© Jennie Seay 1995 - Use without permission will result in a painful altercation with a catapult.
The Effects of Gunpowder on Medieval Society
O! curs'd device! base implement of death!
Fram'd in the black Tartarean realms beneath!
By Beelzebub's malicious art design'd
To ruin all the race of human kind.
Such were the sentiments of the poet Ariosto on the subject of gunpowder, an invention that would shatter the foundation of the medieval world. With the shot of the first cannon in the fourteenth century, gunpowder became the instrument of chaotic change, tearing down the calculated defenses of princes and kings and slaughtering the noble knight in his shining armor. Warfare was the core of political and social revolution in the Middle Ages. The bigger, better, more accurate weaponry made possible by the mysterious combination of saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal was a deciding factor in many key battles, including the Battle of Crecy in 1346, the siege of Orleans in 1428 - 1429, the Battle of Formigny in 1450, the siege of Constantinople in 1453 and the Battle of Chastillon in 1453 that ended the Hundred Years War. The superior artillery of France was one of the main reasons for its victory in the Hundred Years War. Berry Heraldon said of King Charles VIII of France in 1450, "he had a greater train of artillery, of great guns, bombards, serpentines, ribaudequins and so on than men could remember any Christian king to have possessed before him." By suddenly revolutionizing the standard methods used to wage war, exposed in previous centuries to only slow refinement, gunpowder affected every facet of the medieval lifestyle and was eventually responsible for its death.
Gunpowder made the beautifully crafted armor that had protected knight, king and soldier a thing of pure decoration by the beginning of the seventeenth century, an ineffective defense against the new perils of battle. Armorers had faced the threat of armor-piercing weapons before, but advances in hand gun construction like a better mix of gunpowder, the Spanish invention of the arquebus (matchlock) that improved aim and the general popularity of the hand gun proved triumphant. Like the castle and much of medieval weaponry, cannons and guns sentenced the suit of steel to a forgotten corner in a dusty museum.
Though gunpowder would make armor obsolete, plate armor was originally developed in the fourteenth century as protection from the longbow and crossbow. Previously, the ultimate standard for personal defense had been a full mail (made of little circles of steel riveted together almost like knitted cloth) outfit consisting of a coif (head covering), coat and leggings topped with a great helm (see appendix A). The longbow was the national weapon of England and the main element in military training, consisting of a six-foot staff of elm that could move five or six yard long arrows a minute over a range extending a little beyond four hundred yards. Legends of the longbow's power are told concerning the 1182 siege of Abergavenny, where Welsh arrows are reputed to have pierced an oak door four inches thick and left as souvenirs with the points sticking through to the other side. When a knight of William de Braose was hit by a longbow arrow, it pierced the skirts of his mail shirt and his mail breeches, went through his thigh, then continued through a mail layer and his wooden saddle to bury itself in his horses' flank. Although hand guns were in use as early as 1375, they were dangerous to fire, expensive, weighed ten pounds and were more effective as noisemakers than weapons. Crossbows and longbows kept their position of superiority until 1425, when bullets first began to pierce armor regularly and were becoming capable of some precision.
Armor in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was brought to the peak of defensive innovation. Suits of full plate armor had to be carefully engineered so that the knight retained his mobility in battle and was still invulnerable to artillery, arrows and weapons of close combat. Hands and feet were covered by articulated gauntlets and sabatons; elbows, shoulders, knees and legs were given extra protection as they were the main vulnerable points on a mounted man (see appendix B). Tassets of layered plate were extended from the edge of the breastplate to cover the upper thigh, and helmets evolved into a myriad of styles and shapes, including the bassinet, the sallet, and the armet. Mail became a second level of protection, worn beneath plate armor to protect gaps and chinks in the suit. The great helm of the past was smoothed and refined as well as body armor, to eliminate ridges or exposed rivets that could catch a weapon's edge, and therefore its momentum (see appendix C). Artillery leapt ahead in power, condemning armor as it changed the way wars were fought, since armor could only be made so much thicker without compromising the ability of the wearer to hack, thrust and slice. La Noue said in his Discours Politiques et Militaires, "For where they had some reason in respect of the violence of harquebuzes and dagges [muskets and pistols] to make their armor thicker and of better proofe than before, they have now so farre exceeded, that most of the [them] have laden themselves with stithies [anvils] in view of clothing their bodies with armor . . . Neither was their armor so heavie that they might wel bear it twenty four hours, where those that are now worne are so waightie that the peiz [weight] of them will benumme a Gentleman's shoulders of thirty five yeres of age." To make more metal available for the breastplate in the seventeenth century, the greaves, sabatons and cuisses that had protected the legs were abandoned in favor of extended tassets that ended at the knee (see appendix D). Despite all the innovations of the armorers, the hand gun won the arms race, punching through the thickest armor. In the seventeenth century, armor was abandoned in favor of greater mobility, except for occasions of pomp and show, to remember a time when figures in steel had ruled the battlefield.
Armor was doomed once the hand gun was perfected, and with it, a way of life. This new weapon forced the knight from his position of supremacy in battle and put the power of the deadliest weapon into the hands of simple peasants and craftsmen. By eliminating the armor, gunpowder eliminated the man. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, most of the advances in armor were specifically for jousting in tournaments and showing off the wealth of the nobility. War became a profession instead of a sport, where daring heroics would only result in loss of life. Knights, with their armor and trappings, were confined to tournaments and parades and spent their life at court instead of in the army, like dusty relics of a lost time. Gunpowder killed the knight in shining armor, forever impacting medieval life.
Unlike the hand gun's slow defeat of armor, which took nearly three centuries, the damnation of the castle was swift. Castles had stood tall against previous weapons like the catapult, and had thwarted the tunneler and the sapper, but the thundering might of the cannon was the final note in siege after siege. Cannons prompted defensive and offensive alterations in castle design, but the damage was done, and another piece of feudalism was reduced to rubble. Gunpowder made the lord's stronghold a thing of the past.
Before the invention of the cannon, the castle was a place of safety. A typical castle consisted of an outer curtain surrounding a keep, with walls ten to twelve feet thick. Defenses included the familiar moat or deep ditch, a heavily guarded gatehouse before the actual castle and drawbridges, all designed to discourage enemies from reaching the castle. In the castle's walls were arrow loops for archers, narrow openings that widened so that a person could shoot from many directions, crenellations on the tops of the walls to give cover for the soldiers and machicolations that gave defenders the opportunity to drop rubble, boiling oil, coals or refuse down on the attackers through openings in the floor. If the defenders were caught off guard, and the attackers managed to penetrate to the gate, they could be trapped between multiple barricaded doors and portcullises and killed from the murder holes in the ceiling. In short, conquering a castle was not an easy thing to do by force, requiring a large number of expendable men to succeed. It was much easier to simply set up camp outside, lob things at the walls or inside the walls, and wait for the castle to run out of food. Many castles had a well within their towers for just such an occasion. Before the refinement of the cannon, these sieges could last years before defender or attacker ran out of food or the castle walls were breached. Cannons could concentrate on a specific wall, pounding it to rubble from a distance with greater might and accuracy than siege engines like the catapult. Monster cannons were specifically developed to frighten defenders, like Basilica, used in the Siege of Constantinople by Mohammed II. Basilica had a 36 inch bore capable of propelling a ball of stone 1600 to 800 pounds for over a mile. Another giant was Mons Meg, named after a smith's noisy wife, which had a bore of 20 inches and could fire a ball weighing 300 pounds. Legend says that a woman was got with child inside it. If castles were to stand against these weapons, they had to be designed with artillery in mind.
The castle was the ultimate defense from one's enemies, a product of a thousand years of evolution in medieval warfare, rendered impotent by this newest weapon. Still, the castle lived on. Castles built in the fourteenth century had gunports and sighting slits to facilitate artillery, as well as thicker walls. Keeps and towers were arranged to present as little a target to enemy cannon as possible, like Bonaquil in France and Deal Castle, built by King Henry VIII of England in the sixteenth century, which was a collection of low, round towers sunk into a hollow. In the late sixteenth century, elaborate earthworks were created around the castle to keep attackers at bay, including wide moats lined with brickwork and large pointed bastions around towers. The location of a castle became more important, especially if it could be built out of range of any possible artillery sites, or on a position that was difficult or impossible to reach with the as many as six wagons and one hundred horses needed to transport a single large cannon.
New castles could be designed with artillery in mind, but older castles were at the mercy of the cannon. As their defensive value plummeted, many castles became abandoned and fell into ruin by simple neglect, rather than the brutal pounding of cannons. People no longer wanted to live in a cold, drafty stone fortress isolated from society, especially if they weren't safe from their enemies. Many left their castle for a fashionable home in town, or built a comfortable manor home fortified with gunports to live in. People no longer needed or wanted gigantic stone fortresses for homes. "By the end of the fourteenth century, the building of military structures had practically ceased in England."
Cannons eliminated the need for castles, changing the way people waged wars. Sieges were no longer the long, drawn out affairs of the past, since a castle could be brought to its knees quickly with a few cannons. Like armor, castles became the tangible remains of the Middle Ages, put on the shelf of history by the invention of gunpowder.
The weapons used in warfare were also affected by gunpowder. Hand guns and cannons made many weapons obsolete, especially those used in close combat, since warfare was no longer the domain of the knight. By giving a person the ability to kill from a distance, gunpowder eliminated much of the popular medieval weaponry, including siege engines.
Until the refinement of the handgun, the projectile weapons of choice were the crossbow and the longbow. The Welsh longbow struck fear in French knights and caused much loss of life at the Battle of Crecy and Agincourt. The English clung stubbornly to this powerful weapon, but it was eventually replaced by the handgun in the seventeenth century. The crossbow was five times slower to load and fire than the longbow, with a shorter range, but the soldiers who used it did not need the training or frequent practice of a longbow archer. It, too, was replaced by the handgun, since it was more powerful and combined the crossbows' talent for turning ordinary footsoldiers into marksmen without the rigorous practice needed by the longbow. Weapons like swords, maces, axes and pikes were still used, but weren't nearly as relied upon in battle with the introduction of companies of artillery and the elimination of the knight, for which they had been designed. Cavalry units were still important to the modern army, but they were no longer made up of noble knights. Most did not wish to risk life and limb when they might be shot out of the saddle by anyone. As the knight declined in importance, so did the sword. Pikes, staff weapons and lances were still in use by the infantry, but the killing power of the gun and the cannon were beginning to take precedence.
The weaponry used to combat castles had also changed. Catapults, ballistas, trebuchets, and battering rams that had terrorized castles for centuries were swapped for cannons, which could throw heavier missiles with greater force at a castle wall, and made a terrific noise as well. Still, the cannon lacked the imagination of catapults and trebuchets, which could hurl dead cows, heads of the enemy, and other offal as well as rocks in a kind of primitive germ warfare. Catapults had a range of 500 yards and could throw 60 pounds, and trebuchets could hurl rocks of 100 to 200 pounds up to 980 feet. They were also easier to transport from site to site than cannons, since they could be constructed from natural materials wherever they were needed. Cannons made for a slow army, especially on the poor medieval roads, and they had a nasty habit of blowing up in one's face. King James II of Scotland was killed in 1460 by his interest in large cannons when a bombard called The Lion exploded. They required supplies of gunpowder and cannon balls and many horses to drag them wherever they were needed. Still, when the smoke of the middle ages parted, cannons were the favored weapons for a siege.
Guns and cannons eliminated many medieval weapons because they were more powerful and more impressive than traditional weaponry that had been used for centuries. As the importance of cavalry declined in the new army, so did the use of those weapons developed to combat the mounted knight. Siege engines were replaced by cannon, which made the medieval castle a thing of the past. Gunpowder was the instrument of change in the revolutionization of weaponry.
Gunpowder was responsible for the elimination of a way of life. By punching through the knight's armor and demolishing the lord's castle, gunpowder brought an end to the Middle Ages and paved the way for the Renaissance. Cannons and hand guns weren't just weapons, they were the voices of change echoing over Europe. Since the social and political structure of the Middle Ages was linked so closely to warfare, gunpowder changed the social structure of entire countries, simply by making war a profession, instead of a sport for nobles. By redistributing wealth and serving as inspiration for creative minds, guns and cannons smashed a way of life forever and created the base for the world people know now.
4/2002 - Recently, I discovered I'd been used as a source for Steve Alvesteffer's paper The Development of Medieval Full Plate Armor in Europe. Neat! Check his paper out for more sources and research.