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Biological Warfare in the Middle Ages and Today


Biological warfare isn't only a product of the 20th and 21st centuries. It dates right back to medieval days, when huge catapults hurled dead horses and other animals into castles under siege, to spread disease. Facing starvation, the defenders ate the putrid flesh, and promptly succumbed to the dreaded plague.

That ancient catapult, an engineering masterpiece, was called a trebuchet (pronounced tray-boo-shay). It has been decribed as a giant seesaw with a very heavy weight at one end and a much lighter missile attached to the other. As the heavier weight drops, the lighter projectile is whipped by its sling towards the enemy.

"The trebuchet was once a terrible weapon of war." says Dr. John H. Lienhard, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and History at the University of Houston (Texas). "The Chinese invented it, and the West picked it up in the 12th century."

A narrator of America's PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) says "In the year 1304, Edward Longshanks, more formally known as King Edward I of England, mounted the greatest siege of his reign against the Scots and their castle at Stirling. The attack dragged on. Impatient for victory, Edward ordered 50 carpenters to immediately begin building a monstrous new weapon - so powerful it would breach the strong walls of Stirling Castle.

"Details about the weapon design are tantalizingly vague, except that it was nicknamed Warwolf, and its appearance outside the walls terrified the garrison. Was it the atomic bomb of the Middle Ages? With one blow, Warwolf leveled a section of wall, successfully concluding the siege of Stirling Castle."

Twelve years ago, Hew Kennedy, a wealthy English landowner, inventor, and military historian, was intrigued by a picture of a machine drawn by Leonardo da Vinci, which appeared to be a device for throwing dead horses.

Inspired by the power of a machine that could hurl such heavy missiles, he designed and built a four-story tall, 30-ton trebuchet on his 620-acre country estate in Acton Round, Shropshire, 140 miles northwest of London. It attracted worldwide attention.

Despite being only about 3 miles south of Much Wenlock, the parish of Acton Round is an extremely rural area. The village of Acton Round itself can easily be mistaken for a couple of houses on a bend.
- Shropshire Promotions

On July 30, 1991, New York's Wall Street Journal published an article headed: A Scud It's Not, But the Trebuchet Hurls a Mean Piano; Giant Medieval War Machine Is Wowing British Farmers And Scaring the Sheep. The story, by Glynn Mapes, is posted on several internet sites, and is well worth reading in full (see link below). It begins:

ACTON ROUND, England -- With surprising grace, the grand piano sails through the sky a hundred feet above a pasture here, finally returning to earth in a fortissimo explosion of wood chunks, ivory keys and piano wire.

Nor is the piano the strangest thing to startle the grazing sheep this Sunday morning. A few minutes later, a car soars by -- a 1975 blue two-door Hillman, to be exact -- following the same flight path and meeting the same loud fate. Pigs fly here, too. In recent months, many dead 500-pound sows (two of them wearing parachutes) have passed overhead, as has the occasional dead horse.

Three years later, another trebuchet was built, this time in Texas. The August 1995 edition of Outside magazine published details under the heading It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's a Case of Spam! In Texas they're chucking commodes, Buicks, and a frightening amount of mystery meat. It's a medieval rain of mayhem. Ice down the beer.

That story, by Paul Kvinta, is also posted on the internet and makes amusing reading. It tells how Richard Clifford, "a tall, lumbering, 50-year-old engineer and sculptor from Fort Worth, Texas," and his partner, "a deep-pocketed 46-year-old Fort Worth dentist named John Quincy," were planning to build Thor, a 100-foot-tall trebuchet that would be "the biggest siege weapon ever built in the history of the world."

Kvinta reported that the duo had built a smaller prototype, Baby Thor, "a 25-foot-tall catapult that sits in the rolling pastures just west of Fort Worth. There, where longhorn cattle usually graze, [they] have hurled 16-pound bowling balls for distances longer than a football field. They have launched kitchen sinks into dazzling pink sunsets. They've flung cases of Spam."


Catapults were used in WWI by soldiers to shoot poison-gas bombs and grenades at enemy soldiers. To do this, the soldiers devised a catapult made of a thin, strong tree with a pouch fastened to it. The ammunition would be loaded into the pouch. The tree was pulled back and released; launching the ammunition.

Catapults are used at present times to launch airplanes off of the decks of aircraft carriers and to launch gliders into the air. The plane is either launched by a large elastic band or propelled along tracks and then released.

- Robert Colborn, "Catapult." World Book Encyclopedia, 1998.

Referring to the medieval trebouchets used to attack castles, Clifford said "They knew decomposing flesh caused disease, so it was a kind of early germ warfare. But mostly they did it to terrorize. Actually, they threw pieces of cows. Their trebuchets wouldn't have been big enough for entire cows. Now ours will be able to throw cattle. Cattle, pigs, chickens. Whatever you want."

Another Texan, Ron L Toms, went one better. He built a trebuchet and climbed into the sling. "Suddenly I was flying," he recalls on his website. "I looked down and for an instant I was hovering, 30 feet over the river below. When I hit the water, I was elated! My dream of riding an ancient throwing machine had come true! I came up laughing.

"My friends and I spent the rest of the afternoon riding the trebuchet, until the machine self-destructed in mid throw. I was the passenger, and luckily I was thrown clear just as it snapped. The increased counterweight was too much. I fixed the design, but my money and my time had run out. I couldn't afford to rebuild again.

"Now the broken pieces sit on an empty south Texas ranch, the cows look at it curiously from time to time. I became busy with other concerns; school, life, career, etc. I frequently think about building another one, one that will throw someone a little farther, a little higher. All I need is the time."

In February 2000, NOVA* showed a documentary of an elaborate project to build a trebouchet and see whether it could successfully breach a castle wall (which also had to be built). After elaborate preparations, and several trial shots on Scotland's Loch Ness (home of the reputed Monster), success was achieved. The full transcript of the broadcast, with supporting photographs, makes fascinating reading (see links below).

One of the commentators in the broadcast was Hew Kennedy, who designed and built an earlier model trebuchet. During the tests, he remarked "Nobody knows quite what they're doing, so that's what makes it fun."

* Seen in more than 100 countries, NOVA is the most watched science television series in the world and the most watched documentary series on PBS. It is also one of television's most acclaimed series, having won every major television award, most of them many times over.


Copyright 2003 Eric Shackle Story first posted April 2003

Eric Shackle is now an 83 year old web author, and his writings have appeared all around the world. He has written a lovely and funny book, which he has published on the net for you to peruse. Hop over to Eric Shackle's eBook and have a read. A lovely way to pass that coffee break time, reading a well-written book.

[ Go to Eric's eBook ]

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