The Military Revolution from a Medieval Perspective

medieval military revolutionThe Military Revolution from a Medieval Perspective

By Andrew Ayton and J.L. Price

The Medieval Military Revolution: State, Society and Military Change in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, edited by Andrew Ayton and J.L. Price (IB Tauris, 1998)

Introduction: Although there is continuing disagreement concerning the essential nature of the military revolution; and also with regard to its timing, there is nevertheless general agreement that it occurred in the early modern period of European history. Both the general history of warfare in European society during these centuries, and more specifically the military revolution itself; have been well covered by recent publications. Only a brief historiographical sketch of the early modern period needs to be given here, therefore, and the greater part of this introduction will consider to what extent viewing the military revolution from a medieval perspective suggests a reinterpretation of both its nature and, consequently, its timing.


The idea of a military revolution was introduced by Michael Roberts, who argued that the tactical reforms pioneered by the Dutch army at the end of the sixteenth century and perfected by the Swedish army under Gustavus Adolphus, together with the accompanying rise in the size and cost of these new armies, constituted a radical break with the immediate past. Subsequently, the concept of such a revolution has been very generally accepted by historians of the period, but only with considerable disagreement over both its content and its timing. Geoffrey Parker criticized Roberts for overlooking the developments, especially in the Spanish armed forces, of the earlier years of the sixteenth century, and it has since become conventional to stretch out the military revolution to cover the period from the beginning of the sixteenth century to the middle of the seventeenth, although Jeremy Black has recently suggested that more importance should be given to the century after 1660. Similarly, with regard to the nature of the revolution, the emphasis has moved from the rather specific changes in tactics and organization highlighted by Roberts to a range of broader, perhaps less well-defined, but certainly more far-reaching developments which took place in the course of the early modern period.

Three elements have been regarded as constituting the essence of the military revolution, but there is as yet no consensus as to their relative importance. Firstly, there is the supplanting of heavily armoured cavalry by infantry as the most effective component of armies in battle, first in the form of English longbowmen and dismounted men-at-arms and of Swiss pikemen, then by varying combinations of pike and shot throughout western and central Europe. Associated with this development was the introduction of gunpowder weapons, which in the form of artillery rapidly – though perhaps only briefly – transformed siege warfare, and as handheld weapons rather less swiftly changed the character of infantry fighting. The third aspect of the revolution, closely involved with the other two, but in the end perhaps even more far reaching in its consequences, was the rise in the size of armies. All these developments were intertwined: for example, the switch from heavily armoured knight to footsoldier not only changed the social basis of battlefield strength but – as infantry could be trained more quickly and could be hired simply for wages – made possible the expansion in the size of armies from the late fifteenth century onwards. Similarly, the new siege warfare of the sixteenth century required large armies to surround towns and fortresses, and the development and diffusion in this period of new types of fortification designed to combat artillery meant that these besieging forces had to be held together for increasing lengths of time. Thus there is also a fourth element, rarely given the importance it deserves, of the new warfare: time. Campaigns were slower to achieve definite results, and wars tended to become a series of long sieges and to last years, often with indecisive results. The decision as to what should be considered most important among these developments depends in part on the historian’s perspective: from a purely military point of view, infantry, firearms and siege‑techniques (both offensive and defensive) must loom large but, when the impact of the revolution on European society in general is considered, the continuous growth of the size, and thus the cost, of armies can be seen as the most important. Perhaps the best example of this line of argument has been the attempt to link the military revolution to the growth of the state in this period.


Recent theories concerning the relationship between the development of the early modern state and war have approached the problem from a number of directions – political, fiscal and bureaucratic – but all centre very largely on the effects of the increase in the costs of war. Briefly, the argument is that the military revolution encouraged something akin to an arms race among the competing states of Europe, which stretched their resources to the utmost. The leading powers spent up to, and beyond, the level of bankruptcy to keep up with their rivals; the chief problem facing most governments was how to squeeze the maximum of resources out of what were still essentially low‑productivity economies. The answers were found in the strengthening of royal power, and of central government in general, at the expense of local autonomy, and in the growth of bureaucracies.The other side of the coin is that these apparently stronger governments were permanently hag‑ridden by the problem of satisfying the insatiable financial demands of military expenditure.

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