The debate over the Military Revolution in early modern Europe, which developed out of Michael Roberts’ seminal article, is in many ways a debate over the proverbial chicken and the egg. Which came first: the growth of states, or changes in warfare. On the side of state formation is the argument that states had already begun to attempt to centralize functions and improve taxation as early as the First Crusade of the Twelfth century, while those who argue that military change drove governments to centralize and grow usually argue that the need to support large armies using gunpowder weapons was responsible. To argue for a specific periodization is to choose a side in the greater debate.
Michael Roberts initially argued that the European art of war was radically transformed between 1560-1660, largely due to the effects of military changes introduced by Maurice of Orange and Gustavus Adolphus. Both leaders introduced linear musket tactics that dramatically reduced the percentage of pikes used by their armies, relying on the shock of massed musket fire. To increase the number of weapons firing at the same time, Roberts argued, musketeers were arranged in lines five or six ranks deep, with the front row firing and filing back to reload while waiting their turn to fire again. These tactics were allegedly based on Maurice of Orange’s interpretation of Roman infantry tactics as presented by Vegetius. Gustavus Adolphus’ contribution to this tactical innovation was to have his infantry lines advance when firing rather than remaining in static positions. For this to work, the musketeers had to repeatedly drill in order to quickly load and fire their weapons at the same interval, and on command, which required a larger number of junior officers and non-commissioned officers to give orders and boost morale. The need for larger armies, for drill, and for standardized weapons, according to Roberts, forced early modern states to develop the bureaucracies needed to pay troops, provide supplies, and to provide training areas. In Roberts’ opinion, the military revolution of the Thirty Years’ War led to the development of the modern state.
The concept of the Military Revolution drew critique and support from many sources. Clifford Rogers argues that by placing the time period for the military revolution after 1500 obscures what he considered the truly dramatic changes in European warfare that occurred during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). Fourteenth century armies, which were dominated by heavy cavalry who fought to capture their opponents (gaining both glory and ransom), were completely different from those than conquered the globe beginning in the Fifteenth century. Commoners armed with missile weapons, who fought to kill their enemies, dominated the later armies. Rogers traces these changes to the Hundred Years’ War in France, which he contends witnessed two military revolutions: an infantry revolution and an artillery revolution.
Before the Infantry Revolution, Rogers contends that infantry formations could only win if they stayed on the tactical defensive, as happened at Courtrai, Bannockburn, and Morgarten, where infantry armed with pole arms defeated cavalry by using terrain to their advantage. When infantry tried to attack cavalry, they lost their battles. This changed in 1339 at Laupen where Swiss infantry used halberds and pikes to defeat Burgundian cavalry and infantry while moving in the open for the first time since the Romans. The battle of Crecy confirmed the return of infantry dominance by illustrating the effectiveness of pikes and archers. The developments that allowed the infantry to succeed were the combination of pole arms and “shot” (initially longbows).
Battlefield changes led to social change, especially in England and Switzerland where infantry were the most important. The new power of commoners led to their formal inclusion in Parliament, where they gained the power of the purse. English voting requirements were also lowered to the equivalent of 40 shillings in income, the same level that required a yeoman to purchase a longbow and train with it for military service. Rogers argues that this power was derived from the people’s new power to resist. The new focus on infantry also resulted in more killing and bloodier battles. Not only could infantry not afford to pay expensive ransoms, but it was also hard to surrender to enemies armed with pikes or bows due to the distance involved. Pike men also needed to seriously injure their opponents with their first strike, and the nature of the weapons frequently made those blows fatal. Rogers asserts that this style of combat was responsible for the unusually bloody style of European warfare.
The “Artillery Revolution” plays an important role in Rogers’ argument, and in responses to Roberts’ original thesis. During the 14th century, cannon were not effective against walls due to their small size. Mostly guns were used to defend fixed positions, and were not terribly effective. Only in the 1420s did Europeans develop guns powerful enough to do significant damage to fortifications, swinging the advantage in sieges to the attackers. By the 1450s, artillery had developed to the point that it could destroy any fortification in Europe that was not sighted so that the guns could not reach it. These new guns relied on cheap supplies of iron, new casting techniques, and the development of corned gunpowder. Rogers believes that the new gunpowder artillery, which only governments could afford, combined with larger armies to provide states with a near monopoly on violence, but also forced expansion of tax bases, creating a cycle that extended into the Seventeenth century.
Geoffrey Parker also extends Roberts’ initial thesis. He argues that the military revolution in early modern Europe did force changes in the size and strength of European governments, but rather than accepting Roberts’ contention that this was due to tactical changes on the battlefield, Parker argues that the Artillery Revolution was the primary factor in the military revolution, as shown by the results of Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy in 1494 with around 20,000 men and 40 guns. Using the large number of guns, Charles quickly ended sieges because he could fire many shots to quickly batter down the walls of fortifications. Charles’ success led to the development of a new style of fortification, the trace italienne that were lower, but of such large scale that they were ruinously expensive to build. Not only did states have to develop new bureaucracies to maintain the fortifications and develop new sources of revenue, but they had to balance the need for expensive fortifications with the ability to pay for soldiers to man them. Siena failed this test, spending so much on fortifications that the republic could not afford troops, leading to their fall to a neighboring city. The trace italienne also had the effect of increasing the length of time sieges took since attacking armies had to starve out the defenders or attempt to storm the walls. This required huge attacking armies to surround the fortifications, and then build their own fortifications to ward off attacks by relieving forces outside the walls. The growth of attacking armies, according to Parker, forced further expansion of European governments.
John Lynn accepts Roberts’ thesis that armies played an important role in the formation of modern states, but rejects Parker’s idea that the huge growth in armies was caused by the need to deal with the trace italienne in sieges. Lynn argues that the defensive was primary in both sieges and on the battlefield, and that the size of European armies was a constant through 1705 regardless of the style of fortifications they faced. The reason for the increased growth of both armies and the state was the need to garrison an increasing number of towns and forts. Under Vauban, French forces grew to 166,000 troops in France and its frontier forts. An additional reason for the growth of armies was that the European population was finally recovering from the effects of the Black Death, allowing European states to draw on greater populations.
Simon Adams and David Parrott lead those who disagree with Roberts’ thesis of the military revolution as a cause for the increased centralization of European governments. Adams argues that tactical changes and the growth of armies were due more to changes in the political balances and strategic approaches in Europe. He argues that despite the numbers provided by documents, the number of troops in the field during the Thirty Years; war did not dramatically change. Parrot launches the most direct attack on the Roberts thesis, arguing that he based his argument on a simplistic understanding of Seventeenth century infantry tactics. He contends that the Dutch and the Swedes changed their tactics to focus on smaller groups of soldiers because they didn’t have the veteran soldiers needed to make large formations work. Pike and arquebus squares were not unwieldy masses of men, but relatively shallow formations of only ten ranks. The tercios used muskets on the wings of the formation, withdrawing them into the main body if attacked by cavalry. Unlike Sixteenth century Swiss pike squares, the Spanish tercios did not rely on shock tactics, but used the combination of pike and shot, along with field fortifications defensively. For Parrot, the real innovation of the Thirty Years’ War was the use of cavalry to break up infantry formations so they could be destroyed.
The issue of state formation is the second focus of the Military Revolution debate. William McNeill and Brian Downing generally accept the broad outlines of the Roberts’ Military Revolution thesis, but along with Jan Glete, ultimately argue that economic play the dominant role in changing military technology and governments. McNeill developed the concept of military forces as a form of “macroparasite” that extracts resources from others to form a symbiotic relationship with society. Societies provide resources to armed forces to gain protection from others, but also to keep the men with the weapons from ravaging society themselves. He argues that the expansion of armies, with their new standards of discipline, emphasis on drill, provide the basis for dominating non-Europeans long before the industrial or scientific revolutions, as seen on Cortes’ victory over the Aztecs. Increased size of European militaries, based on expanded government and population led to colonial urges, but the key factor for McNeill was the discipline and drill that created a military caste loyal to the state, which was then used to maintain domestic peace.
Downing also builds upon the Roberts thesis to ask why some states developed into liberal democracies, but others developed into autocratic regimes. Medieval Europe was unique in that decentralized governments provided peasants with constitutional rights, including property rights and reciprocal obligations with their rulers, and participation in regional assemblies that provided a framework of legal rights. These medieval institutions later developed further to become liberal democracies if governments were not forced to do away with the to survive. The key differences were geographical location and a good deal of chance.
Downing argues that England, Sweden, and Holland were all able to maintain their medieval constitutions because their geographical locations allowed them to either escape invasion, because they developed large trade networks that provided money for their defense, or because they were able to extract resources to pay for their defense from other states. England and Holland both developed far-flung trade networks that allowed them to pay for navies and armies to defend their borders during the Thirty Years and later Wars. During the Thirty Years’ War, Sweden fought its battles in Germany, and was able to draw resources to pay from the war in that region. France, Prussia, and Poland were not so lucky.
France and Prussia moved toward autocracy because they needed to extract more resources from their underdeveloped, agrarian economies. Those funds were necessary to defend the state against a chaotic military environment. To meet these needs, France developed methods to extract taxes from its commoners, while Prussia worked to bind the nobility to the state, and bound its peasantry to the land as serfs. Poland suffered the worst fate of the six states Downing examines. With a weak monarchy and squabbling nobility, Poland did not adapt to the new style of warfare, nor did it develop the tax structures needed to recruit a significant military organization. As a result Poland was repeatedly invaded and carved up by its neighbors.
Geoffrey Parker also argues that the military revolution was important in state formation. The need to pay for military expenditures during its revolt against Spain led the provinces of the Dutch Republic to accept collective responsibility for war debts. This revolutionary new form of finance allowed the Dutch to secure loans with promises of repayment out of future tax revenues. In doing so, they guaranteed both interest payments and loan principle, allowing them to get needed loans at lower interest rates, guaranteeing a higher tax flow. These methods are still in use in financing government debt at all levels throughout the world.