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  • The Art of Renaissance Warfare: From the Fall of Constantinople to the Thirty Years War
  • Niccolò Capponi
Stephen Turnbull . The Art of Renaissance Warfare: From the Fall of Constantinople to the Thirty Years War. London: Greenhill Books, 2006. 272 pp. index. map. chron. illus. bibl. $34.95. ISBN: 1-85367-676-4.

People — including myself — familiar with Professor Turnbull's enthralling studies on Japanese military history are likely to be disappointed by The Art of Renaissance Warfare. In the first place, the title is misleading, as the book deals mainly with sixteenth-century martial operations (something the author himself admits in the introduction) and pays little attention to other military matters. Secondly, the sources cited are variable in quality: some, like Sir John Hale's War and Society in Renaissance Europe, are undoubtedly sound, others simply passé and sometimes of dubious accuracy. Moreover, the bibliography consists largely of works in English, although a few are translations from other languages. All this contributes to make the book sketchy and, to a large extent, unsatisfactory.

Since The Art of Renaissance Warfare "is concerned with the changes in warfare that occurred between the fall of Constantinople and the outbreak of the Thirty Years War" (20), it is surprising how little attention is given to the cultural milieu of the period. Only en passant does the reader discover the impact of classical culture in the development of Renaissance warfare, although Professor Turnbull appears to dismiss it altogether. Also, while a whole chapter is dedicated to the emergence of the revolutionary Swiss infantry tactics, no explanation is given about how it happened. Besides, the author gives the impression that all long-standing military developments occurred north of the Alps, or should be ascribed to Northern European technological progress. The evolution of fortifications is a case in point. Professor Turnbull believes that the birth of bastioned walls was a consequence of the 1494 French invasion of Italy, quoting Francesco Guicciardini to buttress this argument. Yet the first bastions appeared in Italy a decade before as a result of the groundbreaking performance of siege artillery during the so-called War of the Pazzi Conspiracy (1478-80). In fact, the author largely overlooks the [End Page 1263] Italian side of the story, and the only military writers mentioned at some length are Blaise de Monluc, François de la Noue, and John Smith of Pocahontas fame. Why not mention, for instance, Roberto Valturio's De Re Militari, given its circulation all over Europe, and what about the military treatises by Orso degli Orsini and Diomede Carafa? Finally, in the section on galley warfare the author repeats the old cliché about hand-to-hand fighting as being the preferred naval tactic in the sixteenth-century Mediterranean, only to contradict himself a few paragraphs later by quoting a passage by "one" [sic] Pantero Pantera, stressing the importance of firearms (91-93).

While these faults turn The Art of Renaissance Warfare into something akin to a scholarly debacle, Professor Turnbull's métier allows him to save the day. A brilliant storyteller, capable of carrying the reader from one battle to another without a glitch, he has nevertheless avoided producing a dated histoire bataille, using instead the description of the various military encounters to illustrate the new technology and tactics characteristic of Renaissance warfare. This allows him to successfully argue a crucial historiographical point: namely, that martial know-how counts for little unless properly used. In fact the author clearly shows how the Swiss victories in the Burgundian Wars, far from being a foregone conclusion, were the result of Charles the Bold's mistakes coupled with a good dose of luck. Likewise, his chapters on the wars in Eastern Europe (possibly the best of the whole book) challenge the use of the military revolution argument as an absolute paradigm: different overall conditions in the Eastern theater often caused the failure of military techniques so successful in Western Europe. Professor Turnbull also takes to task the soundness of the drill system devised by Maurice of Nassau, pointing out that despite its widespread acceptance it "lacked the acid test of a glorious victory" (216). This just confirms that often an accepted...


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pp. 1263-1264
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