A Pedagogical Trebuchet: A Case Study in Experimental History and History Pedagogy
By Lee L. Brice and Steven Catania
The History Teacher, Vol.46:1 (2012)
Introduction: A common problem history teachers face regardless of their field of specialization is how to help students find answers to the most difficult historical questions, those for which the sources are unavailable or inaccessible, and teach them to do so in a methodologically valid manner. The case study presented here shows how a project in experimental history applied to a medieval trebuchet was used to solve just such problems by encouraging historical thinking, hypothesis testing of a historical problem, and reinforcing traditional primary source research. Follow-up of this first project by several others in experimental history has shown good results in student-centered historical pedagogy as well as teaching historical research methods, exploring difficult topics, and inspiring students. My experience has shown that the experimental history project discussed here is an approach applicable within any historical specialization where there are gaps in the primary sources.
Recent films including Robin Hood, Arn, Kingdom of Heaven, Timeline, King Arthur, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, with their stirring images of knights, castles, and sword-won battles, have fired the imagination of a new generation of students. Although various aspects of warfare receive attention in these films, one particular device that has become extremely popular as a flashy prop is the trebuchet, a type of catapult. Similarly, popular culture phenomena including the “Punkin Chunkin” contest in Delaware that features trebuchets in addition to the more common pumpkin cannons catch the attention of the public and students. Inspired by these and other representations, undergraduates have frequently come to me in the past seeking to investigate these and similar siege engines. The problems they often run into are typical of historical investigation, but can be overcome with perseverance and imagination.
We faced a number of external problems typical of most history departments in public universities and liberal arts colleges. For example, there is no historian of medieval Europe in our department; most of our students do not take any foreign languages; and finally, because of long-term budgetary constraints at the state level, our library collection in medieval history is extremely weak in monographs, journals, and electronic resources. As with most historical problems, even when a student follows common methods and locates accessible sources, there are still many aspects of the topic that can remain beyond the reach of the texts (omissions) or the students’ skills (foreign languages). more commonly, however, the problem is a gap in the primary sources. Such lacunae are increasingly common as students move back in time through history, especially in the medieval and ancient periods.