In early modern Europe—that’s about 1500 to 1800—warfare changed dramatically, mostly due to the rise of gunpowder weapons. The introduction of artillery and shoulder arms to early modern European warfare had immediate consequences such as changing fortress design, necessitating the switch from cavalry to infantry, and the building of large standing armies. This all sounds very boring (well at least to me but I’m sure we have some military tech gurus out there who are salivating right now. ) What’s interesting to me, and hopefully to some of you, is the impact that these changes had on normal people’s lives. The military revolution changed every detail of military service, provided a profession for sons who were not their fathers’ heirs, sparked concerns over hygiene, fashion, taxation, necessitated the development of the modern nation-state as we know it and made Europe, a small insignificant region of the world, a hegemonic force for centuries to come. All this and more on today’s episode.
We invite you to listen to our podcast, read the transcript or watch the YouTube video below.

Part I:

Part II:

Part I:

Part II:

Depiction of an arquebus fired from a fork rest.Dictionnaire raisonné du mobilier français de l’époque carlovingienne à la Renaissance – illustration Tome 6 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Other Episodes of Interest:

Transcript of Military Revolution:

Written and researched by Marissa Rhodes, MLS, PhD Candidate

Produced and recorded by Marissa Rhodes, MLS, PhD Candidate and Elizabeth Garner Masarik, MA, PhD Candidate

Marissa: In early modern Europe—that’s about 1500 to 1800—warfare changed dramatically, mostly due to the rise of gunpowder weapons. The introduction of artillery and shoulder arms to early modern European warfare had immediate consequences such as changing fortress design, necessitating the switch from cavalry to infantry, and the building of large standing armies. This all sounds very boring (well at least to me but I’m sure we have some military tech gurus out there who are salivating right now. ) What’s interesting to me, and hopefully to some of you, is the impact that these changes had on normal people’s lives. The military revolution changed every detail of military service, provided a profession for sons who were not their fathers’ heirs, sparked concerns over hygiene, fashion, taxation, necessitated the development of the modern nation-state as we know it and made Europe, a small insignificant region of the world, a hegemonic force for centuries to come. All this and more on today’s episode.

I’m Marissa Rhodes.

I’m Elizabeth Garner Masarik.

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig: A History Podcast.

Make sure to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts.

Elizabeth: Just a quick note: This is NOT meant to be a comprehensive narrative of early modern military history or even of the military revolution itself. As  social and cultural historians we are required to go through pretty rigorous training and that includes military history BUT being the kind of historians we are, we tend to approach military history from a social and cultural angle so we’re sorry, but also not sorry. We hope you enjoy this episode as much as we do.

Marissa: So where does the story of the military revolution start? Where most good things start… in Renaissance Italy. In 1494, Charles VIII of France invaded Italy. France was a rising star on the international scene. So Charles’s army was outfitted with newfangled siege artillery. By siege artillery I mean giant cannons which, using gun powder, hurled large and heavy metal cannon balls into the sides of fortresses. In centuries past, the besieged suffered minimal damage, spending their time evading enemy arrows and preventing troops from scaling their walls.  

An image of a man kneeling at an altar

From the Book of Hours of Charles VIII | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: Charles and his men, with their giant guns, LEVELLED Naples in a day or two. Franceso Guicciardini wrote, “They “ [meaning the heavy artillery] “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.”

Marissa: As the news spread around the rest of Italy, and around Europe at large, militaries everywhere realized they needed to step up their game. The Italians were well-suited to this task. Fifteenth-century Italy benefited from the birth of many art and architecture prodigies at this time—think Da Vinci, Bramante, Brunelleschi, Michelangelo and so on. So it’s not surprising that they were the ones who discovered  that they could better protect themselves from the new artillery by changing the shape of their fortresses. They started building low, thick earthen walls surrounded by moats or ditches. They built angled bastions on the top of these thick walls—so basically big jutting rims around the top—which protected the inhabitants of the fort from climbing invaders, shot and cannon. And they started building polygonal buildings: to allow to maximum defensive potential while also allowing the besieged to use their own fire power wisely and effectively. This new way of building—called the Italian style—spread  to the rest of Europe quickly. These forts look like stars from the aerial view.

Elizabeth: As the 1500s wore on, fortress designs became increasingly elaborate and better engineered than anyone possibly could have imagined decades earlier. Yet still they were vulnerable. In 1519, Machiavelli wrote “No wall exists, however thick, that artillery cannot destroy in a few days.” Believing wholeheartedly that firepower was the future, architects focused on protecting fortresses from heavy artillery while AT THE SAME  TIME outfitting the castle with heavy artillery of its own. By 1544, the Nertherlands—an example all the way on the other side of Europe—had 15 strongholds built in the Italian style which housed over 1,000 pieces of heavy artillery. Sounds impenetrable by anyone’s standards, right? Think again. These improvements to fortress architecture were matched AND surpassed by improvements in weaponry and skill on the part of European armies.

Marissa: From 1500-1510, most European powers scrambled to acquire as much heavy artillery as possible. So as fortifications were redesigned and juiced up with their own impressive firepower, European monarchs were making parallel improvements to their armies. In centuries past, militaries had been little more than rag-tag militias and mercenary forces assembled by the monarch’s military advisers. They weren’t terribly good at “strategery” as George W would say, and they rarely mounted sustained efforts. And most importantly they weren’t very large. The Battle of Agincourt in 1415, is arguably the most famous battle of all time. It’s the stuff of legends. But the English only had 6,000 men fighting 12,000 Frenchmen. These are tiny numbers… for the MOST important battle of the Hundred Years War. That was a large-scale as wars WERE in Europe at that time.

Elizabeth: That 1494 French invasion of Italy that I mentioned earlier? Charles VIII had 18,000 men fighting for France. That’s the number of men on BOTH sides at Agincourt combined. But this was only the beginning. Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain commanded an army of 60,000 men in the 1490s. By the 1630s the armies of Europe’s leading powers numbered 150,000 strong. Louis XIV’s armies swelled to almost 400,000 men in 1696. These armies were an entirely different animal.

Richly dressed man and woman with a girl standing between them

Isabella and Ferdinand with their daughter, Joanna, c. 1482 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: Muskets and infantrymen (meaning soldiers on foot with shouldered firearms) had almost entirely replaced the bow and arrow and archers on the battlefield. Firearms required less skill than bows and arrow, opening up eligibility to any able-bodied man. (More on this later), Cavalry—the armored horses and horsemen that had composed most medieval militaries—were slowly replaced by infantry as well. Muskets tended to be about 5 feet long and they fired 12-bore shot. For those of us who are not gun enthusiasts, this shot was a musket ball that ranged from 1¾ mm to 3½ mm in diameter. The musket ball would have weighed about 1.3 ounces or 38 grams and was only accurate at a distance of 80 feet or so. They were 15 pounds, which got heavy quickly so troops found they had to prop the muskets on little gun rests most of the time. It took a minimum of 2 minutes to load the barrel and ignite the gun powder with a match.

Elizabeth: I can’t imagine it was easy to light a match in the outdoors, rain, wind, mud and chaos all around you. I could barely hold a match much less strike one and use it to light a fuse. So compared to today’s long-range rifles or powerful semi-automatics, these were very inaccurate, unwieldy, and pitifully weak instruments. But they were numerous- remember masses of infantrymen lined up in giant formations just hurling this 12-bore shot toward enemy lines. This was more of a bombardment-style weapon at the time. And remember, this was before the invention of antibiotics, and before the effect of hygiene on wound healing was understood. Even the smallest wound or injury could be deadly to a soldier.

Marissa: Over the course of the 1510s, armies also became increasingly proficient at using heavy artillery in a bombardment style, vollying cannon at timed intervals allowing for maximum destruction. Very quickly, muskets and artillery made medieval military formations obsolete. Medieval armies moved in squares, 50 men deep, armed with pikes. They clashed with enemy formations in hand to hand combat. Giant squares of 50 men by 50 men made an easy target for enemy artillery so over time, armies thinned out their lines. Formations became more tactical, more diverse, and more difficult to perform. Early modern armies began favoring mobility and flexibility over protection so armor- for both infantry and cavalry- became less and less popular. Can you imagine a heavily armored knight (picture jousting for example) functioning in a modern war environment? They’d be like overturned turtles in a rat race.

Elizabeth: In addition to the loss of armor in battle, these new tactics and formations required skill and practice on the part of infantrymen and commanders. A rag tag bunch of militiamen and battle-hardened mercenaries called up every few years for an important campaign were NOT going to cut it. Monarchs and their military heads began to realize that standing armies were necessary in the new environments in which their men were operating. Large standing armies allowed for one legion to be drilling and training in a safe space while others were on the battlefield. Standing armies were also more conducive to long-term military service. With forces convening and drilling at all times when they weren’t fighting or on leave, a second or third son could make a career out of soldiering. Medieval soldiers tended to have day jobs—blacksmiths, bakers, butchers, miners, etc—that they returned to after war-time. In the 1600s as standing armies became standard, Europe saw the rise of a professional soldering class. By the 1700s, the professional military man was an institution. Men served for their entire lives, like their fathers and grandfathers had.

Marissa: The Marquis de Lafayette, famous for aiding the patriots during the American Revolution, was one such soldier. He came from a long line of French commanders . He was an aristocrat, of course, I only mention him because he’s so incredibly famous, but plenty of average Joes built careers and status out of nothing through lifelong service in the military. This era saw the creation of the first military academies and a huge body of literature about the art of war.

Elizabeth: As armies became larger and more disciplined, muskets improved as well. Over the course of the 1600s, the barrels became shorter by about a foot and the matchlock (which is where the troop ignited the gunpowder with a match in years past) was replaced by a wheellock. These new fancy muskets lit gunpowder without a match, using the friction from a wheel with little spokes around the edges. When the wheel spun, it generated a spark and lit the gunpowder mechanically so infantrymen no longer had to do it by hand.

Marissa: Hand-held firepower became more elaborate and effective throughout the 1500s, with the arquebus, a large and powerful shoulder weapon that looks like an old-fashioned bazooka, and much later on.. circa 1700, the blunderbuss. If you watch Pawn stars, then you know exactly what those are.

Elizabeth: These changes happened unevenly, sometimes in quick spurts, and other times haltingly, over the course of the 15- and 1600s. But they had massive implications for European demographics. Medieval battles were short and decisive, done before huge casualties were incurred by either side. The military revolution changed this model. We can see this most easily with siege warfare. Sieges started taking longer, becoming more strategic, and resulting in huge losses of life—just giant, miserable stalemates. The religious wars following the Protestant Reformation tended to take this form—exceedingly bloody, and infuriatingly unproductive. So very little land changed hands, but tons of people were dying.

Marissa: The siege of Ostend is a good example.  (15 July 1601-22 September 1604)- referred to as the “New Troy”. The (Catholic) Spanish Netherlands were anxious to put down the Dutch Revolt, a protestant revolt against Spanish Hapsburg rule. Ostend was the last Protestant settlement in the Netherlands. Spain, bolstered by Austrian powers, laid siege to the Dutch-held garrison of Ostend. The Dutch flooded the surrounding land and were aided by the English. They received supplies and reinforcements despite Spanish efforts for THREE years. In the end, the losses were massive compared to previous battles…

Losses: Spanish, 60,000 dead; Anglo-Dutch, 30,000 dead.

That’s not even including the ill and injured. In previous centuries, entire armies tended to not even reach those kinds of numbers. And this was just the number who DIED. Why such massive casualties?

Elizabeth: The castle had just undergone an update— with new ramparts (which is any defensive wall or bulge protecting a city or fortress) and counterscarps (the outer wall of a ditch). Anglo-Dutch fortification and Spanish artillery were both SO effective that NEITHER side could make enough progress to declare a win. Constant combat, malnutrition, dehydration and infectious disease killed thousands of men per month at Ostend. As this protracted conflict carried on for almost 40 months, new troops from burgeoning standing armies were brought in to replenish their casualties. Since combat was no longer decisive, Ostend, and most other early modern conflicts, became wars of attrition. One side wore down the other slowly, methodically, and painstakingly until their enemy ran out of food, ammunition, or men. This became the only way to “win” a war, or a battle for that matter.

Marissa: These wars of attrition had incredibly complex logistics. Most rulers waging warfare in this period were forced to contend with them. (How do we clothe these massive armies? Provide them with rations? How do we move heavy artillery across forests and rivers? Where is a safe place to camp tens of thousands of men? How do we get them flints to make fires? How do we keep them clean, warm, dry and healthy and hydrated and informed?) So in short… things got complicated. These are things that rulers had never been required to address in the art of medieval warfare. According to Geoffrey Parker, in the early stages of the military revolution, troops suffered, armies failed and wars were lost because of logistical problems alone.

Elizabeth: Over time, European states seeking constant military success were forced to build complex state apparatuses that grew to be able to muster, feed, outfit, train, transport and arm their enormous militaries. So we may have the military revolution to thank for the origins of modern bureaucracy. Bt there is quite a controversy among historians over which of these came first– military transformations or bureaucratic growth? Geoffrey Parker argues that the military revolution forced changes in state organization through the messy process of solving logistical problems on the ground. So for him, the military revolution came first, and bureaucratic states followed it.

Jeremy Black argues that a developed state apparatus was a necessary precondition for military growth. This argument has some internal logic. Early modern armies consumed massive amounts of metal, which all needed to be mined and smelted. Troops needed to be recruited, outfitted, fed, housed, trained, and armed at mobilization. Ships needed to be commissioned, built and armed. These expenses were all required before war could be waged. It follows that a sophisticated state apparatus was required first to finance and organize this effort.

Marissa:  But this is too neat of an explanation! I side with Parker on this one. Logistical problems were NOT always solved before fighting, armies were NOT always paid, fed and outfitted, and wars were NOT always financed before they had actually begun. The reality on the ground was much less ideal. John Brewer offers a solution to this problem of which came first. He points out that growth was cumulative rather than wholesale and that even during peacetime, states were actively financing and building their military machines in anticipation of the next conflict. Military growth became a part of quotidian statecraft. In this way, warfare and the state worked to grow each other simultaneously.

Elizabeth: So let’s summarize really quick before we get into the rest of this episode. The military revolution happened over the course of 250 years or so (1500-1750). Firepower improved parallel to fortress architecture which resulted in protracted battles with massive casualties. The increased casualties, paired with the tactical drilling that became necessary as troops realized that their old formations made them easy targets for gunfire, ultimately required exponential growth in the size of armies. They were also forced to change how they were mustered and maintained. Monarchs could no longer make do with small militias and war-time mustering. Instead, most nation-states maintained standing armies and soldiers rotated in and out of combat. These armies boasted of tens of thousands and then sometimes the hundreds of thousands of troops. Wars became less decisive, more brutal and the only way to win them was to decimate the enemy with attrition. The logistical puzzles caused by war on such a large-scale forced nation-states to develop large bureaucracies that were charged with funding, organizing, and executing military expeditions.

Marissa: Maybe we should mention a few concrete examples so our listeners can get a sense of the context and scale of these wars:

  1. French Wars of Religion– many civil wars over the course of the 1560s through the 1590s (with estimated casualties at 2-4 million)
  2. Thirty Years War: 1618-16488 million dead
  3. And for our last example, the Seven Years War 1756-1763 (known as the French and Indian War to Americans). Total casualties number close to 1 million, 725,000 of those being from the French/Austrian side. An estimated 33,000 civilians were killed.

These numbers are so large that they start to almost mean nothing. It’s just so hard to imagine such massive loss of life. But for the rest of the episode, we’re going to discuss what the military revolution meant for ordinary folks who were living (and DYING) at the time. The strategic and logistical complexity of conducting war in this new context heightened the effect of war on society. Most early modern people encountered these changes in several ways. Here are just a few of them:

Elizabeth: Many innocent civilians were killed during this process (as we can see with the 33,000 civilian death toll for the Seven Years War). Ordinary folks (plebs) suffered death, destruction, and the strains of mass mobilization of up to a quarter of its male population. Many nation-states were unable to pay troops enough to keep them around (desertion rates were high) but most commanders sweetened the pot by allowing troops to loot and plunder households and businesses along their path.

Marissa: Small villages were also gutted by conscription, especially during times of famine. When people were starving, the military seemed like an attractive option. French commander Marshal Villars wrote:

“It might well be said that it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, for we could only find so many recruits because of the misery of the provinces… One could well say that the misfortune of the masses was the salvation of the kingdom.”

Elizabeth: Prussia, for example, had the 4th largest standing army in Europe but it was only the 13th largest state in terms of population. One quarter of all Prussian men were conscripted into the army for the Seven Years War alone and 14 out of every 15 of them died during the war. Compared that to WWII… where only 3% of the British male population was conscripted into its military at the beginning of the war and only 3% of those who served died. Those numbers are tiny in comparison to what Prussia suffered in the 1760s. So we’re talking disastrous levels of demographic change here.

Marissa: It’s much more meaningful to consider this massive loss of life in a more familiar context. Like with WWI: Young men and women from that era are called the “Lost Generation” because the war was so disruptive to their culture and their demographics that it left a gaping hole where their normal lives should have been. This same process occurred in the early modern world during periods of intense warfare. It’s probably good to mention that deaths weren’t the only destructive force. Though almost exclusively men served, women suffered immeasurably. They experiences the economic and emotional hardship of long absences (or deaths) of spouses, sons, other kin, and neighbors.

Elizabeth: Frontier towns and rural areas were particularly affected by this constant shifting of population during war-time. A study of 1500 troops recruited into the French army for the Thirty Years War tells us where  these army conscripts were coming from. 52% came from small towns (which contained less than 15% of France’s population) and the rest were peasants from small rural villages that dotted the French countryside. So the demographic stress of these large armies was not applied equally to all areas. Some parts of France supplied 12% of their total population for military duty, while more urban areas supplied less than 1%. All of that man-power that peasants were feeding to the nation’s army was displaced from their homes and fields. If you’re fighting in wars, you’re not ho-ing fields or harvesting wheat (or whatever) so the people left (women, children, the disabled, the elderly) have to shoulder the burden.

Marissa: Some women accompanied the troops in order to tend to the practical needs of their relatives since at this time the military tended not to nurse, cook or launder for troops. One Bavarian regiment in 1646 consisted of 480 infantrymen and 481 cavalry troopers– so that’s 961 fighting men. Their entourage included 416 women and children serving in various capacities (including prostitution), 310 servants, and 12 sutlers. Sutlers were civilian merchants who supplied victuals for the troops. This particular regiment also had 1,072 horses. All of these people and animals needed to be fed, housed, etc. And their lives were disrupted for the entire war. Some small villages were just totally gutted.

Elizabeth: Ordinary people living in continental Europe during the 16th-18th centuries were particularly impacted by wars of religion. The religious aspect of war cultivated providential ideologies that were held dear by citizens of European nation-states. Linda Colley, for example, argues that Britain’s military success against French Catholics inspired a sense that they were a divinely-favored Protestant nation, an ideology that served them well in colonial exploits.

The German wars of religion resulted in constantly shifting territories and state-sanctioned confessions throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Early modern Germans were legally subject to the religion of their rulers. Lutheranism and Catholicism were the only two viable options in the 16th century. Only after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 was Calvinism a legal confession. Of course, no one could alter someone’s interior spiritual world with the words of a treaty but daily life– much of which was shaped by religious sacraments– was transformed by constant changes in “legal” religion. Should I go to mass or not? Can I wear a crucifix or not? Is it illegal for me to read the Bible or is it encouraged by my religious leaders? Do I need to pay indulgences or do good works to get into Heaven or is my belief in the Trinity enough?

Marissa: It sounds exhausting, seriously. The legality of various denominations of Christianity was entirely dependent on the outcomes of religious wars being fought in the style we described in the first half of the episode. The French wars of religion in the 16th century resulted in the extermination and exile of many Huguenots, most of whom were middle-class tradesmen. In fact, the Netherlands and England benefitted from Huguenot exiles. Many Huguenots were skilled textile-producers. They brought their skills and experience with them, and are credit (by some historians like Jan de Vries) as being one of the reasons why the Industrial Revolution started in England and the Netherlands rather than anywhere else.

Painting of many people in a village being killed by soldiers with swords

Francois Dubois, The St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: The St. Batholomew’s Day Massacre in late August, 1572 is one example of this that most history nerds already know. Catholic French Princess Margaret of Valois was to be married to the Protestant Henry III of Navarre. In preparation for the nuptials, many of Henry’s Protestant relations came to Paris. So there was a little bit of an impromptu swell of Huguenots in the city. Parisians were generally staunch Catholics so there was some tense weirdness going on all around the city. At the same time, knowing many Huguenots were in town, Charles IX of France ordered that their top leaders be assassinated. But the targeted killings quickly snowballed into a massacre of anywhere from 5,000 to 30,000 Protestants (I know.. it’s quite a dramatic range) within the city limits. All over the course of a day or two. This is why it was so important to conform, or at least to appear to conform, to the legal religion in a particular area. It could be a matter of life or death. And legal religions were usually determined, at least on the continent, by religious wars and the loss and gain of territory over the course of months.

Marissa: Elites also felt these military changes acutely. One might even argue that the military revolution caused the fall of the aristocracy which culminated in the Republican revolutions in the late 18th century. Because of these changes to warfare, the medieval tripartite (meaning three-way) division of society into the estates of clergy, nobility and commoners became increasingly obsolete. The decline of cavalry (traditional elites because they owned horses and were fancy and stuff) and rise of infantry (traditionally commoners because they were just guys walking around) deprived elites of their traditional roles as noble knights or true noblesse d’épée. Skilled commoners were also able to make fortunes and names for themselves as professional military contractors. So the social hierarchy was falling apart. Don’t worry too much about the elites though. They were mostly resilient, filling the posts of military officers instead of those of valiant knights.  

Marissa: As we’ve already mentioned briefly, the military revolution resulted in the professionalization of military specialties. Siege engineering, for example, became a specialized area of study at Leiden University. Professional architects and engineers were employed to assist in the planning and execution of complex military manoeuvres. This was also the first time that nation-states agreed on laws of war.

One solution to the logistical problems that rulers faced at this time was relying on specialists. This offset some of the costs of raising and maintaining such massive military machines. Ferdinand II, for example, contracted out to the very successful Albrecht von Wallenstein in the initial phases of the Thirty Years War. It was Wallenstein and his professional troops who had figured out the volley firing technique and developed new formations for firepowered warfare.

Elizabeth: Salaried professional commanders and infantrymen were often brought in to pad the state’s massive army. Russia, in particular, recruited foreign mercenaries in large numbers. Between 1630 and 1634, Russia enlisted 17,400 foreign professional soldiers. This created a whole new subset of skilled workers for second-born sons and other itinerant men who struggled to land careers in their home towns.

Of course these social changes did not affect all nation-states at the same time and in the same way. In fact historian John Brewer argues that Britain didn’t really participate in the military revolution until much later than the continental powers. He argues that its 16th and 17th century involvement in continental wars was defensive and occasional. It wasn’t until 1688 when Britain really became a contender in continental warfare. This marks the beginning of the reign of William III, early modern Britain’s first continental-born king. In fact, 3 out of 5 of the British kings that followed (William III, George I and George II) were born on the continent and maintained active interests there.

Marissa: Britain is also a really good example of the bureaucratic growth that resulted from the state having to provide logistical support for these large armies and long wars. By 1688, Britain was becoming one of the wealthiest states in Britain due to its successful colonial enterprises and relatively effective tax structure. Britain’s military and political success rested largely on its growing ability to routinely raise revenue, develop a public deficit, and to administer to the growing logistical needs of military big-business.

Elizabeth: Who was paying these taxes? In Britain, where excise taxes (which are taxes on luxury goods) were common, it was most people. In France, where the taille ruled supreme, the majority of the tax burden fell on the peasants because most elites were exempt from taxation. So in some situations, rural villages were not only supplying most of the men for the nation’s wars, they were also financing these wars. For early modern peasants living at subsistence levels, many of them went hungry so that the state could wage war. Prussia was particularly horrible in this sense. About 90% of Frederick the Great’s income was spent on warfare. 90%… that’s incredible.

Marissa: The economic impact of large-scale warfare was felt not only by tax-payers and bureaucracies; it was felt keenly by monarchs as well. It was Charles I of England’s involvement in Anglo-French wars combined with wars with Scotland and Ireland that necessitated his calling of the Parliament that led to the English Civil War and to his execution in 1649. So he lost his head over this. The financial and political risks rulers were willing to endure for warfare tells us that violence was seen as a legitimate way to gain territory and resources.

Elizabeth: Europe’s successful subjugation of the Americas and Africa as evidence of not only its technological and tactical superiority but also of its brutal culture of violence. The goal of American and African combatants was generally enslavement of their enemies, to control men and labor. European powers’ understanding of warfare was qualitatively different, focusing on the extermination of enemy populations and the confiscation of land and resources. We haven’t touched much on naval power in this episode but John Brewer has this concept of a “Blue Water Policy,”  which was a policy of global imperialism in 18th-century Britain. It’s an example of how hunger for territory and resources was a deliberate goal for European powers in the 18th century, a completely legitimate way to improve your country.

Marissa: So this helps to explain colonial violence in some ways. It’s hard for modern people to understand how such despicable, violent acts as the wars of conquest in Africa and the Americas could ever be seen as an acceptable act of statecraft. But in a time when violence was revered, the results of violent conquests were understood to be divinely inspired. We shouldn’t overstate, though, the number of war deaths resulting from violence.

Many of the deaths we’ve cited today were caused by disease and hunger. The Great Northern War is a good example (1700-1721)- Out of the 200,000 Swedes killed during the war, only 25,000 of them were killed by combat, the remaining 175,000 were killed by famine and disease. One Frenchman wrote in 1623, “for every soldier who grows rich by war, you will find fifty who gain nothing but injuries and incurable diseases.” So this was not a glamorous life.

Elizabeth: Desertion and mutiny were common, sometimes resulting in the disintegration  of entire armies. One of the grievances cited by Spanish mutineers in the 1570s was that “Many soldiers have suffered and died in the war because there was nowhere for them to be cured when they fell sick. Most of them would have recovered had there been medical assistance and a hospital.” In response to these mutinies, the first military hospital was opened in Malines in Brabant by the duke of Alva. It opened in 1585 with a staff of 49. It held 330 sickbeds. It mostly treated troops with combat injuries,  malaria and syphilis but they also treated troops for psychological disorders resulting from battle trauma. So you can see here that some of the logistical problems of war and the suffering they caused were funneled into innovative improvements.

Elizabeth: But what about the term “revolution.” Geoffrey Parker has argued that a military revolution occurred between 1500 and 1800 in Europe. The term “revolution” seems problematic doesn’t it? What “revolution” lasts 300 years, right? I mean we can’t just call every change over time a revolution.

Marissa: Well, the pace of adoption and implementation of new military technology seems slow to us but the changes appeared rapid to people on the ground at the time. Think of how quickly new technology develops now, iPhones, smart watches, 3D printing, etc. It feels like technology has this centrifugal force, pulling us all forward in time. And it feels fast! But then think about how slowly your work computers are replaced with new ones, how half the people you work with still insist on doing everything on paper, or how long it’s taking for people to use the new version of Windows, or to phase out their tube TVs?  It takes a while for the logistics of life to catch up with rapid technological change. Transformation of the military in the 15- and 1600s was much the same.

Elizabeth: I want to point out about the “rise of the West” piece of this. A lot of military history revolves around how great the western world is because it took over half the damn world throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. There’s a lot of self-congratulations here. Some scholars argue that Europeans were just technologically superior and that’s why they conquered the new world and their colonial holdings in Africa and Asia. The argument that Europeans were so militarily successful because they had firepower simply doesn’t hold up.

Marissa: China, for example, made a conscious decision to not use artillery extensively because they found them to be too unreliable and difficult to load. They also had all of the naval, economic, and military capabilities that Europeans had at exactly the same time. But they decided NOT to launch an era of exploration and conquest. At least not in the 15th and 16th centuries like the Europeans did. This suggests that technological development was not the ONLY factor in military development and that culture played a part in the decision to embrace certain military technologies. Europe was steeped in a culture of violence that made firearms particularly attractive to them.

Elizabeth:  It is worth noting that some Europeans levied heavy criticism on the rise of firearms. Petrarch believed that guns were invented by the devil and Cervantes’s Don Quixote lamented the gunman’s lack of skill and honor. Some Europeans felt that firearms allowed unskilled cowards to kill the bravest and noblest of knights. But these criticisms had more to do with the social implications of firearms than with the legitimacy of violence in general. It’s just really fascinating to me that Europeans held violence in such high esteem, especially since they did it at the same time that they argued that they were more civilized than New World “savages.”

Thank you for listening.

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Further Reading:

Brewer, John. The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688-1783. 2014.

Black, Jeremy. War in European History, 1494-1660. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2006.

Parker, Geoffrey. The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Vries, Jan de. The Industrious Revolution Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present. Johanneshov: MTM, 2014.

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Death, Mud, and Guns: A history of the military revolution. Learn more now. #militaryhistory #history #revolution #medieval


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