Non-Western Warfare in the 15th Century

It’s clear that the development of warfare and society in the east diverged and developed much differently than it did in the European dominated west.  The question this week asks why.  In our first essay, the author compares the isolationist-leaning specialist troops of the Ottoman Janissaries and the Japanese Samurai, and discusses potential reasons for their aversion to gunpowder technology.  Both of these specialty troops were not only their respective nations’ elites, but they were a different societal class than common warriors that were either pressed into military service or compelled to serve a Lord.  The European model of warfare in this period emphasized chivalry, and their warfare centered on Knights – and then ranged gunpowder weaponry as knights began to lose prominence in favor of newer, more effective technology.[1]  Both the Janissaries and the Samurai, however, refused to adapt to the new gunpowder usage and preferred traditional methods, including the famous Samurai sword which was as much a symbol of prestige as it was a weapon.[2]

Although both the Janissaries and the Samurai began as specialized military orders, they moved from warfare applications to more administrative roles in their respective cultures.  Yet they both desired to retain their status as warriors and a special class above the common people.  Ultimately both of these units failed to live up to their reputations and were eliminated by the cultures that they originally served.[3]   For both Japanese and Ottoman cultures, gunpowder and gunpowder weaponry, although advancing far faster than their traditional weapons, would be “beneath” these military elites, and their refusal to adapt to their usage set both of these cultures behind the technological progress of their European counterparts.

China, unlike Japan, did have a period of expansionist policies under the explorations of Zheng He.  Yet later Emperors denied his progress towards Chinese expansion and exploration, tainted his accomplishments and made future exploratory exploits illegal.[4]  While it is possible that Kristof’s explanation for this shift in opinion can be attributed to Chinese isolationism, this policy cost them dearly as Europe began to explore, trade and dominate Asian waters.  I would imagine the counter to this argument would be that it was isolationism and a combination of other factors, namely political distrust and internal discord that encouraged the change in policy as new Emperors came to power and sought to make a name for themselves through internal policies rather than external exploration.

[1] Oleg Benesch, “Comparing Warrior Traditions: How the Janissaries and Samurai Maintained Their Status and Privileges During Centuries of Peace,” Comparative Civilizations Review (2006): Vol. 55 no. 6, 50.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Nicholas Kristof, from “1492: The Prequel,” The New York Times Magazine (June 6, 1999).

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