How to Win a Seige: Throw Diseased Corpses at Your Enemies (ca. 1200-1400 AD)

By: The Scribe on Friday, June 1, 2007

Mongol Siege Warfare

As famous as the Mongol Empire was during the height of its power, if there was one thing the Mongol military knew how to do, it was killing. Everyone, that is. Founded in 1206 AD by Genghis Khan, the Mongol Empire would eventually encompass over 12 million square miles of territory, with a population of over 100 million people, making it the second largest land empire in history.

The key to Mongolian success was easy enough: if a population refused to surrender, they would simply wipe out the entire population, raze their cities, and take over the land. Naturally, word gets around quickly when entire cities get destroyed, so for those cities who were wise enough to choose self-preservation over heroics and submit to Mongol rule, they were spared and treated rather leniently.

The Mongol military was divided into ten-men squads called arban, while a regiment was ten thousand men, called a tumen. Although they weren’t exactly subtle about their art of war, the Mongols knew what to do when it came to a siege, and did it without mercy. They were very skilled in the construction of trebuchets from trees in the surrounding vicinity, and could build great numbers of them very quickly.

What the Mongols tended to do was to destroy a city’s advancing land army with horse archers, lancers, and smoke engineers. The engineers would be responsible for constructing siege engines before and during a battle, using them during the battle to distract enemy forces and provide cover through elements such as smoke and fire, and then repair them in case of a siege against the city. After all, once a city’s entire land army was destroyed, there was no way to defend themselves other than holing up behind their walls.

Unfortunately, for populations that attempt to outlast a siege, food becomes scarce and the close quarters of vast numbers of people becomes a prime breeding ground for plague. And once a plague begins, it generally isn’t wise to keep the bodies of deceased plague victims inside the city walls to rot and spread more disease. Typically, the corpses would either be burnt or thrown over the walls – so the Mongols, seeing this as an opportunity to make the most of their surroundings, had a great fondness for collecting the corpses of these plague victims, setting them inside their trebuchets, and hurling the bodies back into the city.

In some cases, if the siege had just begun but the Mongols had access to plagued corpses from a previous town or the surrounding area, they would launch the diseased bodies into the city to try and start a plague on their own. The city would become infested, and thus easily captured once the disease had spread. Macabre, yes, but highly effective!

Want to read more?

Tomorrow: Hanging coffins!


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