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Renaissance warfare: a military revolution

4 mins read

The 16th century is a critical period in political, social, religious, and cultural history. The Renaissance, the Reformation, new absolute monarchies, the voyages of discovery, great advances in science, architectural monuments, artistic masterpieces, and more: all marked the birth of the modern as feudalism disintegrated, a society based on commerce and enterprise emerged, and Europe began to pull ahead of the rest of the world.

Yet the military history is relatively neglected. Compare the number of books on the World Wars, the American Civil War, and the Napoleonic Wars with the number on Renaissance warfare. Compare, even, the number on ancient or medieval warfare with the number on the 16th century.

It is hard to explain. The source material is abundant, the changes in weapons and tactics rapid, and the complexities to be unravelled – to challenge the historian – abundant. Not least, the military history of the period should be an essential complement to studies focused on other aspects of the 16th century.

Charles VIII of France receiving the crown of Naples during the Italian Wars. Detail from a painting by Francesco Bassano the Younger (1549-1592).

In our special this issue, we look at the transformation of warfare in the first half of the 16th century.

By the mid 15th century, Western European warfare had become slow and sticky. The power of longbows and handguns had forced medieval men-at-arms to don the heaviest of plate armour and, at the same time, dismount to fight on foot. Armies were still composed of part-time soldiers, with limited training and virtually undrilled. Consequently, they could do little more than lumber headlong into each other and engage in protracted slugging matches at close-quarters.

By the mid 16th century, the battlefield had been transformed. States that retained a conservative medieval way of war based on crude shock action – like the Scots – succumbed to new professional armies with a mix of heavy and light horse, pikemen and arquebusiers, and a growing number of cannon.

Tactics may have lagged behind at first, but they soon caught up, as commanders mastered the art of combining shock and firepower, mobility and field fortifications.

What drove forwards this military revolution was the intensity of Renaissance warfare. Europe was convulsed both by old forms of dynastic warfare and by new forms of national and religious warfare. The fighting was as relentless as that between 1792 and 1815, or that between 1914 and 1945.

In our first article, we offer an overview of the Italian Wars and the changes in military organisation, weaponry, and tactics that they fostered. In our second, we analyse one signal encounter, the Battle of Bicocca, fought exactly 500 years ago this spring, where an army of French, Swiss, and Venetians confronted an army of Spaniards, Germans, and Milanese in north-western Italy.


This is an extract from a special feature on Renaissance Warfare from the latest issue of Military History Matters.

Read the full article in the magazine, which you can subscribe to here, or here via an online subscription at The Past website.

1 Comment

  1. Well done. and yes, the study of this period militarily (as in all its other aspects) is hugely overdue. This period really was the real military revolution.

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