by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the February 1999, A.S. XXXIII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
If asked to name a weapon from the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, the first to come to mind for most people is the sword. And the sword was certainly the premier weapon of the time. If asked for the most influential weapon of this period, you might get answers like the longbow or the pike. It will only be after some thought that some will realize that the correct answer is the gun. For with the coming of the gun the structures that formed the Middle Ages literally crumbled.
Even when people remember that guns were part of the period the SCA studies, they usually associated them with the last century. Yet the story of guns begins in the middle of the High Middle Ages. There is uncertain evidence that firearms were first used in Europe by the Mongols in 1241. In 1267 Roger Bacon wrote down the recipe for gunpowder. The first depiction of a cannon is found in a manuscript done in 1326. By the 1340's and increasing number of towns could boast of possessing cannon. By 1400 they were a military necessity.
Necessary, but not necessarily effective. Early cannon were built like barrels, held together by hoops and forge welding, and so were relatively weak. Gunpowder was also of questionable and variable quality. As a result, cannons were often as much a danger to the cannoneers as to the enemy. Ponderous weapons, they were difficult to move, and once setup almost impossible to re-aim. Easy to avoid in the field, they were relegated to siege work.
Throughout the 15th century, these and other defects were dealt with. By the end of the century, while there were refinements still to be made, the basic form and organization of firearms could be seen. Ordinances were promulgated, detailing the specifications of firearms and their provisions. The bow and pole-arm were still the principal infantry weapons, but their days were already numbered.
Like the crossbow before it, the gun had its supporters and detractors, and for much the same reasons. It did not require much training to learn how to use it, or remain proficient with it. It could kill at a distance even though armour. (It was still possible to make armour bullet resistant, but by 1600 with the continuous improvement of small arms, such armour was so heavy to be unwearable. Bullet dents can be found on a large number of late period armour. These are usually the result of proof tests and not battle damage.) Its main disadvantage was its slow rate of fire.
Since the early makers of gunpowder came from the ranks of the alchemists, guns became associated with magic. And as it threaten the existing hierarchy, many considered it the work of the devil. The noise, smoke and smell of expended gunpowder added to this notion. And like the crossbow, none of this slowed people down from using it.
While knocking down high castle walls was spectacular, this was not the reason why guns had such a profound impact. It is relatively easy to adapt the walls to take cannon fire. It was in the economics of owning cannon. Acquiring and supporting a siege train of cannon was expansive. And increasingly necessary to take or defend a fortress. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, only kings could afford this expense, and the lesser nobles could not stand up to them. The kings could afford this because they could exploit sources of revenue unavailable to the lower nobility. This freedom from the lower nobility effectively collapses the feudal order and allows the rise of the nation-states.
Note I said "allows" and not "cause". For guns are just part of the tapestry that denotes the end of the Middle Ages. The increase in trade which gives rise to the middle class, the increasing willingness of the intellectuals to look at things in new ways, the inability of the old order to deal with the natural catastrophes of the later Middle Ages all added to the impetus that created the Modern Age. It is to the gun that we own the speed of this transition. For against the gun the old order had no defense, no way of slowing down the changes it had wrought. Only feudal Japan held out, and only by banning guns all together, and collapsed utterly when those with guns returned to stay.
Boutell, Charles. Arms and Armour in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Trans. M. P. Lacombe. Conshohoken: Combined Books, 1996.
Contamine, Philippe. War in the Middle Ages. Ed. M. Jones. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1986.
Mueller, Heinrich. Guns, Pistols, Revolvers: Hand-Firearms from the 14th to the 19th Centuries. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980.
Norman, A.V.B. and Don Pottinger. English Weapons and Warfare 449-1660. New York: Dorset Press, 1979.
Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.