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War and Society in European Medieval History: Analytical Essay

War and society are two pieces that are undermined to fit perfectly into the puzzle that is known as history. Micheal Howard, termed as one of the greatest living military historians discusses (as said by AJP Taylor, Observer) the effects of war determining the character of society and society, in turn, changing the character of wars in his book, War in European History. Howard also talks about certain developments that take place in the history of warfare in medieval Europe, and how they have affected the way wars were fought, such as feudalism, the evolution of armor and weapons, and the change in warfare tactics.

Feudalism was one of the main topics that Howard touched upon. It is was the medieval model of government that existed before the birth of the modern nation-state. A feudal society is a military hierarchy in which a ruler or lord offers mounted fighters a fief, a unit of land to control in exchange for military service. “ ‘Feudalism’ was a response to economic as much as to military necessity.” This explains how the war turned into a business for wealthy specialists, and that it was no longer about just military power but also economic power.

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The evolution of armor along with an upgrade in weapons is one of the key developments from the medieval times to modern times. In the modern-day, we have bulletproof vests, vehicles, firearms, and many more ways of defending ourselves. In the medieval ages, the type of armor that first existed was a coat of mail that spanned from the neck to the knee and was a knight's most prized possession after the horse. However, the chain mail was soon abandoned for plate armor, which was far more open to ornamentation and could be taken off easily during battle. Greek fire, a weapon that was primarily used to set enemy ships was first used by the Byzantine armies and the Moslems were one of the earliest uses of modern artillery. The Swiss pike was another weapon that was greatly used by the Swiss army that helped them defeat the Burgundian chivalry in 1476 and 1477. Firearms, another huge innovation in the Middle Ages assisted during siege warfare and were very effective in terms of their lasting effects. However, smaller firearms were more effective than larger ones because they were cheaper to manufacture, and were easier to use. The change in weapons and armour drastically affected the outcomes of war and the advancement in artillery and self-defence.

The decline of feudalism was followed by the rise of the mercenaries. Howard talks about how standing armies were becoming more and more expensive as time passed and they were becoming more difficult to maintain. During such a time of crisis, mercenaries were hired by monarchs as it was more efficient for a group of mercenaries to eliminate a threat rather than going to war with standing armies which was financially, politically, and economically stressful. There is also an emphasis on just war in the words of Machiavelli, “ ‘War is just when it is necessary’, and that no higher authority could judge of that necessity.” This viewpoint, as mentioned by Howard eventually grew on other states of Europe. One of the most sought after mercenaries were the Swiss, however as time progressed, it eventually tended to be the French. Chivalry was one of the most important aspects of the battlefield although Hugo Grotius emphasized on the fact that the ‘chevaleresque’ glamour had completely disappeared from the battlefield and that even the most barbarous nations would be ashamed of the tactics used on the battlefield during the age of the mercenaries. Howard also talks about the impact of the Thirty Years War, and how it changed the tide of warfare and brutality. The Thirty Years War had a lasting impact. One of its most detrimental effects was the loss of life. Around 8,000 of the imperialist troops at Breitenfeld were killed, while almost half the Swedish force of 25,000 was killed at Nördlingen. However, before the war could be waged, there was a need for economic resources to make sure the state survived economically before and after the war no matter the result.

In Chapter 3 of the book, The War of the Merchants, Howard talks about the struggle to access wealth from the extra-European world or the commerce that was created by the wealth. The conquistadors of Spain were now in pursuit of profit, adventure, glory, salvation, and land, which allowed them to expand their quest to the supposedly new worlds on other continents. During this period there were several rivalries in the Mediterranean, that wanted to jeopardize the monopoly of silk and spice trade that was held by the merchants of Levant and Italy. Meanwhile, some expeditions were sanctioned by the Portuguese to extend Christendom which had specific objectives to find ways into the Eastern world by tapping into the trading system of the Indian Ocean. It was natural for naval vessels carrying cargo to also carry firearms into unknown waters. In 1602, the East India Company was founded with headquarters in Jakarta from 1619. It dissolved in 1799. The company was set up in 1600 to compete for the East Indian spice trade which eventually restricted the Portuguese from all but a handful of their trading posts in the Indian Ocean and the East Indies. Along with that, the West India Company was formed the moment the twelve-year truce between the Dutch and the Spanish ended. It was built to prey upon the closed Portuguese trading route which grew over a period in the South Atlantic, which was used to purchase gold and ivory from West Africa, transport slaves from Africa to Brazil to work on sugar plantations, exporting sugar grown to Europe. Howard also talks about how the merchants saw state power and naval power as a means of increasing commerce even if Jean-Baptiste Colbert saw commerce as an instrument of state power. Mercantilism is one of the main things that Howard discusses as he progresses in the War of the Merchants. One of the main things in mercantilism was foreign trade. As Kors writes, “It was of elevated importance. It was a rather small sector of any country's economy, but its rate of growth in this period was tremendous… Foreign trade could be perceived as a form of economic growth not bounded by constraints of land and population. The sudden rise of Holland and the amazing growth of were the most impressive indicators.” This explains how foreign trade had an impact on how the economy of a state grew during the Middle Ages. To sum it up, Howard exercises how the War of the Merchants led to an expansion in the economic conditions of states and how the objective of warfare was money and resources instead of medieval castles and military power.

By the end of the eighteenth century, warfare has taken a drastic turn with patriotism and professionalism being the major elements of war between European states. The state of warfare was relatively similar to that of modern-day, with troops not necessarily being from the warrior caste or mercenaries being paid to fight wars. They were just normal servants of the state, as Howard mentions, who were paid as normal employees. This change was key in drawing a line between civilians and military personnel. The Bill of Rights which was introduced in 1689, included a statement that mentioned would be free from a standing army. Gustavus Adolphus, a Swedish monarch decided to take a different approach to recruit men in his army. His reforms included that every tenth man was selected to serve 20 years in the army and the rest paid taxes for equipment that would be used in warfare. Jean Baptiste De Gribeauval, the Inspector of Artillery also introduced new reforms that included the standardization of cannon sizes, the withdrawal of guns in pairs rather than in lines, and the improvement of carriages to iron rather than the wood axle. Such reforms in warfare in the late eighteenth century became predecessors to how modern warfare is fought and was one of the first steps to introducing the structure of the modern army.

In conclusion, through a few chapters in the book, Howard talks about some of the most important aspects that have led to certain changes that exist in the modern world, and how certain developments changed the course of warfare throughout history from the medieval ages to the current day. He talks about certain concepts that have occurred throughout Europe and how they affected the states that existed during those times. Chivalry was one of the main points of focus and how it changed due to changes in warfare. He also discusses the rise and fall of feudalism which had a detrimental effect on the way states were governed along with how merchants and trading had key roles in influencing the economy. In my opinion, the book has some very useful facts and it gives us an insight like none other into European history although I feel like the book could be clear and concise in its explanations of certain concepts. Brian G.H. Ditcham, an independent scholar, described Howard’s approach as traditional military history focused on battles, tactics, and great commanders. The book collectively gives one an insight into how warfare in Europe during the middle ages has shaped the society that we live in today.

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