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
'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.
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.
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. This in particular can make some of the doctrine and practice of ancien regime conflict appear more relevant. Much of the warfare in the world since 1945 has resembled what American historian John Lynn terms early modern 'war-as-process' rather than Napoleonic 'war-as-event', even though the latter was seen in, for example, the Six Days War of 1967.
Geoffrey Parker and I briefly debated these issues, with contributions by others, in the journal Historically Speaking in 2003. Rather than repeat the arguments advanced then, I hope to ask how the discussion has moved forward since. Though I am a principal in the discussion, I attempt here to offer an even-handed account.
Research continues on the period covered by Parker's book but a major contrast has emerged between the two halves of the three centuries it covers. As far as the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries are concerned, the concept is still under active discussion, with an important article by Parker in 2007 and useful contributions from non-anglophone scholars, including collections published in Spain in 2006. The global perspective Parker encouraged remains valuable, even if not till scholars have met the high standards and worldwide range that he has demonstrated.
Yet the concept of an early modern military revolution has proven far less helpful for the second half of the seventeenth and the eighteenth century. This is true both for conflict within Europe and for that further afield. Parker has argued that the development of the 'artillery fortress' and other changes in European warmaking brought a fundamental shift in the military balance between the West and the non-West. But this argument is of only limited applicability for East Asia or Africa in the period 1650-1850. Notable here were the failures of the Dutch in Taiwan (where Koxinga or Zheng Cheng-gong drove them out in 1662 after a settlement of almost forty years); of Russia in the Amur Valley; and of the Portuguese on the Swahili Coast, where they lost Fort Jesus at Mombasa to the Arabs in 1698, and in Zimbabwe.
There were of course some important successes of Western arms against a non-Western enemy in this period, particularly those of the Austrians in 1683-97 and 1716-18 in driving the Turks from Vienna and reconquering Hungary. Moreover, non-Western forces did not attack Western Europe. Indeed, Henry Fielding satirized the possibility of this in his play The Coffee-House Politician (1730) when he wrote about Politic's fears of a Turkish attack on England. The idea was also mentioned by Edward Gibbon as an event that would represent a fundamental change to current circumstances.
Nevertheless, compared to the scale of Western expansion in the years 1850-1920, that of 1650-1780 was relatively modest. Rather than assuming European superiority at this period and discussing whether or not it was based on (or amounted to) a 'military revolution', I believe it is more appropriate to note the complex, contingent and varied nature of the relative military capability of the combatants in different arenas of conflict around the world, and to give due weight to the non-military factors for different levels of success in different regions.
Moreover, research on warfare within Europe itself has emphasized the extent to which the model of organization and tactics that Roberts and Parker focused on, should be treated not as the definitive European model of warfare but rather as one, albeit the most influential, of several models to be found across the Continent. In particular, Robert Frost has drawn attention to an important contrasting model in Eastern Europe, where heavier stress was laid on cavalry than in Spain or Sweden; there has also been discussion of the particular traditions of Celtic warfare, notably the Highland Charge, which was developed in the mid-seventeenth century as a response to the use of muskets and cannon, and widely used in the Jacobite risings of the following century.
These and other examples underline that there was no single obvious and generally accepted best practice that can be identified with a 'military revolution', whose diffusion should be studied. Instead, there was a complex process of interaction within and between military environments in Europe. Best practice should be understood in terms of the specific requirements of particular environments, rather than of the possibilities presented by one weapons system composed of a particular weapon and certain formations and tactics. A much discussed example is the Tercio, or Spanish square, of pikemen and musketeers, developed in the early sixteenth century in the Italian wars, and widely adopted until the Thirty Years War when it was superseded by the more flexible linear formation. Study of the 'face' of battle the individual and collective realities of conflict--suggests that cohesion, morale, impact and persistence in hand-to-hand fighting could be more important than tactical sophistication in the shape of deployment, unit size and firepower drill.
Uniformity in fighting method did become more apparent in Europe in the eighteenth century, with infantry armed with flintlock muskets equipped with bayonets. Ironically, however, this was not the focus of the classic 'military revolution' as outlined by Roberts and Parker, who both concentrated on the period prior to 1660, when more varied practices were common.
An emphasis on specific military environments serves to highlight the issue of the role of tasking or goals in the development of particular armies and navies. For example, the downsizing of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century armies and navies after wars had ended indicates that, as today, force structures were adapted to the purpose at hand. This reflected the dynamic interaction of strategic cultures with the volatile international relations of the period, at a time when particular dynasties adopted their own distinctive strategies, and individual rulers had their own priorities too. It is important to emphasize variety of practice--the French navy had a different task from that of Britain, and the navy of Oman even more so--and it is therefore dangerous to assume that there was an obvious 'best military practice' that provided a paradigm to which all powers would seek to conform.
Thus, the concept of an early modern military, revolution has become a catchall--one widely employed but lacking in precision, and one that has been used with an attention to process that is (necessarily) patchy and inclined to emphasize the diffusion of the supposed master-models of combat and organization, rather than the extent to which methods of warfare from one culture were borrowed and adapted to different military systems and circumstances.
Moreover, the idea of such a revolution rests on a 'push' theory of warfare, which interprets military developments in terms of the material culture of war, especially weaponry. This approach may devote too little attention to 'pull' factors such as the purposes of military capability, the use of the military, and related force structures and doctrines. There is scant sign of a full-fledged revolution in these purposes or 'taskings' on land through the early modern period, although at sea there was a new interest in the sixteenth century in protecting long-range maritime links.
Early modern military realities were too geographically complex and too dependent on political, cultural and economic experience for the idea of a military' revolution to encapsulate the military changes of the period usefully. There were certainly changes in technology, organization and attitude, but they were neither revolutionary nor universal. Instead, many scholars today prefer to emphasize continuities, in terms of both the reasons for conflict and the limitations in tactical, operational and strategic military effectiveness, of administrative structures and support: of relative capability of European armed forces with regard to non-European military systems: and of the impact of Europeans on lands beyond their own continent.
To stress continuity entails noting similarities in warfare throughout the period. While battles in the mid-seventeenth century saw a greater role for firepower than those of the late fifteenth century, sieges remained a mixture of bombardment, blockade and storming just as they had been for centuries. Similarly the role of cavalry and light forces in raiding territory and in denying opponents the opportunity to raise supplies remained crucial in operational terms. Cavalry also continued to play a major role in battles, contributing to their character as combined arms actions and thus to the need for commanders skilled in co-ordinating forces.
The debate about the revolution on land is bound up not only with the debate on the intentions of rulers and the nature of early modern states, but also with the degree of continuity with medieval states and war-making. Much research remains to be done on the last topic, especially for Eastern Europe. Some early-modernists tend to treat medieval warfare misleadingly as primitive in comparison with what was to come and to present it in teleological terms, with an emphasis on the development of infantry and on archers as progenitors of the subsequent introduction of hand-held gunpowder weaponry. This has led to a slighting of the variety that can be found within medieval warfare and to a misleading account of its development. The reduction of medieval military development to a simple formula, 'first it was knights and castles, and then infantry and guns' is commonly heard but inaccurate.
It is important instead to assess the potential for technological transformation--in the medieval period and at other times in history--in its social and political context. It can be argued that medieval precedents for later trends constitute a prehistory of the military revolution, but this argument can be turned on its head, to say that the so-called revolution was merely another stage in the process by which European medieval warfare developed. Warfare during the medieval period displayed considerable innovations, not only in terms of tactics and fortifications, but also in the infrastructure of military preparedness as, for example, trained bands of mercenaries emerged from the late fourteenth century. Moreover, although gunpowder provided the basis for different forms of hand-held projectile weaponry and artillery from the fifteenth century, the use of massed projectile weaponry--arrows or javelins--was not new. The disparagement of the medieval experience can lead to an over-valuation of early modern changes.
An account of variety in military practice can be taken further to include the diverse meanings of the culture of war. This topic has excited considerable interest from historians in recent years, such as Adrian Lewis and Brian Linn who have both written on American military culture. The idea that there were distinctive cultures of war in different countries again challenges the notion of a single 'best practice' and means, instead, that we should think of developments as necessarily varied in goal, content and chronology. The result may appear to offer a rather bitty and inconsequential account of the period in place of the grand sweep of clear-cut and general developments in war-making, but this approach accurately reflects the absence of such a sweep.
Related to this, the discussion of military changes in the early modern period has mainly concentrated on top-down perspectives: war and the rise of the modern state, the transformation of state systems, resource mobilization, the notion of paradigm militaries, and overall or macro-perspectives on decisiveness and victory. There is room for more micro-perspectives, encouraged by a more cultural approach, for example on the experience of war. These may offer new insights into established questions such as the extent to which war was total, at least as understood by contemporaries.
It is also worth asking how far today's conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere may have affected approaches to the early modern period. These conflicts underline the ambiguous character of victory, the extent to which success in battle is not automatically the same as success in war, and the problems that technologically sophisticated weapons and forces may face in confronting insurgencies. Reading back into history, these conflicts also underline the extent to which earlier Western successes depended at least in part on the co-operation or consent of non-Western peoples, as American anthropologist Ross Hassig argued (1994) in his discussion of Cortes' triumph over the Aztecs in 1519-21. This is not to deny a role for Western force-multipliers such as firepower and artillery fortresses, but it does suggest that in many cases the success they provide must be anchored in consent. This was also true for non-Westerners such as the Mughals in their invasion of northern India in the sixteenth century. Consent could take many forms, including service in the military of the imperial power, or even religious syncretism, as was seen in the spread of Christianity in Latin America.
The role of consent was also important within Europe. Nicholas Henshall (1992) and others have reconceptualized the absolutist state by putting an emphasis on cooperation between elites and rulers rather than on the coercive power of the latter, which was supposedly gained by developments in military capability and organization. The idea that rulers were able to direct societies no longer seems convincing.
Instead, reconciliation between rulers and elites in the second half of the seventeenth century provided the basis for a process of domestic consolidation known as the ancien regime, and for attempts at external expansion by a number of states, including Austria, England, China, France, Mughal India, Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Military service entailed the nobility accepting obedience and subordination to the state, while the monarchy was able to co-opt the resources of the aristocracy to support the army; but this was a matter of reconciliation rather than coercion. This reconciliation provided the most stability where aristocratic elites were integrated into bureaucracies as well as armies (as in Peter the Great's Russia), as this gave a peacetime coherence that was otherwise lacking.
If change in the social politics and political consequences of force in early modern Europe can now be presented in less revolutionary terms than would have been the case two decades ago, then this matches the long-term character of technological, scientific and intellectual developments. 'Long-term' can mean 'slow', and there is a usual assumption that revolutions mean rapidity. However, slowness should not be seen as a criticism, not least because changes in military life and capability were difficult and frequently intractable.
The language of military revolutions often implies a 'big bang' or else a triumphalist change towards clear improvement; but better is the scholarly understanding that incremental change poses its own problems of assessing best practice, as well as the difficulties of determining whether the introduction of new methods is appropriate. The habitual use by modern scholars (myself included) of models of diffusion and of the language of adaptation can make change in the past appear far less problematic than was the case.
The same is true of the concept of revolution, whether that of the early modern military revolution or in American, French Revolutionary and Napoleonic warfare between 1775 and 1815. The argument for revolutionary change in this later period again underplays the extent to which there was continuity with ancien regime conflict. Moreover, the notion, advanced recently in David Bell's The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It (2007), that French Revolutionary and Napoleonic conflict transformed warfare and brought forward modernity again plays down the variety of modern warfare, not least in scale, goal and intensity. If modern warfare is not necessarily total, total warfare is not necessarily modern and can therefore be separated from any developmental model of conflict.
A focus on complexity and non-linear development may not be welcome to those who seek a quick fix, whether for pedagogic reasons or because they wish to draw out 'lessons' for work in related spheres, such as the development of states and of a European states system. Moreover, the focus on complexity and non-linear development poses a challenge to scholarly analysis and its presentation. Nevertheless, this is the more accurate approach.
This is not to say that there are never revolutionary changes that transform the nature of warfare. Developments in weaponry, force structures, doctrine and planning can indeed be radical, rapid and of great consequence, as with the impact of submarines and air power on naval conflict in the Second World War. What is less clear is whether the developments in the period 1400-1820 were of this type. Obviously there were changes both on land and at sea, not least the rise of large, permanent, professional, state-directed armies and navies in Europe while the expansion of Western power overseas was very significant.
At the same time, there were important continuities. Movement still depended on human and animal calories or the wind; command and control practices were still slow; mass troops were still needed for shock and firepower; and relatively low-production agrarian economies still placed a powerful restraint on the resources that could be made available for war. Even as late as the First World War, troops still walked to war from the railhead and still depended heavily on animals to transport materials, as they had done for millennia. This list of continuities can be extended; it makes discussion in terms of military revolution highly problematic, but the debate will continue.
J. Black, Rethinking Military History (Routledge, 2004); J. Black, European Warfare in a Global Context, 1660-1815 (Routledge, 2007); Christopher Duff,/, Through German Eyes. The British and the Somme 1916 (2006); Guerra y Sociedad en La Monarquia Hispanica (Madrid, 2006); Militari in Eta Moderna (Milan, 2006); G. Parker, The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800 (Cambridge UP, 1996); G. Parker Journal of Military History, Vol 71 No 4, October 2007.
Jeremy Black, Professor of History at Exeter, was awarded the Samuel Eliot Morison prize in 2008 and is the author of European Warfare, 1494-1660 (2002) and Introduction to Global Military History (2005). He benefited from the comments of John France, John Lynn, David Parrott and Peter Wilson on an earlier draft of this article.…
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Publication information: Article title: 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. Contributors: Black, Jeremy - Author. Magazine title: History Today. Volume: 58. Issue: 7 Publication date: July 2008. Page number: 34+. © 2009 History Today Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.