The Military Revolution and European Expansion

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The Military Revolution and European Expansion


Constant Warfare. Europeans in the age of exploration and expansion held a significant military advantage over nearly all of the people they encountered when they traveled to other parts of the globe. European military prowess grew largely from technological advances made by the major powers as they fought one another almost incessantly throughout the Renaissance era. Before 1350 Europes military technology was generally no more advanced than that which could be found among the other major civilizations of the late medieval world. As late as 1415 at the height of the Hundred Years War, English king Henry V led a highly successful invasion of France with a small army of only about eight thousand men. Moreover the most effective battlefield weapon during Henrys campaign in France that year was the Welsh longbow, an efficient weapon for its time but hardly an engine of mass destruction. In short Europeans at the dawn of the Renaissance may even have been significantly behind the Muslims, Chinese, and other major world civilizations in their ability to make war. Nearly two centuries later, however, late-sixteenth-century European states often fielded armies then numbered in the hundreds of thousands, armed with much more destructive weaponry including artillery and primitive muskets. The dramatic transformation of European warfare in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries has been said by some historians to have constituted a military revolution. The elements of this revolution provide important clues to an explanation of how European states were able to build far-reaching empires in the Americas and around the globe in the age of exploration and expansion.

Gunpowder and Firearms. Ironically the use of gunpowder and firearms in battle was not originally a European invention. The Chinese had discovered the correct formula for gunpowder as early as the ninth century a.d., and by the mid 1200s Chinese armies were already using metal-barreled cannon in battle. The earliest evidence of such artillery in Europe, by contrast, dates only to the mid 1300s. In addition to cannon European armies in the Renaissance era began to make use of primitive handheld firearms called arquebuses, the bulky precursors of the musket. Whether in China or Europe, however, the military usefulness of early firearms was limited by several factors. First, these early guns were dangerous to use; they were nearly as likely to explode in the faces of those firing them as they were to inflict damage on the enemy. Second, they had extremely limited range and accuracy compared to more-traditional missile weapons such as the longbow. Finally, the usefulness of early fire-arms was limited by the length of time needed to reload. Whereas a well-trained archer could discharge up to ten arrows a minute, for example, it typically took a fifteenth-century arquebusier several minutes just to load his weapon once. Despite their limited effectiveness on European battlefields, Spanish conquerors in the sixteenth-century Americas always took along at least some firearms on their campaigns. Among the natives of the Americas who had never seen such weaponry, the roar of European cannon and muskets according to many reports frequently inspired fear and dread.


Spain was the first European state to establish a territorial empire in the Americas. Through the course of their conquests in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central and South America, the Spaniards developed a reputation for cruel treatment of conquered Native American populations. Spains enemies in Europe (the French, Dutch, and English) exploited tales of Spanish atrocities in the New World to build a popular image of Spain as an evil empire. These stories collectively contributed to what historians call the Black Legend of Spanish cruelty.

Spains reputation was partly deserved. It is true, for instance, that Spanish conquistadores and colonial settlers often treated conquered populations inhumanely. It is also true that the Native Americans died by the millions in the wake of Spains imperial expansion. The principal cause of death and suffering was not, however, Spanish weapons but rather the inadvertent introduction of Old World diseases such as smallpox and measles against which the populations of the Americas had no immunity. Far from celebrating the mass slaughter wrought by diseases among the American natives, Spanish authorities took whatever feeble steps they could to stop the epidemics. After all, the Spanish wanted more souls to convert to Christianity and more laborers to put to work, not more dead bodies. In general, official Spanish crown policies through the 1500s sought to protect the natives of conquered areas from abuse by Spanish settlers. From across the Atlantic Ocean, however, effective enforcement of royal policies proved impossible, and exploitation of conquered populations continued in many areas.

Ironically it was a Spanish critic of these abuses who provided the fuel for the Black Legend as it spread across Europe: the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas. Las Casas wrote a scathing book about his countrymens cruel treatment of the natives of the Caribbean islands titled The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account (1552). In the second half of the sixteenth century, his book was translated into French and English, and his stories of Spanish atrocities became the basis for popular disdain of the Spaniards in other areas of Europe. When France and England began to attempt to establish their own permanent colonial settlements in the Americas in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they often expected to be welcomed by the Native American populations as protectors against the universally despised Spaniards.

Source: Anthony Pagden, Lords of All the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain, and France c. 15001800 (New Haven, Conn. & London: Yale University Press, 1995).

From Castles to Forts. Even if primitive Renaissance-era firearms rarely proved decisive in open battles, their effects on European warfare were nonetheless far-reaching. Over the centuries preceding the Renaissance, for example, the lofty walls of medieval castles had proven largely impenetrable from direct assaults by even the best-equipped European armies. Fifteenth-century cannon, however, could reduce even large and well-defended castles to rubble in a matter of hours. The advent of artillery in European warfare thus led to a radical transformation in defensive fortifications. Beginning in Italy in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Europeans began to abandon old medieval castle designs with their tall, thin walls and build instead new styles of fortifications characterized by low, thick walls that could withstand repeated barrages of cannon fire. Moreover the jagged outer works of these new-style forts allowed defending garrisons to fire directly on any attacking army that approached its low walls. By the mid sixteenth century this new style of fortification in Europe had become quite effective in resisting assault. When applied by the Spanish and Portuguese to their growing overseas empires in the sixteenth century, this system of fortification provided bases of colonial operation that proved nearly impregnable. A well-preserved sixteenth-century example of this sort of colonial fortification survives today in San Juan, Puerto Rico.


Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 15001800 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988);

Brian Tierney and Sidney Painter, Western Europe in the Middle Ages, 3001475, third edition (New York: Knopf, 1978).

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The Military Revolution and European Expansion

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