Warfare in the Renaissance

By: Aleena, Melissa, and Yunen


The Renaissance oversaw a period of human growth in the arts and in politics. It was also one of the greatest periods of military invention and rediscovery. New weapons were introduced, new doctrines formulated, and social change in the military was abound. These majors changes forever altered warfare. By the 1500s, heavy cavalry had lost its prominence and glory in favour of mass infantry. Gunpowder became the foundation of new weapons of war. The nobility was swept aside by a new generation of educated and determined military commanders. States took control of their militaries and operated higher budgets for them. All of this led to an age of flourishing military accomplishments as well as paving the path to the deadliest conflicts in history.

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Major Innovations

The Cannon

Short Term Impacts

The introduction of the cannon quickly led to the abandonment of contemporary fortification techniques. Artillery barrages quickly made thick stone walls obsolete. The best example of this was the Siege of Constantinople (1453) in which a large Turkish force had taken the once impregnable city with the use of cannons. The fall of the 1500-year old Roman Empire associated with the capture of Constantinople is marked appropriately by many as the end of the Middle Ages.

The cannon also had a profound impact on naval doctrine. Before the introduction of artillery, naval combat was essentially land combat but with ships. Fleets would sail into vicinity of each other and maneuver to board enemy ships while enduring hails of arrows; a good example of this is the Battle of Sluys (1340). With the introduction of the cannon, naval doctrine evolved to its early modern stage; victory at sea would now be won by mounting cannons onto large capital ships and pounding the enemy fleet with an onslaught of armament.

Many of the new innovations were incorporated into the Turkish Janissary Corps. Armed with firearms, skilled with cannons, maintained with discipline, and commanded by real leaders, the Janissary Corps helped the Ottoman Empire conquer much of Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Long Term Impacts

Two major long term impacts were the direct result of the military changes during the Renaissance.

Firstly, wars became deadlier and more expensive during and after the Renaissance. The introduction of gunpowder revolutionized warfare; With the cannon, armies were able to destroy cities and castles much quicker. The rise of massed infantry with firearms drastically increased the number of casualties in the Renaissance.

Secondly, the decline of the feudal system associated with medieval warfare facilitated the rise of the modern-day nation state. Gunpowder effectively made the traditional militaristic aspect of the nobility, the heavy cavalry, obsolete. In its place was mass infantry. The introduction of standing armies crippled the nobility's power to dominate the state by controlling its military. The final nail in the coffin was the replacement of senior incompetent nobles by new generations of cunning and energetic commanders.

Modern Connections

The major military innovations of this age drastically altered warfare and its effects can be seen to this day. Most nations maintain a professional standing army, as opposed to a militia, armed with gunpowder weapons, such as rifles. The howitzer, the modern-day descendent of the cannon, remains a integral artillery piece in modern armies. Additionally, naval guns remain the primary source of firepower aboard modern day navies. Cannons are also the direct inspiration of another modern weapon of war: the tank.

Aside from the military connections, the effects of the changes brought by these innovations are far more impressive. The aristocracy have almost no influence left in most militaries today. Modern day officer cadets undergo the same military training regardless of station of birth and are promoted/appointed to positions based on deeds and skills. Unlike the Middle Ages, the armed forces answer only to the state and the central government. Therefore, one can conclude that the military innovations of the Renaissance initiated a social change within the military to add a very liberal idea - that your birth was no indicator of your abilities or your skills. This idea is a fundamental concept of our modern-day society.

The mitigation of aristocratic power was the first step in establishing modern day government. By destroying their ability to influence the military, this also robbed many nobles of their leverage within the government. As a result, the monarch and the state became more centralized due to the decline of the nobility; this centralization effort ultimately led to the idea of national sovereignty, the foundation of the modern nation state.

Discussion Questions

  1. How has warfare in the 1500s impacted modern warfare?
  2. From the 3 major innovations, which do you consider is the most significant? Explain why you chose it?
  3. Would the Renaissance have been heavily affected if the most significant innovation (the one you chose in question 2) did not take place?