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Siege warfare during the Crusades
By Betsy Trevor Munson Brown
Master’s Thesis, Texas Tech University, 1974
Abstract: Much material has been written on every facet of the crusades. In military history all of the major campaigns of the crusading period have been examined and discussed at great length. Yet there has been no real definitive study of siege warfare during the time when the Christians were present in the Levant. Siegecraft, armor, and the sieges themselves have been treated as only minor fractions in the totality of military history of the Middle Ages. Yet these aspects of siege warfare were discussed at some length by the chroniclers who accompanied the various crusading armies. It is from the accounts of the participants and observers that one gains some appreciation for the role of siege warfare in the crusades. Siege warfare was not invented by the Christians and the Saracens as they confronted each other in the Levant. On the contrary, the Romans (200 B.C.-A.D. 400) were very familiar with siege strategy and tactics. Much of their siegecraft was very similar to that used by the crusaders in the Middle Ages.
However, the Roman knowledge of siege warfare was passed to the men of the Early Middle Ages (A.D. 400-1100) before it ever became the knowledge of the crusaders. During the early and late Middle Ages the siegecraft was constructed from wood instead of iron, which the Romans had used. The wooden construction was the probable cause for the inferiority of the crusaders siegecraft. Not only were the machines of the crusaders inferior in construction, that is, less durable, but the weapons were also inferior in power and range.
Despite the inferiority in siegecraft, the crusaders performed remarkably well. When the Christian army first journeyed to the Levant in 1096, the crusaders were relatively unfamiliar with siege warfare. In Western Europe battles were fought in an open field during the day. Consequently, the Christians were unprepared for months of assault against an enemy ensconced within the walls of a castle. In the beginning especially, the tactics were often haphazard and ineffective. At times the morale and food supply were so low that there was little difference between the defenders and the besiegers. There were several instances when the crusaders would have failed utterly, had it not been for the aid of the Italian city-states. The entire Fourth Crusade would have been impossible without the Venetians’ help. Yet with the practice and the experience that the sieges provided, the crusaders became proficient in their siegecraft and in their tactics of siege warfare.
The purpose of this paper is to examine siege warfare during the first five crusades. The siegecraft and armor used will be discussed, and the composition of the armies examined. Next the role of the Italian city-states in siege warfare will be given some consideration. Finally five sieges, and the manner in which the crusaders conducted them, will be discussed in detail.