Oliver of Paderborn and his siege engine at Damietta

Siege EngineOliver of Paderborn and his siege engine at Damietta

Dominic Francis

Nottingham Medieval Studies: v.37 (1993)

In the hot weeks of August 1218, the soldiers of the German and Frisian contingents involved in the Fifth Crusade laboured hard to build an innovative siege engine. They hoped that this, with God’s intercession, would enable them to capture the chain tower of Damietta. This strong fortress guarded one end of an iron chain that stretched across the Damietta branch of the Nile. Until then, situated as it was on an island, it had prevented the full investiture of the city. Several attempts to capture it had been made from the river already but had failed as no-one had been able to bring scaling-ladders to bear on the walls. In response to this problem Oliver of Paderborn, although too self-effacing to take the credit himself, designed a siege engine that had not been seen before in medieval warfare:

we joined two ships which we bound together sturdily by beams and
ropes … We erected four masts and the same number of sail yards, setting
up on the summit a strong fortress joined with poles and a network
fortification. We covered it with skins about its circumference … and over
its top as a defence against Greek fire. Under the fortress was made a ladder,
hung by very strong ropes and stretching out thirty cubits beyond the prow.[1]

Although this sounds unwieldy, the resulting opus ligneum as Oliver terms it could be propelled as vessels from the crusader states had oars as well as sails – thus the outside rowers could still function. In addition, steering boards were usually fixed to the side of a ship – a clear advantage in this case.[2] With ships of the time pulling a draught of only three to four feet, the crusaders were able to place the scaling ladder on the tower and, after some ferocious fighting, capture it.

Despite the assumption that this was an original invention, it is reminiscent of similar engines used in the Ancient World, most notably by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. At the siege of Tyre, facing comparable problems to the crusaders at Damietta, Alexander had two ships joined together, and used them as a base to breach or scale the walls. Unfortunately, the sources do not make it clear which was intended. Such engines were also known in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds, and were most famously employed at the siege of Syracuse in 214 B.C. where it took the inventive genius of Archimedes to keep them at bay. The ships used at Tyre and Syracuse were of a broadly similar design to those used in the Fifth Crusade – that is, with oars and steering boards on the sides. The fact that these engines were used in the Ancient World, and that their use was reported in the writers of the period prompts the idea that Oliver had read of them in some Classical account and employed this knowledge in the field.

Of the histories of Alexander’s life extant in the Middle Ages it is certain that Oliver had read Quintus Curtius’ as he tells us so himself.[3] However, Curtius’ description of the engines Alexander used to capture Tyre is disappointingly vague. He says only:

For the Macedonians had joined Quadriremes together in pairs in such a way that
while their prows were united, the sterns were as far apart as it was possible to
have them: the space between the sterns they had filled with yards of ships and
strong beams bound together, and upon them had built platforms as a standing
place for soldiers.[4]

This is unlikely to have prompted Oliver’s invention at Damietta. Looking at other accounts of the siege of Tyre, it becomes clear that Oliver cannot have gained inspiration from these either. There are three other major accounts. Arrian II 23.3, Diodorus XVII 43.3 and Plutarch’s ‘Life of Alexander’. These are unlikely to have formed the basis for Oliver’s idea as they are all in Greek, a language he almost certainly would not have had. The same is true of Polybius’ ‘The Rise of the Roman Empire’, Plutarch’s ‘Life of Marcellus’, and Appian’s ‘Mithridates’. These all describe sambucae which is the Latin name for floating siege engines.

Polybius’ excellent description is worth quoting for the light it may throw on the way the siege engine at Damietta was constructed:

he had eight quinqueremes grouped in pairs. Each pair had half of theiroars removed,
the starboard bank for one and the port for the other, and on these sides the vessels
were lashed together. They were then rowedby the remaining oars on their outer sides,
and brought up to the walls the siege engines known as sambucae. A ladder is made,
four feet in width and high enough to reach the top of the wall from the place where its
feet are to rest. Each side is fenced in with a high protective breastwork, and the machine
is also shielded by a wicker covering high overhead … After this the oarsmen on the two
outer sides of the ships row the vesselsclose inshore, and the crews then attempt to prop
the sambuca against the wall. At the top of the ladder there is a wooden platform which is
protected on three sides by wicker screens; four men are stationed on this to engage the
defenders … As soon as the attackers have got it into position, and are thus standing on
a higher level than the wall, they pull down the wicker screens on each side of the platform
and rush out onto the battlements or towers.[5]

However, as has been said Oliver could not read Greek, and so if he did receive inspiration from a Classical text it had to be in Latin. Two that Oliver could have read mention sambucae - and Oliver’s idea may have come from one or a combination of both. First, there is Vegetius who wrote his treatise on military matters around 400 A.D. This work was well known before Oliver’s time. Geoffrey Plantagenet had used it in 1147 during the siege of a castle in the Loire valley and the same copy may have belonged to his Greatgrandfather, Fulk the Black, in the tenth century.[6] By the thirteenth century, Vegetius had become the most popular and widely read work on the theory of military matters. Although many medieval copyists augmented the text with stratagems of their own, the original text does give advice on how to conduct sieges. In this section Vegetius gives his description of a sambuca:

The sambuca is so named from its similarity to a harp: for just as there are strings on a harp,
so on a beam which is joined to the tower there are ropes which let down a bridge from
above by means of pulleys. So that soldiers go out from the tower, and crossing over the
bridge invade the walls of the city.[7]

Clearly there is no reference here to the sambucae being mounted on ships and then used to attack the sea-walls of cities. Despite this Vegetius must have been aware of this aspect of their use as he knows the name sambuca and this is only used in ancient authors in connection with sea-borne siege engines. But another writer, Vitruvius, does make such an explicit reference. This work became most widely read during the Renaissance, but was known before 1200 and may have been read by Oliver. One can see how by combining the two references Oliver might have developed his own sambuca. Vitruvius says:

At Chios also when the enemy had constructed sambucae on
board ships, the Chians overnight heaped up earth, sand and
stones into the sea before the walls.[8]

But there is a far more likely route for the transmission of this knowledge. It is a Latin account of the siege of Syracuse and thus of sambucae and it is to be found in Book XXIV of Livy’s Ab Urbe Conditur. In this he describes how the Roman general Marcellus, in an attempt to scale the seaward walls of Syracuse joined pairs ofQuinqueremes together and built towers on the masts:

Other Quinqueremes paired together, with the inner oars removed,
so that side was brought close to side, were propelled by the outer
banks of oars like a single ship and carried towers of several stories,
and in addition engines for battering the walls.[9]

Although differing in a few points of detail from Oliver’s description, the two are so similar as to give rise to the idea that Oliver was not inventing a new engine, but recreating one that he had read about previously. This is encouraged by looking at the manuscript history of Book XXIV of Livy.

The first pentad of the third Decade, that is Books XX to XXV, existed in at least six manuscripts before the start of the thirteenth century.[10]  For Oliver to have seen any of them two factors will have needed to combine – inclination and opportunity. The first of these may safely be assumed from what he says in his own work – he was clearly interested in reading Ancient works. Opportunity is harder to determine. Although manuscripts can be placed in certain locations at certain times the intervals in between are, necessarily, lost to us. Thus, what follows must be based on a certain amount of speculation.

Four of the extant manuscripts were in France at some point before the thirteenth century. The oldest of these, and the archetype for all the manuscripts now in existence, is the Codex Puteaneus (B.N. Ms. lat. 5730). Originally written in the first half of the fifth century, it made its way, via the court of Charlemagne, to the library at Corbie. Here it was copied in the third quarter of the ninth century into a manuscript now in Florence (Florence, Laur. 63.20). When this manuscript left France is not known. Another French copy was made from the Puteaneus in the early eleventh century (B.N. Ms. lat. 5731), however its subsequent history is not known until it was acquired by Colbert in the seventeenth century. Thus these three, together with the Bamberg manuscript (see below), were in France for some time before the late twelfth century. In addition, there is no reason to suppose that either the Puteaneus or B.N. lat. 5731 moved far from the Corbie / Paris area. Given Oliver’s interests he may well have visited Corbie or found a manuscript in Paris in order to read Livy. The opportunity for such an exercise would have presented itself when he was a student at the University in Paris.

Moreover, two other manuscripts existed and Oliver may have had a chance to read these. The earlier one, the Romanus (Vatican, Reg. lat. 762), was copied at Tours around 800 A.D. The history of this manuscript is obscure and I have been unable to find the date when it left Northern Europe and found its way to Rome. The most likely time seems to be when the library at Corbie was sacked by the Huguenots in 1562. In the same year the monastery library at Fleury was sacked and it was at this time that many of its manuscripts were scattered-some of them ending up in the Vatican. Thus, it is fairly certain that the Romanus was at Tours during Oliver’s lifetime and so could have been seen by him.

The final manuscript is the Bambergensis (Bamberg Class. 35). Copied in the early eleventh century, in France, from a hypothetical derivative of the Romanus, it found its way to Bamberg where it had Book 30 added to it. This was done by the same scribe who copied the fourth Decade at Bamberg and thus a latest date of 1100 can be deduced for its arrival. As the manuscript has been at Bamberg since then Oliver may have seen it on a visit from his own base at Paderborn which is only 150 miles away.

So where does this leave Oliver of Paderborn’s invention? The evidence above is not, of course, conclusive and it still remains a possibility that this is simply a case of different people arriving at the same solution to similar problems. However, given the similarity of Oliver’s engine to the sambucae of the Ancient World and the number of ways he could have read about them, it seems more likely that, in this case, he put his reading to good use.  Of course, if this is the case, he still showed great perspicacity in remembering Livy’s description of a sambuca and from it producing a viable piece of military hardware. It would be wrong to belittle his achievement. Bernard of Chartres, in his famous metaphor, said that medieval scholars were `but dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants.’ of which it would be difficult to find a better example.[11]


1. Oliver of Paderborn, The capture of Damietta, trans. J.J. Gavigan, Philadelphia 1948, reprinted in Christian society and the Crusades, 1198-1229, ed. E. Peters, Philadelphia 1971, Chap. 12.

2. V. Norman, The Medieval Soldier, London, 1971. See especially Chap. 12.

3. Oliver of Paderborn, The Capture of Damietta, Chap. 10.

4. Quintus Curtius, History of Alexander, trans. J.C Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library 1948,

IV 3.14.

5. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, trans. W.R. Paton, Loeb Classical Library

1923, Book VIII 4.

6. See the chapter on Vegetius in A. Murray, Reason and Society in the Middle Ages, Oxford 1978, pp. 127-30. In addition P. Contamine, War in the Middle Ages, trans. Michael Jones, Oxford, Blackwell 1984, p. 211 mentions a device used by Charles the Bold at the siege of Neuss in 1474-5. ‘It was a type of movable tower furnished with a ladder some sixty feet high which ‘lowered like a drawbridge’ and could be fastened onto the wall at the moment of assault.’

7. Vegetius, Epitoma Rei Militaris, trans. L.F Stelton, New York, 1990 IV 21.

8. Vitruvius, De Architectura, trans. F. Granger, Loeb Classical Library 1934, X 16.9.

9. Livy, Ab Urbe Conditur, trans. F.G Moore, Loeb Classical Library 1951, Book XXIV 34. 6-7.

10. I would like to thank Dr. J. Briscoe of the University of Manchester for his help with the following. For a more detailed treatment see Text and Transmission, a survey of the Latin classics, ed. L. D Reynolds, Oxford 1983.

11. For further information on ancient sambucae and how they were constructed see J.G Landels, “Ship-shape and sambuca fashion”, Journal of Hellenic Studies, lxxxvi (1966), 69-77.

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