“The Siege Diet: How Food Became a Lethal Weapon in Medieval Warfare”

Medieval sieges were long and drawn-out battles that could last for months or even years.

One of the most crucial aspects of a siege was the ability to control the supply of food.

A Trebuchet Catapult Siege Attack on a Castle

Attackers would try to cut off the defenders’ food supply, while defenders would do their best to maintain access to food. In this article, we explore how food was used as a weapon in medieval sieges.

“Food is a fundamental need, and it was used as a weapon of war as early as the ancient times. It was a means of coercion, an expression of power, and an instrument of control.”

John C. Super, Professor Emeritus of History, University of Connecticut.

The Importance of Supply Lines

During a siege, attackers would often try to cut off the defenders’ supply lines. This could be achieved by destroying bridges or blocking roads. Defenders would then have to rely on their own food stores, which would quickly run out.

One way defenders tried to maintain their supply lines was by constructing underground tunnels to smuggle in supplies.

These tunnels were often called saps, and they were dug underneath the walls of the besieged city. This was a dangerous task, as attackers could easily detect the tunnels and destroy them.

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Scorched Earth Tactics

Another way attackers could cut off the defenders’ food supply was by using scorched earth tactics. This involved burning crops, orchards, and villages in the surrounding area, leaving the defenders with no food to rely on.

Scorched earth tactics were often used when attackers knew they couldn’t break through the defenders’ walls. This strategy was used during the Hundred Years’ War when English forces used it against the French.

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“Siege warfare was as much about manipulating food supplies as it was about military prowess. Food, or the lack of it, was the primary means of breaking the morale of defenders and forcing them to surrender.”

Andrew Curry, Archaeology and Science Writer.

Psychological Impact of Hunger

The psychological impact of hunger on besieged populations was immense. Hunger could lead to desperation, disease, and even cannibalism.

During the Siege of Leningrad in World War II, the population was so desperate for food that they resorted to eating rats, dogs, and even each other.

It’s important to note that in most sieges, the civilian population suffered the most from hunger. Defenders, on the other hand, had access to better-quality food and were less likely to starve.

“The siege diet was a form of psychological warfare that was both effective and cruel. Starving defenders would eventually become weakened and desperate, making them more willing to accept surrender terms.”

Kelly DeVries, Professor of History, Loyola University Maryland.
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Morale-Boosting Measures

Maintaining morale was vital during a siege. The distribution of food and drink was an important way of keeping the defenders’ spirits up.

Wine and beer were often distributed, as they were believed to have medicinal properties.

During the Siege of Tyre in the 12th century, the defenders threw a feast for the attackers, hoping to distract them from their mission. This worked, and the attackers were eventually forced to withdraw.

“In the context of a siege, food could become a powerful weapon of war. It was a way to wear down an enemy, break their will, and ultimately force them to give up.”

William Ian Miller, Professor Emeritus of Law and History, University of Michigan.
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“Food shortages during a siege were not just a matter of physical hunger, but also had profound psychological and social effects. The hunger and desperation could lead to social breakdowns, violence, and even cannibalism.”

Tom Scott, Lecturer in Medieval History, University of Birmingham.


In conclusion, food was a crucial weapon in medieval sieges. By controlling the supply of food, attackers and defenders could gain a significant advantage. The psychological impact of hunger on the besieged population was immense, and maintaining morale was vital.