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Book Review: The Military Revolution Debate

Book Review: The Military Revolution Debate

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The Military Revolution Debate
Edited by Clifford Rogers
(Westview Press, 1995)

Reviewed by Dana Cushing
University of Toronto

The idea of a ‘military revolution’ by which various medieval practises were transformed into a regular early modern institution is one much discussed among military historians. Rogers’ book sets out to address this debate by presenting the original 1955 thesis of Michael Roberts, advancing refinements of the thesis by scholars such as Geoffrey Parker as well as Rogers himself, and then providing challenges to the thesis by John A. Lynn, among others. While the book attempts to provide a sort of anthropology of the ‘military revolution’ concept, regrettably the authors seem to divide themselves into pro- and anti-revolutionary camps. Also, several authors have the annoying habit of devising special revolutions to suit their specific historical interest. The book might have produced some brilliant syntheses between old work and new facts but – by concluding with a rather polemic and entirely defensive essay written by Parker, a long-standing subscriber to a theory which the book itself draws into question – the editor achieves only an enumeration of arguments.

(PLEASE NOTE: Chapters 4 and 6 will not be considered in the following review because they deal with material based mainly in the 18th century.)

Cliff Rogers’ introduction establishes the first major finding of the collaboration. In the following essays, the authors generally agree that military factors caused societal changes. He writes (pp. 3/4) that early modern warfare “… demanded money and manpower on an unprecedented scale B at the same time as the growth of the population and wealth of Europe made it possible to meet that demand.” The reader will find variations and permutations on this theme, but Rogers firmly establishes the military as the hen and the society (or its representational body, government) as the egg.

Thus having established one basic premise, the reader is presented with Roberts’ thesis, ‘The Military Revolution, 1560-1660″, which first introduced the >military revolution= concept to historians. Fortunately Rogers forewarns us that the essay was meant to tweak the historian’s sensibilities, for the reader can only regard Roberts’ characterization of medieval military practises as “inferior” (p. 13) as a product of that particularly distasteful brand of ultra-progressivist thinking prevalent in 1950s academe, whereby everything old is bad and anything new is good. Not content to denigrate medieval military history, he completely separates the early modern era by stating (p. 13) “… that military revolution… stands like a great divide separating medieval society from the modern world.” Yet the modern age was not conceived in a vacuum but is rather the progeny of the medieval, and Roberts has made a critical and damaging error by suggesting otherwise.

There are several more problems in Roberts’ essay. He errs in describing codes of conduct for wars as being unique to the early modern era (p. 28), for certainly the ‘civilization’ of combat is an ages-old concern. Implicit codes are found circa the Han dynasty=s foundation in 206 B.C.[1] and in the early medieval period;[2] the first explicit European codification appears in Frontinus in the early Middle Ages;[3] and by the fourteenth century in Johannes de Legnano’s Tractatus de bello, de represaliis et de duello.[4] He also describes the ‘profession of arms’ as a new phenomenon in education (pp. 25), but again it can be argued that the academies of the early modern era are merely an expression of a long-standing tradition of soldiery which, in this context, is probably best extended backward not only into the medieval era of squires and knights, but also into the Roman age of the career legionnaire. Finally his choice of the period 1560 to 1660 is entirely too tidy.

However it cannot be denied that Roberts made two points of value regarding his ‘military revolution’. The first is that a nation=s economy must be viewed in terms of its war potential (p. 26) which is a key theme in evaluating the revolution=s participant nations. The other point is an anthropological finding of social equalization in armies which is expressed in another reading, Wood’s The King’s Army: Warfare, Soldiers and Society During the Wars of Religion in France, 1562-1576. This finding is a crucial result of the investigation of the military effects upon the social ‘egg’. Wood writes of the creation of a brotherhood of arms, saying (p. 96) that in creating the regular army:

… the Crown had created a quite singular type of organization of self-selected, unrelated, and nationally recruited men of all ages whose major commonalities… were only their shared membership in [a Royal Army] company and its activities.

Indeed Roberts was careful to emphasize the anthropological to amplify his case when describing the impact of his revolution upon society. He emphasizes the “social escalator” which an army career provided (p. 23), the “principle of mass-subordination” applied to the solider by his uniform (p. 15). Unfortunately, the other writers become so engrossed in theorizing and the niceties of argument that they lose this wider perspective. Roberts also tried to show that the revolution=s developments led “to the abyss of the twentieth century” conflict, a post-war perspective of effect which too is lost on later authors.

Next we are presented with Parker’s 1976 essay, which he informs us is the first critical examination of Roberts’ thesis (p. 37). Unfortunately Parker encounters trouble early on with two key misconceptions about medieval warfare. First, Rogers quotes him in the Introduction (p. 3) writing that “Battles became ‘irrelevant – and therefore unusual'”. Yet Andrew Ayton’s book, Knights and Warhorses: Military Service and the Aristocracy Under Edward III, centers on the very idea that battle was simply too decisive and costly, and that another type of engagement – the chevauchée – was preferable because it deprived the enemy of resources for the long term. Therefore battle was not irrelevant in the medieval or early modern eras, but rather a risky and inappropriate instrument. Second, he falls into the trap of perceiving medieval battle strategy as having been centered upon massed charges by the “clumsy, expensive and scarce” knight (p. 44). To counter this notion we may turn to Richard Barber’s work, The Knight and Chivalry, where he explains (p. 226):

The idea of medieval tactics as consisting of massive charges by heavily armed knights, invariably on horseback, captures the imagination all too easily: and the shadow of this attractive oversimplification still hangs over the history of medieval warfare… Selection of terrain, disposition of forces, and discipline were as important as the strength of the cavalry force…

And we may recall that presenting upon the field as a mounted fighter had long been the most expensive mode of military service, a fact reflected in this period by a reference to Wood (p. 135) explaining the cost of horse as the reason for the vast difference between the pay of a footman and the cavalryman or gendarme.

Parker’s contribution is indeed his revision of Roberts, whose revolution he divides into advancements in tactics, strategy, society and army size; the latter saw a tenfold increase, he writes (p. 43). He uses Spain to broaden Roberts’ Swedish example of revolution. Unfortunately, Parker too prefers a progressive rather than an evolutionary view. Although his focus on the trace italienne leads him into strategic difficulty – in fact his theory that forts led to stagnation directly opposes Roberts’ assertion that “[modern] war became pre-eminently a war of movement” (p. 19) – he realizes that sieges provide a continuity between medieval and early modern warfare, thus extending the ‘military revolution’ from 1530 to 1710. Andrew Ayton and J.L. Price, discussing this very concept B tailored to the medieval age B in their book The Medieval Military Revolution: State, Society and Military Change in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, in their Introduction agree and conclude (p. 17):

[The] military revolution of the early‑modern period, as identified by some scholars, needs, therefore, to be placed in the context of the almost equally radical changes which took place in the later Middle Ages, not to mention the very varied military experiences of the Middle Ages as a whole. The period covered by the military revolution must in consequence be extended backwards well into the later medieval centuries…[5]

Another continuity with the medieval, Parker notes, is the role of geography as an important non-military strategic factor (p. Finally, he elaborates upon the hen/egg discussion by introducing a “price revolution” and demonstrating the necessity of Dutch finance (pp. 45-8), the latter point again being confirmed by Ayton and Price with Price’s essay on Holland (pp. 196/7).

The essay following is the editor=s furtherance of Roberts’ and Parker’s work on the ‘military revolution’ thesis. Rogers seems to combine Roberts’ theory of dissociation – his description of the pre- and post-modern warrior (p. 56) is problematic if one equates granted land and spoils with pay, if one recalls medieval cavalry worked formation, and if one considers the bayonet as a personal method of killing – with Parker’s thematic approach. Rogers compartmentalizes the ‘military revolution’ into four separate revolutions which, counter to Roberts and Parker, take place entirely during the medieval period, during the Hundred Years’ War (pp. 61-75): infantry changes from 1330 to 1340; artillery from 1420 to 1440 (guns) and again from 1450 to 1470 (carriages); fortification in the 1520s; and administration from the mid-15th century on. This final revolution requires a nation to conquer land and centralize government in order to maintain survival, which in turn requires more conquest and centralization to support the latest gains.

Significantly Rogers sunders the bonds of his predecessors by contributing the theory of “punctuated equilibrium revolution”. Unfortunately this scheme somewhat defeats his assertion that such revolution is not progressive change but a complete reversal of affairs within one lifetime, as we can see above that artillery changes twice and administration changes continually. For this reviewer, whose hobby is anthropology, a less radical ‘staged evolution’ seems more appropriate. Yet the concept is vital and the attempt to use another discipline is commendable. Nevertheless Rogers subscribes to the theory of ‘military revolution’ wholly.

At this point in the book the reader is introduced to the opposing team. Parker’s theory is first gently tested by John A. Lynn’s essays. The first is an analysis aimed at determining the true numbers of soldiery involved in the armies of the ‘military revolution’ era, which discounts the paper size of armies but affirms the dramatic increase in numbers. The second essay tests whether Parker’s cherished trace italienne was indeed the decisive factor in increasing army size, and concludes that economy, politics and strategy were more important considerations.

The first in a series of antitheses is provided by Thomas F. Arnold=s essay on the Gonzaga as an example of a small power using modern technology to avoid predatory, centralizing nations (p. 206) as described by Rogers. Next is David A. Parrott’s excellent essay completely dismisses the ‘military revolution’ in favor of failure theory. Roberts alludes to military and civil command problems and logistical stresses in his essay, careful always to remain within the context of change; Parrott attacks. He states namely that contemporary challenges were not met by armies and government, that battles were concluded incidental of tactics due to logistical problems, and that war was determined not by strategy but by need (p. 228). Here again Wood=s book is useful because it examines one instance of a situation which this theory could well describe, and one reviewer sums up Wood’s position (e-review):

His thesis is that the crown failed to deliver a knock‑out blow to the Huguenot rebellion in the early wars due to an incomplete “military revolution” B the problems of logistics, supply, personnel, financing, social organization, etc. that all needed to be solved by early modern states in order to field effective standing armies.[6]

Not only does Parrott call the Roberts’ revolution into question, but he makes key criticisms of Roberts’ supporting argument. He notes eyewitness accounts that demonstrate the psychological effect of gunfire at Alte Veste was not the crucial difference as Roberts asserts; he ridicules Roberts’ statement that a salvo would make a literal hole in a pike rank in actual battle, noting a very solid rank of ten-deep was commonly used (p. 235). Parrott emphasizes that artillery was effectively static and thus the heavy cavalry remained an army’s only mobile heavy weapon against infantry (pp. 236/7), a point which Wood confirms (p. 133). Parrott also introduces seasonal considerations, noting that finding winter quarters was a serious command decision (p. 231).

There are two inconsistencies of note in this paper. First, Parrott writes (p. 242) that governments needed funds and were forced to send out an army which could not be controlled because it could not be paid. Consequently, early modern warfare became a means to “control territory with supply potential” (p. 243). This reviewer was under the impression that, with the exception of Crusades and similarly-motivated endeavours, war has always been waged for this cause. Also Parrott points out that this need, not political alliance or influence, was the chief cause for restriction of army size in this era (p. 244); but earlier states that the 1570s saw the advent of the army as a political tool, and that entrepreneurship provided impetus for continued infantry expansion (p. 240). Yet his non-revolution of error overshadows these questions in the context of this book.

Simon Adams provides the next essay, in which agrees with Parrott on the importance of the continuing role of cavalry and logistical problems (pp. 259, 265, 267), although the two writers differ on whether politics or religion influenced army size. Adams drastically slashes numbers: his maximum strength of 40,000 soldiers (p. 255) is Wood;s minimum (p. 66). He is the one author of this collection to propose a social hen and military egg, positing that the Reformation prompted the army;s role to transform from fighting to occupation, a role which required vastly larger forces (pp. 262/3); it is a crucial historical consideration the others have missed. He too attacks Parker;s trace italienne, saying that it was not the siege methods required by the fort itself, but rather the multiplication of garrisons required by political (and religious) considerations which prompted an increase in infantry (p. 260). He also dismisses the notion of a revolution, countering Parker outright in stating that tactical and weaponry changes were minor factors while agreeing with Parrott that failure was key.

The next essay by I.A.A. Thomson returns us to the pro-revolutionary camps but reveals dissent within the ranks. He accepts the ;military revolution; thesis (p. 273) but continues with Adam;s failure concept by providing a direct challenge to Parker. Using a slightly modified timeframe of 1500 to 1650, Thomson presents Spain as a case study of a powerful nation which failed to undergo a ‘military revolution’. Thomson questions the early modern financial cycle in the context of conflict and considers how costs were absorbed by Spain=s general economy and her existing military budget. For example, in calculating military expenditure he excludes fortifications because cities and lords absorbed those costs; infantry guns are not considered because the medieval crossbow budget simply became the early modern rifle budget and thus the cost was not specific to any given era (pp. 278/9). He determines that the bulk of Spain=s expense was the early modern army’s use of small, discrete infantry units which led to a multiplication of units, which created more officers, who drew more salaries, and who drew them more frequently due to increased conflict (pp. 279, 283): this finding dovetails with Roberts’ plethora of revolution-necessitated NCOs. Thus while subscribing to the basic idea of revolution, Thomson proves that Parker was wrong to use Spain as an example of a nation experiencing one, since even larger states with tremendous resources – Spain was leveraging New World gold futures to finance itself – could fail to change effectively.

Penultimately, John F. Guilmartin, Jr.’s essay is to be commended for presenting the idea that the ‘military revolution’ has become less a discrete unit than a line of historical inquiry (pp. 299-300) tracing its origin to Sir Charles Oman (p. 308). Indeed Ayton and Price’s work raised the same issue, writing that one must “… question whether a transformation which took place over such a long period‑‑perhaps from the early fourteenth to the end of the eighteenth century ‑‑can be usefully called a revolution at all.” (p. 17) However in his new fashion he subscribes to the revolution, using Rogers’ system of partitions. For his overall ‘military revolution’, Guilmartin requires Rogers= infantry and artillery revolutions as well as Parker’s fortification revolution, adding naval technology improvements and his own “combined arms revolution” of tactics, artillery and cavalry as demonstrated circa 1595 (pp. 304, 307). It is unfortunate that Guilmartin fulfills the urge to create yet another revolution to muddy the waters, especially since he does not define what he considers a revolution to be. He concludes by selecting four themes ‘ geography, social attitudes to military endeavour, tactical and technical innovation, and chance ‘ concurring with two of Parker’s original themes, tactics and society (p. 322).

Unfortunately, Guilmartin’s modification of Roberts, Parker and Rogers is the minority of the essay. Guilmartin is hopelessly Eurocentric, contrasting Europeans to a grouping of utterly dissimilar, colonial “foes” (p. 301) in what can only be called an attempt to compare apples to oranges. He wrongly asserts the Inca had no alphabet (p. 310), which confirms this reviewer’s suspicion that he has researched little whereof he speaks on New World cultures.[7] He even argues that the Ottoman Turks were Western Europeans in essence (p. 303), meanwhile detailing how their military practises, and consequently the administrative effects upon their society, contrasted to that of Western forces (pp. 318-20).

At last we come to Parker’s defence of his essay and the ‘military revolution’ in general. Certainly it deserves its label as a “rejoinder”. He preserves the ‘military revolution’ as a single, extensive phenomenon but nods to Rogers’ theory of “punctuated equilibrium revolution” (p. 339), although perhaps this is not surprising since he advised on Rogers’ paper (note 1, p. 78) and Rogers advised on his (p. 356, note 1). Next, Parker asserts (p. 341) that the 16th century is the correct period to examine because of developments in naval artillery – an aspect not previously mentioned – and regular artillery and his favorite subject, the trace italienne defence.

Parker defends his trace italienne forts on several fronts. First, he uses it to hedge his position on army size: for the enemy, he emphasizes the forts caused personnel numbers to increase because the forts were designed to cause stagnation (p. 349) thus requiring large armies to besiege; but, for the defender, he writes that large garrisons in these forts caused larger armies (pp. 352/3), an unstated nod to Adams’ revision of his tenfold increase. Second, he asserts that the trace italienne specifically required large armies to garrison and improved guns, which in turn prompted larger administrations (p. 338). Third, he has modified his position on the continuity between medieval and early modern, now emphasizing Roberts’ dissociation by using the trace italienne to show that military architecture, and consequently the use of artillery fire, created a marked difference between the medieval and early modern eras (pp. 345-9). He claims the forts were responsible for preventing commanders from striking at the heart of their enemies as they would have wished (p. 350), still in opposition to Roberts. Yet he forgoes reiterating his original point about geography, and certainly the other contributors have raise issues of pay, sieges and strategy that ought to be addressed.

The only new idea presented in this work is a revision of the hen-and-egg concept which revolution, if viewed from a progressive or reversal standpoint, requires. Parker muses that the causational relationship of war and society, or society and war, is so difficult to unravel that perhaps a symbiotic development, modelled on the double-helix of a DNA molecule, would be a more appropriate construct. Parker’s progressiveness here is admirable, especially given his entrenching elsewhere.

There are minor difficulties in this piece. The most glaring error is his assertion that Moslems allowed inexperienced foreigners to monopolize their artillery (p. 355). This statement runs opposite to the impression provided by Guilmartin’s description of Middle Eastern armies – odd, as we find Guilmartin advised on the paper too (p. 356, note 1) – and seems entirely contrary to common sense. Also, this reviewer found it anachronistic to use the early 19th century strategist Clausewitz to analyze early 17th century armies, especially in calling him a “perceptive military theorist” (p. 349) when the modern historian would do better elsewhere. Finally, in the endnotes there is too much space – almost a page of single-spaced, minuscule type – spent replying to a review by Professor Bert Hall, Univeristy of Toronto, and Professor Kelly DeVries, Loyola College, an appraisal which was obviously taken personally. Perhaps the editor could have requested an article for the book, thus bringing the debate into a more helpful position in the open text of the volume.

In conclusion, while Roberts’ theory of a ‘military revolution’ was unique, it remains problematic. While adhering to the idea, its followers cannot agree on its definition, form and details. This book also presents significant evidence, not quite denying but certainly contradicting, that key elements of the revolution were widespread and, in some cases, ever occurred. Certainly the theory is useful as a line of inquiry, as Guilmartin points out to us, and Roberts enjoys significant academic weight to this day – witness Ayton and Price’s medieval version of his idea – but this reviewer thinks that is the extent of its usefulness. It would be more helpful to discard the ‘revolution’ construct altogether: dramatic changes in history need not always be radicalized. Instead this reviewer thinks it would be more helpful to shift focus and, while acknowledging change, seek continuity with the medieval (and modern) era.




Ayton, Andrew, Knights and Warhorses: Military Service and the English Aristocracy Under Edward III (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge UK, 1994)

Ayton, Andrew and Price, J.L., editors, The Medieval Military Revolution: State, Society and Military Change in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Tauris Academic Studies, I.B. Tauris Publishers, New York NY, 1995)

Barber, Richard,The Knight and Chivalry (rev. ed.) (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge UK, 1995)

Rogers, Clifford J., editor, The Military Revolution Debate: Readings on the Military Transformation of Early Modern Europe (Westview Press, Boulder CO, 1995)

Wood, James B. The King’s Army: Warfare, Soldiers and Society During the Wars of Religion in France, 1562-1576 (Cambridge Studies in Early Modern History, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK, 1996)


Bachrach, Bernard S. “Ayton, Price: The Medieval Military Revolution”
The Medieval Review (Bryn Mawr)
, 1 Dec 1999:

Lloyd, Howell A. “James B. Wood: The King’s Army” American Historical Review, April 1998, Number 13, p. 524

“Wood, The King’s Army“ 103‑5516814‑8747855

Other Readings

Clark, John, editor,The Medieval Horse and Its Equipment c.1150-c.1450 (Medieval Finds From Excavations in London 5 HMSO, London UK, 1995)

  1. According to Paul D. Buell from the MEDIEV-L electronic mailing list
  2. The evolution of the chivalric ideals and the Japanese Bushido code being foremost.
  3. My thanks to Professor Bernard S. Bachrach for providing this reference.
  4. My thanks to Professor James A. Brundage for providing this reference.
  5. An interesting side note is that both of these >military revolution= books came out together in 1995.
  6. Unfortunately, this reviewer did not reply to my email requesting their full name. But a good point is a good point so I have used the quote regardless.
  7. This reviewer has worked on South American archaeological digs and is familiar with non-textual expressions such as Incan quipus (knotted cords recording significant events) and native writings in Spanish (de la Vega being one period Incan author).

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