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History of the Catapult - Catapults Throwing Fire and Heads

HISTORICAL NOTES

A  catapult  was  not  powerful  enough  to  project  the  body  of  a  man.  This
difficulty  was  overcome  by  cutting  off  the  head  of  any  unfortunate  emissary  for peace, if the terms he brought were scornfully rejected. His letter of supplication 
from  the  besieged  was  then  nailed  to  his  skull,  and  his  head  was  sent  flying 
through space to fall inside the town as a ghastly form of messenger conveying a 
refusal to parley.

As it was always an object to the besiegers of a town to start a conflagration 
if  they  could,  Greek  fire  was  used  for  the  purpose.  The  flame  of  this  fearfully destructive liquid, the composition of which is doubtful, could not be quenched by water. It was placed in round earthenware vessels that broke on falling, and which were shot from catapults ;  as the roofs of ancient and medieval dwelling-houses were  usually  thatched,  it  of  coarse  dealt  destruction  when  it  encountered  such combustible material.

The  successful  attack  or  defense  of  a  fortified  town  often  depended  on 
which  of  the  armies  engaged  had  the  more  powerful  ballistas,  catapults  or 
trebuchets, as one engine of superior range could work destruction unimpeded if it 
happened that a rival of similar power was not available to check its depredations.
Froissart relates that ‘at the siege of Mortagne in 1340, an engineer within 
the  town  constructed  an  engine  to  keep  down the  discharges  of  one  powerful machine in the besieging lines. At the third shot he was so lucky as to break the 
arm of the attacking engine.’ The account of this incident, as given by Froissart, is 
so  quaint  and  graphic  that  I  quote  it  here  :  ‘  The  same  day  they  of  Valencens raised on their side a great engine and did cast in stones so that it troubled sore them  within  the  town.  Thus  ye first day  passed  and  the  night  in  assailing  and devising how they might grave them in the fortress.

‘Within Mortagne there was a cunning master in making of engines who 
saw well how the engine of Valencens did greatly grave them : he raised an engine 
in ye castle, the which was not very great but he trimmed it to a point,1 and he cast 
therewith  but  three  times.  The  first  stone  fell  a  xii2 fro  the  engine  without,  the second fell on ye engine, and the third stone hit so true that it brake clean asunder 
the shaft the engine without ; then the soldiers of Mortagne made a great shout, so 
that  the  Hainaulters  could  get  nothing  ther3  ;  then  the  erle4 said  how  he  would withdraw.’

(From the translation made at the request of Henry VII, by John Bourchier, 
second Lord Berners, published 1523-1525.)

1 i.e. with great exactness or ‘to a hair’.

2 A foot

3 Could not throw any more stones.

4 Count of Hainault. He was besieging Tournay, but left that place and went to besiege Mortagne and ordered the people of Valenciennes to go with him.

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History of the Catapult - Catapults Throwing Fire and Heads
 
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