The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

How Gunpowder Ended the Middle Ages

Some time back I read a book called The Foundations of Early Modern Europe, 1460-1559. One thread I picked out as particularly clear was their explanation of the effects of gunpowder.

The first bit is what as known as pike and shot. Early gunpowder weapons were slow and inaccurate. But late medieval pike units had already changed warfare: not only could they withstand charges from knights, but they figured out how to charge themselves. Still, they weren’t as fast as knights, and there were ways to deal with them.

Pike and shot was the innovation that broke knights completely: early firearms would blow right through armor, and pikemen could protect the arquebusiers. Pike and shot units slaughtered knights.

The second issue is that gunpowder, or rather artillery, made medieval castles obsolete. Artillery enabled the conquest of both Normandy and Constantinople.

Thirdly, gunpowder at the beginning was very expensive. It “royalized” warfare, nobles couldn’t afford it, kings could, and they used it to destroy the independence of the feudal nobility: knights weren’t the dominant arm any more, castles couldn’t withstand sieges, and nobles couldn’t afford to upgrade their men to the new armaments in enough numbers.

The irony here is that gunpowder also “proletariatized” warfare: peasants could use guns just fine, without much training and pike work, while skilled, didn’t require the training of a knight. It was said that to truly train as a knight you had to start as a child, but a gunner or pikeman could be trained in a few months.

The result of all of this was larger armies, the breaking of the independent feudal nobility as independent military forces, and thus centralization. The full on absolutism monarchs like Louis the XIV “l’estat c’est moi” came later, but it’s this early process of gunpowder breaking the feudal nobility which allowed them to centralize power and turn the nobility into court aristocrats.

The loss of the nobles true source of power and their reduction into aristocrats (whose influence relies far more on their relation to the monarch than their own power) allowed for the rise of the early bourgeoisie. Feudal nobles had power because they had military force, and power trumped money, but as they lost that and as armies became much more expensive, money became a source of power all its own. Kings needed a lot of it to field the new armies, and the bourgeoisie had it. As a result a lot of bourgeoisie became nobles themselves, since owning land still had much more prestige than being a merchant, but over time it led to power moving away from the nobles, now an aristocratic courtier class, and to those with the money and that led rather directly to events like the English civil war and, later, the French revolution.

For those kings in-between, gunpowder must have seemed like a godsend: allowing them to break the troublesome nobles and centralize power, but it was a devil’s deal for them. The old feudal system was reasonably stable because knights were the decisive military arm, and knights and nobility were wrapped up together.

Once it was the king alone, surrounded by courtiers who had no real power themselves, but were parasites on the court, the days of Kings, too, were numbered.




Spring of a Down, by Stirling Newberry, Chapters 1-3


Open Thread


  1. Hickory

    I really appreciate these occasional investigations into power dynamics and how they can change over time, or not.

    Have their been technologies that had the effect of decentralizing power? It seems like all but the rich are so starved of capital that it’s difficult for the non-rich to take advantage of new technologies, and it’s events like war or disease that change the supply and demand of labor that really affect the balance of power between upper and lower classes.

    Everything that seems like it might help – tv for exposing injustice, social media for enabling worldwide peer to peer instant communication – quickly becomes overwhelmingly used for control instead.

    If anyone knows a counterexample I’d love to hear about it.

  2. Willy

    Speaking of power dynamics…

    I know that Constantinople had been mostly vacated by 1453, but the emperor was still there. I think we can assume that gigantic bombards against gigantic walls presented better odds than inaccurate little wall muskets trying to snipe at the bombard operators.

    You know that castle lords everywhere heard about these events and panic set in. The castle lords would now have to invent other strategies to separate themselves from the mob.

    I think of those smartly dressed soldiers marching in nice neat rows, getting mowed down by cannons. While I’m sure that the primary lord strategies were to either sit atop a mobile horse, or to keep themselves well out of sight, I still wonder about the social dynamics of being willing to march in nice neat rows in front of cannons.

  3. Willy

    Everything that seems like it might help – tv for exposing injustice, social media for enabling worldwide peer to peer instant communication – quickly becomes overwhelmingly used for control instead.

    This is what I’ve been telling conservatives all along. It isn’t the governmental concentration of power, but the concentration of power itself, stupids. Their own beloved founders said as much. And what they said sounded so good to the masses that many founders even got to keep their slaves.

    It isn’t the system, but the masses inability (or unwillingness) to keep those drawn to power from consolidating power in ways that are detrimental to the masses. As far as I’ve been able to figure, while this seems logical to the more-logical thinkers, it’s those folks who would’ve been willing to march in nice neat rows in front of cannons who’re to blame for all this. And there seems to be a whole lotta them. They aren’t so much reasoned with (wherever that’s at all possible), as much as they seem to want to be herded to other pastures, or even towards cannons.

  4. GrimJim

    It was not apparent in Iraq at first, then became obvious in Afghanistan, then finally also in later-day Iraq with ISIS. What we’re seeing here in Ukraine, if reports are true and not thoroughly propagandized on both sides, is the Sea Change in modern warfare.

    Massive main battle tanks, high-tech missiles, satellite panopticon, giant ships at sea — now, all are useless in a real war.

    Man-held artillery, drones, small tight groups of guerillas with the same tech as the Big Guys… they are going to win. Not at first, and not easy (very hard, and very painfully, to be sure), but the Big Guys cannot win over time. Not without full-scale scorched-earth ethnic cleansing/genocidal levels of all-out war.

    The Nuke Option is not really an option. The Chemical option is not really an option. The Biological option is not really an option (COVID showed everyone that for damn sure).

    There has been a Sea Change in modern warfare, and now with Ukraine everyone knows… or should know.

    It is a change as profound as that brought about by gunpowder.

    Of course, the Powers That Be will not like this, not at all, so I am sure eventually they will choose the full-scale scorched-earth ethnic cleansing/genocidal levels of all-out war.

    But that can only be done ONCE, and then the game is well and truly over. Because then the whole house of cards collapses…

  5. VietnamVet

    One of the outcomes of mass marching armies armed with rifles was trench warfare in the American Civil War and the rise of democratic/communist states to motivate and harvest the masses to win world wars. Except nuclear weapons made it all obsolete.

    The West is now fiefdoms of interests. State and Intelligence provoked the Russian invasion. But the Pentagon wants a cease fire in the escalating Ukraine-Russia war. The US military is the core professionals who maintain the nuclear deterrence, special operators, volunteers and proxy/ethnic forces that provide the manpower.

    In the West money conquered power and good government. The jet-set corporate rulers are innately corrupt and incompetent. The USA government is failing catastrophically. The recent damaging New Mexico Wildfires were caused by the US Forest Service letting a burn pile and a prescribed burn get out of control.

    China may prove that one party communist rule works. Or nothing does and human civilization ends with the bright flashes of thousands of mushroom clouds.

  6. bruce wilder

    knights and their lords were in the business of pillage and plunder; armor, swords, horses, castles were simply tools of a trade in perpetual civil war

    inevitably, there were economic and political forces arrayed against the destructiveness of elite banditry, pressing variously for its restraint, reduction or transformation into quieter forms of predation. the struggles that resulted often took the form of intra-elite conflict and sometimes entailed elite attempts to mobilize mass support against rival elite factions

    in that context, your argument would seem to be that gunpowder advantaged mass mobilization as a strategy, but by thus increasing the advantages of mobilization at scale, increased the power of kings against the nobility

    the castles of the feudal nobility of the High Middle Ages rested on an economic foundation of agrarian near-autarky; the armed nobility extracted their own subsistence and that of the artisans that served their armouries from a very small surplus

    submitting conflict to the arbitration of arms in warfare is very, very costly, as well as expensive, but soliciting and organizing mass support effectively to triumph in arms is usually an option, but not necessarily an attractive one for elites deeply invested in a predatory social order

  7. Trinity

    Paragraph 8, sentence 2:

    “Feudal obles had power because they had military force, ” should be
    “Feudal nobles … ”

    Other than that tiny mistype, this is perfect in so many ways.

  8. Purple Library Guy

    One thing I find hopeful about this post is that rulers can adopt technologies to gain an advantage, only to find that the longer term consequences in fact make them obsolete. Let’s hope that’s true of at least one thing plutocrats are doing today.

  9. Stirling S Newberry

    “The loss of the nobles’ true source of power and their reduction into aristocrats (whose influence relies far more on their relation to the monarch than their own power) allowed for the rise of the early bourgeoisie. ”

    The nobles were “reduced” to nobles, they changed. A noble gives a great deal, but it also takes a great deal. You have to be trained, you have to learn how to control any army. This means that a noble comes with a set of skills and a place for them. Being an aristocrat also requires skills but they are different.

    Consider the parliament of England: while it had been meeting all through the middle ages the scope and reach gained in the Tudor Dynasty. Nobles had to slice out time for parliament, with aristocrats it was where the action was. Similarly, the were peasant revolts throughout the period, and nobles became leaders because the royalty was less mobile.

    Being an aristocrat meant being a viceroy or making friends with others.

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