Was There a Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe? Historians Have Long Argued Whether the Years 1500-1700 Saw a Revolutionary Change in the Art and Organization of War

By Black, Jeremy | History Today, July 2008 | Go to article overview
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Was There a Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe? Historians Have Long Argued Whether the Years 1500-1700 Saw a Revolutionary Change in the Art and Organization of War


Black, Jeremy, History Today


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'The notion of a "military revolution" distorted the study of early modern military history for decades from the 1950s.' This blunt comment by the distinguished military historian of eighteenth-century Europe, Christopher Duffy, in his Through German Eyes: the British and the Somme 1916 (2006), contrasts markedly with the views of those who still find the thesis useful, indeed fundamental. Geoffrey Parker, a key figure in the debate, is preparing a third edition of his seminal book Military Revolution 1500-1800, a work he first published in 1988, but sees the need for relatively few changes.

The concept of an early modern European military revolution first came to prominence in the inaugural lecture of the specialist on Sweden, Michael Roberts, at Queen's University, Belfast in 1955 (published in 1956). Focusing on the period 1560-1660 but as part of the longer-term process in military change that stemmed from the introduction of portable firearms, Roberts drew connections between military technology and techniques, and larger historical consequences. He specifically argued that innovations in tactics, drill and doctrine by the Dutch and Swedes in the century 1560-1660, which were designed to maximize the benefit of firearms, led to a need for more trained troops and thus for permanent forces; and that this had major political and social consequences in the level of administrative support and the supply of money, men and provisions, producing new financial demands and the creation of new governmental institutions. Thus, argued Roberts, the modern art of war made possible--and necessary--the creation of the modern state.

This thesis was transformed by Geoffrey Parker from the 1970s in a number of fruitful directions, not least with new emphases on fortification techniques (the 'artillery fortress' capable of withstanding the new siege artillery), the growth of the Spanish army, and naval developments such as capital ships capable of firing broadsides. He also stressed, crucially, the global dimensions of the Revolution, linking the military changes within Europe to the rise of the West to global dominance.

The question of military revolutions is of great contemporary consequence, because of the importance of the supposed 'Revolution in Military Affairs' (RMA) in modern American military thought, doctrine, planning and procurement. Those who claim that such a revolution has occurred since the 1990s emphasize recent changes in weapons and information technology that have led to new forms of command-and-control and to a changing role for armed forces in military activity. The debate surrounding this claim has led to a search for supposed antecedents or for a supporting history that can lend credence to the idea of a contemporary revolution in military affairs.

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There is always a danger in tracing present concerns back into the past, and this link between past and present military developments is somewhat dubious. The self-conscious character of today's RMA was not matched in the early modern period, when there was a strong belief in the value of Classical exemplars and, rather than looking for revolutionary innovation, many people looked back to the ancient world. Moreover, even if there is an effective military revolution taking place today, and not just a discourse to that end, that does not mean there necessarily was one in the early modern period.

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Furthermore, the conflicts of the last fifteen years have underlined the varied character of warfare even in the modern world. This has implications for what is understood as the modernization of warfare. Just two decades ago this might have been discussed in terms of the move towards a capability for total war, especially the maximization of destructiveness through the enhancement of firepower. Now, instead, there is scepticism about glib uses of the concepts of 'total' and 'modern' warfare, and more interest in limited warfare.

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