Nursery Rhymes

Ballista

Medieval life and Times

Definition of a Medieval Ballista
The Medieval Ballista was a weapon used during siege warfare, similar to a Giant Crossbow and worked by using tension. The word 'Ballista' is derived from the Greek word 'Ballistes' meaning to throw. In England siege weapons, including the Medieval Ballista, was also known as the Ingenium from the Latin word ingenium meaning ingenious device! Plural - ballistae.

Description and Medieval Ballista Design
One of the siege weapons used during the Medieval times included the Medieval Ballista. The Medieval Ballista was an invaluable Medieval siege attack weapon. The Medieval Ballista design was similar to a giant crossbow and worked by using tension. The Medieval Ballista was designed to aim huge wooden, iron clad, darts or arrows which were powered by twisted skeins of rope, hair, or sinew - the Medieval Ballista design was based on a huge dart-throwing machine. The Ballista loosed heavy bolts, darts and spears along a flat trajectory. The force of the missiles launched from the Medieval Ballista was designed to have great penetration and were capable of skewering several of the enemy at one time!

Medieval Ballista History
Medieval Ballista history dates back to antiquity. The Medieval Ballista is believed to be an ancient war engine which was invented by the Greeks (the Scorpion) and modified by the Romans in 400BC. An interesting story related to Medieval Ballista history refers to Greek and Roman Women who grew long hair as a patriotic gesture in case new ballistae were required. The Medieval Ballista reached Europe during the Medieval era and was used extensively by the French. Medieval Ballista history notes that the weapon introduced to England in 1216 during the Siege of Dover - as were many other types of siege engine. Louis the Dauphin of France crossed the Channel with a large force and laid siege to Dover Castle making a violent and incessant attack on the castle walls. He used the Medieval Ballista against the walls and men of Dover Castle. The constable of Dover castle was Hugh de Burgh - he refused to surrender.

Building and Design of the Medieval Ballista
The Medieval Ballista was a highly accurate siege engine requiring expert building and design skills. The Medieval Ballista was similar to a giant crossbow and worked by using tension.

  • The two arms of a Medieval Ballista were made of wood
  • Ropes were attached to each arm were the springs of the Medieval Ballista
  • The ropes were made of twisted strands of human hair or animal sinew
  • When the bow-arms of the Medieval Ballista were pulled back, they twisted the ropes
  • The bowstring was pulled back by a winch

Although the design and building of the Medieval Ballista was highly accurate its range was less than that of the massive Trebuchet. The missiles launched by the Medieval Ballista were much lighter than the heavy trebuchet stones and could not gain the high momentum of the heavier missiles.

Medieval Catapults - the Springald
The Medieval Ballista was designed as a giant catapult. One type of Medieval Ballista was a tension-driven device called a springald. The springald closely resembled a crossbow in function with a vertical springboard fixed at its lower end to a timber frame. The springboard moved like a lever. Missiles thrown from the Medieval Ballista catapults were deadly. The Medieval Ballista catapults were highly accurate and could release up to 1000 missiles in one day! Medieval Ballista catapults could launch missiles across hundreds of yards. Attackers were ingenious in their ideas for launching Medieval Ballista catapult missiles which would cause as much distress and discomfort inside the castle walls. Missiles launched from Medieval Ballista catapults included the following:

  • Darts with iron points
  • Sharp wooden poles
  • Body parts
  • Diseased and rotting carcasses

Building a Medieval Ballista
Building a  Medieval Ballista required the design and building skills. Siege weapons, such as the Medieval Ballista, were made to order! They were far too cumbersome to move from one place to another. In a siege situation the commander would assess the situation and the siege weapons design requirements to break a siege. Engineers would instruct soldiers as to the construction and building of siege weapons such as the Medieval Ballista.

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