Seminary XLIV: sieges and trebuchets, east to west

Sketch of a traction trebuchet recreated from a wall painting in the palace of Piandjikent, Transoxania

Sketch of a traction trebuchet recreated from a wall painting in the palace of Piandjikent, Transoxania

I’ve been missing too many seminars lately, including Mayke de Jong, may she forgive me, at CLANS simply because I was snowed under at work and forgot to leave in a sensible time to make it. However, I did make a point of getting to somewhere I haven’t been before, the Cambridge Byzantine Seminar, on 9th March, and I did so largely with this blog in mind as the presenter, Leif Petersen, was talking about “Siege warfare in the seventh century” and emphasising in particular the spread of the traction trebuchet, and I know how popular trebuchets are as a subject among the readership…

The actual paper was somewhat disappointing, although the visuals were a great compensation. (They would have been still more of one if somehow I hadn’t been the only person in the room who could work the computer. Why do people ask for Powerpoint and write the presentations if they then don’t know how to actually present them?) It came over as something of a long list of sieges, which Mr Petersen was easily able to convince us were numerous; I wasn’t aware we thought otherwise, as any reading of the materials I’m familiar with makes most military action a question of retreat to or building of fortresses. In between the lists were assertions of long continuity as per Bernard Bachrach, who was or is Mr Petersen’s advisor and was acknowledged as such several times. (This is probably why Guy Halsall’s recent book was never mentioned.1) The argument was therefore that because the Romans could do this orchestration of elaborate campaigns with heavy machinery, and could get this stuff built, we should not assume that the successor states could not, especially and obviously the Byzantine Empire but also the Western states. The people who knew how to build such things were at work in other places, as architects, house-builders, tradesmen in cities and so on, and the people to man them were available because when they’re under threat, he said. I suppose I can cope with this where there are cities, and Petersen argued quite convincingly that it’s not that this disappears between, say, the clear involvement of the locals in urban defence in Gregory of Tours, who kept the pauperes back from a royal levy in 576 because he wanted to keep them defending his city (along with the iuvenes of the cathedral of whom more in a moment), and the utterly bald write-ups of ‘Fredegar’, but merely that ‘Fredegar’ barely writes anything about almost everything, as can be told by looking at what ‘he’ leaves behind of Gregory where ‘he’ epitomises him. And this knowledge does show up, when kings want truly impressive things built, especially even later, they know whom to call on. It’s simply that because these experts didn’t do handy things like leave copies of Vitruvius covered in glosses lying around monasteries for us, we don’t know how. Some day in the future I’d really like to research this question of the transmission of technical knowledge. Petersen’s work will probably be part of the evidence then, but I’d like him to finish before I hear it again, and one of the things I’d like him to include is areas where there aren’t many or any cities, which, by coincidence, are those whose heroic literatures about pitched battles (like the Gododdin) are most famous, to me at least.

The other thing that became clear is that Petersen thinks of medieval warfare, or at least early medieval warfare, as a much more ‘total’ affair than the Hundred Years’ War’s élite chevauchées might make us think if that was all we knew. He sees states with the relics of a professional army, where most people, even the peasants, will in times of crisis pile into the cities and turn up at the garrison where they’re handing out the pole-arms, with a smith or five busily making more. This works a lot better in siege situations, of course, and I thought that élite-only warfare looked a lot more likely in actual pitched battle contexts, though I’m quite prepared to acknowledge that those were probably very unusual and, obviously, quite small.

In the end we have to debate, in this virtual sphere, just how many men-at-arms there could be in the early Middle Ages. Petersen was drawing distinctions between semi-professionals who owed military service through the fisc to its leaders, between the personal retinues and so on of large-scale landowners (even in Byzantium, where the emperors realised that banning them in the late Empire had failed and tried instead to demand state service from them), that including ecclesiastic landowners like Gregory of Tours (here his iuvenes again, you see) and between the general peasantry who will turn to on the walls of their local civitas once they’ve run there. But are those peasants really handy warriors? How formidable is a force of men who spend most of their time doing something else? The trouble is that the evidence of later periods, of trained pikemen, of the English laws about longbow practice, gets at historians of medieval warfare because it’s probably what got them into this. It can’t usually be the early medieval stuff because the sources have so very little of it and a lot of what there is is champions in literature impugning each others’ morals and then hacking lumps off each other in brief alternation. Few fields can be so dangerously populated with transported assumptions and we have so little from this period to check those assumptions against. It is not just me who thinks that there is a serious need for a more critical appraisal of the sources for early medieval warfare. I don’t think this paper was it.

The Roman walls and medieval towers of Barcelona

The Roman walls and medieval towers of Barcelona

I mean, I will accept peasants manning city walls in time of siege, but it sticks in my craw. In 985 the armies of the Caliphate of Córdoba sacked Barcelona (although it has been recently argued that the citadel and some of the walls never fell, only the city interior2) and various petulant charters record the processes that people went through to try and restore their claims to lands whose titles had been lost in the sack. One complains that Count Borrell II, in what would not be his finest hour, ordered the locals of the area to take refuge in the city where Viscount Udalard was coordinating the defence and take all their valuables too, while he came round the flank of the enemy force with an army that in the event doesn’t seem to have ever engaged the Muslims. (The guy records this because among the valuables he took in under these orders were, he claimed, all his land charters.)3 If you’ve seen Barcelona’s walls even as they stand today, you might think it was fair enough to expect it never to fall, after all it took the Franks eight months.4 But as recorded, the 985 response seems to me panicky and ad hoc, and the fact that it wasn’t adequate is a kind of proof that though Udalard gave his best (he was taken prisoner and returned only three years later, what suggests he was probably down with the people rather than in the citadel), this kind of resistance wasn’t something the people really knew how to do. So was 985 just too late? Is the reason that Barcelona had hardly ever fallen before that because in centuries past everyone had been better trained? Or is it more that Borrell fumbled it, al-Mansur’s armies were experienced and hardcore, and God was feeling more like Allah than Yahweh that day? (Of course the Jews get blamed later—don’t they always?—but since they were allowed to transact quite happily in the following decades and the texts blaming them are much later, I don’t think anyone was saying that at the time.5) Behind all this idea of lost expertise there seems to lurk a very very old-fashioned narrative that belongs to Gibbon, really, about how those damn kids barbarians spoilt our Empire, and I can’t help feeling suspicious when evidence that it is true is paraded quickly and superficially.

I seem to have forgotten to mention trebuchets much. The deal appeared basically to be that there are four of five mentions of them from this early and they come from all over. I didn’t think that really went anywhere, whereas as you can tell I was concerned by where the rest of it was going…


1. Referring to Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West (London 2003), as opposed, you see, to Bernard S. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare: prelude to Empire (Philadelphia 2001), which it very much is, opposed that is, as any old habitué of Mediev-L will know well.

2. Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, La Presa de Barcelona per Almansor: història i mitificació. Discurs de recepció de Gaspar Feliu i Montfort com a membre numerari de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica, llegit el dia 12 de desembre de 2007 (Barcelona 2007), online at http://www.iecat.net/butlleti/pdf/116_butlleti_feliu.pdf. Have a go and see if you can manage academic Catalan: it’s easier than you think and Prof. Feliu is very much worth reading.

3. P. de Marca, Marca Hispanica sive Limes Hispanicus, hoc est geographica & historica descriptio cataloniae, ruscinonis, & circumiacentium populorum, ed. É. Baluze (Paris 1688; repr. Barcelona 1972, 1989), ap. CXXXIV.

4. Josep M. Salrach i Marés, El Procés de Formació Nacional de Catalunya (segles VIII-IX). 1: El Domini Carolingi, Llibres a l’Abast 136 (Barcelona 1978), pp. 14-24.

5. For example, Josep M. Salrach & Gaspar Feliu (edd.), Els Pergamins de l’Arxiu Comtal de Barcelona de Ramon Borrell a Ramon Berenguer I, Diplomataris 18-20 (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 46, which has all kinds of interesting features but most importantly here, as with several others of the same time, an endorsement in Hebrew on the back and a Jewish transactor, albeit represented by a Christian. For more on the issues hanging round that you can see David Romano, “Els jueus de Barcelona i Girona fins a la mort de Ramon Borrell (1018)” in Federico Udina i Martorell, (ed.), Symposium Internacional sobre els Orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), also published as Memorias de le Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols. 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991 & 1992), II pp. 123-130.

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7 responses to “Seminary XLIV: sieges and trebuchets, east to west

  1. Behind this summary of the presentation lurks a peculiar set of assumptions. I can hardly think of anything more total in the Middle Ages than the hundred years war, in which everybody was affected one way or another, at least in France. I suggest for anyone who is interested a look at Nicholas Wright’s *knights and peasants*, which has a lot to say about the child soldiers and unwilling combatants of the 14th and 15th century.

    Let me put in a good word for Guy Halsall’s book on early medieval warfare which I thought was brilliant. A whole book full of what we don’t know about a subject in an obscure adding up to real progress on a number of fronts.

    • “I can hardly think of anything more total in the Middle Ages than the hundred years war”

      Maybe, but just because it was the most total of medieval wars, that doesn’t mean it deserves the label. ‘Total war’ is a concept invented by Ludendorff in the ’30s. While I’m sympathetic to anti-primitivist arguments about the Middle Ages and even more so to ones that emphasise the horror of war, I don’t think we should be importing concepts from very different industrialised contexts just to make a rhetorical point.

      “A whole book full of what we don’t know about a subject in an obscure adding up to real progress on a number of fronts.”

      I probably being thick, but I don’t follow this sentence.

    • Of course, I don’t know whether the ‘total’ label was in the original paper or only Jon’s paraphrase and it is being used relatively, after all. Maybe I’m just too sensitive. ;-)

  2. A bad example possibly, I haven’t worked on anything that far forward since school. I was merely trying to get at the idea that in the High Middle Ages warfare is supposed to be an élite pursuit, even if the victims are of all social standings. I entirely agree with you about Guy’s book though, and am glad to hear that people who know something about the subject (more than I do, except around the First Crusade perhaps, which is, indeed, pretty total) also think it’s good.

  3. I’ll put in a word for Gibbon here, but with the twist that it was not so much the change in personnel as it was the change in military institutions.
    The Roman Empire, up to a certain point in time, maintained a permanent army, into which men were recruited as permanent soldiers. They didn’t necessarily pack up after the campaign and go home until the next one (and my memory of Gibbon says there were a couple of times where they were allowed to settle down as civilians between campaigns, and military effectiveness suffered.) Therefore, when a new soldier learned how the nitty gritty of seige engines, he learned from and among other soldiers who had been working those seige engines for up to twenty years; and in his turn he would (assuming he survived) pass on his lore and experience to soldiers who were recruited after him. There was also the collegiality of established units: soldiers worked with the same men over a long stretch of time, instead of being thrown together on an ad hoc basis every campaign season with men they may or may not have fought alongside in previous campaigns.

    Feudal levies could make up for this in some ways–vide the Highland clans, where one’s fighting companions were neighbors and relatives with whom one worked all one’s life, in both conflict and peace–but not all of it.

    • I think kishnevi’s point on training is important, and that ties in with a distinction between offensive and defensive warfare. In very general terms, I’d say normally you can’t have too many defenders, however badly-trained (if only so your opponents get tired slaughtering them before they get to the trained men). But additional untrained combatants are often a serious liability on an offensive: they consume your supplies, they start attacks prematurely, they don’t hold the line etc. As Tim Reuter first pointed out, the Carolingian attempts to increase levies of lesser men are in the context of a new need for defence post-800.

      What evidence of training is there? For Carolingian armies, the positive evidence is Nithard 3-6 on war games (I’m not immediately sure whether that’s cavalry only or cavalry and infantry). Negatively, however, they did not do the training exercises the Roman army did. It would make no sense for Hrabanus to send Lothar I extracts from Vegetius on Roman training, if Carolingian armies were already following the same practices(despite what Bachrach says).

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