Knights, Guns and Coconuts: A Discourse on Medieval Military Power

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Today, I’ve brought you something different.

Normally this would be a wonderful ramble about writing techniques and my forays into Dungeons & Dragons, but I get the sense that the content I’m putting out is starting to get a little stale. Not to worry, though — there is more to my life than creative writing and tabletop roleplay. More specifically, I have an essay I wrote up at university for one of my history modules. If we’re getting even more specific than that, an essay that asks, and then promptly answers, the question of what ways changes in military technology affected power relations in the late medieval and early modern periods. Strap in, because this’ll be a beefy read, and certainly an enlightening one…

It is difficult if not downright impossible to question that force of arms played a strong role in medieval society. After all, arguably the most prominent and popular icon that we have of the Middle Ages is the knight, the noble warrior elite of European culture for centuries. He is idolised along with the sword that he wielded, the castle in which he resided, and — depending on who you talk to — the clattering of coconut husks that heralded his arrival. Yet there are some historians who argue that military power and the changes brought about by new military technologies proved a decisive factor in shaping the culture of Europe entering the early modern period. The arguments posed by these historians focus particularly on the nature in which weapons, armour and warfare changed, and how these changes affected the societal balance of power — and, perhaps most importantly, if they affected power relations at all.

To support our postulation as to how and if the drastic changes in medieval and early modern military technology that transpired from the second half of the 1000s to the early 1700s, it is arguably mandatory to establish just what these changes actually were to begin with. The earliest knights to traverse English soil, the Norman warriors who landed at Hastings in 1066, went to battle against the Saxon huscarls and harried the North wearing armour made from chainmail — metal (typically iron) rings linked together to form a protective garment. While this breed of armour was lightweight and flexible compared to past metal armours like scale-mail, able to repulse a heavy swordstroke, chainmail was deeply ineffective at deflecting spears and arrows, as they could simply slide through the chain loops.

As a result, medieval armour smiths began in the 1300s to incorporate solid metal plates to deflect sword blows. This period of incorporation is described as the era of transitional armour, used to describe when the chainmail hauberk was gradually phased out by the far more resilient full plate armour, fashioned from iron or steel. A knight in the mid-14th century was, for all intents and purposes, a living tank, virtually impossible for an unskilled soldier to bring down in a straight-up confrontation. Knights were not only well-armed and armoured, but highly trained too. The response from the weaponsmiths was to devise a way to circumvent a knight’s heavy armour by aiming for weakspots. This led to the creation of swords designed to stab under plates, maces to dent the plates and lock them up, and — most crucially — the paradigm of killing a knight from a great distance.

The English longbow was not the first example of a weapon designed to pierce heavy armour, mechanical crossbows having existed and been fired in anger for some time before it. Arguably it was, however, the first such weapon that was both simple to manufacture and relatively easy for an archer to use — the longbow proved a decisive factor in the English victory over the French at Crecy during the Hundred Years’ War, with levied longbowmen routing a charge of fully-armoured knights. However, the effectiveness of the longbow in the later years of the war can be called into question. As the battles of Verneuil in 1424 and Patay in 1429 attested, they could be beaten by cavalry if they charged before the longbowmen could establish their defensive lines. So, in the final years of the Hundred Years’ War, Henry V of England used another implementation of the idea of killing knights from a distance — gunpowder. A hand cannon was not only relatively simple to operate, the cast-iron projectile that it fired could punch through virtually any kind of contemporary armour. Henry’s army also used larger cannons to great effect during his conquest of Normandy in the 1410s, as Clifford J. Rogers points out in The Military Revolutions of the Hundred Years’ War through his description of the siege of Harfleur in 1415.

Still, the “artillery revolution”, as Rogers dubbed it in the same piece (adding to the idea of a wider period “military revolution”, coined by Michael Roberts in the 1950s), did not truly take off until the 1420s and 30s, when the barrel length, powder strength and overall size of cannons increased. Cannons would eventually come to supplant the counterweight trebuchet and other mechanically-propelled siege devices. They varied in size and strength from the simple couleuvrines employed in battle first by the French to the massive fortress-busting bombards that the Ottoman Empire used to precipitate the fall of Constantinople in 1453. This event, and the fall of the Byzantine Empire that soon followed, has been suggested by such historians as Charles Foster to be the end of the Middle Ages — until this point in time, Constantinople’s legendary Theodosian fortifications had been the effective benchmark for defensive structures all across Christendom. At the very least, the ease with which the walls fell to cannon fire necessitated the construction of new, different types of fortifications, giving rise to shorter, stouter walls to deflect cannon fire.

The evolution of weapons throughout the millennium could be discussed ad nauseam, as could the myriad effects that it had on the conduct of warfare as their inception necessitated new tactics and strategies. At the very least, this lengthy arms race makes it evident that the development of armour and weapons of all kinds is a constant struggle between different methods of attack and defence. But it was the onset of the gun in particular that brought about a ground-breaking realisation. Before it, combat skill played a critical role in warfare, where the wealthiest men in the land could acquire the best weapons and the finest training. Now it was possible for even the lowliest levied peasant with a month of instruction at most in marksmanship to fight on equal terms with even a fully-armoured king with years of training behind him, a matter that became particularly evident when Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden was shot and killed in the Battle of Lutzen in 1632. It can be argued, therefore, that gunpowder essentially democratised warfare — which for the most part is true. This is evident through the advent of the standing army that came to replace the old feudal militaries composed of men at arms and their peasant levies, focusing on drill, discipline and the benefits of massed firepower over outdated tactics favouring the sword and shield.

While the establishment had utilised the lower throngs of society to conduct warfare before (see the aforementioned peasant levies), the early modern period made it more feasible to raise large numbers of common soldiers to train for battle. This in turn led to the rise of soldiery as a profession, particularly amongst smaller nation-states — such as the polities that controlled parts of what is now Germany and Italy. The nation of Brandenburg-Prussia (which would go on to form the core of the Kingdom of Prussia) in particular would become famous for its professional army and establishing a strong military tradition, as would the condottieri that the merchants in the wealthy Italian city states hired as foreign mercenaries to protect their interests. Although paid mercenaries were nothing new to the world, their flourishment in the late medieval and early-modern periods represented a profound change in the structure of armies. Kings and others of noble and/or royal birth were no longer the only ones who could create an entity able to project force of arms — theoretically, anyone who could amass sufficient capital could pose a real challenge to the kings of old on their own terms.

While it is evident that firearms and the doctrines revolving around them that followed served to democratise violence and ultimately revolutionised warfare as the world knew it, what can be quite easily called into question is the notion that firearms democratised society as a whole. It is true that a peasant or a trained mercenary could shoot a king dead with laughable ease should the perfect circumstances arise, but therein lies the issue. There is always the matter that, ultimately, a mercenary’s loyalty is to his payroll. The moment that money ceases flowing their way, they would simply cease fighting and lend their weapons to another king — perhaps even the enemy of their previous payer, as Florentine diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli warned in The Prince. And so long as rex est lex was in force — i.e. the king’s word was law — gun control was always possible, and especially if they were controlled shortly after their appearance on the battlefield. This became evident after the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and 89 brought about a Bill of Rights, where the new monarchy under William III and Mary II intended to guarantee Protestants the right to bear arms, but not Catholics or Jews.

As political journalist Priya Satia points out in an article for Business Insider, however, even this was insufficient for the establishment, particularly in the face of Jacobite rebels seeking to restore the recently-deposed Catholic monarchy of James II. These laws were inspired by similar legislation introduced shortly after the Restoration twenty years before — both disarmaments of the population sought to resolve political instability, from Puritans and Jacobites in chronological order, particularly after the Great Revolt under Wat Tyler 300 years prior, in 1381. Although the rebels were eventually defeated, they possessed deadly longbows, and were able to seize control of London temporarily. So while there may have been a period where society itself was democratised by advances in firearms technology, this was certainly no longer the case by the early modern era. It can therefore be argued with no small amount of truth that changes in military technology ultimately did nothing to alter power relations, at least in medieval English society. As we have already established, weapons development is a consistent struggle between devising attack and defence — and as gun control proves, the defence does not necessarily have to be physical.

Indeed, it can be — and has been, by the aforementioned Michael Roberts in The Military Revolution: 1550–60 — argued that, instead of undermining the power of the state, the introduction of gunpowder helped to reinforce it. Particularly, the refinement of firearms into more ergonomic and easily manufactured models, such as the Harquebus, led to the establishment of the first standing armies (whose nature I elaborated upon in the fourth paragraph of this treatise) in the great powers not long afterward. These armies, put to use by such leaders as Dutch stadtholder Maurice of Orange (1567–1625) and the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus, were drilled and observed new tactics and doctrines designed to maximise the effectiveness of the firearm, and thus became a great deal more expensive for the state to operate. In turn, it became necessary for the government to create new institutions and streamline existing ones to accommodate this new, devastatingly powerful fighting machine, leading to a more efficient system of governance. Hence, Roberts argues, “the modern art of war made possible — and necessary — the creation of the modern state”, altering power relations on a truly fundamental level.

At the same time, however, it is important to recognise that the existence, or at least the nature, of a so-called ‘military revolution’ is a topic of considerable debate among historians. The most particular criticisms of Roberts’ theory describe it as simplistic, misleading and arguably even exaggerated, these claims coming courtesy mainly of military historians Jeremy Black and Clifford Rogers, who I have already mentioned as having written a piece relating to the Military Revolution. Rogers argues that there is another, more profound change that the Military Revolution brought about. His claim is that the Revolution also altered medieval power relations between countries — that is to say, between larger states and smaller ones. The expense of an effective ‘siege train’ of cannons was one that the majority of minor powers simply could not meet, and this became particularly evident when the three great powers of Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and France began to meddle in the affairs of the Italian city-states from 1494, in what is known as the Italian Wars. Given that coordinating Spanish and Imperial pikemen and harquebusiers were able to essentially massacre French cavalry at the decisive Battle of Pavia (1525), it is possible to argue that the military revolution helped to cement the positions of both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire as major imperial powers, imposing their will upon those unable to modernise their own militaries. By citing the tactics and weapons utilised at Pavia by the Spanish and Imperial armies, in addition to the armies of Sweden and Holland and the end of cavalry dominance, Rogers expanded the concept of the Military Revolution by including an element, which he dubbed the “Infantry Revolution”. In that vein, it is necessary to discuss the idea of the “Artillery Revolution” that he also suggested in greater detail.

Here, we can also mention the fundamental changes in siege warfare to which Geoffrey Parker alluded in his book The Military Revolution, 1500–1800: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West. For most of the medieval era, arguably the strongest breed of defence was the fortified castle, where many a prominent noble presided over his domain — and this remained the case for a while after even the advent of gunpowder. With the Artillery Revolution, however, the future of the castle seemed to be in jeopardy: Parker cites events in the Spanish Reconquista where the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella, commanding a 180-gun siege train, brought down the Moorish castles in Granada within ten years, achieving what their forebears could not manage in hundreds of years. With further mention of French successes in Normandy, Aquitaine and Brittany involving artillery, even against adapted fortifications, Parker could claim with no small degree of truth that “the age of ‘vertical defence’ was now over”.

By invoking matters of defence into the present debate as well as Parker’s claim cited above, it can be asserted that the changes in military technology did little if anything to affect power relations at all. The main thrust for this argument comes from the pre-established axiom of a consistent struggle between offence and defence — specifically, the appearance of the Bastion Fort, also called the Star Fort or the Trace Italienne (because the first were constructed in Italy). The primary idea behind making medieval fortresses tall was to give garrisoned archers additional range to fire at enemies, as arrows flew in an arcing path towards their enemy. Gunpowder-propelled projectiles, however, emerge from the barrel at a much higher velocity than arrows, and so while they still arc under the force of gravity, they generally fly in a much straighter line than mechanically-propelled projectiles (i.e. arrows, bolts and the various objects thrown by counterweight trebuchets that dominated high medieval sieges). Not only did the advent of gunpowder render building tall mostly irrelevant as far as range is concerned, it also served to make the fortress more vulnerable to accurate cannon fire.

Thus, the innovation represented by the Bastion Fort is building more stout fortifications — shorter to reduce the effective range of enemy cannons, wider so that gunners on the ramparts could mass their fire in a similar manner to line tactics in the open field, and with much thicker stone walls to deflect cannon fire. As for how this relates to the argument posed at the exordium of this paragraph, it is important to consider Parker’s statement that “Wars became a series of protracted sieges”, and how it relates to the commonality of the siege in the period before the bastion forts appeared. It is true that gunpowder altered the conduct of the siege to begin with, blowing away the old castles with almost laughable ease, yet as always the defenders merely adapted to combat these new engines of war — just as they did when the fearsome counterweight trebuchet emerged as a powerful fortress-buster during the Crusades. So, rather than altering anything, the changes in military technology that gunpowder, infantry tactics and new ways of fortifying positions of importance can be interpreted as merely more of the same — the prime and possibly even only difference being that warfare was now about killing from a distance rather than up close and personal.

Henceforth it can be argued that there was no Military Revolution to change society at a fundamental level at all — at least not intentionally or consciously. Black propounds this idea in Was There a Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe?, an article in magazine History Today, suggesting that Roberts and Parker based the idea of a medieval/early modern military revolution on the concept of a “Revolution in Military Affairs”, applied to a kind of military theory in the United States’ armed forces at the time they wrote, while warning that “There is always a danger in tracing present concerns back into the past”, and that there was no conscious military revolution at all. Indeed, Black asserts that the changes in military affairs in the early modern period was influenced by the values of Classical exemplars and looking back to the ancient world, rather than an active search for military innovation, that essentially and arguably characterised the Renaissance as a whole. The influences of Antiquity upon early modern infantry tactics is particularly observable in pike formations, many of which are reminiscent of the phalanxes deployed by the ancient Greek and Macedonian hoplites — with a notable exception being the lack of large shields, which the armour penetration power of firearm had rendered all but redundant. The implication of Black’s argument is that the changes in military technology and tactics that have so far been discussed were merely one component of a much larger machine — the Renaissance, and the assortment of changes on not just a military level, but also sociological, political and religious.

From here there exists potential for an argument that the alteration of power relations observed in the late medieval and early modern period is derived less from changes in military technology than, perhaps, the decline of power in the Catholic Church that accompanied the Reformation. As religious conflict began to erupt between the Catholic old guard and established Protestant monarchies, made most apparent by the extremely vicious Thirty Years’ War from 1618 to 1648 across central Europe, it became necessary for the less powerful Protestant states to adapt to fight the more powerful Catholic empires. This meant adopting new technologies and methods to wage war, as did Gustavus Adolphus and Maurice of Orange during their fights against, respectively, the Holy Roman Empire and the Spanish, both of which were great imperial powers established many years before Sweden and Holland/Zeeland rose to prominence.

But this is not to say that changes in military technology did not affect power relations at all. So far in this treatise, what has been insinuated is that power relations were what precipitated changes in military technology, the vice versa of the given proposition — yet arguably without new types of weapons, the battlefield, and thereby the outcomes of wars and their myriad effects, could hardly have changed one bit. There are plenty of examples of this happening listed throughout the essay, so to avoid repeating myself I shall abstain from relisting them.

There is also the matter that, while nobles still retained command of armies as they did in medieval times, they no longer fought on the battlefield directly after the prevalence of gunpowder and line infantry tactics. Yet what must also be stated is that this reflected little change in societal power relations as a whole: highborn privilege continued even after the establishment of a professional officer corps to lead standing armies for long after the first gunshots were fired in battle. Even skill proved below nobility in deciding factors as to who attained command — as the famously incompetent Fitzroy Somerset, First Baron Raglan, demonstrated by the bucket-load throughout his command of British forces sent to fight in the Crimean War.

Ergo, I find it reasonable to conclude this essay in the following manner: while changes in military technology in the early modern period affected power relations between different countries and their militaries to an exceptional degree, revolutionising the manner in which wars were fought, these changes ultimately brought piecemeal alterations to power relations between social strata within nations at best.

Thank you all for reading, and I will see you all next week.

~ Harry

A Creative Writing and History graduate and amateur author with his head in the clouds.

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