Gunpowder

This is blog number 2 in my ‘inspiring areas of history’ theme. The same disclaimer in the first one applies here!

I’m sure most of you have seen the diagrams from da Vinci’s notebooks of flying machines, tanks and other ahead of their time ideas. For me however, the factor that had the biggest impact on the development of technology during the Renaissance period was gunpowder.

It first appeared in Western Europe at some point in the latter half of the thirteenth century. By the battle of Crécy in 1346, canon were appearing on the battlefield. Gunpowder was yet to take centre stage; at Agincourt in 1415 it was the longbow that drew fame in contributing to the English defeat over the French, due to its success against the French cavalry.

The drawback with the longbow was that it required considerable training to use effectively, not to mention a huge amount of strength to draw. The firearm on the other hand required far less time to train someone in its use. In defining the move from the feudal age, perhaps the most significant aspect is the effect that canon had on siege warfare; they essentially rendered the medieval castle obsolete.

Similarly, by the latter half of the 16th century, with the development of the musket, it was virtually impossible to make a suit of armour that could withstand a bullet. Indeed, handguns were so effective that cavalry forces dropped the lance in their favour, which also aided in the decline of the use of armour, as mobility was favoured over heavy protection. Armour was gradually reduced, piece by piece until all that was left were the helmets and breastplates that were still in use at the time of the Napoleonic wars.

As with all great change, it is rarely possible to attribute it to any one single factor; most often there are many, but the introduction and ever greater use of gunpowder must be seen as significant among them.

In terms of inspiration for writing, I think the aspect of change discussed here is very fertile ground. This period marks a shift in military culture, from feudal knights in ever more elaborate armour and their levies, to standing forces that were taking on the first characteristics of modern armies. This means certain individuals would find themselves and their way of thinking obsolete, while for others, more receptive to change and perhaps less heavily invested in what had come before, there were great opportunities to be had. The dynamic of the clash between old and new ideas is always a very interesting concept to explore and this period, 1400-1600 or so, provides a great many examples.

Additionally, if you write fantasy, there is also the clash between technology and magic. Would the presence of magic stifle the need for technological development? Would proponents of the two different concepts come into conflict? Plenty of inspiration to work with here I think!

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