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Professional Mercenaries And Cannon Made Medieval War Obsolete

Photo: Alik Keplicz/AP

As the medieval world gave way to the early modern around 1500, European warfare was utterly transformed. Mounted knights and castles gave way to cannon, firearms, and enormously complex fortifications. The scale of war grew as well. Armies that had contained thousands of soldiers in the 15th century turned into tens of thousands in the 16th, then hundreds of thousands in the 17th and 18th. Conflicts between newly powerful dynasts like the Habsburgs of Spain and Austria, and the Valois of France turned into long, punishing wars of attrition.

Historians call this set of changes the Military Revolution. As war got bigger, it got more expensive and more complex. New state bureaucracies were necessary to assess and collect the money to pay for it. Financial industries developed to provide credit on a scale unimaginable in medieval Europe. The new dynastic states of Europe formed public-private partnerships with arms manufacturers and mercenary commanders to marshal the resources to fight these increasingly long and expensive wars.


The new techniques of war required more expertise from soldiers. Since most states didn’t maintain large standing armies, that meant an international market in mercenaries grew and developed between 1475 and 1500. The Swiss were the most famous of these, but there were Italians and especially Germans as well, the famous landsknechte. War was increasingly a profession even for non-nobles, and early modern mercenaries took their work seriously.

The early modern battlefield was no place for amateurs. It took real expertise to man batteries of cannon. Firearms were easier to use than bows, but still took years of practice to use effectively. Most of all, dense formations of pikemen—hedgehogs of thousands of men packed in shoulder to shoulder with 15-foot spears—clashing head-to-head was terrifying.

At the Battle of Novara in 1513, only six of the 300 men in the front rank of one of these pike squares survived the battle. The commander of that square, a French noble named Robert de la Marck, was pulled from under a pile of corpses with more than 40 wounds on his body. Contemporaries had a term for this kind of fight: They called it “bad war.”


Nobody without training and discipline was going to stand face to face in the bloody melee of an early modern battlefield, with shot and cannonballs flying everywhere. Mercenaries may have been greedy and unreliable, but they were the only ones with the technical expertise and the willingness to stand in and fight in this effective, proven fashion.

The net effect of all this was a huge expansion of war’s impact on society.

I’m Patrick Wyman, and Tides of History is my new history podcast. You may remember my old show, The Fall of Rome. In Tides, I’m covering not only the fall of the Roman Empire, but also the rise of the modern world, with topics like the rise of the state, the Military Revolution, the beginnings of capitalism, and the Reformation. Think of Tides of History like a TV show that happens to have two seasons running simultaneously.


If any of what this post has discussed sounds interesting to you, check out these two episodes below. The first explores the Military Revolution, while the second explores the experiences of being a mercenary during this transformation of war. The second is one of my favorite episodes I’ve ever done, and I’d appreciate it if you gave it a listen. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, NPR One, TuneIn, and any other podcast app you can think of.

If you have any questions or comments, let me know.

Episode 5 - The Military Revolution, 1350-1650


Episode 6 - Life as a Mercenary in the Military Revolution


Further reading:

Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West (Cambridge, 1996 - Second Edition)


David Parrott, The Business of War: Military Enterprise and Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, 2012)

Frank Tallett, War and Society in Early Modern Europe, 1495-1715 (New York, 1997)


Fritz Redlich, The German Military Enterpriser and His Work Force (Wiesbaden, 1964)

Adrian R. Bell, Anne Curry, Andy King, and David Simpkin, The Soldier in Later Medieval England (Oxford, 2013)


Michael Mallett and Christine Shaw, The Italian Wars, 1494-1559: War, State and Society in Early Modern Europe (New York, 2012)

‘Idan Sharar, Warriors for a Living: The Experience of the Spanish Infantry in the Italian Wars, 1494-1559 (Leiden, 2017)

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