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The Renaissance at War (Smithsonian History of Warfare)
By Thomas Arnold
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Thomas Arnold
All right reserved.
The New Fury
The secrets of both gunpowder and cannon passed to Europe between the middle of the thirteenth century and the first quarter of the fourteenth. Around 1250 the Franciscan Roger Bacon described firecrackers, perhaps brought overland along the silk road from China through Central Asia. Evidence of cannon comes from 1326, with an English manuscript illustration of a bulbous, vase-like weapon lying on a trestle table discharging a feathered bolt against a tower gate. Another, less well known illustration from the same manuscript shows an apparently larger weapon of the same pattern mounted on a sled. Both weapons look very odd to anyone familiar with later Western cannon, but their striking similarity to contemporary Chinese guns hints that their design had passed directly from China to Western Europe, and was not home-grown or based on Arab or Byzantine models.
These first European cannon were certainly more of a pyrotechnical flourish than fearsome instruments of destruction. They joined the battering rams, assault towers and other simple engines of medieval siege warfare, but their effective contribution long remained minimal. The real wall cracker and tower breaker of the later Middle Ageswas the giant counterweight catapult, the trebuchet. This was a massive machine of awesome power, the apotheosis of a mechanical artillery tradition reaching back to the Hellenistic age (and including the Arab and Chinese worlds, where the trebuchet was probably first developed). The largest trebuchets stood the equivalent of five storeys tall, their whirling vertical arms lobbing stones of stupendous weight; sources, almost certainly exaggerating, mention missiles of over 1,000 kilograms -- but missile weights of a few hundred kilograms are entirely probable. Range and accuracy were impressive, too; the big engines could have thrown a shaped stone of a few dozen kilograms well over 200 metres, and tests with reconstructions have revealed that the trebuchet was a remarkably consistent weapon, able to repeatedly pound the same spot of a target wall. Next to these super catapults the first gunpowder artillery was a flashing, smoking novelty -- noisy and exciting, but not much else.
Despite its initial feebleness primitive cannon captured the imagination of Europe's military artisans, who coaxed the new gunpowder artillery past its mechanical competition. Cannon eclipsed the trebuchet in northern Europe around the middle of the fifteenth century, and a generation later in the south -- the last records of its use in Europe come from the sieges of Rhodes in 1480 and Malaga in 1487 (where a Castilian engine tossed the body parts of a Moorish suicide assassin into the city). Memory of the giant catapults lingered into the 1500s. Engineers continued to include them in their books of marvels (among other designs, Leonardo da Vinci sketched an immense crossbow mounted on six great wheels), and in the summer of 1521, during Cortes's siege of Tenochtitlan, his desperate artificers, driven by a shortage of gunpowder, built a catapult on top of a captured Mexican pyramid to rain missiles down on parts of the city still held by the indigenous defenders -- but the Spanish artillerists could not get the weapon to work properly. Against this failure the same resourceful conquistadors later successfully concocted gunpowder from scratch (they harvested sulphur from a live volcano) and even made cannon from local iron deposits. The old knowledge had been lost; the new age was a gunpowder age.
The fifteenth-century victory of cannon over catapult was the result of both steady technical progress and a growing cultural fascination with guns. Gunpowder became cheaper, as its makers puzzled out better ways of extracting and purifying its chemical components, the most elusive and expensive of which was saltpetre, imported from India, scraped from basement walls or stewed in festering piles of dung, urine, lime and oyster shells. Gunpowder also became more powerful -- and more reliably powerful. Corned powder, made by wetting the mixture during manufacture and drying it in lumps or granules, was both more sharply combustible and more resistant to moisture and separation, and thus degradation, over time and during transport. Cannonballs, at first laboriously carved from stone blocks (as were trebuchet shot) became iron in the larger calibres and lead in the smallest. Metal shot were stronger and heavier than stone balls of the same size, and so were more effective at breaking masonry, but stone shot survived surprisingly long, particularly for use at sea -- stone-shooting perriers have been recovered from Armada wrecks, and a late sixteenth-century Italian recommended short, light, breech-loading guns firing 20-pound stone shot as useful aboard ships and galleys.
Gunmakers meanwhile honed their craft. Across the fifteenth and into the sixteenth century there were two parallel technologies of cannon manufacture: one of wrought iron, and a second of cast bronze. Forged iron guns were constructed in two layers, like wooden barrels, with an inner tube of long iron staves joined edge to edge held tight by a reinforcing outer casing of iron hoops. Bronze cannon were cast whole, borrowing the methods used to cast the great bells of Europe's cathedrals -- a widely dispersed industry. (This knowledge was of comparative advantage over the Muslim world, where the cacophony of church bells was considered one of the scandals of the Christian West.) The connection between bells and cannon even had a political extension, since the raw metal and manufacturing techniques of the two were interchangeable. In the late fifteenth century, rebel towns subdued by the Duke of Burgundy had to surrender their church bells, and a hundred years later, as parishes in south-east France turned Protestant, the Duke of Savoy cheaply bought up abandoned bells -- now rejected as idolatrous -- and melted them down to make cannon; cannon he then used to enforce his Catholic authority over the same communities.
Excerpted from The Renaissance at War (Smithsonian History of Warfare) by Thomas Arnold Copyright © 2006 by Thomas Arnold. Excerpted by permission.
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