War machines

detailmachineSiege warfare is a heavy-duty enterprise. So the means have to be proportionate to the fortifications. Success depended on weaponry used to pierce, break or weaken all constructions. Some of the most interesting weapons were the counterweight machines.

We have several siege machines on the site: a life-size couillard and three others for educational purposes (a counterweight trebuchet, a bricola, a couillard). You’ll see them in action to better understand how they worked.

The Bricola

From the eponymous Italian word meaning made on site. This machine was the direct evolution of the pierriere, based on human traction counterweight principle. A defensive machine set up on top of a fortress’ ramparts, the bricola became easier to use when the counterweight was introduced. It is at the origin of all counterweight siege weapons. As the counterweight became increasingly heavy, it eventually replaced human traction.

The trebuchet

It was the most powerful catapult of the Middle Ages. It could hurl stones as heavy as 130kg (287lbs) as far as 220m (722ft). Its working principle was a counterweight, lever and sling. The most essential innovation “engineers” brought to the trebuchet was the articulated counterweight arm. This modification guaranteed a smooth operation and far better accuracy, all the while increasing the machine’s performance. Furthermore, filling the counterweight, basically a wooden box, with more or less stones, could control the distance. But this huge machine required about a hundred “servants”. From its construction to its activation, a number of professionals from all corporations were needed: lumbermen and carpenters for the structure, blacksmiths for the mechanisms, rope makers, tanners for the sling, all working under the engineers’ orders. Stonecutters were of the utmost importance. Once they were finished breaking down stones for the counterweight, they had to form stone balls for the projectiles. When perfectly round they were far more deadly than a badly cut projectile as they rolled and crushed everything on their path. The biggest problem of this machine was its slow throwing pace: 1 to 2 throws per hour!

The Couillard

It was the most sophisticated counterweight machine. Thanks to its two wooden boxes, the handling was easier as its load was split. Its range was shorter (180m-590.5ft) than that of the trebuchet and the balls lighter (80kg- 176lbs) but its throwing capability faster (10 throws per hour). Also, it only required about twenty servants. All these advantages allowed it to compete for over two centuries with gunpowder-based artillery.

The Ballista

The ballista was the medieval evolution of the antique Roman catapult. It was also called torsion or winch crossbow, because of the mechanism used to draw the bowstring back. Until the 15th century it was made of a composite of wood and sinews. Later, steel became the material of choice for the bow, thus stronger and more reliable. Its projectile, a long arrow was sometimes called javelin, probably because of its length and the shape of its iron tip. Considered one of the most powerful weapons of its time, it is said that one javelin was sufficient to kill four soldiers and one horse pinning them all to a thick oak door. One more proof that when it comes to the Middle Ages, legend and history intertwine freely.

English translation by Francoise Dubois