New technologies in general and gunpowder weapons in particular have a constantly debated role in the development of warfare, and it is to this debate that Bert S. Hall contributes his much-needed study, Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe. Hall explores the incorporation of new weapons into military tactics from the age of the longbow in the late thirteenth century to the introduction of the pistol in the sixteenth.The book focuses, however, on the frontier of possibilities and limitations that the development of gunpowder weapons offered to European army commanders.
As a contribution both to military history and to the history of technology, this book provides a valuable perspective. That perspective could be summed up (albeit reductively) in the phrase interdependent evolution. Both the “military revolution” and the “gunpowder revolution,” to which the former is often allied, find a detractor in Hall’s study of key battle narratives and their relation to gradual technological development in weaponry. Hall corrects simplistic historical narratives that read a linear progression onto large hunks of time by showing us the more confused, sometimes overlapping, “transformations” that occurred in military tactics and military technologies.
Perhaps the most important of these transformations took place in the fifteenth century. In analyzing it, Hall presents us with a conundrum: if gunpowder weapons and bombards appeared in Europe during the first half of the fourteenth century, why was it not until the sixteenth century that these weapons became central to warfare? He also provides us with the answer: it was precisely in the “delay” of the fifteenth century that so much experimentation and development took place. The effort to incorporate firearms into preexisting modes of battle and to overcome their technical and economical difficulties took many twists and turns. Among these, Hall pays special attention to the refinements in gunpowder making, namely, gunpowder’s development as a more economical and standardized product, and a more portable one. These refinements, however, are also tied to [End Page 134] interdependent developments of gun making itself. Cheaper gunpowder allowed for larger-bore, longer cannons, and the development of corning techniques promoted the effective exploitation of new lock mechanisms in handheld artillery.
If God is in the details, Bert Hall must be a religious man. His work is crowded with rich and varied details and connections. Indeed it is the small innovation, such as the corned gunpowder, to which he most often directs his attention as having many of the greatest ramifications. He chides historians who work on later centuries for assigning effects to gunpowder technology without concerning themselves with the minute processes by which that technology came to fruition. While this is fair enough, Hall’s own zest for incremental innovations may leave these very historians still hungering for a broader overview of the conditions in which the new plateau of sixteenth-century warfare was reached.
Ironically, while Hall vehemently opposes the causal argument by which Geoffrey Parker attempted to establish the “military revolution” in the sixteenth century, he seems to accept Parker’s premise that that century represented the establishment of a kind of warfare that would be practiced for the next two hundred years. In reasserting the role of medieval tradition and accounting for numerous early experiments with gunpowder warfare, Hall sometimes barely acknowledges the turn of the page from anything we might characterize as medieval to anything we might say is distinctly different. With a barrage of empirical evidence and learned guesses, he weakens early modernists’ notions that gunpowder arms significantly increased the size of armies beyond what it had been before the black plague. He also disputes the idea that the new anticannon engineering in fortifications did anything but reestablish a stalemate between defense and offense, which had only been interrupted by big guns in the fifteenth century. Indeed, Hall’s interest in “effects” is limited. The burdens faced because of an increased scale of gunpowder weapons, their broader and more varied use, the skills necessarily organized for their mobilization (as opposed to...