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A Study of Warfare in Europe Between 1300 and 1500 Essay

Since the introduction of gunpowder into Europe, it has gone on to dominate warfare into the twentieth century. With the development of the first European guns in the fourteenth century, armies were given use of a weapon which was to radically alter most of the ways of making war which had been established during the Middle Ages, and changes began to be seen within only a few years. It is, however, questionable whether the nature of these early changes constituted a revolution in the methods of war, and even more so whether guns had by 1500 made a great deal of impact on the character of war as it had existed in 1300. In assessing whether a revolution had taken place (or at least whether one was in the process of happening) by 1500, it is necessary to examine three areas: the effectiveness of guns during the period; the extent of their use in conflicts; and finally the changes which resulted from the employment of the new weapons in war.

The first reliable sources which assert the existence of guns appeared in the 1320s, and from the late 1330s the number of references to them rose dramatically. The early guns were of large calibre and used almost exclusively for sieges, although as early as Crécy in 1346, the English “fired off some cannons which they had brought to the battle to frighten the Genoese.” Guns were made in one of two ways. Firstly, there were cast metal guns, usually of bronze, which were made at the foundry. These were usually the better weapons because they were made of a single piece of metal and therefore were less likely to burst apart on firing. The second method was arranging wrought iron strips into tubes which were then bound together with iron hoops in much the same way as barrels were made. The advantage of these guns was that iron was a much cheaper metal than bronze (but could not be cast), but being made of many pieces faults were more likely to develop, causing either the release of explosive pressure through the sides of the barrel and therefore a reduction in the power of the shot, or even the complete bursting of the gun.

This structural weakness was compounded by the inclusion of a detachable breech (such guns were far easier to build) which often detached itself on the discharging of the weapon. Despite their lack of quality, however, iron guns were the more numerous due to their comparative cheapness, although smaller guns tended to be made chiefly from bronze both because of the difficulties of constructing small guns from iron strips, and because they required less metal than the great bombards. The sizes and types multiplied from their modest beginnings until there were guns ranging in size and type from great bombards used for reducing entire cities, to handguns used as anti-personnel weapons.

The early role played by artillery was in sieges, where its effectiveness was soon widely appreciated. “Broadly speaking, the use of guns meant that sieges could be brought to a conclusion much more quickly.” Cannons, with the ability to throw stones with great force over a flatter trajectory and with more accuracy than the old siege engines, could bring an end to a siege in a few weeks where previously it might have taken several months. In 1437, the castle of Castelnau-de-Cernès was “broken down during the said siege by cannon and engines, and a great part of the walls of the same thrown to the ground, so that it was in no way defensible against the king’s enemies.”

On occasion, the mere presence of bombards could be enough to induce swift surrender, cities preferring capitulation to large-scale destruction by cannon fire. As artillery was added to armies in increasing amounts during the 1400s, wars became far more fast-moving affairs. The French employed artillery on a large scale in reducing the English fortresses in Normandy and Gascony, while huge, cumbersome bombards were used to good effect by the Spanish in the Reconquista. Such was the effectiveness of artillery by 1500 that Machiavelli could declare that “No wall exists, however thick, that artillery cannot destroy in a few days.”

The successes which the early guns had in siege warfare led to the bombard being a vital part of any country’s armoury. The use of the counterweight trébuchet, which had been in existence in Roman times, failed to decline until the 1380s and was still listed as an active weapon in some French arms inventories until the 1460s. This shows the gradual nature of the introduction of gunpowder artillery (perhaps caused by shortages of materials for the cannons or unwillingness to invest in them when a prince already owned trébuchets), but there was little doubt that guns were becoming by far the better siege weapons. Their importance gave rise to a kind of ‘arms race’ in France in particular, with cities in the contested areas of the Hundred Years War assigning the acquisition of guns a high priority.

Charles the Bold’s army included a substantial artillery element in his war with the Swiss (although he was perhaps not a good enough general to make effective use of it), while in 1494, Charles VIII invaded Italy with “…an army of 18,000 men and a horse-drawn siege-train of at least forty guns. Even contemporaries realised that this marked a new departure in warfare: in 1498 the Venetian Senate declared that ‘the wars of the present time are influenced more by the force of bombards and artillery than by men at arms’.”

Despite their undoubted worth, however, artillery did have a number of disadvantages at this time. Perhaps the main one of these is the chronic difficulty of moving the heavy guns, especially over land. Philip the Good of Burgundy experienced such problems in his war with Ghent in 1452-3: “Such was the weight of a great bombard which he borrowed from the town of Mons that all the bridges between Mons and Lille had to be strengthened with iron supports for its passage. During the journey, the gun fell into a ditch, and took two days to be extricated by men using lifting equipment specially constructed for the purpose.” Transport was easier by river, but clearly this limited the movement of the artillery.

It is partly because of these transport problems that artillery (with the exception of handguns) was used little during open field battles. Particularly when manoeuvring was of critical importance to an army, the last thing a commander would want would be to have to wait for the artillery, which would be slower than the rest of his force, and be unlikely to be able to move away from roads. Due to a lack of enthusiasm for such a cumbersome battlefield weapon, field artillery developed little in the early days of gunpowder, and the large cannons which were used on battlefields tended to be immobile siege guns which had been hastily adapted.

Not only did the lack of mobility of cannons cause problems for armies on the march, but it also restricted their usefulness on the battlefield itself. The absence of effective gun carriages meant that artillery tended to be fixed rather than able to be aimed, the guns being mounted on wooden frames or simply positioned on mounds of earth. Their slow rate of fire (not only because of the time taken to load them, but because it took time for the guns to cool down between shots) and their limited range at this time was another weakness, which led to them being easily overrun. Soldiers could wait at the limit of the guns’ range until the first salvo had been fired, then charge, reaching them well before the next shots could be fired, and disable the guns. The weaknesses of artillery on the battlefield were such that, “Even during the second half of the fifteenth century cannons were only used occasionally in pitched battles.”

Handguns were of more use on the battlefield, having none of the transport problems of the heavy artillery and having a great deal in common with the crossbow, a weapon of proven worth. Like the crossbow, the handgun was a specialised anti-personnel weapon, and was ideal for firing at large exposed masses of soldiers where it could inflict considerable damage. The advantages which handguns had over crossbows was their superior hitting power, (of which Pope Pius II remarked, “No armour can withstand the blow of this torment, and even oaks are penetrated by it,”) and their relative cheapness due to the simplicity of their construction. As their accuracy improved and the numbers of trained marksmen increased, they came to supersede the crossbows in European armies, but by 1500 this process was by no means complete, the two weapons frequently working side-by-side in battles. While the slow rate of fire of handguns meant they could not stand independently in battle and needed the support of troops armed with close-combat weapons, they became an accepted auxiliary weapon in many armies.

Despite the increased use of gunpowder weapons in battle, they were by no means always successful. Superiority in artillery was no guarantee of victory, as Charles the Bold discovered at Grandson and Morat in 1476. At Agincourt, the French gunners were pushed to one side by their own men at arms and played no significant role in the course of the battle. There are, however, examples of the successes of guns in battle, hinting at the success they were to achieve in the future. The Battle of Castillon in 1453 showed the devastating effects of crossfire: “Talbot imprudently attacked the [French] camp which led to the intervention of the French battery commanded by Giraud de Samian, a highly respected cannoneer. ‘He grievously injured them because with each shot five or six fell dead to the ground’.”

With the increased use of guns, deaths and injuries caused by them came to be recorded in greater number: “In 1442, John Payntour, an English esquire, was killed by a culverin shot at La Réole. Four years previously, Don Pedro, brother of the king of Castile, had been decapitated by a gunshot during the siege of the castle of Capuana at Naples…In April 1422, one Michael Bouyer, esquire, was languishing in prison at Meaux, ‘gravely ill and mutilated in one of his legs by a cannon shot, in such a way that he cannot aid himself’…It was becoming obvious that the gun could not only batter down fortifications, but could kill, and kill selectively from afar.”

It is clear that by 1500, guns had come to be an everyday part of European armies. While the use of firearms on the battlefield tended to be limited to handguns, these were gradually replacing the older bows as the main auxiliary shot weapon. Cannons had made a huge impact on the conduct of siege warfare, bringing sieges to an end comparatively swiftly, and becoming indispensable in great armies. Although there were bound to be initial troubles with what was after all a relatively new weapon, notable successes were being recorded, especially in sieges, and the gun was definitely here to stay. To constitute a revolution, though, the growing use of such weapons would have to have changed not only the methods of making war, but also the outcome and the character of conflicts. What, then, were the consequences of the increased use of gunpowder?

One of the largest series of changes happened in the area where the new guns were at their most effective, that of siege warfare. The advantages which a defending army could gain by hiding within fortifications had been understood for a long time. During the ‘High Middle Ages’, the war zones of Western Europe had become studded with castles and forts, and wars came to be characterised not by swift manoeuvre and open field battles, but more through long, drawn-out sieges. The failure of an attacking army to take a castle was likely to cause it a great deal of problems.

If bypassed by an army, a defending garrison could retake control of the surrounding countryside from its secure central base and conduct raids on the enemy’s army and supplies (especially as fortifications tended to be located at communications centres). Failure to take a large number of castles could result in their garrisons uniting to form an army capable of defeating the enemy force in the open field. In short, territory could not be conquered without gaining control of the fortifications within it.

The effect of the introduction of effective siege guns with the capability of breaching the walls of castles was to bring the advantage in siege warfare away from defence and more towards the attacking force. With guns able to bring about the capitulation of fortresses within a few weeks or even a few days, there was a diminishing prospect of the defending country being able to organise an army in time to relieve the besieged. It would seem that the introduction of cannons had, for a time at least, called into question the efficacy of defence by small, dispersed garrisons defending fortifications. Had the use of siege guns not produced a defensive reaction, it seems possible that the castle could have been made redundant and defensive armies driven to do battle in the open field on equal terms with their adversaries.

Attacking innovation, however, did produce defensive reaction, which in turn provoked counter-reaction from besiegers, and this greatly altered the nature of siege warfare during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Guns, of course, were not exclusively weapons of attack. Defensive firearms were an early experiment which had some effect in maintaining some sort of defensability of fortifications in two ways. Firstly, by firing at the besieging army from the castle walls, defensive marksmen and cannoneers could take advantage of the short range of early guns by making it very hard to position bombards close enough to the walls to cause damage.

By refusing to give the besieging army the freedom to position guns wherever they liked, the defenders could in this way keep the enemy at ‘arms length’. The second way in which guns could be used to defend fortifications was not to defend the walls from destruction by cannon fire, but to provide crossfire against enemy troops when the time came for them to attempt to storm the castle, a function which crossbows were able to perform, but were of inferior effectiveness and more expensive than handguns.

This use of defensive firearms caused changes in the way in which attackers approached sieges. Guns being fired into the besiegers’ camp necessitated the greater use of cover, in particular for the bombards which were placed nearest to the castle walls for much of the siege. To this end, trenches were dug and wooden shields or hoardings were constructed to protect the soldiers and their guns. Trenches provided some degree of effective protection against most weapons, while the hoardings gave protection to the guns, which usually had to be positioned in more exposed locations in order that they could target the walls before them, against everything but powerful firearms.

“Jean de Bueil could advocate the siting of a besieger’s camp before a beleaguered fortress on the model of the fortified entrenchments dug at Mauléon, Guissen, Cherbourg, Dax, and Castillon fifteen years before. Trenches, he wrote, were to be dug from one part of the siege to another, covered by hoardings. Ease of contact and movement between the units of the encircling forces could thus be ensured.” Further success could be gained by the besieging forces by employing not only large bombards to break down the walls, but also smaller guns to pick off individual defending troops. This would not only prevent defensive gunners from having the luxury of completely free shots at their enemies, but would limit the effectiveness of attempts to repair breaches in the walls.

The use of guns in both attack and defence produced perhaps the biggest changes in siege warfare in the form of changes to the fortifications themselves. The castles which existed before the widespread use of cannons were ill-suited to withstand the accurate and powerful impact of cannonballs. Trebuchéts had been of more use in lobbing stones over the walls to cause damage inside castles than in actually causing breaches, and so the walls were built tall and flat so as to be better able to resist being scaled by soldiers. Such walls provided a large target for cannon fire, and their flatness meant that the full force of the shot was directed straight into them.

Rather than rebuild entire castles, lords were often forced through reasons of cost to opt for the next-best solution of adaptation. Scarping the walls with banks of earth or masonry was tried in an attempt both to thicken the walls, and to turn the blows of cannons into more glancing shots, with the added bonus that sloping walls meant that siege ladders became ineffective. While it was a sound theory to avoid square-on impacts from cannonballs, scarping was of limited value, and where this was an adaptation to an older castle, in many cases it weakened the walls by placing extra weight on them.

Gunports were a further adaptation to fortifications which occurred as a result of the introduction of guns. These were holes put in the walls of the castles, often where arrow slits had been, to allow small guns to be fired from a position of relative safety. They were frequently positioned in the towers or gatehouses of castles to provide flanking fire along the walls where it was anticipated any attacking soldiers would have to stop before being able to push on into the castle. This modification was quite cheap and easy to put in place, and was used across Europe.

One method of improving the efficacy of defensive fire both against attacking troops and forces sitting back and besieging was the greater use of defensive outworks built of earth or masonry. Not only could this ‘forward defensive’ strategy force enemy guns further back from the castle proper, but it also provided a further opportunity to enfilade soldiers as they advanced. Boulevards or artillery towers could be built in ditches forward of the walls with a clear line of fire along the trench. As the enemy soldiers advanced, they would have to spend time negotiating the ditch during which the fire from the outworks could take its toll. “At Dax, Guissen and Cadillac, in 1449 and 1451, the French encountered heavy resistance from such outer works constructed by the defenders.”

The ultimate defence against besiegers armed with guns, though, was the fortification based on the angled bastion. It was this defence which was coming increasingly into use by 1500 which decisively swung the balance of power back in favour of the defenders. The bastion was essentially a gun platform for siting heavy guns which needed the freedom to be turned and fired against the enemy camp wherever it was in relation to the castle, a freedom which could not be obtained firing through gunports. These towers were thrust forward of the walls to keep the enemy back and were built the same height as the rest of the castle (unlike traditional towers), perhaps to facilitate the movement of guns around the walls, or perhaps because of
the high cost of taller towers.

The entire structure was squat, making it a smaller target and allowing the guns at the top of the walls to maintain fire at targets close to the foot of the fortification, and scarped to produce more glancing blows from cannonballs. This last objective was also achieved by projecting the bastions at a different angle to the rest of the wall, so that in effect only the wall would receive square-on blows. It could be said that round castles and round towers would present no flat surfaces to be hit squarely, but to build such fortifications would make flanking fire along the walls at best difficult. Round bastions were built, but left dead ground where guns could not reach, while entire castles built on a circular model would need many projecting towers to provide fire along the walls. With the angled bastion, fire could be given along the entire base of the tower from guns positioned in the walls, while fire along the walls could be provided from gunports in alcoves in the bastion.

It seemed for a while that the destructive power of cannons would lead to a decisive shift towards the attackers in siege warfare which would perhaps bring an end to the dominant role of fortifications in warfare. However, defensive tactics adapted to the situation in a number of ways, ensuring the survival of the castle and the siege. It can be said, though, that although the nature of warfare overall was not changed, the nature of sieges changed significantly as a result of the use by both attackers and defenders of gunpowder weapons, and because a new type of castle had been born. If guns provided a temporary revolution in the balance of sieges, then the bastion was equally as revolutionary in restoring the old balance. “By resisting the new artillery and providing platforms for heavy guns [the bastion] revolutionised the defensive-offensive pattern of warfare.”

While cannons produced many changes in the conduct of sieges, changes of similar magnitude cannot be seen in open field warfare. Cannons, lacking effective carriages to allow them to keep pace with their armies and to manoeuvre on the battlefield, were little used until the late fifteenth century. Handguns, despite coming to be as accepted a weapon as the crossbow, failed to produce any noteworthy changes. Possessing greater hitting power than the crossbow, but similar weaknesses, including slow rate of fire, they were unable to establish themselves as anything more than an auxiliary weapon. While the Swiss were to use handguns in their successful pike square formations, their role could be (and often was) performed equally well by crossbowmen, and European armies continued to be based on knightly cavalry and close-combat infantry. The handgun of the fifteenth century was simply another auxiliary shot weapon, and, “The arquebus, or match-lock musket, did not finally oust the crossbow from French armies until 1567.”

Nonetheless, the importance of guns increased during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries until they became an essential part of major wars. One of the results of this was to make war a much more large-scale thing in terms of money, and to put serious warfare (involving conquest and therefore sieges) out of reach of the pockets of anybody but princes. Artillery was very expensive. “It was one thing, in accordance with ancient ways, to expect a man at arms to come to the host equipped with his own horses and armour, but no one, in the new conditions of war, expected a master of artillery to provide his own cannon.” On a national level, the introduction of guns further widened the gap in military potential between rich and poor countries, underlining the superiority of countries like France over countries like the Italian states.

It can be asked to what extent gunpowder weapons revolutionised notions of chivalry and whether the attitudes of people altered as a result of their experiences of the new guns. There is a good deal of late mediaeval literature which shows that many people despised them. They were an indiscriminate weapon which had no respect for social status, meaning that princes could now be killed from afar by peasants and artisans. This went against the traditional chivalric notion of individual combat among equals. Guns were also seen as cowardly, because of the belief that the gunner, hiding behind the smoke from his gun, did not put himself in mortal danger by firing, yet could still take the lives of others. Many saw guns as being instruments of the devil, with the noise and fire created being seen as having come from Hell itself.

A popular attitude during the early days of guns in Europe is shown by Cervantes when he wrote, blessed be those happy ages that were strangers to the dreadful fury of these devilish instruments of artillery, whose inventor I am satisfied is now in Hell, receiving the reward of his cursed invention, which is cause that very often a cowardly base hand takes away the life of the bravest gentleman; and that in the midst of that vigour and resolution which animates and inflames the bold, a chance bullet (shot perhaps by one who fled, and was frightened by the very flash the mischievous piece gave, when it went off) coming nobody knows how, or from where, in a moment puts a period to the brave designs and the life of one that deserved to have survived many years…

It is unlikely, however, that this attitude was held by the majority of people at the time. Shot weapons were nothing new, and had been in existence and used on a large scale for many years. There was little difference between a knight being killed by an arquebus or by a longbow. The large-scale use of guns by most European armies demonstrates that while there might have been some degree of chauvinism against firearms, princes were still quite prepared to use them, and indeed the church positively encouraged their use at a time when the Turkish threat to Christendom was increasing. There is little evidence that captured gunners were treated any differently to any other captured commoners (and by 1500 it was by no means guaranteed that gunners would not in fact be noble), and overall, society had little difficulty in accepting the place of artillery in modern warfare.

Guns were ‘domesticated’ and given names, taking on characters of their own, and, “By the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the early modern era, gunpowder weaponry had simply become a feature of everyday life. Guns had become so conventional that they began to be used in celebrations, in fashion, and in crime. Ultimately, guns even became virility symbols.” This growing acceptance represents in part a change in attitudes brought about by the realisation that guns were of considerable use, but mainly it is a result of the rather superficial nature of chivalry at that time. There was a tendency for people only to behave according to the rules of chivalry when either it suited them to or when they could afford to. Princes, when faced with an adversary armed with artillery could not afford to confine themselves to criticising such ‘bad sportsmanship’ but had to respond in kind, an option which they were more than willing to take.

In assessing whether gunpowder’s introduction caused revolutionary changes in Europe before 1500, it is necessary not only to examine the specific changes which arose, but moreover to assess whether warfare in 1300 had significantly changed in character by 1500 as a result of the use of guns. The answer to this has to be a definite no. The armies of 1500 made extensive use of guns, but these had not revolutionised the makeup of armed forces. The dominance of cavalry had persisted throughout the two centuries, and its only serious challenge had come in the late fifteenth century with the pike square, which by no means relied on guns. While the use of cannons had transformed the methods used in conducting sieges, only temporarily had there been the prospect of altering the nature of war away from the innumerable fortress battles which characterised the period. Gunpowder weapons had failed to bring an end to the siege as an important aspect of war, and could only act as a supplementary weapon on the battlefield. Overall, despite the numerous changes which the increasing use of guns had caused, it is possible to agree with J. R. Hale’s assertion: “Gunpowder, in short, revolutionised the conduct but not the outcome of wars.”

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