The Trebuchet

What is a Trebuchet?

What is a trebuchet? Simply put, a trebuchet is a mechanical thrower, doing to stones and other unprepared objects what the bow and ballista do to arrows and bolts. Like a catapult, the projectile is placed at the end of a long beam. In contrast, the projectile was often placed in a sling to give the prjoectile an extra boost of energy. Also in contrast to the catapult, the trebuchet was powered by a direct downward pull on the beam rather than by a stretched rope or other spring.[Catapult History] In early and smaller trebuchet, the downward force came from many people pulling "down the shorter end of the beam which flipped up the longer end."[Catapult History] The later and larger trebuchet had large counterweights that provided the downward pull.[Catapult History] The trebuchet was introduced into Europe in the 12th century[Van Creveld 33], although some say that the Chinese were the first to invent them around 300 B.C. [Catapult History] A more colorful description comes from the Album of Villard de Honnecourt quoted in [Contamine 103-4]:

 If you want to make the stong
engine which is called a trébuchet,
pay close attention here. Here is
the base as it rests
on the ground. Here in front
are the two windlasses and the
double rope with which one draws
back the shaft as you can see
on the other page. There is a great
weight to pull back, for the
counter-poise is very heavy,
being a hopper full
of earth which is two large
toises long and nine
feet across and twelve feet
deep. Remember the arc of the
the arrow when discharged and take
great care, because it must be
placed against the stanchion
in front.

Three Varieties of Trebuchet

This is just a sample of the many different varieties that were invented.
Couillars
[Contamine 195]
or
La Biffa
[Biffa]

This is a sophisticated counterweight machine. Its two articulated hutches simplify assembly, facilitate handling and make it possible to accelerate the rate of fire, which is five of fire, which is five to six times higher than that of the Trebuchet.

Because of its effectiveness, this machine competed with powder artillery for a long time. Very massive (5 m long and 2.5 m broad for an erected mast of 8.40 m) it can nonetheless be easily set off by a visitor.

[Contamine 195] The use of the word couillart (meaning in Old French testicles) obviously has symbolic value since the stone was placed in a leather pouch or sling.

Picture from Biffa
La Bricol [Biffa] For the moment, this is the only defensive weapon of the camp site of machines of Larressingle. A human traction machine, it was loaded by the women from atop the ramparts. This position on top of the walls was extremely convenient for bombarding attackers on sight. It was furthermore a stone launched by a bricole which hit and killed Simon de Monfort in the siege of Toulouse. This machine can also be fired by audience members during firing sessions at Larressingle.
Picture from Biffa
Trebuchet (throwing dead horse) From Miners:
Trebuchet by Kolderer, c1507. This is obviously a later period drawing than the Medieval ones - as the style of the artist and the dress of the crewman he has drawn show. There are several things to note:
  1. This machine has been given a hugely long sling - perhaps partly to allow the artist to show the dead horse.
  2. The big wide wheels are here too, but too small to be "get-inside" treadmills. Why the width if they are just hand-holds? (Note: the proportions of this more modern drawing are still strange. Would that long weight and beam end pass through a machine this high? - No ..So the jury is still out on this one..)
  3. The machine is about to be triggered with a lanyard connected to a lever mounted within the base of the engine and projecting out the side.
  4. The box suspension is similar to early ones - although this time dividing into four - and supports the box from the bottom.
  5. The framework is fitted with rungs to climb onto the machine. (Somebody has to attach the winch rope to the beam.)
  6. The uprights slope inwards strongly, needing only a short axle to support the beam.
Picture from Miners

How Were Trebuchet Used?

Trebuchet were used in seige warfare against castles. They weren't used to break down the walls. The trebuchet had two main uses, the first being: "Although a lucky hit by a heavy stone might bring down part of a crenelation or machicolation, high trajectory fire was useful mainly as a terror-weapon against the interior of towns and castles."[Van Creveld 33] The second use was in artillery duels, trying to disable the siege engines of the enemy:

"According to Froissart, at the time of the siege of Mortagne in 1340 the men of Valenciennes constructed 'a very fine engine which threw well, so that great stones were carried into the town and castle'. To reply to this, the besieged approached a 'master engineer' who built them a smaller machine. With its first shot the stone fell a dozen feet short of the Valenciennes one, the second fell right alongside, and the third 'was so well aimed that it struck the main beam of the engine and broke it in two'."[Contamine 194]
Because of this dual role and the fact that the trebuchet fired higher-angle shots than the cannons that would supercede it, [Van Creveld 100-1] the cannon was for a long time not considered a replacement and the two artillery pieces were often used along side each other. This example takes place around 1406:
"Christine de Pisan stipulated the defence of a place 'two catapults and two couillarts, each provided with enough accessories, ropes and a great number of stones', and for attack 'two great engines and two other medium-sized ones with all necessary things ready to fire. Item, four completely new couillars furnished and provided with all things, each having two cables and three fondes for changing when required.' Since the same author also required a very large number of cannons, one may presume that the experts she had consulted considered that the new artillery had not eliminated the old but simply supplemented it, doubtless because its effects were thought to be different."[Contamine 195]
The example also shows trebuchets being used along side their predecessor, the catapult.

From Rowlett Volume T
toise - a traditional French unit of distance comparable to the British fathom. Like the fathom, the toise originally represented the distance between the fingertips of a man with outstretched arms. Introduced by Charlemagne in 790, the toise is such an ancient unit that toiser has become a verb meaning "to measure" or "to size up." The toise equals six pieds (French feet). Feet of different lengths were used in France, but based on the 18th century Paris pied the toise equals 6.395 (English) feet or 1.949 meters. This unit was widely used in the 19th century and hasn't died out entirely today.


On to the Catapult
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Over to Defense Against the Trebuchet
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Back to the Cannon
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Out to the Index

Written by Andrew Vick