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The Impact of Gunpowder on Medieval Warfare
David Wm. Trenholm December 4th, 2006 HIST 2723 X1 Dr. Gerry Gerrits
Trenholm 2 It is no mystery that the introduction of gunpowder to the medieval army changed warfare forever—indeed, the onset of the cannon and firearm revolutionized the way humankind warred. Gunpowder changed many facets of medieval warfare, and had forced military commanders of the day to reform their opinion on how a war should be fought.1 Military leaders that recognized the potential of the firearm were immensely successful, such as the French King Charles VIII, whose siege-weapons dominated all medieval fortifications that stood in his way. Machiavelli writes, on Charles’ campaign in Italy, that he had, “seized Italy with chalk in hand”2, a reference to one marking a target with chalk on a map3. Particularly successful against those who did not seize the advantages offered by gunpowder, firearm-equipped armies instilled a great fear into the medieval knight, bowman and lowly infantryman. The archaic stone fortifications of the dark ages could not stand against iron and brass cast artillery cannons; lowly peasants could gun down well-trained and disciplined knights of noble blood, and as a result the role of the mighty medieval horseman was forever changed. The psychological impact of the use of gunpowder alone was a mighty asset on the battlefield, making up for the logistical challenge in employing those firearms—inaccurate shooting, misfiring, and accidental explosions all plagued the medieval gunner. With any new technology, however, one must accept the faults that would undoubtedly be corrected in time. One thing is for certain, though: the impact of gunpowder on medieval warfare was profound, and its introduction was the first great step on the evolutionary path to modern warfare.
Michael Jones, eds. The New Cambridge Medieval History. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 11-12. 2 Bernard and Fawn M. Brodie, From Crossbow to H-Bomb. (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1973) 51. 3 Brodie, 51.
Trenholm 3 The initial impact of gunpowder in medieval warfare was the changes made to siegecraft. Before the age of cannons and bombards, medieval fortifications were so impregnable that the only strategy that guaranteed success was starvation, “By 1300 defense was so superior to offense that the only certain weapon in siegecraft was famine.”4 The offensive capabilities of the medieval army were outmatched by the mighty stone fortifications of keeps and castles. The development of the artillery cannon was dreadfully slow, and many countries were not so quick to adopt and put them to practical use. In the beginning they were small, ineffective and unpredictable. Early forms of firearms were more of a nuisance, and more effective at instilling a sense of terror than producing satisfactory results.5 These guns still saw military combat, however, and evidence shows that they were in use during the siege of Cividale in Italy, and were employed in the battle of Crécy by the English—early cannons were even mounted on wheels, offering early manoeuvrability during the Hussite Wars of 1419-1424.6 With the introduction of the bombard to the medieval battlefield, the vision of an impregnable medieval fortress quickly vanished. Although much larger fortresses and cities remained safe for a while, military commanders were forced to strategize differently should they wish to counteract this new threat.7 The true test of the bombard occurred during the siege of Constantinople in 1451, led by Mohammed II. Twelve bombards and fifty-six lesser cannons were used, including a behemoth of a bombard, the Basilica, “[It] was made of hooped iron and measured thirty-six inches at the bore; it was so heavy it required two hundred men and sixty oxen to move it. Its ball weighed 1,600 pounds and could travel
Bernard and Fawn M. Brodie, From Crossbow to H-Bomb. (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1973) 31. 5 Brodie, 43. 6 Brodie, 45. 7 Brodie, 45.
Trenholm 4 for more than a mile.”8 Dubbed a “super-bombard”, the Basilica was more apt at creating an awful din than tearing apart the fortifications of mighty Constantinople. The smaller bombards and cannons were more effective against the city, and a final assault and scaling of the battered walls by the Turks resulted in its capture and sacking.9 Even the Spanish campaigns of Granada were a huge success due to their extensive use of artillery.10 It was not until the fifteenth century, however, when artillery cannons achieved true manoeuvrability under the command of the French-King Charles VIII, astute military commander who proved his mettle in his 1494-1495 invasion of Italy.11 Employing horsedrawn carriages for his artillery guns, Charles VIII was able to, “keep up with infantry and to fire relatively rapidly”12. These new guns also used iron cannon balls, instead of old brass and lead shot. The brass and lead shot fired slowly, allowing defenders to repair damaged fortifications between volleys. With these new implements, even the mightiest of medieval fortresses were vulnerable to Charles’ onslaught.13 Defenders had to draft up new strategies to counter the growing threat of the bombard cannon, as the offensive capability of the medieval army had been finally met, and indeed, had surpassed its defensive counterpart. Siegecraft was not the only facet of medieval warfare effected, though. The introduction of smaller firearms and handguns changed the military role of many soldiers, namely the famed and feared mounted medieval knight. Before firearms graced the battlefields of Europe, the most coveted soldier on the field was the mounted horseman—the noble knight, armed head to foot with plate and
Brodie, 46. Bernard and Fawn M. Brodie, From Crossbow to H-Bomb. (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1973) 47. 10 Weston F. Cook, “The Cannon Conquest of Nasrid Spain and the End of Reconquista. The Journal of Military History 57, no. 1 (1993): 46. 11 Brodie, 51. 12 Brodie, 51. 13 Brodie, 51.
Trenholm 5 mail. Any successful Lord employed a host of knights to do battle with; they were the most prized and effective of soldiers, worth far more to generals and commanders than the despised infantry of the day.14 The infantry of an army would sooner be cut to pieces than spared—the knight, however, was often captured and ransomed.15 Although a growing respect and appreciation grew for a mixed and balanced army of infantry and cavalry, the supreme unit on the field was the mounted horseman. This was to change drastically with the introduction of gunpowder. Early versions of the handgun were ineffective, clumsy and hard to aim with. Like the early cannons, they were more psychologically effective. Only when the Spanish developed the matchlock was the handgun selectively adopted across Europe.16 Although still inaccurate and slow when compared to the bow, the “arquebus” was a frightening addition to the medieval army and far deadlier against the mounted knight.17 Gian Paolo Vitelli, an Italian military commander of the fifteen-century was, “… so incensed that lowborn arquebusiers had killed some of his nobles that he gave an order that all captured gunners should have their hands cut off and eyes plucked out.” A good combination of pikemen and arquebusiers or muskets could wreak havoc on cavalry, “Musket balls maimed and killed horses, penetrated the best armor, and often removed the advantage of shock traditionally enjoyed by mounted troops.”18 These simple firearms had changed the face of the battlefield, and the supremacy of the mounted knight had been grossly threatened. The use of firearms, namely handguns, was forcing the role of cavalry to change, and when
Bernard and Fawn M. Brodie, From Crossbow to H-Bomb. (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1973) 30. 15 Bernard, 30. 16 Bernard, 55. 17 Bernard, 56. 18 Christon I. A., John R. F., Holger H.H. and Timothy H.E.T., World History of Warfare. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002) 245.
Trenholm 6 the Germans invented the wheel lock mechanism in 151519, cavalry had regained some of its offensive power it had enjoyed in the past. Mounted horseman adopted the wheel lock pistol and began using a new strategy in warfare—something called the caracole, wherein cavalry in formation, during a charge, would fire and wheel about to the rear to reload.20 This offered a new kind of flexibility for the mounted soldier. The introduction of firearms into the medieval army proved to be a difficult adjustment for many, and some soldiers, such as cavalry, had to adjust their tactics if they wished to remain useful. In some respects this meant adopting the new technology to their own uses. Another fact of medieval warfare changed by gunpowder was the role of the infantry, and the inclusion of new soldiers, the independent and the mysterious gunner. As firearms swept into the military world of the middle ages, many clung tenaciously to the traditions and strategies of the past—the tried, tested and true bow, sword, lance and pike.21 Unlike artillery, the handgun was not adopted as quickly or as fervently, and it was not until the late fifteenth century, after many years of development and refinement, that satisfactory handguns were spotted on the battlefield.22 Gun manufacturers and the gunners themselves tended to be a secretive lot, and in many cases acted and served independently, providing their expertise and services to the highest bidder.23 Forming “tight-knit brotherhoods”, gunners protected their more specialized technology, and their formulas and recipes were a well-guarded and well-kept secret. Their guns were of such import that some gunners would tend to flee a battle should the
Bernard, 58. Christon I. A., John R. F., Holger H.H. and Timothy H.E.T., World History of Warfare. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002) 245. 21 Bernard and Fawn M. Brodie, From Crossbow to H-Bomb. (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1973) 41. 22 Bernard, 54. 23 Christon I. A., 226.
Trenholm 7 tide be swept in an unfavourable direction; in response, many armies posted a small group of men-at-arms to ensure their gunners maintained their fidelity.24 Earlier arquebuses were difficult and encumbering to use, though—the arquebusier carried an incredible array of equipment, and the reloading and firing process was complicated and messy, Powder was measured and poured down the muzzle; next the lead ball was dropped in which a wad of rag on top. Then the priming pan was uncovered and fine-grained priming powder poured in and the cover closed. The match was adjusted in the serpentine, the pan cover was opened, and the trigger squeezed. Sometimes nothing came of it but the “flash in the pan.” The gun had to be cleaned between shots, and was obviously useless in wet weather.25 In addition to his weapons, the arquebusier carried, “a big flask of regular gunpowder, a smaller one of priming powder, a ramrod, scrapers, bullet extractors, cleaning rags, bullet lead and a brass mold for casting it, and flint and steel for relighting matches.”26 The arquebusier often had the assistance of a helper who carried some of the equipment and saw to a small fire.27 The strategic advantage to a well-organized and disciplined line of arquebusiers could easily make up for the complicated and at times, faulty firing process. Instilling fear into the enemy and, when the aim was true, dealing fatal blows to a line of charging knights resulted in gunners becoming a popular soldier to employ in the medieval army. In comparison to the bowman of the day, arquebusiers tended to be less costly to supply and more dependable—after extended campaigns and hard living, bowmen tended to lose their physical strength which negatively impacted their
Christon I. A., 226. Bernard and Fawn M. Brodie, From Crossbow to H-Bomb. (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1973) 55. 26 Bernard, 55. 27 Bernard, 55.
Trenholm 8 shooting, while arquebusiers, despite any kind of wounds or suffering, were still able to fire their weapons and deal consistent damage.28 Gunpowder and bullets were supplied, “much more easily than well-crafted arrows suitable for military uses”.29 The role of the gunner on the battlefield was in its infancy, and only over the course of several hundred years were the strategies and technologies refined to more of an art. Still, the introduction of the firearm into medieval combat was a shock, and it forced the hand of every country to adapt to this new breed of weapon. The terrible and mortifying din of a bombard cannon, mixed with a cloud of gun smoke from a well-trained line of arquebusiers was the way of the future for medieval warfare. These new weapons stormed Europe over the course of a few centuries, and those who did not adopt such weapons could expect to be conquered by those with more ambition and initiative. The once proud and successful mounted knights, armed in plate and mail, proved to have met their first true match with the introduction of firearms onto the battlefield. The production of large artillery cannons changed the art of siegecraft, transforming the once impregnable and imposing fortresses and isolated castles of the medieval world into vulnerable, sitting targets to be pounded mercilessly from afar. The balance of power had shifted; no longer did the defensive capabilities of war outmatch its offensive counterpart. Siege by famine was to be replaced with artillery bombardment, and with refinements to the technology, such tactics would prove to be incredibly successful in conquering even the most fortified of
Christon I. A., John R. F., Holger H.H. and Timothy H.E.T., World History of Warfare. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002) 234. 29 Christon I. A., 234.
Trenholm 9 medieval strongholds. The imposing and immortal mounted medieval knights now had something to fear—the iron and lead shot of an arquebusier, something far deadlier than a crossbow bolt or well-crafted arrowhead. Artillery cannons and handguns were not without fault, however. Clumsy and complicated reloading, cleaning and firing of the early arquebus meant the longbowman and crossbowman were still in wide use, albeit less frightening and less deadly than a volley of lead. Even after the introduction of the first effective bombards, the French-made trebuchet was still in use for over two hundred years—it was easy and cheap to manufacture, and far more mobile than the earlier bronze and iron cannons.30 Regardless, the impact of gunpowder on medieval warfare was quite profound, and although its acceptance was relatively slow, the advantages it offered could not be long ignored. The manner in which European armies made war had been changed forever, and the utility of the firearm was about to begin a long evolutionary process that would result with many different types of weapons. The firearm, simply put, was here to stay.
Bernard and Fawn M. Brodie, From Crossbow to H-Bomb. (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1973) 48.
Archer I., Christon; Ferris R., John; Herwig H., Holger; Travers H.E., Timothy. World History of Warfare. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. Brodie, Bernard and Fawn M. From Crossbow to H-Bomb. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1973. Cook F., Weston. “The Cannon Conquest of Nasrid Spain and the End of Reconquista. The Journal of Military History 57, no. 1 (1993): 43-70. Jones, Michael., eds. The New Cambridge Medieval History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
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