Siege and Defence of Castles During the First Crusade II

UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1754: Siege of a town led by Godefroy de Bouillon (c1060-1100) 1st Crusade (1095-1099), showing Saracens firing arrows at Crusaders as they attempt to scale the walls. From manuscript of Roman de Godefroy de Bouillon. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

The technological skills of the Franks were not limited to constructing siege engines and artillery. They managed to transport boats overland from the Aegean seashore to the shores of the Lake of Nicaea. This they did by joining together three or four wagons, creating large platforms each of which could carry one boat. One source reports that `during the night, by means of ropes wrapped around the necks of men and horses, they pulled [the boats] to the sea, a distance of seven miles or more’. From this description we learn that the Franks brought heavy four-wheeled wagons with them, and were able to move these wagons using horses. This source emphasises the ability of Frankish craftsmen and carpenters to build cranes under difficult battlefield conditions, and to harness horses to pull heavy wagons.

According to the Latin chroniclers, the breakthrough in the siege of Nicaea came when a Lombard carpenter and engine-builder managed to build a machine sufficiently fortified to withstand attacks by the defenders (for which he was generously paid and supplied with materials), thus providing cover for those who dug under the wall’s foundations. It was this effort which finally brought the lengthy siege to an end.

The Frankish sieges of Antioch, Ma’arat an-Nu’uman, and Arka also entailed the construction of siege engines and the use of heavy artillery. Siege towers reduced the advantage provided by the height of the city walls, and in cases in which they were not effective enough the Franks constructed real wooden fortifications. They were used, for example, in the siege of Antioch, where the Franks first initiated a lengthy land blockade, while the defenders, for their part, mounted surprise attacks and quick sorties through the city gates. At this time the defenders did not yet have special openings in the wall for such sorties, but time and again they managed to surprise the Franks by opening the gates and rushing out to strike at them. The latter responded by quickly erecting wooden fortifications to defend the camps of the besieging forces.

Thus, at a fairly early stage of the siege of Antioch they built a castrum or an external fortification (antemurale) which came to be known as Malregard and was intended to defend the camp of Bohemond and his men. Immediately upon the arrival of reinforcements, which included craftsmen and building materials, another wooden fortification (munitio) which they called the Mahomeria, was constructed on a site that previously had been a Muslim mosque. A third fortification, given the name Novum Presidium and manned by 500 warriors, prevented the defenders from exiting through one of the city gates.

Labourers, craftsmen – and sometime even mercenaries – from among the Crusader forces were employed to construct and maintain such fortifications. They were well paid, for demand greatly outstripped supply. In one case, when the Crusade’s leaders decided to construct a fortification opposite Antioch’s western gate, it was impossible to find persons who would build or man it without receiving due compensation. In the end, Tancred agreed to take this task upon himself, but only after he was promised a sizeable monthly income of 40 marks from the public treasury (ex publico). From this description we learn of the existence of such a treasury and also that sums were paid out of it for building operations connected with military action.

All these fortifications were erected in a matter of weeks, sometimes even days. It can therefore be assumed – though this is not explicitly stated – that they were built of wood and were similar to such fortifications known to us from contemporary Europe. A letter written by one Anslem of Ribemonte, who was party to the construction of one of the fortifications, to the lord of Reims, indicates that it was built atop an earthen motte, which indicates that the castle was of the motte and bailey type and was probably constructed of wood. William of Tyre relates that Bohemond was unable to defend one of the fortifications, so he set it on fire. In the exceptional cases in which they were built of stone, this is specific- ally mentioned: thus, for example, during the siege of Antioch the Franks built a wall of solid materials (`factumque muro cum propuganculist ex opere solido’).

All these sources and examples testify to a sizeable presence of expert craftsmen in the Crusader forces and to their willingness to use their specific skills for proper remuneration, but it is quite clear that such a situation was not characteristic of the Muslim armies as well.

Frankish technical capabilities and their ability to adopt innovations while mounting a siege were obvious during the siege of Ma’arat an- Nu’uman (12 November-12 December 1098). At first they tried to storm it, using ladders, but they had only two ladders. `Had they had enough ladders’, claim the Latin sources, `the city would have already fallen during the second day of the siege.’ When the frontal attack failed, the Franks began to construct shelters, artillery, and a mobile wooden tower, the first built during the First Crusade. According to Rogers, it was less perfect than those constructed during later sieges; though it could be moved by means of four wheels, warriors could not leap directly from it onto the walls. The Muslims propelled rocks and a buzzing beehive at the tower, but to no avail, for according to Ibn al-Qalanisi the tower was higher than the walls and the defenders could not protect themselves. Ibn al-`Adim too noted that the capture of Ma’arat an-Nu’uman was made possible only after the Franks had cut down all the trees in the city’s surroundings in order to build a wooden burj [tower] which dominated the walls. They attacked the city from all sides until they managed to place the tower against the wall. Only then did they raise their ladders and break into the city. We see, then, that the Muslim sources note the tower’s height as its primary advantage, disregarding its mobility.

From the descriptions of this siege it is also obvious that in order to implement Frankish siege tactics, which relied on the construction of heavy engines, they had to rely not only on carpenters and other skilled craftsmen. They also needed devoted rank and file troops trained to carry out tasks connected with the use of these engines. Thus, for example, in order to set siege engines against the walls one needed soldiers to carry weighty planks of wood, fill in dykes and defensive trenches, collect rocks to be propelled, and then drag the heavy engines, all this at a risk to their lives. During the siege of Ma’arat an-Nu’uman, the troops in question were an unusually wild group, known as tafuri, who had a reputation among the Turks as being ruthless and uninhibited warriors, even cannibals!

After completion of the tower, the fighting was primarily between the Frankish soldiers on its platform and Muslim defenders who faced them at the same height atop the walls. By means of lances and artillery, the attackers, commanded by William VI of Montpellier, provided cover for their fellow warriors who leaned ladders against the fortifications in order to scale the walls, and for others engaged in digging underneath their foundations.

Frankish Attacks and Muslim Artillery

The Muslims frequently used artillery to ward off attacks by the Franks against their own cities and castles. For example, in preparation for the Frankish siege of Antioch, the Turkish governor commanded the city’s residents to prepare stocks of iron and wood from which to create artillery pieces. The residents obeyed the governor, and their artillery hurled heavy rocks and fired arrows at the besiegers, forcing them to retreat to a safe distance from the walls. William of Tyre notes that Antioch’s rulers imposed most of the work involved in preparing the artillery upon the city’s Christian population:

If machines were to be erected or immensely heavy beams moved, that work was at once laid upon them . . . Others had to furnish the huge stones which were being constantly hurled beyond the walls by the engines and to manage the ropes by which these were operated.

Similar behaviour is recorded in descriptions of Muslim preparations for the siege of Jerusalem by the Franks. Commanders of the Fatimid forces made ready pieces of artillery and stationed them atop the city walls. William was convinced that the Muslim artillery was no more than an excellent imitation of that of the Franks:

Following our example, they built from these [beams], inside the walls, machines equal to ours in height, but of better material [Machinas interius nostris equi- pollentes, sed meliore compactas materia certatim erigebant]. This they did with the greatest enthusiasm, that their engines might not be inferior to ours either in construction or in material. Guards were maintained constantly on the walls and towers, who watched intently all that was done in our army, especially in regard to devices which pertained to engines of war. Every detail observed was at once reported to the chief men of Jerusalem, who strove with great skill to imitate the work of the Christians, that they might meet all our efforts with equal ingenuity.

Imitation, William goes on, `was comparatively easy, for the people of Jerusalem had at their command many more skilled workmen and building tools, as well as larger supplies of iron, copper, ropes, and everything else necessary than had our people’. He records that these engines, like the ones built by the Muslims during the Frankish siege of Antioch, were constructed by Eastern Christians who were forcibly recruited for the difficult task, which entailed carrying heavy wooden planks and other materials. William, however, attributes the knowledge necessary to build these engines to the Muslim defenders of Jerusalem, whose efforts became increasingly effective during the later stages of the siege, when real artillery battles were conducted between the Franks’ siege engines and the Muslim artillery on the walls. From William’s chronicle one can sense an atmosphere of technological competition, as each side made an effort to study and adopt the enemy’s war machinery.

The similarity between the Frankish siege weapons and those used by the Muslims for defence was most noticeable during the unsuccessful attempt to take ‘Arka and the successful siege of Jerusalem. Since the topographical features at ‘Arka prevented effective use of siege engines, the Franks tried their hand at the tactics favoured by the Muslims: mining under the foundations of the city walls. Despite their strenuous efforts, they were unsuccessful. Artillery, too, was not enough to take the city: the Muslims mounted on the walls artillery no less effective than that of the Franks and managed to hit an important Frankish knight.

The siege of Jerusalem also began with frontal attacks, whose failure was put down to the lack of ladders. The commanders soon decided to refrain from such attacks until they should have heavy artillery and siege towers at their disposal. During most of the siege (until mid-July 1099), the Franks engaged in the logistics which the construction of siege engines and towers entailed, until the two leading camps in the Crusader force each possessed a tower of its own. The one commanded by Godfrey of Bouillon built its tower along the northern wall, while the second camp, under the command of Raymond of St Gilles, erected its tower on Mt Zion. The logistics involved were far from negligible: they had to ascertain where suitable wooden beams could be found; furthermore, in order to cut down trees, prepare the heavy beams, and transport them they needed craftsmen and carpenters, camels, donkeys, horses, and experienced waggoners. Particularly hard hit by a lack of experienced craftsmen, the Crusaders were aided by two Genoese vessels that dropped anchor at Jaffa on 17 June 1099, only eleven days after the siege of Jerusalem began. Their commander agreed to supply the force surrounding Jerusalem with pro- fessional builders (`viri prudentes et nautarum more architectorie habentes artis periciam’) to `construct engines in the shortest time possible’. These craftsmen `brought with them a great selection of tools which proved to be of advantage to the besieging forces’.

Positioning the towers, too, called for much expertise, for this entailed transporting them and putting together the tower’s numerous sections under enemy fire. Both of these tasks were carried out under the cover of darkness to reduce the danger to a minimum. The builders’ expertise enabled them to do this in one night and complete the entire undertaking before sunrise. The fighting, accompanied by curses and acts of sorcery, raged around these towers. William relates that `two Muslim witches and three apprentice witches’, who threw a curse upon these most efficient siege engines of the Franks, died in the line of duty atop the walls of Jerusalem.

The rank-and-file labourers generally went unpaid, but the wages of the others (particularly expert craftsmen) were paid out of donations, since none of the Crusade commanders – with the exception of the count of Toulouse – had the funds necessary to hire expert builders. Yet, even Raymond of Toulouse’s men were ordered to place their beasts of burden and servants at the disposal of those who engaged in transporting building materials, and every two knights in his entourage took upon themselves to supply one ladder or one mobile shelter.

From the detailed descriptions of the sieges of Nicaea, Antioch, Ma’arat an-Nu’uman, and Jerusalem, as well as the less detailed ones of other cities conquered during the First Crusade, we see that the Franks made use of complex wooden structures and sophisticated artillery to breach the fortifications which defended the enemy. The presence in their camp at all times of expert carpenters and craftsmen, in addition to the relatively high availability of Italian fleets, eased these rather complicated efforts. Commanding a siege based upon artillery and siege towers called for much experience in deploying combined forces charged with executing diverse missions: construction of the siege engines and artillery, moving them towards the walls, defending them, and doing battle with the enemy at specific locations along the walls.

Advanced types of stationary artillery, prepared in advance of attack and mounted atop the walls, were used by the Muslim troops. William of Tyre was convinced that the Frankish artillery far surpassed that of the Muslims, and that the latter were in the habit of imitating that used by the Crusaders. During the First Crusade, however, the Muslims had no opportunity to build mobile field artillery or to employ heavy artillery during attacks and sieges.

The evident superiority of the Frankish armies over their adversaries, which enabled them to capture many of the coastal and inland cities of the Levant, did not emanate therefore from technologies which were unknown to the Muslim armies, but from their superior logistics and the presence of experienced carpenters and builders in the field armies. This advantage facilitated the construction of complex machines even under the difficult conditions which prevailed during the siege itself. The Muslims, who were able to construct similar installations to defend their own fortifications, did not possess similar logistical capabilities during their own siege campaigns.

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