Early Modern Infantry and History as Continuity and Change

It started with a tweet.

As an historian with a background in medieval history and who is currently researching the development of the European military-fiscal state of the seventeenth century, this tweet caught my attention for several reasons.

First, the question about the “specific moment” in history when everything shifted and a new world was ushered in is a commonly occurring query. I have been asked questions of this kind several times and never have I been able to give a straight answer, as in “this is the moment when everything changed.” The reason for this inability is simple: history is not a series of isolated events. It is a process. And as a process, changes and developments interlock and feed off each other. This is why the phrase “continuity and change” is a commonly occurring phrase in historical research. Because that is what history is. Continuity and change. At the same time.

Second, as is stated in this tweet, medieval warfare and early modern warfare are different from each other. The images used to illustrate the tweet is focused on weapons technology, which indeed did change during this period.

The early modern era sees the increased use of weaponry that are powered by gunpowder. This development led to changes in engineering, such as how to build fortifications. A medieval castle wall could withstand a siege where swords, ladders, crossbows, and even trebuchets, were used. However, a medieval castle wall is helpless against the firing power of a canon and so early modern fortifications needed to be built differently to withstand this kind of assault.

Third, the tweet mentions the differences between a medieval army and an early modern army regarding its infantry. If you ask me, this is where it gets interesting.

As I have stated previously here on The Boomerang, fighting a war is much more than just soldiers, guns, and ammo. War is a way of organizing a society. This is why we speak of societies being in a state of war. And no other time period in European history displays this more clearly than the early modern period.

The early modern period was a time of more or less constant war, the epitome of which would be the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) which caused major devastation to the European continent, the likes of which would not be seen again until World War II.

Early-modern warfare became the result of the economic system of the time—mercantilism. Mercantilism preached a positive trade balance which would be maintained through territorial expansion and government monopolies. Territorial expansion was achieved through colonization in other parts of the world and through war.

To be able to maintain a society more or less in a constant state of war, the state itself needed to be reformed. War during the early modern era differed from war during the Middle Ages in that it affected society as a whole on a larger scale.

Medieval warfare resembled armed gangs more than actual armies. The Battle of Hastings in 1066, which ushered in what is now called the Norman Conquest of England, is estimated to have involved no more than 17,000 men. This number includes all fighters on both sides of the battle.

During the early modern era, armies grew in size. The two armies that fought each other at the Battle of Lützen in 1632 involved more than 40,000 men, most of them infantry. Not only did this battle involve more than twice as many people as the Battle of Hastings; it was one of several battles of this size fought over a period of thirty years. The Battle of Hastings was a one-time event.

To sustain such a massive war effort, all society resources needed to be geared towards the military. And by resources I mean taxes, agricultural output, and manpower.

And by manpower I mean the infantry. Instead of having an army that consisted of men who all had a personal relationship to one another, the early modern army consisted of men who were conscripted without a personal connection to their commanding officer.

An example of how the early-modern infantry shaped society is Sweden during Charles XI (Swedish: Karl XI, r. 1660-1697). Charles XI created a system of infantry conscription (Indelningsverket) that remained in effect until 1901, permeating Swedish society on all levels. The purpose of Indelningsverket was for each village to provide the state with an infantry soldier, providing this man and his family with a tenant farm (soldattorp).

This solution is similar to how the tax-exempt nobility developed during the Middle Ages. But instead of a noble man providing his knightly services to a king, a farming village provides an infantry soldier to the state. Which leads us back to what I talked about at the beginning of this post—continuity and change.

To conclude, I would like to say the following.

History is a process where continuity and change work simultaneously. Yes, there are events that can be referred to as “historical,” when the development of society took a turn. However, an historical event is only historical when placed within its context. In other words, a specific moment when something changes can only be identified in relation to the over-arching process of which this event is a minor part.

If you’re curious about Myke Cole, check out his novels of military fantasy. I have read two of them so far and really enjoyed them. Also, even though I have dissected his tweet to a near-atomic level, I have the greatest respect for Cole and his work.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.