History Blog

History Blog: Italian Renaissance - In Like a Knight, Out Like a Cannon - Part 2

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We left off last time with the dying traditions of late medieval war. The mercenary captains that dominated battle in Italy were the only professional warriors of the 15th century, gunpowder and cannon were too new and volatile to be wholly effective, and few scholars bothered at the time to think and write systematically about warfare.

In the 16th century, professional interest in war exploded, and treatises like Machiavelli´s "The Art of War" were products of the relatively new printing presses that sprouted across Europe after Gutenberg founded moveable type in Mainz, Germany. Italy had a special reason for considering more closely the war question. In 1494, France under King Charles VIII invaded the peninsula and quickly toppled town after town on his way to claim the throne of Naples. During the next few decades, Italy became a battleground in the power struggles between France, Spain and Germany. The popes too had a hand in this bloody circus. Between 1513 and 1534, the popes were from the Medici family, and they changed allegiance from one foreign power to another depending on affairs in Florence or the potential gain to the family.

Machiavelli´s book, published in 1521, was one of the first to revive classical military thought and tactics and apply them to the contemporary scene. The Roman Army was his model-- a professional standing army, a disciplined, trained, literate fighting unit with full supply wagons and steady pay. Medieval and mercenary armies, Machiavelli argued, lacked the cohesion, loyalty and logistical skill of the Romans. Italy´s weakness in the face of foreign invaders could be blamed on the disloyal mercenary armies, he said, and the peninsula could regain its strength only through developing standing armies of its own based on the Roman or French models. This was an expensive proposition. The development of effective artillery made it even more so.

Forms of gunpowder had been discovered as early as the 13th and 14th centuries, but the optimal proportion of ingrediants-- saltpeter (potassium nitrate), common charcoal and sulphur-- were not discovered until centuries later. Basically, gunpowder works when burning charcoal triggers a release of oxygen from the saltpeter which oxidizes the sulphur and creates an expansion of gases with propellant power. The optimal mix of ingrediants is 74.64% saltpeter, 13.51% charcoal and 11.85% sulphur. Saltpeter was rare and expensive, and only Italy had enough sulphur at home that import was unnecessary.

Early guns were very heavy. The triggerless handgun used in the late 15th century was several feet long, weighed up to 60 pounds, and had to be rested against a brace to be fired. Later, triggers developed including the matchlock with its burning wick and flash pan of gunpowder, and the wheel lock with its spark produced by a mechanism similar to modern cigarette lighters. Gunpowder and trigger improvements combined with advances in cannon. The 5-ton Mons Meg-style guns were outdated by 1500 or so and replaced by lighter, more mobile pieces.

Naturally, improvements in firearms transformed warfare in the Renaissance. Seiges became longer as defensive walls were built thicker and stronger to withstand artillery. Troop formations changed as the typical infantry lines thinned so that enemy cannon wouldn´t wipe out whole units at one blow. Artillery and hand guns were wildly expensive, but increasingly necessary for a successful army. Units of musketeers and trained artillerists made infantry more valuable than it had ever been in medieval warfare. Knights in armor all but disappeared, and the sword became a secondary weapon to the gun.

Soldiers in the Renaissance could also count on a more dangerous job. Sword cuts tended to be clean and stop at the bone, while gun shots tended to break through the bones and tear muscle. This meant a higher chance of getting gangrene, of losing limbs, and of death from wounds. In the 17th century, the study of ballistics helped cannon and guns hit targets-- whether flesh and blood or brick and mortar-- more effectively. This paved the way for some of the bloodiest wars in history.