Umberto and His Magnificent Trebuchet
The other day, while driving around the walls of Lucca, my mind wandered to the choices facing an ambitious young man in medieval northern Italy. I imagined a bright lad who aspired to more than being a serf or a peasant. What might he have done to ingratiate himself with those who could advance his career?
He will need a name so let’s call him Umberto.
The walls of Lucca are thick. Today, tourists ride bicycles along the top. When built, they would have accommodated many horses, chariots and archers to say nothing of spillers of boiling oil. Though the walls are thick, they are not high and this is where I imagined Umberto might have focused his entrepreneurial genius.
Umberto would have known that there was much war making among the Tuscan city-states where he lived in the early part of the 12th century. For Umberto, wars were a growth industry that would likely satisfy his upwardly mobile aspirations.
Thoughtful as he was, Umberto faced two strategic decisions. First, he had to decide whether to devote his design talent to offense or defense. Second, he had to choose sides between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines.
But Umberto was a clever lad.
For him, the first decision was easy. There was no real value to helping defenders because, if the defenders won, there would be no dislocation. The status quo would remain, and the status quo offered Umberto no exit from serfdom and peasantry. What Umberto needed was a disruption to put assets into play. His goal was plunder, preferment and all manner of personal gain.
Offense would create the required dislocation, as newly conquered assets became available for redistribution to those, like Umberto, whose genius had helped to provide the plunder and booty.
Much pleased with his decision, Umberto turned his attention to providing overwhelming advantage to those outside the walls besieging those inside the walls.
Umberto understood the advantages of thick walls that could not be breached, but he also understood the disadvantages of low walls over which things could be thrown. Preferably unpleasant things.
And thus did Umberto seize upon the trebuchet, a device that could launch all manner of projectiles over the heads of defenders and more importantly over the walls they built around their cities.
The device he imagined would be sufficiently portable to be rolled into place and it would be able to fling something large and heavy over the wall and well out of reach of the defending horses, chariots and archers.
(The oil spillers were now completely irrelevant as there were no longer any attackers within the range of their obsolete weaponry. Hence the oil spillers devoted their attention to passing laws mandating the continued use of oil spillers in all military activities despite their uselessness.)
At first, Umberto focused on stones, which, though effective, only destroyed the things they actually hit. Since it took too long to tee up his trebuchet, merely throwing stones would lengthen the time of the siege and make it too costly. Umberto was also a pioneer of cost benefit analysis.
Stones would not do. Something that did more widespread damage was clearly required. This inevitably led to launching flaming things over the walls, as the fire could be relied upon to spread once inside the city. There was also a psychological element to flaming projectiles, as the archers, charioteers and horses would reliably panic as the fireballs fly over their heads. (The oil spillers remained in City Hall lobbying.)
It was the panic caused by the fireballs that led to the contribution that made Umberto a Duke. Even more effective than fire was pestilence. Now remember, Umberto was sitting outside the walls of Lucca inventing the trebuchet fully 200 years before the bubonic plague. Yet he understood that latrines were kept separate from living spaces, as were the carcasses of deceased animals.
Umberto decided that these were his projectiles of choice. The entire contents of the besiegers’ latrines to say nothing of the corpses of diseased wild life and, when available, the bodies of defending soldiers could be caused to take flight over the heads of the hapless defenders thanks to the brilliance of Umberto’s magnificent trebuchet.
His first problem (offense or defense) was solved, as was his design of the device itself. Now it was time to turn his attention to marketing.
Broadly, in the 12th century, there were two political choices in the Tuscan hills.
There were the Guelphs, who were allied with the Pope and who were made up of wealthy mercantile families. Later they became known for usury and corruption, but Umberto did not know this, nor did he need to.
The other choice was the Ghibellines, who were allied with the Holy Roman Emperor and were made up of wealthy landed families. As with all landed families throughout history, they favored law and order.
Umberto contemplated his decision for some time, mistakenly thinking that he needed to decide which philosophy most appealed to him.
Since neither the Guelphs nor Ghibellines appeared to have any philosophy whatever, Umberto eventually decided that it didn’t matter. As Umberto saw it, both parties, together with their heraldic banners and armies, were simply out for whatever they could pillage and plunder for themselves.
Along the way, he learned about a new idea favored by the papacy called celibacy. As a young man given to bettering his life, he decided to throw in his lot with rich people who liked women instead of those who would eventually favor vows of both poverty and celibacy.
And thus did Umberto become a Ghibelline.
The Investiture Controversy between the two groups began in 1075. It related to the power of appointing bishops and whether that was the prerogative of the Pope or the Emperor. This was an especially important controversy because there was considerable financial advantage to appointing your guy to a role in which he could easily plunder the goods of the inhabitants.
When the Guelphs sold the church offices, it was called simony, but when the Ghibellines committed the same crime by selling public offices it was called bratteria. Either way it was the same: sell the right to steal from the populace and keep some of the spoils for yourself.
Most cities did not care who did the plundering and they tended to side against their most threatening neighbor. Florence, for example, was Guelph and Siena, its much smaller rival, was Ghibelline.
Now we get to an interesting point in history, by which time Umberto had been much rewarded for his good work. In 1122, there occurred the Concordat of Worms, in which the Pope and the Emperor settled their differences about appointing bishops and, theoretically at least, put an end to any further need for the division between Guelphs and Ghibellines.
(Scholarly readers might confuse the Concordat of Worms with the Diet of Worms. The Concordat related to appointing bishops and occurred 400 years before the Diet that related to dealing with Martin Luther. Historically, Worms appears to a been a good place for resolving theological disputes, especially those that were more about power than theology.)
Suffice it to say, the Concordat of Worms did not put an end to the rivalry between Guelphs and Ghibellines. Political leaders could not leave the hatred between the two groups that had been developed in less than five decades (1075 to 1122) to fade away. It was far too valuable as a source of political advantage that depended heavily on the stupidity of the followers.
Instead, the now meaningless distinction between political forces that no longer even existed would prevail for at least another 300 years as a factor in Tuscan politics. Only in the early 1300s did a small group of Florentines begin to consider both sides unworthy of their support.
The Guelphs had split into white and black factions based on something or other, now long forgotten, that must have seemed important at the time.
Penalties were harsh for those on the losing side. Property belonging to the defeated was confiscated, and Dante and Petrarch, both Guelphs, were exiled from Florence for being at odds with the winners. Only in 2008, 700 years later, was Dante pardoned for his crimes and even this was controversial. In 2015, the Guelphs were reinstated as an Italian political faction.
Somehow Venice, which was focused on trade and money making stayed out of the whole thing.
Umberto’s descendants learned much from the trebuchet and profited greatly from the burgeoning wine industry.
Some second sons did emigrate thanks to the unpleasant consequences of primogeniture on their fortunes.
They settled in our nation’s capital where they opened profitable consulting and public relations practices on K Street. They had learned that political power was at least as important as flinging dead animals over walls, though both had significant similarities.