History Blog

History Blog: Italian Renaissance - In Like a Knight, Out Like a Cannon - Part 1

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When we think of war in the Middle Ages, we imagine knights in shining armor, tournaments, colorful pennants, great war horses. We seem to have fewer ready-made preconceptions of war in the Renaissance.

The couple of hundred years that we can roughly term the Renaissance was such a transitional period that maybe warfare can be described a little like the old adage for the month of March: In like a lion, out like a lamb. Except, modify it to say: In like a knight, out like a cannon.

In the late 14th century and into the 15th, France and England stumbled through the Hundred Years´ War, a series of invasions and battles and diplomatic pauses that solidified the nationalist feelings of both countries while making it obvious that medieval war tactics and the attitude of chivalry had outlived their usefulness. Historian Barbara W. Tuchman in her brilliant study "A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century," put it like this:

"What knights lacked in the fading 14th century was innovation. Holding to traditional forms, they gave little thought or professional study to tactics. When everyone of noble estate was a fighter by function, professionalism was not greater but less." (Tuchman, p. 438)

But professionalism was the future of war in the Renaissance. A hint of this arose with the famed English mercenary John Hawkwood, leader of the so-called White Company. Hawkwood´s soldiers were not the typical farmer or townsman called up for war service by a feudal lord only to return to the fields or workshops later. They were men who chose the bloodthirsty but potentially lucrative life of a soldier as an occupation.

Hawkwood´s success at selling his professional army´s services to the highest bidder regardless of geographic loyalties caught on, especially in Italy. Mercenary armies, or condotierre, dominated war in Italy in the 15th century, and skilled and ruthless captains like Facino Cane, Francesco Carmagnola and Braccio Fortebraccio earned fame and fortune with the sword. The most successful of these was Francesco Sforza, son of another mercenary captain Muzio Attendolo. Sforza took control of Milan in 1450 after the death of the last Visconti duke, ending the city´s short-lived attempt at a republic.

At roughly the same time, the reliance on heavy calvary, or the armored knight, waned throughout Europe. J.R. Hale in his book "War and Society in Renaissance Europe 1450-1620" illustrates the point in part with a comparison of calvary versus infantry numbers in various battles. He takes the French armies of 1494 and 1552 as the best comparison: When France invaded Italy in 1494, calvary and infantry strengths were roughly equal at 13,000 to 15,000 respectively. But 50 years later during the Metz campaign, France fielded only 6,000 calvary versus a whopping 32,000 infantry. (Hale, p. 53) Hale rightfully cautions that drawing conclusions from such numbers is a dangerous game. The size of armies is only one indication of a trend away from heavy calvary.

Another indication was the success of disciplined and trained infantry when facing calvary. The Swiss pikemen, soldiers with long, spiked staffs who battled in tight square formations, were so effective that they inspired some strategists to look at the potential of infantry in a new way. The late Middle Ages/Early Renaissance also saw an increase in artillery use, though early cannons were oversized and inefficient, better for soldier morale than for hitting an enemy target in battle. Early guns were expensive, slow to load and difficult to aim. But in the 16th century, all of that would change.