The Military Revolution Debate: Readings on the Military Transformation of Early Modern Europe

By Clifford J. Rogers | Go to book overview

2
The 'Military Revolution,
1560-1660)' -- A Myth?

GEOFFREY PARKER

'THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY constitutes a most uninteresting period in European military history,' wrote Sir Charles Oman in 1937, and no one then dared to disagree with him. Today, however, few historians would endorse his verdict. The early modern period has come to be seen as a time of major change in warfare and military organization, as an era of 'military revolution.' This shift in historical perspective is mainly the work of one man: Michael Roberts, until recently Professor of History at the Queen's University of Belfast. His inaugural lecture, entitled 'The Military Revolution, 1560-1660' and delivered at Belfast in January 1955, was an undisguised manifesto proclaiming the originality, the importance, and the historical singularity of certain developments in the art of war in post-Renaissance Europe. Now most inaugural lectures, for better or worse, seem to fade into the seamless web of history, leaving little trace; yet Professor Roberts's inaugural is still quoted time after time in textbooks, monographs, and articles. His conclusions, as far as I know, have never been questioned or measured against the new evidence which has come to light in the twenty years or so which have elapsed since he wrote. Such an examination is the aim of this paper. 1

Roberts's 'military revolution' took place between 1560 and 1660 in four distinct areas. First and foremost came a 'revolution in tactics': certain tactical innovations, although apparently minor, were 'the efficient cause of changes which were really revolutionary'. 2 The principal innovation in the infantry was (he claimed) the eclipse of the prevailing technique of hurling enormous squares of pikemen at each other in favour of linear formations composed of smaller, uniform units firing salvos at each other; likewise the cavalry, instead of trotting up to the enemy, firing, and trotting back again (the caracole), was required to charge, sabres in hand, ready for the kill. According to Roberts, these new battle procedures had far-reaching logistical consequences. They required troops who were highly trained and disciplined, men who would act as cogs in a machine; and the cogs

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