles of the Most Powerful Weapon of its Time, ” Scientific American (July 1995): 66–71; and Paul E. Chevedden, “The Artillery of King James I the Conqueror, ” in Iberia and the Mediterranean World of the Middle Ages: Essays in Honor of Robert I. Burns, S. J., vol. 2, Proceedings from “Spain and the Western Mediterranean”: A Colloquium Sponsored by The Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, October 26–27, 1992, edited by P. E. Chevedden, D. J. Kagay, and P. G. Padilla (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996), 47–94.

On the construction of a large trebuchet at the siege of Tenochtitlan, see Hugh Thomas, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico (New York, 1993), p. 520.

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