Politics, Law, and the Military: Overview
1350 - 1600: Politics, Law, and the Military: Overview
Holy Roman Empire. In the Middle Ages the accepted form of government was the monarchy, in which one man had absolute authority, and the ideal was the universal empire, in which all the peoples of the world were subject to one emperor. The Holy Roman emperors claimed authority over all Christendom, but by 1350 the empire was called the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, indicating that it largely consisted of Germany. There were about three hundred territorial divisions that controlled their own local affairs. The emperor was elected by seven major lords of the empire. In 1438 Albert V, Duke of Austria, was elected, and the title stayed in the Habsburg family for the duration of the empire.
Ottoman Empire. The Turkish Ottoman Empire also claimed universal authority, although its mandate came from Islam. Osman I, its founder, had built a powerful state in Asia Minor by his death in 1326. His successors expanded their lands at the expense of the Byzantine Empire, completing the conquest when Constantinople was taken in 1453. By 1526 the Ottoman Turks controlled the Middle East, the Balkans, and Hungary.
Elective and Joint Monarchies. Imperial claims to universal rule infuriated kings who asserted their own sovereign power. There were several elective monarchies— Poland-Lithuania, Bohemia, and Hungary—in eastern Europe, where the rulers were chosen by the nobility. There were joint monarchies, such as Poland-Lithuania, in which two or more realms with separate governments had the same ruler. The Union of Kalmar (1397) created a joint monarchy for Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. The union endured until 1523, when Sweden seceded. The most-powerful joint monarchy came from the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in 1469. Their realms remained two separate states until 1592, when their great-grandson Philip II united the two kingdoms with a central administration. Spain thus became a national kingdom, where the borders of the realm largely coincided with a dominant ethnic group from which came the ruler. France, England, Scotland, and Portugal were among the other national kingdoms in which hereditary succession determined the right to the throne.
City-States and Confederacies. Northern Italy was the home of city-state republics, including Venice, one of the major powers of Europe. Their form of government was the commune, in which the members of the merchant and artisan guilds had political rights. The number of city-states had been as large as eighty in 1350, but by that time the largest cities were rapidly expanding, taking over what had been independent cities. The best example was Venice, which built a large state on the Italian mainland. Milan and Florence also expanded, and both eventually became duchies. The commune was the form of urban government across Europe, but most of the cities had to answer to a royal authority. The exception was a group of mostly northern German cities that formed the Hanseatic League. It was organized in 1356 to control trade in the North and Baltic Seas. Until 1500 it was a major economic and political power in northern Europe, but the growing power of neighboring kings and competition from Dutch traders caused its decline. There were also two unique states in Europe. The pope was the ruler of lands that stretched across central Italy, but his authority over the Papal States was often limited. The Swiss Confederation was a loosely affiliated group of cantons. It was formed in 1291 when three cantons joined to oppose the outside claims to authority over them. By 1500 the confederation had reached largely the borders of modern Switzerland. In most respects the thirteen cantons were independent republics, but they did cooperate during wartime.
Administration. Government administration in 1350 was marked by amateurism; many officials had no formal training for their positions. Clergymen often became officials because they could read and write. Another feature was the small number of officials. The Italian city-states set the standard for effective administration. Their wealth enabled them to finance large bodies of professional officials, with the Venetian diplomatic service being the best example. By 1431 Venice was dispatching diplomats across Europe.
Government Officials. The other Italian cities retained elements of their earlier communes as did the cities of northern Europe. In the Holy Roman Empire the emperor appointed the imperial chancellor, the chief administrative officer. When matters concerning the entire empire needed to be decided, the Imperial Diet met. Its usual function was approving taxes for an imperial army. The growth of royal administration was a key characteristic in the national monarchies of the late Middle Ages. The principle of royal government was that the king embodied in himself all of the powers of government and handed out a share of it to others for the well-ordered governance of the realm. The English and French governments were highly similar. The chancellor was the chief officer of the realm under the king. He kept the great seal that was used on royal decrees, and he supervised the systems of justice and taxation. War was the major reason why kings raised taxes. In peacetime they were expected to live off their properties and feudal dues. In 1362 Edward III promised the English Parliament that the monarchy would not impose a new tax without its con-sent. With its two houses (Lords and Commons), Parliament avoided the problem of the bitter division between nobles and commoners found in the Estates General in France with its three estates (clergy, nobles, and commoners). The Estates General never gained a major role, because the French kings found that it was not helpful. Similar institutions were found in nearly every medieval realm. The Ottoman Empire’s administration was far different. In a way that was never true in Europe, the sultan combined in himself supreme authority of both state and religion. The millions of Christians and Jews in the empire were allowed to govern themselves as long as they paid taxes. The sultans created an impressive administration for their vast empire that lasted into the modern era. The Spanish and Portuguese also were successful in building an effective administration for the overseas empires that they won after 1492.
Changes in Warfare. In 1350 the heavily armored knight still dominated the battlefields of Europe with his couched lance and broad sword. Against commoner foot soldiers, knights had held an enormous advantage for centuries, but by 1350 some infantry weapons were in use that reduced knightly superiority. Crossbow, longbow, and pike, when used correctly, were effective weapons against charging cavalry. In the long term the most-important new weapons were those using gunpowder, a Chinese invention that was carried westward by the Mongols in the thirteenth century. The first reliable mention of gunpowder weaponry in Europe is dated to 1326. Early gunpowder weapons were ineffective in battle, but with improvements they soon became formidable.
Gunpowder Weapons. Several innovations made effective handguns possible. Corned powder and the match appeared about 1420, and the matchlock, by 1460; together they created the arquebus. As a smoothbore weapon it was inaccurate, and it took over a minute to reload. The Spanish musket, a heavier firearm that used a larger ball, appeared about 1520. Its weight required the use of a fork for resting the barrel. Another new weapon was the pistol, which used the wheel lock mechanism. Its expense restricted its use to the nobles.
English Victories. Shortly before the Renaissance infantry had been victorious over armies of knights in two major battles—Laupen (1339) and Crécy (1346). A knight’s proper opponent was another knight, not poorly armed and untrained infantrymen. Knightly disdain for fighting commoners was a major reason for the English victories in the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), as the French knights largely ignored the commoner archers in order to battle the English knights. In a war with the Scots, the English developed the combination of longbow archers and dismounted knights that proved so effective against the French. During their conflict against the French, the English commanders were victorious when they chose the terrain for the battle—a hilltop where they placed their forces to wait for the French attack. What defeats the English suffered occurred when they could not dictate the terrain and battle tactics, such as at Orléans (1429), where they fought French forces led by Joan of Arc. In their last battles in the war the French effectively used small cannon against the English.
Swiss Innovations. For all of the victories won by English tactics, the Swiss system of pike and halberd proved more revolutionary. In the fourteenth century the Swiss defeated Austrian knightly armies and established their style of fighting. Their tactics were successful in the era before 1515, but their style of warfare became obsolete in the face of improved gunpowder weapons. The first army successfully to use them was Jan Zizka’s forces during the Hussite revolt that broke out in Bohemia in 1415. Zizka’s use of war wagons gave his untrained soldiers a stable platform from which to fire their gunpowder weapons against their mounted foes. By the time of the French invasions of Italy in 1494, both cannon and firearms had been improved sufficiently so that they could be used as effective weapons in the field. The Spanish captain Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba introduced the combination of arquebus and pike. The slow reloading time and inaccuracy of the arquebus required pikemen to protect the handgun-ners as they reloaded. The infantry formation in which pikemen and handgunners provided mutual support became known as the Spanish Square. It was the dominant formation in European combat for the next century. As for the Turks, they continued to depend on a combination of light and heavy cavalry and infantry for victory until 1600.
Naval Warfare. Gunpowder also changed the nature of war at sea. In the fifteenth century, cannon and firearms began to replace catapults and bows onboard ship. Gun ports allowed the heavy guns to be placed lower on the ship and increased its stability. By 1540 the galleon, with up to forty heavy guns firing through gun ports, could project naval power far from its home waters. In the Mediterranean, the long naval war between Christians and Muslims reached its climax in the sixteenth century. The greatest battle in the history of galleys was the Battle of Lepanto (1571) off the Greek coast. The Christian fleet at Lepanto included several much larger galleasses, whose firepower played a major role in their victory. It led to a great increase in the size of galleys, which, however, made them slower and more vulnerable to the sailing ships from the Atlantic making excursions into the Mediterranean by 1600. The major conflict between Atlantic fleets involved the Spanish Armada. The failure of the Armada in 1588 was not the end of Spanish naval power, since Philip II rebuilt his fleet, but the episode convinced the English monarchy that it should build a powerful royal navy.
Fortifications. By 1350 the medieval fortification had reached its apex and changed little for more than a century, until the development of gunpowder artillery began to have an impact. The castle primarily served as the residence of a powerful lord. Typically, it had high stone walls with round towers surrounded by a ditch and a variety of other structures designed to aid the defenders in holding off attackers. The walls of towns were constructed little differently except for their far greater length. In 1350 a well-built castle or walled town defended by a small garrison of resolute men was capable of withstanding a siege even when it was the king’s army that was besieging it. Over the next century the development of gunpowder artillery into effective siege weapons turned the advantage to the attackers. By 1453 the French had established the first effective royal artillery train. The development of the mobile gun carriage allowed heavy guns to be transported at about the same speed as the rest of the army. The major success of cannon in the fifteenth century was the successful siege of Constantinople (1453) by the Ottoman Turks. The superbly fortified city fell after a siege of a month. The crucial development in the late fifteenth century was the casting of bronze muzzle-loaders. Such cannon had a major role during the French invasions of Italy beginning in 1494. In a few days the French took Italian fortifications that the Italians expected would take them all summer to capture.
Italian Trace. The Italians, seeking ways to withstand the French artillery, developed the Italian trace. The key innovation was the bastion, which projected far forward of the wall to provide better flanking fire. The bastion was designed so guns at the flanks of a bastion could sweep every foot of the adjoining wall and the face of the neigh-boring bastion. As long as the architect’s calculations were correct, the bastions could provide cover from fire all the way around the wall. By 1570 the offense again was catching up to the defense. Improvements in the casting of iron led to better iron cannons. Iron being cheap, the new method led to a vast increase in the number of guns that could do severe damage to fortifications. Military architects responded by designing ways to push the besiegers’ heavy guns further from the walls by using outworks, which were developed extensively during the Dutch Revolt against Spain in the 1570s. The Europeans used the Italian trace successfully in their occupation of large parts of the world in the sixteenth century. The failure of the Ottoman Turks to keep up with European fortification design and siege craft was a factor in the decline of that empire’s power in the late sixteenth century.
Rise of Monarchies. These military developments effectively ended the role of petty rulers in most parts of Europe. In 1350 a handful of resolute warriors could withstand sieges from even the king’s army; hence, knights in Medieval Europe could openly defy their king. By the fifteenth century, developments in gunpowder artillery had reversed this advantage and kings won great advantages over the local knights. Monarchs strengthened their control and expanded their kingdoms at the expense of the petty rulers. The centralizing monarchs created more effective bureaucracies in their efforts to consolidate power.
Legal Codes. The monarchy also began to replace local customary laws with written codes based on Roman law. Roman law was a revival of a code from the ancient Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was ruled for more than six hundred years by emperors, and thus Roman law was a legal tradition favorable to monarchical rule. Kings were eager to employ a legal system that placed them at the focal point of the law. The eleventh-century revival of emperor Justinian’s Body of the Civil Law began a revival of Roman law in Europe. Roman law evolved into a field requiring extensive university training. Law departments at the universities were divided into the study of Roman law and of a related law code, known as canon law. Roman law covered issues falling under the government’s jurisdiction and canon law covered legal issues within the Church’s jurisdiction, yet the two shared several procedural elements that had a profound influence upon the European legal tradition.
Evolution of the Law. The term canon was used by the early Christian Church to signify formal decisions of church legislation. This legislative process evolved into a system of ecclesiastical or church law that regulated the Church and issues of belief. Canon law was distinct from the customary laws of northern Europe and the written or Roman law of southern Europe. The revival of Justinian’s Body of the Civil Law and the twelfth-century appearance of Gratian of Bologna’s Decretum, or Concordance of Discordant Canons, set the stage for a Renaissance revival of Roman and canon law. Both systems evolved into highly specialized university disciplines. Moreover, both were employed across Christian Europe with the exception of England, Wales, and Ireland, where a system of case law was deeply entrenched. The Reformation split the legal profession because Protestant reformers broke with the Roman Catholic Church and thereby rejected the Church’s system of canon law. Protestants expanded Roman law and gave it a role over marriage, divorce, and other areas that had previously fallen under canon law. Canon law declined in the sixteenth century, but many aspects of it remained because they had been assimilated into Roman law, such as the traditions of the Inquisition. By the end of the fifteenth century, the state could withhold from the accused the names and testimony of the witnesses. Courts began to function in secret and turned to trials as a public ceremony at the end of a secretive inquisition. Punishment and execution evolved into a public spectacle that legitimized the court by demonstrating the populace’s consent to a sentence that they could no longer control.
Crime and Punishment. Centralization of power in the hands of a few monarchs and the imposition of Roman law codes contributed to a dramatic shift in the treatment and punishment of criminals in Renaissance and Reformation Europe. Rulers redefined crimes as attacks on the state and thereby created a new role for the courts. When the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 eliminated ordeals, or the physical testing of oaths, rulers turned to inquistorial trial procedures that combined elements of Roman and canon law. Church inquisitional tribunals aimed at finding and stop-ping heresy. In the opinion of church and government authorities, heresy threatened all of society and thus justified drastic measures. Rather than wait for accusations, Inquisition courts took the initiative of starting hearings and collecting evidence. Potential heretics were presumed guilty until proven innocent. The accused did not know what the exact charges were and could not review evidence being used against them. Heresy was difficult to prove and Inquisitors frequently turned to torture as a means to obtain confessions. Common forms of torture included stretching body limbs with a rope or on a rack, water or fire torment, and sleep deprivation.
State Models. Inquisitional techniques became models for the state and torture became a common method of extracting confessions. Officials interrogated and tortured suspected criminals without allowing recourse to a defense attorney. Punishments could range from fines and disgrace to mutilations and death. Executions by burning, drowning, and burying alive were common because they allegedly purified the community. After 1600, hanging and beheading became more common. The church sentenced heretics in a public ceremony, known as an auto de fe, and then turned them over to the state for public punishment. The condemned were usually burned at the stake in the sixteenth century. The actual burning took place on feast days and in public squares to insure a large audience of leading officials and common people. The judicial system punished rather than rehabilitated, so punishments were usually public affairs.
Prisons. Precursors to the modern prison system were built in the late sixteenth century, but they were not used for criminals. City governments constructed these early houses of correction for the able-bodied poor. Work-houses, such as Bridewell in England, attempted to rehabilitate idle people by housing them in an environment where they were forced to work. By 1600 the judicial system remained punitive but notions of rehabilitation were evident in the emerging prison system.