The Military Revolution? 1500-1700

It is undeniable that warfare changed between 1500 and 1700, but is it fair to call those changes a “revolution”? Perhaps the word “revolution” is a term that carries too much baggage – it implies fast, complete and total changes, which perhaps do not apply to warfare in this time period in the way that one would think.

According to Michael Roberts in 1955, the military revolution occurred between the years 1560-1650 and directly related to the introduction of gunpowder weapons, tactics and the bigger historical picture.[1]  The introduction of firearms and artillery into a military force necessitated larger, permanent standing armies which led to innovations in governments and administrations needed to oversee them.[2]  Innovations in warfare, however, which Roberts deemed a “military revolution” created the concept and the necessity for the modern state.[3]  Robert’s thesis on the military revolution between the years 1560-1660 in the early modern period focused on four key points: in tactics, strategy, scale and impact on society.[4]  There is evidence to suggest, however, that the armies of Spain and several other nation states were utilizing what Roberts deemed ‘revolutionary’ prior to the years he marks as the military revolution, including permanent armies that were well trained, adaptations in tactics and overseen by a military administration system.[5]  On the other hand, there were significant examples of standardization in many militaries throughout this century, and the introduction and significant use of military tactical handbooks accounted for many of the changes in tactics observed in the warfare of this period.[6]

In contrast, Geoffrey Parker in the 1970s argued that the revolution also sparked changes in defensive structures, making them capable of withstanding enemy artillery fire.[7]  Comparing the expansion of Western powers in the late 19th and early 20th century makes the innovations of the 17th and 18th centuries pale in comparison.[8]  Regardless of these two ideas of the military revolution, it is safe to say that there was no “standard practice” or “Ideal model” of warfare in these two centuries.[9]  While various countries encountered each other and used various tactics and often adopted tactics that they observed or experienced, warfare varied between states.[10]  Additionally while changes in tactics did occur with the introduction of firepower, it is arguable that morale, resolve and unit cohesion was equally important – if not more so – to a particular army’s success.[11]

Ultimately I think it is clear that there were many changes in both war and society in these two centuries, but I am unconvinced that these changes can accurately be called a “military revolution”. If it was a revolution at all, I think it’s more accurate to say that it was a revolution of society as powers gained wealth, notoriety, territory, weaponry and governmental structures conducive to fielding larger, advanced, technological armies in the attempt to gain the upper hand over their enemies.

[1] Jeremy Black, “Was There a Military Revolution in Early modern Europe?” History Today 58, no. 7 (2008): 34-41.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Geoffrey Parker, “The ‘Military Revolution’ 1560-1660 – a Myth?” The Journal of Modern History 48, no. 2 (1976): 195-214.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Black.

[8] Black.

[9] Black.

[10] Black.

[11] Black.


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