Back in December, I was asked whether, given my criticisms of the medieval military revolution theories, I thought there WERE any good examples of pre-modern military revolutions.  The question gave me pause, as I’ve grown so used to critiquing military revolution theory from the Middle Ages forward that for a while now I haven’t given much thought to potential revolutionary candidates before c. 1250.

Mons Meg, at Edinburgh Castle; constructed in 1449. Photo from Wikipedia,

Now, on the whole I’m skeptical of “military revolution” as an historical concept.  Folks who know my dissertation and work in general have probably detected this character flaw. That is, I don’t think the concept helps us much to understand historical causation or change, or, in many cases, how contemporaries viewed the military events of their times. I think it encourages us to prioritize paradigm over process, simplicity over complexity, and a-priori patterns over the chaos of human existence, and thereby to create patterns of agency that either didn’t exist in the minds of contemporaries, or else functioned in non-replicable contexts. Of course, “military revolution” in the broad sense of “major change in military affairs that impacts human affairs” isn’t necessarily inaccurate or out of place, but in my opinion once we start to define and apply the term, we wind up putting a lot of carts before horses. And at that breadth of definition, the term stops being particularly useful.

A couple quick examples:

  • The “stirrup” revolution. I don’t hold with the vitriolic contempt a lot of people shower on Lynn White’s Medieval Technology and Social Change. Nevertheless, I do think White’s “stirrup thesis” was wrong for several reasons, mainly because the social changes supposedly inspired by the adoption of the stirrup were already well under way by the time it debuted in Francia, and were the product of social, economic and political forces attendant upon the decline, fall, and transformation of the Western Roman Empire. Essentially, a noble’s cavalry retinue was already the core of his or his king’s military strength–and that’s not even to get into the question of whether said retinue fought mounted or dismounted.  The point is, “revolutionary” change, such as there was, did not come as a result of inherently “military” developments. At most I think the stirrup enhanced cavalry’s desirability, and rendered it easier for nobles to acquire horsemen. Philip Sidnell’s Warhorse put paid to the theory that ancient cavalry was “ineffective” in battle. And let’s not forget that Carolingian horses were fairly small, and usually unshod, which circumstances immediately complicate any “revolutionary” impact of stirrups.
  • The “infantry revolution”‘s social consequences. The return of infantry to the battlefield around 1300, while a real event with real impacts, did not unseat the knight or the social order as many think it did. The empirical evidence in England actually shows little social impact from using infantry–in fact, England gradually turned away from socially-unsettling infantry use in Edward III’s reign, relying on low-end gentry and yeomen instead [I do have facts and figures to back this up, and will be speaking on the topic at Kalamazoo in May]. And for all that the Flemish defeated the French at Courtrai in 1302, most folks forget that the French scored some spectacular successes against them a decade or two later. So, cavalry was hardly “finished” (it was still to prove effective in the 1420s and later), and just because a polity used dismounted troops did not mean that it was either seeking a “revolutionary” edge or that the paradigm of warfare had necessarily changed.
  • The Napoleonic military revolution. You run across this one sometimes. Most astute observers, however, would agree with Gunther Rothenburg that Napoleonic armies were a product of population increase, itself caused by agricultural advances, combined with extreme social and political upheaval.  The result being, not radical new ways and means of waging war then impacting society, but changes in the perception of national identity and political economy, which radicalized what a military could be used for and what it could hope to achieve. In most respects, Napoleonic armies resembled, in broad strokes, the armies of the Ancien Régime–which stands to reason, as the most interesting and innovative tactical changes in European warfare took place between 1756 and 1789. The corps system, in many ways the result of revolutionary mobilization, ultimately made battles about as indecisive as they had been during Frederick the Great’s time (while I don’t accept Epstein’s “modern war” thesis, I do accept his argument on the impact of the corps system on indecisive battle, once it was adopted by most combatants).  Napoleon’s spectacular (if blundering) successes with his revolutionary war machine ultimately did cause other nations to reorganize their societies in order to match him. Yet at the end of the day, European nations after 1815 weren’t interested in pursuing a model of revolutionary war, showing that modes of warfare actually are a culturally mediated choice (a la Lynn’s Battle), and not culturally set in stone (a la Hanson’s Carnage and Culture). This rejection of Clausewitzian revolutionary war partly explains why Europeans were perplexed at the American Civil War.
  • Moving to broader examples that usually pop up in military revolution theory, we should consider the common assumption that military revolutions are often manifested in some kind of Hanson-esque occasion of decisive battle, which battle most notably occurred between Western and non-Western powers, and which engagement provided the “wake-up call” to all concerned that a new “way of war” had emerged. Putting aside the vexed question of “who is the ‘West’?”, the association of battles of annihilation with technologically adept western powers would have puzzled the Ayyubids, the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Mughals, or the Tang and Song dynasties (to name a couple).  Battles like Hattin, the Leignitz, Mohács, Panipat, Tangdao were all won by “annihilating” the other side, often using or prompting the development of new technologies or techniques of fighting. Several of them against western powers. And yet none of them is held to constitute or manifest a “military revolution,” at least not by the bulk of scholarship (Lorge’s The Asian Military Revolution makes an interesting critique of the assumptions inherent in a “Western” military revolution). Other “decisive” battles offer no clear connection to revolutionary military events–for instance, Yarmuk, in 636, perhaps one of the most decisive battles in history.
  • Even Michael Roberts’ and Geoffrey Parker’s theses can be questioned, one from the political angle–did war really create the modern state in the way the theory suggests–and one from the contemporary angle: did contemporaries really see warfare as having been fundamentally altered, and therefore society altered as well? Beatrice Heuser, a very astute scholar, has recently written a provocative article examining how early modern society debated precisely these points.
  • Finally, despite technology-focused “Revolution in Military Affairs” in which we are supposedly living (thanks in part to the Office of Net Assessment), the centrality of technology in most military revolution narratives can also be questioned.  Lendon’s Soldiers and Ghosts points out that what drove the adoption or abandonment of technology is often unclear in pre-modern narratives, and any close study of the later Hundred Years War (for argument’s sake, after the Treaty of Troyes in 1420) reveals that technology, while influencing the tempo and emphasis of operations (such as the incidence of battle), ultimately had less to do with French victory than pesky issues of War and Society.

In short, I think military revolution theories are bound to break down sooner or later. It mostly depends on definition, the example chosen, and the point one wishes to make.  That might not be comforting to defense policy folks who need models for predictive reasons, but unfortunately that’s how history usually works.

Now, most of these examples DO have one thing in common: at their terminus, they had in some way altered their societies’ perceptions on the use and utility military force, the manner in which militaries related to their societies, and/or the ways in which  societies produced military institutions.   Ultimately, I think, most developments that people perceive as “revolutionary” in military affairs are revolutionary precisely because people perceive them to be so–and mainly because these developments change what people, nations, and states think they can accomplish by using military force. At that point the dynamism of military change might well accelerate, as society and military operate in alternating current with each other–militaries interacting with society’s needs and beliefs, societies interacting with the potential in military organization and technology.  If that’s a fair criterion of how to judge military revolutions, are there any candidates for pre-modern military revolutions?

I think there are a few, and I’ll start with two that I had mentioned in response to the initial question:

  • The Macedonians, Philip and Alexander. It may be old, but I’m somewhat partial to Arther Ferrill’s “Macedonian military revolution” thesis in The Origins of War. It’s plausible, coherent, and brings out what I just said above–Philip and Alexander’s military proposed a model for how society could relate to its army that was relatively new for Greece and for Persia (though not completely new–the Peloponnesian War had unmoored Greek war from its social/cultural boundaries).  And Alexander’s conquests certainly changed drastically what Mediterranean peoples thought could be accomplished through military force, while his early death gave strength to the legend by implying wasted potential–to this day, we still speculate as to what would have happened to his empire had he lived. Yet at the same time a profound sense of doubt lingers over Alexander’s actual accomplishments. I love the way Peter Green, in Alexander to Actium, seriously questioned the viability of “Hellenism” as a unifying element in his lands, suggesting that it was a thin veneer adopted by local elites, and only increased communal divides as the un-Hellenized many resented the Hellenizing minority (this is very reductive, of course). Hellenism was spread by the sword, and even with Alexander’s conquests one is left wondering how effective war is at changing people’s cultural ideals. Pegg’s study of inquisitions in southern France suggested that what stamped out Catharism wasn’t the Albigensian Crusade, but rather the sustained pressure of the Dominicans for decades after the crusade.  And yet, for all that, I think you could say that Alexander did revolutionize war–leadership, decisive battle, strategy and logistics, the goals of war and the utility of force to achieve some goal, even if the goal became more fantastic than political–all of these were influenced in some way by Alexander, and still are. For more information on post-Alexandrian armies, anything by Nick Secunda is worth reading. If you can get your hands on volume 1 of The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare, do so.
  • The castle, and particularly the stone castle, in western Europe. Now, this one is very UNspectactular compared to Alexander–it slowed things down, rather than speeding them up. It also raises the question, asked by John Childs and others, of whether a revolution that takes a century or two is really a revolution, and the trickier one of what exactly constitutes a castle (see chapter 3 of Jim Bradbury’s The Medieval Siege).  Recent and ongoing work on Ottonian Germany’s frontier defenses is sure to change any opinion one forms on the subject–David Bachrach’s excellent Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany and his brilliant new article on Henry I’s defense policy in the Sorb lands should keep us from waving the revolutionary flag too proudly over “castles.” However, fortifications do seem to have changed dramatically in form, function, number, and perhaps most importantly in social situation, in a relatively short period of time, and they had a tremendous impact on the use, utility, and imagining of military force. Whether one is focusing on Ottonian Germany from c. 920 to c. 980, or in France in the three decades after 1030 (if one can still accept Pouly and Bournazel’s analysis), fortifications seem crucial to understanding how these polities responded to serious military challenges. One need not accept Duby’s “revolt of the castellans” (to which I’m still somewhat partial) to maintain a connection between castles and the socio-political organization that made them viable military structures, or to assert that fortifications as such exerted their own socio-military dynamic on societies and landscapes of power.  At the very least, fortifications can probably explain more about the emerging High Middle Ages than can heavy cavalry. The issue is one of lordship and tenure over military resources, not the tactical abilities of this or that type of horseman. [For the most recent study encompassing this debate, see West’s Reframing the Feudal Revolution; West sees 11th century structures as the product of Carolingian reform, rather than failure.]
  • A bit of a red herring: the Mongol Conquests. This is a bit shakier than the first two. It certainly was as spectacular, if not more so, than Alexander’s conquests. In western Europe, encounters with the Mongols shook Christian perceptions of the world and the very order of existence to their core, and it is from this period of time that I believe we can trace a growing sense that ever more extreme violence was the answer to Christendom’s problems. The problem with pinning the moniker “military revolution” on Mongol conquests is that those conquests most certainly didn’t happen in a vacuum. The Papacy and Empire were locked in precisely the kind of ideological struggle that escalated the scale and impact of military force–the Mongols had no direct effect on that issue. Equally important to the “hardening” of Christian attitudes was the ongoing failure of the mendicant orders to win many converts in Muslim lands; by 1300, converting their Muslim neighbors wasn’t really a viable option, if it ever had been. And finally, one could say that the ones who had the last laugh were the Mamluks, who defeated both Latin and Mongol armies. Yet no one talks of a “Mamluk Military Revolution.” Maybe this one is too much of a stretch.

Ultimately, I think the bigger, more important, and more interesting questions about warfare don’t require the use of the word “revolution” to provide impact or relevance, and that we’ve been led down a lot of rabbit holes in the last thirty years by exactly such use.  Security studies, war studies, etc., may need the term, but I’m not sure that historians do.



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