The question has taken the internet by storm. Here’s what it is all about.

Recently, trebuchet and catapult memes have taken over the internet. Playful memes with an obscure set of facts about the ancient weapons are everywhere, and generating lots of discussion. The nature of the memes is in direct contrast to what they are, large siege-breaking tools that were designed to hurl enormous objects, or lots of smaller objects, forcefully at the walls of a castle or fortress without the use of gunpowder or explosions.

Recently, a popular subreddit on the internet has revived a historic debate about which of these tools is superior to the other. It also revealed a lot more about the posters, the readers, and culture as a whole. As you learn more about it you’ll likely be entertained. You’ll also walk away from the debate a little better informed on history in the Middle Ages and about how current readers live today.

Let’s start with the basics. What’s a catapult anyway?

Catapults can generally hold up to roughly 180 pounds and are more mobile, typically on wheels.

Originally developed and used in ancient Greek and Roman warfare, catapults are levered projection devices with the visual look of a large bowl placed on the end of a long log or stick and mounted on a set of large wheels so that it can be moved around. The bowl would be filled with a larger projectile like a stone, and the heavier end of the weapon set in such a position that it could be held back by a rope or chain attached to a counterweight.

This counterweight caused a great deal of tension once it was put in place and loaded. It was then fired as the weight was disconnected and the tension in the rope or chain was released, propelling the projectile forward with huge amounts of force.

Catapults can generally hold up to roughly 180 pounds and are more mobile, typically on wheels. The wheels offer some basic advantages including the ability to absorb the force of the weapon’s powerful launch as it propels its objects forward. This ability is said to help make its firings more accurate.

How’s a trebuchet different?

The counterweight trebuchet was easily the most popular and impactful of all catapult innovations. It was so effective that it became the siege weapon of choice until the advent of gunpowder when it was finally replaced.

Catapults were used in warfare for centuries and, over time, several natural variations on the catapult were developed. These innovations happened in order to improve the catapult’s abilities. The counterweight trebuchet was easily the most popular and impactful of all catapult innovations. It was so effective that it became the siege weapon of choice until the advent of gunpowder when it was finally replaced.

The primary evolutionary step from the trebuchet to the catapult was: the catapult has a bowl attached to the device’s arm; the trebuchet uses a sling-like pouch that is suspended at a distance from the arm with ropes. Projectiles are loaded into this sling and fired. They can launch several hundred pounds of ammunition at a time and, with its swing, has a longer range than a catapult.

The story of a famous trebuchet sparked a meme craze

One of the most famous trebuchets is one called Warwolf, used by Edward I. As the story goes, he created it to intimidate the Scots. His plan was so successful that the Scots warriors surrendered before he had a chance to use it. In his eagerness to see if it could project the 300 pounds he hoped for, he sent his opponents back to the castle so he could try it.

Although trebuchet information became a presence in social media sometime in 2015, they experienced a revival in 2016 when someone posted about Warwolf and trebuchets on a Reddit subreddit feed called “Today I learned.” The posting was so popular it received huge amounts of responses. Trebuchets became top of mind, and jokes, memes, and trebuchet postings were born.

Memes and trebuchet information takes on a life of their own

Twitter_Trebuchet Memes

Over time the format and tone of the memes evolved, almost into a friendly but snarky sort of “of course trebuchets are better”  tone. Most of them use an obscure statistic talking about how trebuchets can launch a 90kg stone over 300 meters away. What’s interesting is the range of variety that these memes take on.

How different are the examples? There are memes featuring Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, memes that have trebuchets and catapults replacing the heads of animated characters, and memes poking fun of interactions between parents and kids, work situations, and even Spongebob characters.

There are so many memes that there’s a Twitter feed entirely focused on the subject. It is simply called Trebuchet Memes. Much like the trebuchet fans have celebrated their historically accurate knowledge of the power of medieval trebuchets, the feed itself celebrates the spirit of the memes. It says that “back and better than ever, the superior search engine meme repository will never die.” It has nearly 4,500 followers and has 227 meme-related tweets.

What do the memes really reveal?

Is the trivia about an ancient medieval weapon annoying? Does it make the user superior to others? Is it just funny? Is it just wierd?

When you look past the surface of the memes, its possible to see how they reveal a bit more about their creators. The basic and consistent content of the memes is a slightly snarky tone of having in-depth, geeky knowledge of a historical subject. Are the details annoying and grating? Does they make the user superior to others? Is it just funny? Is it just weird?

The information is quirky, but it is simple enough that it fits almost anywhere. How it fits into the context gives it a further life of its own. Sometimes, it is just unsettling. Sometimes it is hilarious, witty, or wise or, alternately, it is absolutely banal and meaningless. They seem to be designed to almost always give a reader pause. Maybe to raise an eyebrow or cause a chuckle.

Taking it a step further, in some cases, the reaction is as much a reflection on the person who is reading it as it is on what the initial writer may have intended. Two people reading the same meme may view it completely differently. In this way, it reflects our culture more than it says anything directly. Maybe it is actually everywhere because it is becoming a modern-day Rorschach test revealing as much about the interpreter as anything else. And for that, it is fascinating and likely to continue.

A deeper dive – related reading from the 101: