Peabody Museum Presents Medieval Trebuchet to History 100 Classes

Last Tuesday, Graves Field became a battlefield when students from five History 100 classes demonstrated a model trebuchet. The model trebuchet program is a new addition to the History Department winter curriculum. Trebuchets, which can be up to 62 feet tall, are powerful siege weapons that counterbalance weights to generate propulsion for a swinging arm that launches giant projectiles. Counterweights on one end of the contraption are used to provide momentum for the projectile. Dating back to the fifth century, they were the primary weapons in siege warfare, used to break down fortified castle walls. History Teaching Fellow Ethan Bennet and Educator at the Peabody Museum Donny Slater constructed Andover’s model trebuchet, which stands three and a half feet tall and is roughly two feet wide. All together, the trebuchet took 12 hours to assemble. Emma Frey, Instructor in History, and several members of the History Department thought that the model weapon would be a fun and educational addition to their Mongol warfare curriculum. At the end of Fall term, Ms. Frey applied for an Abbot Grant to order the $200 dollar trebuchet kit online. Mr. Bennet gladly offered to take part in the project. He said, “In college, I had thought about trying to build one of these devices. This was a great opportunity for me to help out and do something I’ve always wanted to do.” In the days leading up to Tuesday’s launches, the five classes read various papers and watched a movie about the mechanics of a trebuchet. At the Peabody Museum, classes were divided into two teams of seven students. Mr. Slater taught the students how to load and fire the trebuchet. From there, the teams competed, trying to launch various objects at a mock castle wall. The castle wall, standing 80 feet from the trebuchet, was composed of cardboard boxes. They used lightweight grapefruits, potatoes, and mushrooms as projectiles. Teams had to find the ideal ratio between the weights of the projectile and counterweight that would allow them to hit their target. Each team took two shots at a time and both managed to damage the castle wall. The hand-made trebuchet performed well in the cold January air. The largest payload was a one-pound grapefruit, which traveled 151 feet. However, these figures are very small in comparison to the power of actual trebuchets. As Andrew Hong ’10 said, “While it was cool seeing an actual trebuchet function, it didn’t live up to my expectations. The ones back in the 1200’s were able to launch 200-pound rocks up to 300 yards.” The overall response to the idea was positive. Lincoln Bliss ’10 said, “I thought the experience, as a whole, was worthwhile. Seeing the trebuchet in action was definitely better than being in a classroom.” The model trebuchet is one of two activities the History Department plans to sponsor to demonstrate medieval warfare to students. On January 30, the Higgins Armory Outreach has been hired to show students replicas of shields and swords used in medieval times. Students will further have the opportunity to try on armor and observe the tools of soldiers from the Middle Ages.