See also the article "From Sea to Land" in the EHNE.
Major Debates Related to the Military Transformation of Early Modern Europe
Europe was very much a backwater in 1000, lagging well behind Song China and the Muslim world in terms of population, wealth, trade, technology, science, and military organization. Yet by the mid-16th century, Europeans had expelled the Moors, had conquered the Aztec and Inca empires, and were in the process of wresting control of maritime trade in the Indian Ocean from Muslim traders. Over the course of the next 350 years, Europeans developed military technologies, organizations, and methods of waging war that enabled them to dominate the globe, only to cede that dominance to other powers after two immensely destructive world wars. Attributing Europe's rise to and retreat from global ascendancy solely to military and naval developments is simplistic and one dimensional, yet clearly military and naval technologies played a major role in shaping Europe and affecting its interactions with the rest of the world.
Three major issues pertain to the transfer, diffusion, evolution, and impact of military and naval technologies in Europe since the late medieval period. First, what were the effects and consequences of changing military technology on society? Who are the winners and losers of technological transfer, diffusion, and adoption, and how did new technologies affect class and social structures? Second, was there a connection between the creation of the modern bureaucratic state and the military revolutions of the late medieval and early modern period? Did new technologies result in new forms of war that "made the state", or were more effective bureaucracies and forms of extraction preconditions to adopting new forms of war?1 Lastly, how does one explain the increasing dominance of the West at the global level during the period 1325 to 1650? What role did military and naval technologies play in the rise of the West?2 What were the tools of European imperialism and why was resisting the European way of war difficult for other cultures?3
No analysis of the transfer and diffusion of military and naval technologies in Europe since the late medieval period can address all changes and every technology. This article will focus only on those military/naval technologies and techniques which shaped society, affected political order, or influenced Europe's position in the international system. Using insights from the "military revolution" debate, it postulates that military and naval technologies tend to change and diffuse in an evolutionary manner, with punctuated dramatic shifts occurring when combinations of concepts, technologies, methods, and organization interact to create potent new ways of waging war.4 The transfer, discovery, and diffusion of military and naval technologies played an important role in altering power relationships within society and between states. This essay will focus on a period when clusters of technologies and capabilities caused major changes in the character and consequences of war: the late medieval and early modern period when siege guns, artillery fortresses, gunpowder weapons, and gunned sailing ships altered the balance of power within European societies, between its states, and in Europe's relationship to much of the world.
This essay seeks to navigate between the reductionism of technological determinism and the shortcomings of the social construction of technology (SCOT) movement. Technological determinism, in its hard and soft variety, claims that technology determines social, political, and cultural developments. It tends to focus on the consequences and effects of technology, paying insufficient attention to the social and cultural prerequisites to invention and/or the adoption of new technologies and techniques.5
Social technological constructivists, in contrast, veer toward arguing that cultural and social factors determine technology. They pay a great deal of attention to the social and cultural roots of technology, and argue that invention, adoption, diffusion, and development are choices. They argue that scholars should pay as much attention to technological dead-ends and paths not taken as they do to "successful" technologies. While this approach has considerable merit, social constructivists tend toward "thick description" of specific technologies and at times appear mainly interested in discussions of methodology.6
This essay will take a middle position, and argues that culture and society influence how technologies are discovered, received, nurtured or ignored, but that military technologies have a way of creating winners and losers. Technology does influence the manner in which wars are waged, but it is only one of several factors in determining the character of war. Returning to the concept of punctuated evolutions, one discovers long periods where new and established weapons, tactics, and forms of organization co-existed, coupled with fairly rapid revolutions in how war was waged after a belligerent combined new ideas, technologies, methods and forms of organization in a particularly effective manner. In analyzing an era of major change, this essay will first describe the new clusters of technologies and situate them within the existing military system. It will then examine whether these technologies were transfers from elsewhere or had European origins, and explain the mechanisms, prerequisites, and groups associated with diffusing the technology. The entry will analyze how new forms of war created winners and losers, affected governance and the state, and altered the power relationship between Europeans and the rest of the world.
Gunpowder Weapons, Artillery Fortresses, and the Gunned Sailing Ship, 1325–1650
Gunpowder did not cause a sudden revolution in European warfare, nor did it initially dramatically change the social order, the state, or Europe's position in the world. Instead, gunpowder was incorporated into the existing pattern of war, only gradually changing that way of war after Europeans spent a century experimenting with different ways of harnessing its energy.7 Europeans acquired the knowledge of how to make gunpowder from Mongol or Arab intermediaries sometime in the 13th century, possibly as a result of European missions to the Great Khan's court in the 1240s and 1250s.8 Roger Bacon (ca. 1220–1292), an English Franciscan scholar, recorded a formula for mixing saltpeter, charcoal, and Sulphur in his Epistola de secretis operibus artis et naturae, et de nullitate magiae (Letter on the Secret Workings of Art and Nature, and on the Vanity of Magic) sometime between 1248 and 1267. The Dominican polymath Albert of Cologne (1200–1280), also known as Albertus Magnus, described how one could create a powder that would make flying fire and thunder in De mirabiblibus mundi (Concerning the Wonders of the World) in 1275. By the close of the century, two recipes for "flying fire" were included in the Latin language Liber ignium ad comburendos hostes (Book of Fires for the Burning of Enemies), allegedly written by "Marcus the Greek" but probably of Moorish origins.9 After 1300 the recipe for creating gunpowder became increasingly well-known as Europe's small network of philosophers, alchemists, and scholastics traded information via hand written missives, through face to face contact at universities and in court, and through church channels.
The "secret" to making gunpowder and concepts for using it in war spread throughout Europe well before Johannes Gutenberg (ca. 1400–1468) revolutionized information sharing with the printing press. Knowledge was shared via handwritten communications, woodcuts, and via travelling craftsmen and military entrepreneurs selling their services to those able to pay the costs. While the "Printing Revolution" unleashed by Gutenberg certainly made the transfer and sharing of knowledge more efficient, gunpowder had begun to change the character of European war before the printed word began to displace traditional forms of written and oral communication. Gunpowder changed the nature of siege warfare first, but by the 16th century it was altering how Europeans fought battles on land and sea as well.
The first instances of Europeans employing gunpowder weapons seem to be in the third decade of the 14th century, when Edward III (1312–1377) employed "crakkis of wer" against the Scots in 1327 and German knights used some sort of gun in the siege of Cividale del Friuli in northern Italy in 1331.10 There was a great deal of experimentation about how to best use gunpowder, with references to pot-like iron vessels hurling thunder arrows (Aix la Chapelle, 1346), a cannon lobbing 100lbs stones (siege of Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte, 1375), and cart-mounted arrays of dozens of iron barreled ribauldequin firing volleys of small metal balls (Castagnara, 1387). The uncertainty about how to best use gunpowder is reflected in the jumble of terms used to describe these new weapons, with the English referring to gunnes, gonnes, gunna, the Germans to Büsse, Büchse, and Donnerbüchse, the Italians to tromba or tronum, the French to pot-de-fer, pièces d'artillerie, and cannon, and the Spaniards to bombarda.11 Early references to these new weapons suggest that they were integrated into the existing patterns, employed as siege weapons alongside catapults, springalds, and trebuchets, and to a lesser extent, as supplements to the emerging "infantry revolution" already challenging the primacy of mounted, heavily armored knights on the battlefield.
Gunpowder and Siege Artillery
The first generation of siege artillery did not radically change warfare because these early cannon were no more effective than the trebuchet artillery already in use. Early references to the weapons indicate that they first were used to hurl shot over the walls and into the besieged town, damaging buildings and terrorizing the population. As shot became heavier, bombards were used to attack walls alongside mechanical siege weapons. Writing at the start of the 15th century, Christine de Pizan (1364–ca. 1430) recommended that both besiegers and the besieged use gunpowder weapons as well as a welter of mechanical missile weapons ranging from crossbows and longbows to "spryngalles" (large mounted crossbows) and trebuchets.12 By the 1430s and 1440s, gunpowder weapons seem to have accelerated the pace of siege operations, with attacking armies using an array of gunpowder artillery to reduce towns and castles that once would have held out for months in a matter of weeks. The rapid collapse of the English position in France during the last phase of the Hundred Years War is due in large measure to the attention the French king lavished on his artillery, with one commentator noting that "no one can remember a Christian king ever having such great artillery, nor one so well furnished with powder, shields, and all other necessities for approaching and taking castles and towns".13
A confluence of developments beginning in the late 14th and culminating in the mid-15th century rendered artillery more affordable and effective. First, gunpowder became steadily less expensive, with the cost of powder falling by 50% in the last decades of the 14th century.14 Cheaper gunpowder led to the development of larger guns, with the bombards of the early 15th century reaching epic proportions. "Mons Meg", a bombard on display in Edinburgh, weighed over five tons and fired a stone shot of 549 lbs. Secondly, gunmakers gradually lengthened the barrels of cannon after discovering that those with longer barrels were more accurate and had a longer range. Sometime in the 1420s, gunpowder makers discovered a new technique of "corning" gunpowder which rendered it both less susceptible to deterioration and more powerful. Corned powder, new and less complicated loading processes, and a shift toward smaller, more accurate guns made artillery increasingly effective in siege warfare. The bombards of the late 14th and early 15th century were monstrously heavy, expensive, difficult to transport, and hurled enormous stones with poor accuracy. By the late 15th century, artillery had become more mobile, accurate, and affordable, enabling besieging armies to concentrate fire from multiple cannon using iron shot against the same section of a town or castle's walls.15 Francesco Guicciardini (1483–1540), describing the impact of the French artillery train that Charles VIII (1470–1498) used during his Italian campaign in 1494–1495, noted that: "They were planted against the walls of a town with such speed, the space between the shots was so little, and the balls flew so quick and were impelled with such force, that as much execution was done in a few hours as formerly, in Italy, in the like number of days."16
It took a great deal of skill and expertise to forge iron or bronze barrels that could withstand gunpowder's explosive energy, with Flemish, German, and Italian craftsmen marketing both their wares and their skills throughout Christendom. In Germany and Italy, the Free Cities and urban centers led the way in acquiring cannon for defensive purposes, with ambitious monarchs soon employing their own gunsmiths and masters of artillery.17 By the 15th century, Europeans had developed siege guns that outclassed those used in the Islamic world. European master gunsmiths, and the gunners who placed and operated siege artillery, were well paid and willing to sell their services.18 When the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II (1432–1481) launched his final assault against Constantinople in 1453, he hired German and Hungarian cannon-makers to cast the cannons which breached its mighty walls.19 The knowledge and expertise associated with the production and employment of effective siege artillery diffused across Europe within the span of five or six generations, spreading most rapidly in areas where armies focused on controlling towns and fortified strongpoints. Towns and rulers learned rapidly that acquiring and mastering the new technology of gunpowder cannon could spell the difference between survival and subjugation. They hired cannon makers, masters of artillery, and gunners as necessary, establishing their own foundries and artillery establishments if they could afford to do so. Early cannon-makers favored bronze over iron, as the same techniques used to cast Europe's church bells could be used to make dependable gun barrels. The demand for bronze stimulated the trade between the copper mines of Central Europe, the tin producing regions in England, Spain, and Germany, and the foundries of Nuremberg, Lyon, Bolzano, and Antwerp.20 Once techniques for producing reliable caste iron cannon were mastered, areas rich in iron ore deposits likewise saw a flurry of economic development, with England, Holland, and Sweden beneficiaries of a European-wide demand for less expensive caste iron cannon. Areas sparsely populated or lacking towns continued to employ traditional forms of warfare decades after artillery rendered castles and medieval town walls obsolete in Europe's heartland.
Tracing the impact of gunpowder weapons on Europe's social structure is difficult because of several concurrent but extraneous developments. Well before gunpowder weapons became important on the battlefield, an "infantry revolution" had shaken the dominance of mounted knights in combat. At Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415), English longbow men decimated French heavy cavalry, with Flemish, Scot, and Swiss infantry armed with pikes and halberds crushing mounted armored opponents at Courtrai (1302), Bannockburn (1314), and Morgarten (1315). Concurrently, mercenary companies, condottieri, and permanent military establishments became an increasingly important feature of medieval warfare, rendering expert military service in exchange for pay.21 The Swiss, following their decisive defeat of Burgundian armies at Grandson (1476), Murten (1476), and Nancy (1477), capitalized on both trends, hiring out their highly trained formations of pikesmen to friendly powers. As gunpowder weapons became more portable and effective, they hastened the decline of the heavily armored mounted knight and ushered in a new style of warfare. But the feudal order and its way of war were transitioning to a new style of governance and combat before gunpowder quickened trends already in motion. Put differently, while war may have created the modern bureaucratic state, the shift toward expensive, professional military establishments had begun before gunpowder changed the European battlefield.22
This is not to say that gunpowder had no effect on the state and the distribution of power within the state. By the mid-15th century, artillery became increasingly effective as an instrument for reducing towns and castles equipped with the high walls and round towers typical of the medieval period. French artillery trains reduced English towns and castles in Normandy and Gascony during the final phase of the Hundred Years War, transforming battlefield successes into permanent conquest. Philip the Bold (1342–1404) of Burgundy and his successors consolidated their hold on Flanders and the Low Countries by creating artillery trains that few rebellious towns could match. Perhaps most significantly, the Catholic monarchs (los Reyes Católicos) Isabella I of Castile (1451–1504) and Ferdinand II of Aragon (1452–1516) completed the reconquest of Spain, methodically reducing the cities and outposts of the last Moorish kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula over the course of 1482–1492. As artillery developed over the course of the 15th century, the balance of power shifted towards those political actors who could afford to equip their militaries with powerful siege trains. While this strengthened Europe's central monarchs, the same dynamic applied elsewhere. The Ottomans, Safavids, and the Mughals likewise assembled powerful artillery trains, creating strong "gunpowder empires" of their own.23
The infantry revolution of the late Middle Ages called into question the central role of the heavily armored, mounted knight in battle. Yet as late as 1494, armored horsemen made up between half and two-thirds of Charles VIII's army when he invaded Italy. While pikesmen, archers, and the first generation of arquebusiers proved formidable on the defense, maneuvering them on the field of battle proved extremely difficult and heavy cavalry still served as a shock force that could decide battle. Over the next 50 years, a combination of better small arms coupled with improvements in the tactical employment and mix of pikesmen and arquebusiers made cavalry charges more costly and less effective against disciplined infantry formations. By the middle of the 16th century, foot soldiers outnumbered cavalry by six to one in the French field army, with similar patterns prevailing in Habsburg, Dutch, and European armies in Western and Central Europe.24 The Spanish tercio, a mixed formation of pikesmen, swordsmen, arquebusiers and musketeers, combined the hitting power of gunpowder weapons with the defensive strength of pike formations. Gunpowder did not destroy the feudal system, well in decline before it became effective on the battlefield. But gunpowder weapons and tactical innovations put an end to the cavalry's dominance of the battle space in Western and Central Europe. Many nobles surely looked back wistfully, echoing the sentiments of Miguel de Cervantes' (1547–1616)[Don Quixote]. But they adapted to the new form of warfare, becoming the officers and leaders of early modern Europe's professional, intensely drilled standing military establishments. Gunpowder did, however, spur the development of the middle class. Producing gunpowder and guns stimulated trade, industry, and banking, with the Fuggers, for example, trading in copper, producing guns at Fuggerau in Carinthia, and lending money to the Habsburgs to finance war.25 Guns and trace italienne fortifications, moreover, rested on craftsmanship and the application of geometry, physics, and chemistry. While a number of kings and aristocrats showed interest in these fields, Europe's expert gunsmiths, masters of artillery, and fortification designers were the offspring of the urban, educated merchant class.
While early modern historians disagree about when the breakthrough to professionalism occurred, they do agree that the size of European armies grew over the course of the 16th and 17th century. Geoffrey Parker (born 1943), an enormously influential voice in the "military revolution debate", linked the growth of Western militaries to the development of a new type of fortification built to withstand artillery bombardment. This new form of fortification, generally known as the trace italienne, substituted low, sloped, thick walls surrounded by a wide ditch for the tall walls and narrow moats of medieval towns and castles. These walls had projecting bastions bristling with artillery that could cut down attackers, with outlying bastions, redoubts, ravelines, and lunettes creating interlocking fields of fire that made storming an artillery fortress practically impossible. Parker argues that the spread of the artillery bastion out of Italy, into the Low Countries, and into contested areas in Western and Central Europe necessitated ever larger military establishments.26 The new fortifications required larger garrisons, with only large, well-equipped besieging forces having any hope of subduing these bristling obstacles. Others have argued persuasively that the explosion in the size of European military establishments had more to do with increasing populations, expanding economies, Habsburg, French, and Dutch ambitions; and new gold and silver inflows from the New World that enabled it all.27
The connection between technology and the creation of the modern state was indirect and gradual, rather than straightforward and revolutionary. As noted, polities capable of paying for standing military forces had begun to do so before gunpowder transformed the face of battle. Portable gunpowder weapons accelerated an "infantry revolution" already underway, with the spread of trace italienne fortifications making wars of conquest difficult as bastion fortresses could hold out for weeks and months. The costs of war, both for the defense and offense, soared over the course of the 16th and 17th century. Charles Tilly's (1929–2008) thesis that the "war made the state and the state made war" stands up to scrutiny, but those who would go further and claim that technology and gunpowder weapons created the modern Western state mix up cause and correlation.28 The roots of the modern state pre-date the early modern military revolution. Cascading and interactive innovations in siege artillery, fortifications, and battlefield formations exacerbated an already existing imperative that rulers extract more resources from their subjects. Smaller city states, free cities, and semi-independent provinces found that competing against the standing, gunpowder equipped armies of the early modern monarchies was difficult. But as the Swiss and Dutch would demonstrate during the Burgundian Wars (1474–1477) and Eighty Years War (1568–1648), confederations and rebellious provinces resisting powerful monarchs were not doomed to subjugation. Smaller states and rebellious provinces could resist the might of the centralizing Leviathan if they had the financial resources to equip disciplined, professional military forces, had constructed modern fortifications, or were favored by geography and supported by allies.29
Gunpowder weapons, artillery, and bastion fortresses did not radically change the balance of power between Christendom and the Muslim world in the contested Balkan, North African, and Mediterranean regions during the early modern period. On land, Ottoman and Moroccan forces incorporated gunpowder weapons into their own military systems, and Ottoman were on the verge of conquering Vienna in 1529. Ottoman forces crushed Western armies at Kosovo in 1389 and Mohacs in 1526, and Moroccan forces annihilated a Portuguese army at Alcazarquivir in 1578.30 At sea, cannon were integrated into the existing system of naval warfare centered on the oar propelled galley warship. The dramatic victory of Spanish, Venetian, and Papal naval forces at the battle of Lepanto in 1571 had a technological dimension to it, in the form of six Venetian galleasses mounting a substantial array of cannon. Tactically, however, the engagement had more in common with the clash of Roman galley fleets at Actium (31 BCE) than with the engagement at Gravelines where the English fleet stood off and used naval gunnery to savage the Spanish Armada in 1588.31 Following Lepanto, Ottoman shipyards set to work constructing new galleys with which to resume the struggle for Mediterranean mastery, and Venice settled the conflict by recognizing Ottoman gains at its expense in the Eastern Mediterranean.32 Only in the 17th century did European states begin to deploy fleets and armies that were consistently superior to those of the Ottomans, and by the 18th century the tide had turned in the long struggle between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans.
Gunned Sailing Ships
New European naval developments, combined with gunpowder weapons, artillery, and bastion fortresses, had a much more decisive influence elsewhere. The Portuguese House of Aviz encouraged naval expeditions of exploration down the coast of Africa, developing sturdy sailing ships that combined the best attributes of North European and Mediterranean shipbuilding traditions. The nimble caravel, equipped with lanteen sails, and the larger carrock or nau, enabled Bartolomeu Dias (ca. 1450–1500) to round the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) to reach the New World in 1492, and Vasco Da Gama (ca. 1460–1524) to reach the Malabar coast of India by 1498. That Spain would be able to conquer and incorporate the Aztec and Inca empires within the span of a generation was extraordinary but given the wide technological gap and American vulnerability to European diseases, what was unanticipated was the speed rather than the outcome of the clash of civilizations. That Portugal was able to wrest control of the spice trade from Arab and Indian traders within a generation is perhaps more telling. Using gunned sailing ships, da Gama defeated an Indian/Arab fleet that outnumbered him by more than 10 to 1 in 1503, with Afonso de Albuquerque (1453-1515) establishing fortified outposts at Goa and Malacca in 1510 and 1511.33 European cannon, mounted on sturdy ocean-going ships, enabled the Portuguese and later the Dutch and British, to project power into the Indian Ocean. Trace italienne style fortifications allowed Europeans to build networks of well-defended trading outposts that made the European presence in the Indian Ocean, along the African coasts, and in the Americas enduring. Gunned sailing ships, gunpowder weapons, and artillery fortresses enabled Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, France, and England to establish trading empires that made them significant players on the global stage. But with the exception of the Americas, the European presence in Africa and Asia did not yet translate to European dominance of the Old World.
The Mughal empire, China, Tokugawa Japan, and much of the Muslim world employed gunpowder weapons and cannon of their own, with European powers having only a marginal technological advantage over them. Over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, European armies and navies gradually widened their technological lead, but European military successes in India and in the Balkans should be attributed as much to organization, drill, and professionalism as to technology. Incorporating the new European way of war entailed more than simply importing technology and technological know-how. It entailed changing military norms and cultural practices, with radical implications for the social order of those traditional societies that attempted to import European techniques and institutions in order to compete.34 Even as non-European powers struggled to adapt, a new array of technologies emerged in the 19th century that enabled European powers to project their power far beyond the range of the naval guns of the sailing age. Steamboats, railroads, repeating rifles, and quinine enabled a second stage of European imperialism in the 19th century that transformed Europe from one of several centers of power to the arbiter of much of the globe by 1900.
Was Europe radically changed by the introduction of gunpowder and the development of cannon, gunpowder small arms, and artillery fortifications? Did these technologies drive a "revolution in military affairs" that in turn created the modern state? And is Europe's rise on the global stage attributable to its import, adaption, and development of gunpowder and gunpowder weapons during the early modern period? This essay has argued that over the course of time, European warfare and society evolved in response to new technologies, but that their effect was more evolutionary than revolutionary. Old and new forms of warfare overlapped, and while there were periods when the pace and impact of change was radical, gunpowder and cannon were only part of the explanation of why European warfare had a very different character in 1580 than in 1180. Gunpowder, artillery, and artillery bastions put new demands on the extractive capacities of states, and war did indeed help create the modern state. But the "infantry revolution," the rise of mercenary companies, and the establishment of permanent, albeit small, royal military establishments had made finances central to European warfare even before the development of gunpowder weapons. War may have created the early modern state, but gunpowder and artillery only accelerated a process already underway.
Gunpowder nonetheless had a major social effect that should not be overlooked. Gunpowder, cannon production, and the construction of trace italienne fortification did not displace Europe's nobility or cause social revolution. But building, operating, and improving cannon, gunpowder weapons, and fortifications generated powerful stimuli to the trade in commodities, metal working, entrepreneurship, and experimentation. The engineers who constructed fortification, the gunsmiths who caste cannon, and the artillery experts who directed its employment came from the merchant classes. New gunpowder centric forms of war created opportunities for those willing to acquire expertise while established elites focused on glory. Michael Howard (born 1922) characterized warfare during the early modern age as "the wars of the merchants."35 This misses the mark, in that England, Holland, and Venice were exceptions to the prevailing political order, and kings still decided on wars with nobles supervising its execution. But merchants and the middle class did become increasingly important, with their contribution to gunpowder warfare essential. Monarchs and ruling elites depended on the educated urban class to furnish the military engineers, gunsmiths, artillery experts, taxmen, and bureaucrats who underpinned the new form of war.
Lastly, military and naval technology enabled the age of exploration and the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English and French colonial mercantile empires. European influence, penetration, and power varied considerably depending on the region and the societies encountered, but by any measure, Europe's relative global power was greater in 1700 than it had been in 1100. Cannon, artillery fortresses, gunpowder small arms, and gunned sailing ships enabled a shift in the global distribution of power, a shift that was neither inevitable nor predetermined. Technology opened doors and opportunities, but the choices taken and technologies developed had social, cultural, economic, and geographic roots.36