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Stephen Turnbull, The Art of Renaissance Warfare: From the Fall of Constantinople to the Thirty Years War; 272 pp (hard-cover); Greenhill Books, London, and MBI Publishing, St Paul, Minnesota; 2006; ISBN10: 1853676764; ISBN13: 9781853676765

Stephen Turnbull is a military historian, a lecturer in Japanese Religion in Leeds and a consultant on Japanese culture who has published dozens of books on military history in Europe and Asia.

Although leaning heavily on the classics [1], The Art of Renaissance Warfare is an easy read, passably illustrated, entertaining for the connaisseur, informative for newcomers, and in its own way quite comprehensive. Even though his knowledge of (written) sources and battlefield geography comes through in this book, Turnbull wants it to be above all a narrative history of the ‘military revolution’ that took place during the period.

The term ‘revolution’ was introduced in this context in a ground-breaking essay by Michael Roberts in 1956 [2], but it applies only loosely as demonstrated by hispanist Geoffrey Parker [3] and others. This ‘revolution’ evolved slowly over a span of two centuries. The initial shocks of the advent of the pike square, arquebuse, wheel-lock pistol, siege cannon, mine, pétard and angle bastion were soon absorbed. It was only after these innovations had ripened and accumulated over many decades that they began to produce drastically different outcomes on the battlefield.

His new, giant siege bombards cast by the Hungarian Urban for instance may well have helped Mehmet II the Conqueror to subdue Constantinople in 1453, but they were hardly decisive as myth has it. The largest, the Basilic, could fling 1200lb balls as far as a mile, but it took three hours to reload (leaving the defenders ample time for repairs) and collapsed under its recoil after six weeks.

Mehmet’s use of bombards during the siege of Belgrade in 1456 was a flop. The difference in outcome is easily explained, writes Turnbull: by 1453 Constantinople was a mere shadow of its former power and prestige, whereas Hungary under the Regent John Hunyadi was a formidable opponent. In the Constantinople siege Mehmet’s famous ‘ship bridge’ from Galata to the Golden Horn, although equally unorthodox, was probably tactically more important than Urban’s infernal cannon. In the end the city was taken only after Emperor Constantine XI died in a courageous counter-attaque, leaving the dwindling host of defenders thoroughly demoralised.

In the same vein Turnbull downplays the ‘invincibility’ of the Swiss Gewalthaufen or pike bloc. Holy Roman Emperor Miximilian soon introduced his own pike blocs (Landsknechte) and military experts of all European nations devised means of ‘breaking the square’. In the Battle of Barletta (1502) el Gran Capitan Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba kept his sword-and-buckler men to the rear of his Spanish pikes and sent them forward only after their front row had engaged with the Swiss, to slip into and underneath the push of pike to cause extensive damage. In a passage from his military treatise of 1520 ignored by Turnbull, Machiavelli (The Art of Warre, 2007; Wilder Publications, Virginia; p 41) referred to this episode as proof that the Gewalthaufen was not invincible:

There wer come out of Cicelie, into the kyngdome of Naples, a power of Spaniardes, for to go to finde Consalvo, who was besieged in Barlet, of the Frenchemen: there made against theim Mounsier de Vhigni, with his menne of armes, and with aboute fower thousande Duchemen on foote: The Duchemen incountered with their Pikes lowe, and thei opened the power of the Spaniardes: but those beyng holp, by meane of their bucklers and of the agiletie of their bodies, mingled togethers with the Duchemen, so that thei might reche them with the swearde, whereby happened the death, almoste of all theim, and the victorie to the Spaniardes. Every man knoweth, how many Duchemen were slaine in the battaile of Ravenna, the whiche happened by the verie same occasion: for that the Spanishe souldiours, got them within a swerdes length of the Duche souldiours, and thei had destroied them all, if of the Frenche horsemen, the Duchemen on foote, had not been succored: notwithstandyng, the Spaniardes close together, brought themselves into a safe place. I conclude therefore, that a good power ought not onely to be able, to withstande the horses, but also not to have fear of menne on foote, the which (as I have many tymes saied) procedeth of the armours, and of the order.

At the Battle of Cerignola in the following year, De Córdoba installed two thousand arquebusiers in a ditch reinforced with stakes; when the French infantry attacked, led by the Swiss, they were massacred.

In a rather amusing way Turnbull makes short thrift of the caracole of the German Schwarzenreiter and assorted cuirassiers. ‘Breaking the caracole‘ didn’t prove to be half as hard because the maneuver itself was a bad idea all along: ‘The caracole was a blind alley into which good generals must not blunder’.

The wheel-lock pistol on which it sought to capitalise was certainly a promising innovation: it enabled the horseman to fire a gun with one hand (without bothering with a flailing musket or arquebuse fuse) and to do so outside of an enemy’s sword or lance range (though no more than fifteen feet). Of necessity this ‘develish’ and ‘accursed engine’ was soon accepted as a cavalry weapon and eventually became a staple for noblemen as well, as witnessed in the Battle of Heiligerlee (1568) when Dutch commander Adolph of Nassau and his Spanish opponent Lean de Ligne, Count of Aremberg,  went at each other with pistols. Adolph shot and killed Aremberg before his horse was shot from under him and he was struck dead by a sword.

The original idea behind the caracole was that it would break up pike squares, but in the words of Michael Roberts, an expert in Swedish military history, it often turned into ‘a pretext for doing nothing while seeming to do much’. In fact only the highly disciplined and motivated Huguenot ‘Millers’ and German Schwartzenreiter occasionally managed to obtain the desired result. The disadvantage of exposing man and horse to enemy fire and pikes at such a short distance prior to firing and retreating inevitably got the better of most pistol-armed horsemen.

The caracole proved slightly more successful against enemy horse. But as with all innovations, be they technical (cannon) or tactical (pike bloc), the decisive factor in their success seems to have been the degree of discipline and determination of the users. Success ‘procedeth of the armours, and of the order” as Machiavelli put it. This adage has been emphasised time and again by military thinkers, as echoed in General George Patton’s words written in the Cavalry Journal of September 1933: “Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men. It is the spirit of the men who follow and of the man who leads that gains the victory.” The German Reiter for instance could be horribly effective when they rode straight into the enemy formation before unloading their pistols and following up with their swords. In most other cases however the ‘dainty’ caracole remained unduly exposed to enemy fire and particularly to light cavalry charges. At the Battle of Klushino (1610) a host of Reiter under the Swedish commander Jacob de la Gardie fatally discovered this downside when they were up against a unit of Polish Winged Hussars. As the Polish eyewitness Samuel Maskiewicz (Turnbull, p 235) has it:

They handed us the victory, for as they came to us we were in some disorder, and immediately, having fired their carbines, they wheeled away to the rear in the normal fashion to reload, and the next rank advanced firing. We did not wait, but at the moment all had emptied their pieces, and seeing that they were starting to withdraw, we charged them with only our sabres in our hands. [..] We crashed into the whole Muscovite force, still drawn up in battle order at the entrance to their camp, plunging them into disorder.

Yet – as Turnbull notes in a subsequent chapter – even the great military innovator Gustavus Adolphus used the caracole on occasion.

Turnbull himself occasionally errs on the narrative side when he romanticises his subject, such as the Knights Hospitaller, the Dutch Revolt and the Polish Winged Hussars. And his book has been severely criticised (Renaissance Quarterly, Volume 59, Number 4, Winter 2006) by Italian military and Renaissance scholar Niccolò Capponi, author of (among other books) Machiavelli (2010), for being overly concerned with martial operations (as opposed to other military subjects, for instance strategic and tactical thinking, technology, drill or recruitment) and relying mainly on out-dated and uniquely English language sources.

On the other hand his narrative approach appears to do justice to intricate subjects like the transition of the horseman from knight to cavalryman, the triumph of Western European naval strategy in the Mediterranean and oft-neglected but interesting military developments in Eastern Europe.

Turnbull mercifully avoids the trap of portraying the new weaponry and tactics as the mark of Renaissance man’s ‘moral decay’, a favourite topos of old school military historians. Even so his description of Federigo Gianibelli’s ‘diabolical machines’ – the floating bombs with which the Antwerp rebels destroyed Parma’s bridge on April 5, 1585 – rightly evokes their amazing cruelty. One thousand Spanish soldiers were killed in the blink of an eye, their bodies never to be found. The pressure wave blew people on shore off their feet and slabs of granite were found buried in the ground six miles from the scene. Remains of the veteran Portuguese officer Robles, Seigneur de Billy, were found months later when his gold chain was discovered amid some unpleasant stains on a remaining bridge pillar.

And one cannot help but lament – with Turnbull – the demise of that archetypically medieval contraption the trebuchet, used to hurl boulders, fireballs, rotting carcasses and the severed heads and manly parts of prisoners and useless hostages at one’s enemy.

Its last recorded use by the way was totally in style and adds much-needed perspective to the jaded view that early gunpowder weapons were ‘unreliable’. During his siege of Tenochtitlán in 1521 Hernán Cortés had a trebuchet built because he was out of gunpowder. The first projectile crashed back onto the trebuchet and destroyed it.

[1]Particularly on Hans Delbrück, Geschichte der Kriegskunst im Rahmen der politischen Geschichte, 1900-1920

[2] Roberts, Michael, The Military Revolution, 1560-1660, 1956. See also Roberts, Michael, Gustavus Adolphus: A History of Sweden, two volumes, 1953–1958

[3] Parker, Geoffrey, The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500‑1800, 1988