By Ken Mondschein
In the aftermath of the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida and the rise of student activism, the endless American debate on gun control has once again consumed the news cycle. Again, liberals are calling for greater restriction of firearms, while the pro-gun lobby says the solution is more, not fewer, guns in schools. Few commentators, however, are discussing the elephant in the room: That the Second Amendment guarantees Americans the right to own weapons.
But where did the Second Amendment come from? Why did the Founding Fathers decide that a “Militia” and “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” was so “necessary to the security of a free State”?
As it turns out, weapons ownership—and its relationship to political rights, power, and masculine self-image—has deep roots in the Middle Ages. This in turns, explains how firearms came to be so entrenched in American culture.
Having and knowing how to use weapons was a man’s role in the medieval period. All levels of society owned weapons throughout the medieval period. It distinguished laymen from clerics (who, nonetheless, also possessed and used weapons), the free from the unfree, and law-abiding citizens from criminals. It also signaled the ability to defend one’s honor with violence.
Bearing and using weapons was associated with enfranchisement—literally, being a Frank (“free”). Anyone who has a passing interest in the Middle Ages knows that the “feudal” social system set up by the Franks required nobles to exchange mounted, armored military service for land. What fewer people pay attention to, however, is that common soldiers were also required to do military service and to own swords, shields, bows, and arrows. This was in direct continuity from the era of migrations, when the duty of the free men of the Germanic tribes was to fight alongside their chiefs.
Militia service similarly has deep roots in Anglo-Saxon England. The fyrd was composed of all free men, who were required to own weapons and armor and do military service. This tradition was continued after the Norman conquest. Though earlier Anglo-Norman rulers, such as Henry II in his Assize of Arms of 1181, had required all freemen to own weapons and armor, later laws emphasized archery. For instance, in 1363 Edward III forbade commoners to engage in “hurling of stones, loggats, quoits, handball, football, club ball, cambuc, cockfighting, and other games of no value,” but rather to practice with bows and arrows on Sundays and holidays.
The longbow was not only credited for the notable English victories over the French at Crecy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and Agincourt (1415), but it came to be synonymous with the free yeoman, as seen in the Robin Hood ballads, and laws requiring practice continued to be passed into the reign of Charles I. Meanwhile, even though carrying swords in cities and towns was forbidden to those of non-knightly estate, all people carried knives and daggers. “There is no man worth a leek, Be he sturdy, be he meek, but he bear a basilard [type of dagger or short sword],” as a fifteenth-century English rhyme put it.
England was far from the only place where commoners were required to own weapons and practice martial skills. The self-governing Free Cities of the Holy Roman Empire (modern Germany, Austria, the Low Countries, and Switzerland) had a martial culture that particularly focused on crossbows and, later, firearms. Weapons ownership was mandatory for male citizens, and shooting competitions were held to keep the men in practice—the ancestor of the modern “turkey shoot.” These were also tacit statement of the towns’ freedoms: For instance, a famous 1576 match between Zurich and Strasbourg was as much a statement of a mutual defense pact as it was a shooting contest.
The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany, B. Ann Tlusty connects the weapons ownership that was compulsory for all citizens in these early republics to gun culture in America. Immigrants brought these traditions directly over to the to the United States, and we can draw a line from early modern Germany to the Pennsylvania longrifle (made by German gunsmiths) to the schutzenbünde (shooting clubs) that flourished in nineteenth-century America. And, of course, the Swiss tradition of military service and firearms ownership continues to this day. Tlusty also points out that with weapons ownership came responsibility: weapons-ownership was subject to strong civic control and that irresponsible use was harshly penalized.
Similarly, in Italy, the popular urban sport of organized fighting originated as military drill, but became both a means of letting loose around Carnival-time and a statement about the city’s ability to defend its freedoms. Various factional stick-and-shield battles were held in cities such as Bologna, Florence, Arezzo, Pisa, Faenza, Orvieto, and Lucca from late antiquity to the sixteenth century. They were variously referred to battaglie, “battles”; battagliole, “little battles”; guerre “wars”; or, in Latin, pugnae “fight”; bella “wars”; or ludi “games.”
Weapons Ownership and Democracy
It is unsurprising that the Italian urban fights were suppressed by the rising absolutist states of the early modern period, since the right to arms was also closely connected with nascent democracy. As Clifford Rogers, professor of military history at the United States Military Academy at West Point, put it in an email:
The medieval evidence suggests that Max Weber got it basically right when he wrote that “the basis of democratization is everywhere purely military in character; it lies in the rise of disciplined infantry… because the community wished and was compelled to secure the cooperation of the non-aristocratic masses and hence put arms, and along with arms political power, into their hands.”
Despite recent scholarship that argues the contrary, the truth is that during the High Middle Ages cavalry was the principal arm in warfare, and most political power rested in the hands of men who self-identified as cavalrymen. Starting in the early fourteenth century, however, an Infantry Revolution dramatically raised the importance of footsoldiers, especially in England, Flanders, and Switzerland. This military change correlated very strongly with the development of more “proto-democratic” political structures in those areas, including the creation of a regularized, powerful, elected House of Commons in the English Parliament. Modern American democracy descends directly from that political innovation, not from the also-infantry-based democracies and republics of the Ancient world.
Origins of the Modern “Right to Bear Arms”
Weber was not the first to notice the link between nascent democracy and military service. In his The Art of War, published in 1521, Machiavelli similarly praised citizen-militias built on the model of the Roman Republic as the most reliable form of military organization. The Founding Fathers were certainly aware of this argument: Jefferson had The Art of War in his library.
But there was no need to look exclusively at the past for a model: The Swiss were seen as modern exemplars of the ideal of the citizen-soldier, and were likewise greatly admired by Machiavelli, the English, and the American founders alike. The Scottish patriot Andrew Fletcher, who participated in the Glorious Revolution that had ousted the unpopular King James II of England in 1688 and replaced him with a monarch more to Parliament’s liking, wrote a decade later in his A Discourse of Government with Relation to Militias:
The Swisses at this day are the freest, happiest, and the people of all Europe who can best defend themselves, because they have the best militia… And I cannot see why arms should be denied to any man who is not a slave, since they are the only true badges of liberty…
Similarly, in 1714 the English diplomat and politician Abraham Stanyan praised the Swiss as having a “well regulated Militia… that may overturn a Government at Pleasure.”
Stanyan and Fletcher had good reasons to link liberty and weapons ownership: James II had restricted the traditional right to bear arms, while the Bill of Rights passed by Parliament in 1689 specifically affirmed this prerogative: “the subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defense, suitable to their Condition, and as allowed by Law.” The right to bear arms was carried over to the New World and became part of the American Bill of Rights.
An armed society, in other words, was seen as a positive good. On both sides of the Atlantic, weapons ownership equaled liberty. Disarmament on the Continent only came with strong centralized government: Tlusty makes a strong case that building a stable state and ending the near-anarchy of premodern Germany necessitated ending the population’s right to bear arms. Of course, in modern Switzerland, firearms ownership is still ubiquitous, but gun-owners are trained from a young age in the responsible use of weapons.
In England, however, it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that weapons began to be policed—first because of the large number of weapons brought back from the Napoleonic Wars, then to curb poaching, then (in 1870) as a small tax to obtain a pistol carrying permit. The actual sale of firearms was not restricted until the Pistols Act of 1903, with subsequent laws further narrowing the ability to own weapons. Today, the ability to own a gun is highly restricted in the UK.
However, English law never had firearms ownership encoded as a fundamental right. It will likely take a constitutional amendment to be able to significantly change the situation in the United States. Unfortunately, weapons ownership is deeply rooted in the idea of enfranchised masculinity, and the political willpower to modify or eliminate the Second Amendment is unlikely to be mobilized in an age when people feel more and more insecure and less in control of their own destinies. The first step in breaking the cycle of violence is to address social alienation that causes Americans to hold on to this particular atavism.
It also suggests a more viable strategy for gun control: Taking a page from our medical-insurance system, firearms control in the United States is more likely to be instituted through private means than through public policy. If the public pressures credit card companies to not do business with arms manufacturers and sellers, if insurers refuse to insure those who own firearms, or charge hefty premiums for those with guns in their homes, the bottom line will win out. Our society is ultimately rooted in freedom of enterprise, and sometimes the most efficient way to accomplish anything is via the non-democratic means of a cost-benefit analysis.
Ken Mondschein is a scholar and author with expertise in subjects ranging from the Middle Ages to modern pop culture. You can visit his website
Top Image: 19th century image of knights using culverins, a type of medieval gun.