Castles in medieval times had a lot of things to protect them – high walls, moats with drawbridges, and lots of knights. To attack these castles, people had to get creative. They took a very basic idea – let’s throw stuff at the castle – and invented very effective ways to do it using an invention called the catapult (meaning “war machine for throwing” in Latin).
There were 3 main types of catapults:
Photo by Ron L. Toms licensed CC BY 3.0
It’s sort of like a giant crossbow, and it likely did come about when someone in ancient Greece looked at a crossbow and said “that’s good, but why not make it huge?” Instead of an arrow, a ballista shoots logs with sharpened tips or stone balls, and it’s cranked into position by turning a wheel and pulling back ropes. It’s just like pulling an elastic band back between your two fingers, when you let it go – snap! The ballista could be very accurate in hitting targets, but lacked the firepower of other catapults.
This is likely what you think of when you hear the word catapult, it has a long wooden arm with a bucket or sling on the end for flinging objects up and over. Picture pulling the top of a spoon back while holding onto the bottom. When you let go of the top whatever is in the spoon goes flying. It’s the same for the mangonel, only the attackers would fling big rocks to try and smash castle walls, or flaming barrels to burn wooden structures, or even garbage to try and spread disease among the people inside the castle.
Photo by Luc Viatour licensed CC BY-SA 3.0
The most powerful of the catapults in the Middle Ages, the trebuchet has a long wooden throwing arm with a sling at one end and a counterweight at the other. It uses gravity to fling objects long distances. Depending on the size of the trebuchet it could throw missiles as heavy as 160 kg as far as 300 meters, and was able to crumble castle walls.
You can make your own non-wall-smashing catapult using popsicle sticks, a plastic lid or spoon, and a bunch of rubber bands.
1. Take 4-5 sticks and stack them together, using a rubber band on each end to secure them.
2. With another rubber band, tie 2 more sticks together – looser this time so that the 2 sticks can move up and down.
3. Put the big stack between the 2 sticks. The top stick will be the throwing arm of your catapult and the bottom stick will be the base. Use another rubber band to hold everything together.
4. Glue the lid onto the end of the throwing arm. Or take another rubber band to put a spoon onto the end. This will be the bucket of your catapult.
5. Once the glue is dry and all the rubber bands are in place, you’re ready! Put a marshmallow or a cotton ball in the bucket of your catapult and pull back gently with your finger, while holding onto the base. Let go of the bucket and see how far your missile flies!