The mangonel, also called the traction trebuchet, was a type of trebuchet or siege engine used in Ancient China starting from the Warring States period, and later across Eurasia in the 6th century AD. Unlike the earlier torsion engines and later counterweight trebuchet, the mangonel operated on manpower pulling cords attached to a lever and sling to launch projectiles. Although the mangonel required more men to function, it was also less complex and faster to reload than the torsion-powered ballista and onager which it replaced in early Medieval Europe.
Etymology and terminology
Mangonel is probably derived from the Greek mágganon or mangonon, meaning "engine of war". It could also be derived from mangon, a French hard stone found in the south of France. In Latin it is called a manganum, in French a manganeau, and in English a mangonel.
The mangonel is called al-manjanīq in Arabic. In China the traction trebuchet was called the pào (砲).
Torsion mangonel myth
A common myth surrounding the mangonel is that it was a torsion siege engine such as the ballista, catapult, or onager, artillery weapons that were used in the West until the 6-8th centuries. This myth or misconception has been propagated as recently as 2004. However with the exception of the springald which saw action from the 13th to 14th centuries, torsion machines had largely disappeared by the 6th century and were replaced by the traction trebuchet. By the 9th century, when the first Western European reference to a mangana (mangonel) appeared, there is virtually no evidence at all, whether textual or artistic, of torsion engines used in warfare. The last historical texts specifying a torsion engine aside from the springald date no later than the 6th century.
There is no evidence whatever for the continuation of the onager in Byzantium beyond the end of the 6th century, while its absence in the ‘barbarian’ successor kingdoms can be shown, negatively, by the absence of any reference and, logically, from the decline in the expertise needed to build, maintain and use the machine. When the mangonel appeared in Europe from the east (initially in the Byzantine world), it was a traction-propelled stone thrower. Torsion power went out of use for some seven centuries before returning in the guise of the bolt-throwing springald, deployed not as an offensive, wallbreaking siege engine, but to defend those walls against human assailants.— Peter Purton
Traction trebuchet and onager
Terminology and definition of the mangonel is confused. The term itself was used as a general medieval catch-all for stone throwing artillery, which probably meant a traction trebuchet from the 6th to 12th centuries, between the disappearance of the onager and the arrival of the counterweight trebuchet. In modern times the mangonel is often confused with the onager due to the torsion mangonel myth, hence why modern military historians came up with the term "traction trebuchet" to distinguish it from the previous weapon. However traction trebuchet is a newer modern term that is not found in contemporary sources, which can lead to further confusion. For some, the mangonel is not a specific type of siege weapon but a general term for any pre-cannon stone throwing artillery. Onagers have been called onager mangonels and traction trebuchets called "beam-sling mangonel machines". From a practical perspective, a mangonel has been used to describe anything from a torsion engine like the onager, to a traction trebuchet, to a counterweight trebuchet depending on the user's bias.
The first recorded use of mangonels was in ancient China. They were probably used by the Mohists as early as 4th century BC, descriptions of which can be found in the Mojing (compiled in the 4th century BC). In Chapter 14 of the Mojing, the mangonel is described hurling hollowed out logs filled with burning charcoal at enemy troops. The mangonel was carried westward by the Avars and appeared next in the eastern Mediterranean by the late 6th century AD, where it replaced torsion powered siege engines such as the ballista and onager due to its simpler design and faster rate of fire. The Byzantines adopted the mangonel possibly as early as 587, the Persians in the early 7th century, and the Arabs in the second half of the 7th century. The Franks and Saxons adopted the weapon in the 8th century.
The catapult, the account of which has been translated from the Greek several times, was quadrangular, with a wide base but narrowing towards the top, using large iron rollers to which were fixed timber beams "similar to the beams of big houses", having at the back a sling, and at the front thick cables, enabling the arm to be raised and lowered, and which threw "enormous blocks into the air with a terrifying noise".— Peter Purton
The traction trebuchet displaced classical, torsion-powered artillery because it was simpler and required less competence to build, while maintaining comparable range and power, and it had far higher rates of firing and accuracy (when operated by a trained crew). Furthermore, it was probably safer to operate than tension weapons, whose bundles of taut sinews stored up huge amounts of energy even in resting state and were prone to catastrophic failure when in use.— Inge Ree Peterson
According to Leife Inge Ree Peterson, a mangonel could have been used at Theodosiopolis in 421 but was "likely an onager". He also claims that mangonels were independently invented or at least known in the Eastern Mediterranean by 500 AD based on records of different and better artillery weapons, however there is no explicit description of a traction trebuchet. Furthermore mangonels were used in Spain and Italy by the mid 6th century and in Africa by the 7th century. The Franks adopted the weapon in the 8th century.
Thus, on the basis of fairly hard evidence of unknown machinery in Joshua the Stylite and Agathias, as well as good indications of its construction in Procopius (especially when read against Strategikon), it is likely that the traction trebuchet had become known in the eastern Mediterranean area at the latest by around 500. The philological and (admittedly circumstantial) historical evidence may even support a date around 400.— Inge Ree Peterson
West of China, the mangonel remained the primary siege weapon until the 12th century when it was replaced by the counterweight trebuchet. In China the mangonel continued to be used until the counterweight trebuchet was introduced during the Mongol conquest of the Song dynasty. In 617 Li Mi (Sui dynasty) constructed 300 mangonels for his assault on Luoyang, in 621 Li Shimin did the same at Luoyang, and onward into the Song dynasty when in 1161, mangonels operated by Song dynasty soldiers fired bombs of lime and sulphur against the ships of the Jin dynasty navy during the Battle of Caishi.
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