Sunday, November 29, 2009

Review: The Renaissance at War

If you like military history or are interested in the wave of change that swept through Europe as a result of the Renaissance, then this book by Yale historian Thomas Arnold is a real treat.

In less than 250 pages, Arnold deals with a large amount of material in a very accessible fashion.

Chapter One, "The New Fury," describes the impact of the gunpowder revolution, specifically the introduction of artillery, on European sieges and fortifications. Arnold includes multiple sidebars that help the reader decipher the bewildering array of Renaissance military pieces and the key differences between them (culverins have longer barrels than cannons, with a thicker base that allowed them to use heavier powder charges and fire at longer ranges). You get a sense of the range of artillery, how much gunpowder and shot it used, and how difficult and costly it was to transport over distances. Then there is a good discussion of how fortifications had to change to withstand assaults by the new cannons.

Chapter 2, "The New Legions," discusses how infantry and cavalry were altered to adapt to the needs and capabilities of gunpowder weapons. This chapter brought up many points of which I was unaware. For example, military drums were a Renaissance innovation designed to provide a strict cadence needed for densely packed squares of pikemen and musketeers to march and manuever in unison while providing flanking fire for each other. Arnold also makes the point that the introduction of guns themselves didn't necessitate all the changes that took place. Early guns were less accurate than crossbows; someone could have instituted many of the Renaissance battlefield changes adopted for firearms without guns, based on equipping large numbers of soldiers with heavy crossbows, whose bolts could pierce armor.

But the early guns were cheaper to make and use than crossbows (which I did not realize, assuming that gunpowder was more costly than it apparently was), faster and easier to use (since they weren't aimed and reloading was apparently a simpler and speedier process than using a small winch to rewind a heavy crossbow), and possibly more intimidating (with a shock and awe effect of noise, flash, and smoke that crossbows lacked). So it was both more affordable and more feasible to equip large numbers of soldiers with the new weapons. Ironically, once this was done, it became necessary to institute new methods of drill, many originally inspired by Classical Roman training manuals, to put the large numbers of musketeers to good use.

This is also the first text I've read with a decent discussion of the design and uses of war wagons, which were a common feature of warfare in Eastern Europe (particularly among the Hussites). Not a lengthy discussion, but much more informative and easier to find than the coverage in every other general source that I've read. Since this was an interest of mine, I was quite happy.

These two chapters alone made the book a treat for me to read. Chapter 3, "The New Caesars," gives an interesting description of the changes to the battlefield role of the nobility and of military commanders during the period, which is helpful to anyone trying to envision what a battlefield of the period was like and how knighthood transformed.

Chapter 4, "Cross versus Crescent," describes the ongoing wars between Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire for control of the eastern European frontier, North Africa, and the Mediterranean. Good reading, supplemented with some very cool and very readable color diagrams of several key sieges and battles.

The last two chapters, "Dueling Kings" and "Faith vs. Faith," are about the conflict between the Hapsburgs and the Valois kings of France on the one hand and between Protestants and Catholics on the other. These were well-written, but not particular interests of mine, so I didn't give them as thorough a read.

Overall, this is a portable, concise, informative, and attractive reference to the key military transformations of the period.

No comments: