Mad About Science: Unusual medieval weapons

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

You will be disappointed if you’re reading this and expecting me to list dragons or Valyrian steel swords. Sorry, folks. No White Walker invasions happened in medieval Europe, but feel free to tell me that I know nothing.

Medieval combat was a brutal endeavor most often done with swords, lances, pikes, axes, maces and crossbows, all of which are fun to swing around on Youtube, but are no fun to be on the receiving end of — especially when the guy swinging them has gone through as much training as a professional athlete.

The sinister “man-catcher.” Courtesy photo.

We’re all pretty familiar with the traditional arsenal of premodern death-dealers, but what about the nontraditional weapons of war? Some of these are still in use today.

The “man-catcher” was a pronged spear, on which the end was replaced with a spiked metal collar and spring-loaded hinge. Historians believe it was used to snag high-value targets like knights and lords from their horses to take as hostages for ransom. It’s easy to see a thousand different ways for the application of the man-catcher to go wrong; however, it’s an item still in use today. Law enforcement in both China and Japan use an adapted version of the man-catcher to isolate and apprehend violent individuals in a non-lethal fashion, which makes a lot of sense in a highly populated area.

In another anachronistic twist, chemical weapons weren’t unique to the First World War. Quicklime may have been used several times throughout the medieval ages as a destructive chemical agent. Quicklime, or calcium oxide, is what’s left over when you burn limestone or other things with calcium carbonate at high temperatures. It also gives off energy as a chemical reaction with water, which produces heat. Medieval tacticians likely used it most frequently at sea to blind opponents before boarding their ships. The quicklime reacted to the water in the sailors’ eyes, mouths and lungs to burn, blind and choke them.

Today, quicklime, or calcium oxide, is used in almost everything. Calcium oxide is frequently used in steel foundries by counteracting acidic substances and creating molten slag. It’s also used as a food additive for the same reason: to regulate acidity. It’s also used for certain drinking waters, and as I’m sure many local gardeners know: neutralizing the acidity in our soil. Things like asparagus, beets and cauliflower struggle to grow in our soil without help from an agent to make the soil more alkaline.

Speaking of airborne weaponry, one of the earliest and scariest uses of rocketry in combat was the “nest of bees.” This was a wooden box filled with arrows that had barbs on one end and small gunpowder charges on the other. One weapon could fire 32 rocket-propelled arrows simultaneously. Several weapons could have cleared a battlefield. 

Given the whimsical name and the fact that it was powered by medieval gunpowder, it should come as no surprise that it originated in China. It was believed to be mounted on the back of a wagon, stacked with hexagonal tubes that made it appear like a beehive.

Today, armies have replaced the rocket-propelled arrows with more rockets. Small cluster launchers are often seen on assault aircraft packed into cylindrical tubes, or on the backs of land-based vehicles called rocket artillery designed to launch dozens of rockets in seconds, like our own military’s M270 MLRS, which have been heavily featured in movies as a source of destructive firepower.

The wildest of all weapons I’ve discovered wasn’t used even before medieval times. The Claw of Archimedes was used to fend off the Roman fleet invading Syracuse in 214 BCE. It was a giant iron hook attached to a crane, and it literally grabbed boats and threw them around like toys. Despite its simplicity, the deployment of the claw was a master stroke of strategy and physics. Archimedes had rained all sorts of fiery destruction upon the Roman fleet preceding the deployment of the claw, so they kept their ships close together and sailed them up to the city walls where defenders wouldn’t dare risk catching their own city on fire.

The solution was simple: Using a fixed location, the height of the walls to gain mechanical advantage as a fulcrum and an abundance of stone to act as a counterweight, Archimedes built a huge lever that could fling Roman ships across the water like a toddler flings Lincoln Logs through your new 65-inch OLED TV. Unfortunately for Archimedes, the Romans were a persistent bunch, and they ended up sacking Syracuse and killing him in the process anyway.

Luckily for the rest of us, the scientific notions of Archimedes and his awesome claw did not die with him, as we still continue to use giant cranes to load thousands of tons of cargo onto trains and ships on a daily basis. If you’ve only ever seen one of those cranes in action on TV, I would highly suggest taking a tour to see one the next time you hit a port city (like our not-so-distant neighbor, Seattle). 

It’s truly a spectacle to behold when you consider one guy flicking some levers is swinging around thousands of pounds of Amazon orders with mechanical efficiency.

There are dozens more wacky weapons I wanted to cover, but I’ll have to leave you to find those on your own. Maybe your friendly neighborhood librarian will be willing to help.

While we have you ...

... if you appreciate that access to the news, opinion, humor, entertainment and cultural reporting in the Sandpoint Reader is freely available in our print newspaper as well as here on our website, we have a favor to ask. The Reader is locally owned and free of the large corporate, big-money influence that affects so much of the media today. We're supported entirely by our valued advertisers and readers. We're committed to continued free access to our paper and our website here with NO PAYWALL - period. But of course, it does cost money to produce the Reader. If you're a reader who appreciates the value of an independent, local news source, we hope you'll consider a voluntary contribution. You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.

You can contribute at either Paypal or Patreon.

Contribute at Patreon Contribute at Paypal

You may also like...

Close [x]

Want to support independent local journalism?

The Sandpoint Reader is our town's local, independent weekly newspaper. "Independent" means that the Reader is locally owned, in a partnership between Publisher Ben Olson and Keokee Co. Publishing, the media company owned by Chris Bessler that also publishes Sandpoint Magazine and Sandpoint Online. Sandpoint Reader LLC is a completely independent business unit; no big newspaper group or corporate conglomerate or billionaire owner dictates our editorial policy. And we want the news, opinion and lifestyle stories we report to be freely available to all interested readers - so unlike many other newspapers and media websites, we have NO PAYWALL on our website. The Reader relies wholly on the support of our valued advertisers, as well as readers who voluntarily contribute. Want to ensure that local, independent journalism survives in our town? You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.