Towns at War: Technological Advances in Artillery in Early Modern Period

Today I bring you something completely unlike me – warfare! I worked on this some time ago (2010 I believe), during my urban Europe studies, and for my surprise I really enjoyed it. I think the reason for that is because, even though it about warfare, my approach attempted to put things in context from a cultural and social point of view. I have now gone over my research, and unlike many other topics I investigated at the time, I still feel the same way about this one. So, I thought I’ll share, see what you think of it! Sure Alex will have something to say!

The period from 1500 to 1700 has been conceived as one of the most bellicose times in Europe. Changes in warfare throughout this period impacted the experience for towns, cities and their inhabitants. But first, we need to establish the background of military technology up to this stage. Medieval warfare was based in men power, archers and few machines like catapults or mortars. Armies were not particularly big, except when involved in conflicts of great magnitude such as the Crusades. However, by the 14th century gunpowder artillery began to have a role in war. Although gunpowder had existed since ancient times in China, it is thought that this type of application in artillery was first ‘invented’ by German engineers, and used by the Venetians in their wars against the Genovese. And the bad – or good news –  were that gunpowder was coming to stay. Here is when ‘the Military Revolution’ began. You know I am not always very fond of this pre-established terminology, but this one I believe in. The term was first used in a lecture in 1995, at Queen’s University, (Belfast) by Michael Roberts. He believed that this revolution happened in Europe between the 16th and the 17th century.

M. C. Paul has defined the concept as “a series of changes in tactics and strategy, the scale of warfare and the impact of warfare in society, which began in the United Provinces (Netherlands) in the late sixteenth century and culminated in Sweden during the reign of Gustavus Adolphus in the first third of the seventeenth century”.

The main evidences of this process are the new pieces of artillery and fortifications of the period, but there are other issues that reflect the changes implied in this revolution. ‘Military brokers’ (yeah, brokers like those from the banks or that sell insurance) were used by the different governments in order to rise mercenary armies to fight their foes, but that usually ended up damaging civilian life and property. There were also ‘new’ ways of recruitment, as well as the increasing number of mercenary troops. These new recruits were usually criminals, troublemakers, and people with mental and physical disabilities – in other words “meat-shields”, disposable troops, people who no-one would particularly miss…Or at least not the town councils that recruited them...

Artillery wise, there were some changes that were crucial in its development. The machines were provided with carriage devices that made them easier to transport and display. But the critical change was from stone to cast-iron shot, which was more accurately calibrated and had a density liable to flatten masonry works on fortresses. This was a big threat for towns and their security. The problem here was not any more some few knights trying to get control of their fortresses: this was pure destruction on wheels. Hence, new devices for defense were needed. The first measure that everyone applied in order to protect their communities was to thicken and reinforce the town walls. There were also the additions of gun-loops in the lower parts of the walls, in order to protect the more vulnerable points, such as entrances or gates. These gun-loops did not require a massive reform of the wall surface as they could be easily done by modifying arrow slits to allow a gun barrel pass through it. But this did not always work. La Rochelle (France) exemplifies this best. After the Huguenot massacre in Vassy, the protestant French forces knew that just the reinforcement of their fortifications was not enough. Therefore, they undertook a long process of reconstruction and addition of new defenses, such as the angled bastion. These protected effectively the city during the siege of 1572-73. Many other places followed this model, and  opted for the addition of the diamond-shaped bastion. Nonetheless, the general model of fortification was the ‘trace italienne’, which consisted in a low rampart replacing the medieval wall, or a separate rampart in case the wall was kept, with no bastions as they were seen as a burden. But all this was to change, thanks to a single man and its vision: the French architect Sebastien Vauban. His fortifications included all the devices mentioned before and were considered the most elegant and efficient in Europe, fact that can be appreciated in his masterpiece: the city of Lille.

But, how effective were these fortresses? The truth is that they proved to be quite effective in the innumerable sieges that happened during this period. By the beginning of the 17th century these were insuperable strongholds but the presented one issue: visibility issues. Good news for the attackers – surprise attacks will get top marks, but this was not always a very easy maneuver to perform. Moreover, the visibility problem was easily resolved. Towns added gun-towers to have a better view of their surroundings and to provide effective flanking fire. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to consider this the end of story – it is not, at all. War had secondary effects on towns. All this process of walling up cities created a stronger feeling of independence and community in towns as the walls became their symbol. Furthermore, it created a closer relationship between towns and the rural areas due to the need of ready supplies. But space started running short, and towns begun to build up their houses to have space to live and work, and new plans of edification were generated (radial and gridiron). These made streets narrow and buildings close to each other…Cities became a massive hazard for epidemic infections and that mixed with the social disruption.

Interestingly, and despite all this development, the conditions of a siege remained the same that in other ages of history: famine, crime, disease…John Landers has produced a study with a table that shows the death causes in Sweden between 1620 and 1719 more people died due to disease (88%) than in combat(12%). This is not something new, but actually a rather common effect of warfare. The new urban layout made people fear more artefacts like bombards that could cause a fire and massive demolition inside the town due to their firing arch. People were constricted within their own walls…But along came the 17th century to change this. As cities could not expand and were too crowded the walls were demolished or left to ruin. Frontiers were closed, towns opened, and the fortified ‘bonneville’ changed into ‘la comerce’ –  system that has been preserved up to modern-day urban geography. Also it has to be considered that the urban response was not the same everywhere. Unlike France or Italy, England remained basically unwalled until the Civil War, and there were differences among the south and the north of the country. In Eastern Europe, the process happened a bit later. Places like Russia or  even Germany preferred the reinforced wall system rather than the new one.

I am very supportive of this statement by Hale, about these changes:

“Gunpowder, in short, revolutionized the conduct but not the outcome of wars”.

But we are missing a key fact in here that I have already been hinting at. One can appreciate war from its victims, and gun powder for sure changed the perception of conflict for those who had to suffer it. The destructive nature of canons, firearms, their terrible noise…That was something that shaped people’s minds, and it made them fear. An arrow does not produce much noise, it will not keep you up by night…but a gun shot will. All the urban developments jeopardising urban health and security contributed to this shock too. So, personal opinion? Yes, gunpowder revolutionised warfare, but more importantly, it change the modern world and its people.

Now, if this has made you think, or tickled your fancy, here are my sources. Some may be out of date, and if that is the case, please send us a comment with some more up to date theories!

-Duffy, C., Siege Warfare: the Fortress in the Early Modern World, 1494-1660, (London and New York, 1979)

-Hale, J.R., ‘Gunpowder and the Renaissance: an Essay in the History of Ideas’, Renaissance War Studies, (London, 1983), pp. 389-420

-Johnston, A.J.B., ‘Sébastian le Prestre de Vauban: Reflections on His Fame, His Fortifications, and His Influence’, French Colonial History, Vol. 3, (2003), pp. 175-188

-Kinard, J., Artillery: an Illustrated History of Its Impact, (E-Book published by ABC-Clio, 2007)

-Landers, J., ‘The Destructiveness of Pre-Industrial Warfare: Political and Technological Determinants’, Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 42, No. 4, (Jul., 2005), pp. 455-470

-Nicholas, D., Urban Europe, 1100-1700, (Basingstoke, 2003)

-Parker, G., The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800, (Cambridge, 1996)

-Paul, M.C., ‘The Military Revolution in Russia, 1550-1628’, The Journal of Military History, Vol. 68, No. 1, (Jan., 2004), pp. 9-45

-Potter, D., Renaissance France at War: Armies, Culture and Society, c.1480-1560, (Woodbridge, 2008)

-Reid, S., Castles and Tower Houses of the Scottish Clans 1450-1650, (Oxford and New York, 2006)

-Thompson, M.W., The Decline of the Castle, (Cambridge and New York, 1987)

-Wolfe, M., Walled Towns and the Shaping of France: from the Medieval to the Early Modern Era, (New York, 2009)

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