I wrote a litlle bit about medieval weapons in this blog and the context they were used in. In this article I will concentrate on the siege. There is not one aspect from the Middle Ages that is often portrait so inaccurate as the strategies used by defenders and besiegers. In the movies, the besiegers attack, are repelled or they take the castle. Of course, after a long and lion-hearted fight by the defenders.
In the real medieval world the preparations for the siege and the real process of it looked quite different. First you have to take into account that sieges were not as frequent as one could think. As I write earlier in this blog, castles where not primarily built to fortify a certain part of land. First of all they were centres of administration, trade and authority. Their garrisons where in most cases very small and not thought of as an force to fight a great army. There were exceptions, though. Sometimes there were special castles, designed to block a mountain pass or ones from which a huge garrison controlled a part of land, like in 11th century England or in the Holy Land. In some cases normal castles where besieged, too. This events took place when two noble families fought each other and attacked each others home. When there was a big war, however, castles where often abandoned. Always think about it: A small, local nobleman would certainly not take the risk to be trapped in his small castle. He would rather leave it to join his lord’s army to meet the enemy in the field.
In the cities the situation was quite different. The citizens lived there permanently, their whole existence lay in the city. Such a big community could not just move to another place. Therefore it is not surprising that in the case of a siege all of the citizens who were able to fight would do that to save their homes. The cities were very well fortified in most cases, mainly with walls, towers and ditches. In peacetime this fortifications where mainly used as a defense against raiders and knights from the country who had a quarrel with the city.
The preparation for a siege was absolutely essential. Enough food and water were two of the most important aspects. It was very important, that the castle or the city had an own source of fresh water. Cisterns to collect the rain where often dug beforehand. Enough weapons and ammunition were also very important. It is written that even the furniture was thrown at the attackers. It was essential to take some precautions concerning the walls and the gates. A ditch was always a good idea, ideally one filled with water or with stakes. The foot of the wall should have been reinforced with a wall of earth. This protected it from siege engines and from falling down when it was undermined. Behind the gates that were attacked most the defenders often erected a wall out of stones, straw, wood and other things. When the attackers broke through the gate, they only faced another wall with defenders on top. The defenders used everything as a weapon that could be used as one. Bows, crossbows, stones, furniture, hot oil or sand, catapults and later cannons and handguns. Of course, the attackers used the same weapons. They additionally used rams, siegetowers, ladders and mines. The mines where an effective method to undermine the walls and to destroy them by lighting a fire beneath them. The heat and the collapsing mine where a grave danger for any wall. Because of that, the defenders often had their own miners to find the enemy mine and to destroy it.
The invention of the weapons powered by black powder was not such a great thread to the defenders. The well known catapults had a greater range, where more accurate and more predictable than the early cannons. The first of them were able to shoot with iron arrows or balls of stone, but there was a constant danger that they would explode instead. After a lot of improvements they became more and more effective and led to some crucial developments. The fortresses were invented.
Last but not least I want to say something about the psychology. Sieges were problematic for both sides. The defenders where often short-handed, had limited rations and were trapped. However, the besiegers had to feed their army, too. When the countryside around the camp where emptied, longer and longer distances had to be bridged, often in enemy territory. Diseases where quite common during a siege and could force one side to surrender. On both sides lasted a lot of pressure. Because of this sieges where only an options when all other options to win had failed.