Bert S. Hall

Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe. Gunpowder, Technology, and Tactics

Baltimore and London, John Hopkins University Press, 1997. ISBN 0801855314

To review a book some five years after its publication may seem an odd undertaking, especially since Bert Hall’s Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe has already elicited numerous reviews. Hall’s masterful synthesis of the early history of firearms in Europe is often described as a detailed narrative which is rich in factual detail and breadth of coverage, ranging from firearms’ appearance in Western Europe near the beginning of fourteenth century to their diversification and excellence of the sixteenth. Hall prefers to describe his topic as the ‘assimilation of firearms’ into European warfare, focussing most of the attention on the key technical and tactical aspects of firearms’ adoption: the discovery and development of more practical and powerful gunpowder, the manufacture of more reliable and accurate firearms, and the challenge of integrating these weapons into the relatively distinct environments of siege and field warfare. Few have such an enviable knowledge of the subject’s literature and Hall presents the narrative in a measured fashion which gives the work great appeal.

Hall’s efforts to weave this historical material into a broader analysis of technology and war, however, sits less comfortably in current scholarship and perhaps not surprisingly has drawn fewer comments. What emerges alongside the historical narrative in Weapons and Warfare is a philosophy of history which examines technology inductively through a history of firearms and warfare. Hall ascribes the genesis of Weapons and Warfare to a dissatisfaction with previous histories of firearms that exaggerated their rise and importance, especially in representation or substantiation of a monolithic early modern military revolution. Discarding that framework and any monocausal political or technological approach, Hall states that he sought a social history of firearms that opened the black box of complex factors involved in their development and adoption. Instead of viewing firearms’ development as a unilateral and linear progression of their capabilities or importance, Hall embraces the more recent notion of a series of developments linked by a certain ‘logic’ of progression when viewed from a long-term perspective, but bearing the influences of the circumstances and experimentations of each period- what Hall terms the ‘grammar’ of technological development. Hall states that in Weapons and Warfare he sought to connect the ‘logic’ and ‘grammar’ of firearms’ assimilation.[1]

As Hall points out, the task is a difficult one. The distinct perspectives relevant to the logic and grammar of firearms’ assimilation require different methodologies. Reconciliation in this instance is especially difficult due to the field’s slow recovery from technological determinism, and the general disregard military historians have shown for other disciplines and periods.[2] To correct these types of oversight, more space in Weapons and Warfare could have been devoted to the enormously volatile debate between social constructivists and technological determinists. This debate now extends to the history of mainstream sciences, generating a very specialized literature and a number of splinter groups with specific agendas (4S, S&TS, ST&S).[3] Hall’s ‘grammar’ for technological development can be compared to the social constructivist’s desire for a holistic account of a technology’s relationship with society. Most studies utilizing this approach tend to focus on specific regions and shorter periods (i.e. 50 years), thoroughly investigating both the relevant social and material factors. These specialized works benefit by considering the complex relationships of a wide range of factors (cultural, scientific, technical, economic, praxis, political, organization, etc.), including intangibles such as irrational choices, idiosyncrasies, prestige, fear, indifference, creativity, etc. Hall’s treatment is certainly sympathetic with this approach. To take the fourteenth century as an example, Hall demonstrates ways in which the new weapons were adapted into existing conventions, such as their naming or the choice of ammunition (arrows). Hall also cites Jean Buridan’s mention of gunpowder weapons as an example of firearms’ manifestation in the ‘European consciousness’.[4] Hall did not explore this avenue further, but an examination of scientific texts might provide more insight into the intellectual context of firearms’ early development.[5]

Although observant of the grammar of firearms’ assimilation, Weapons and Warfare is clearly weighted towards its logic. This approach has been criticized because it tends to assume that a story of a technology exists - in other words that one or more technical aspects maintained more influence on firearms’ development and assimilation than other factors. The choice to focus on the logic of firearms’ development also shifts the diagnostic to an abstract concept of ‘technology’ (de dicto) rather than historical occurrence (de re). In effect, the abstraction creates the ‘black box’ Hall is seeking to avoid by grouping together all the technical aspects of firearms as one entity even though over time its composition or dynamics may change radically. According to Hall, the conditions of firearms’ assimilation indeed varied tremendously by region and period, even coming to operate in a ‘fundamentally different manner’ by the modern period.[6] Hall is intent on searching for such historical watersheds in firearms’ development which creates artificial divides in Weapons and Warfare’s narrative and presentation to allow for diagnostic refocus. Such a divide is most apparent in Hall’s statement that ‘The period of experimentation for firearms was the fifteenth century; by about the middle of the sixteenth century guns had achieved a kind of "closure" or "synthesis" of designs and practices that persisted for nearly three hundred years. Viewed through the lens of historical perspective, what guns offered and what they demanded in return changed only incrementally.’[7] The implications of Hall’s statement for the dynamics and relative importance of technology in these two different periods is never fully resolved. Although the statement is surely meant to emphasize the changing conditions of firearms’ development, it undermines their later importance and distorts the circumstances of development. The manufacture of both firearms and gunpowder was more sophisticated in the sixteenth century, i.e. more closely allied to contemporary sciences and experimentation in the scientific sense of the word. The well-rehearsed frameworks of traditional economic modelling may have been able to provide some nuance in this regard, particularly those addressing proto-industrialization and patterns of technological development. This methodology could also be extended to consider the work of world-systems studies which specialize in long term change in pre-modern societies.[8]

Macro-histories are especially prone to generalizations, but an inductive approach to a philosophy of technology and war is especially precarious here due to Weapons and Warfare’s extensive reliance on secondary sources for its historical evidence. Nonetheless, Weapons and Warfare’s Historiographical slant revealed that a scattered and discrepant literature awaited synthesis. The critique of this literature brought immediate gains, such as the suggestion that historians’ specialization and lack of integration has fostered the view of gunpowder weapons as agents of change.[9] Because of this balance between issues, evidence and methodology, Weapons and Warfare remains a choice introduction to the early history of firearms. Despite the unorthodox discussion on the philosophy of technology, Hall’s intrepid thoughts form a valuable part of Weapons and Warfare, especially for scholars interested in the development of firearms as a component of Europe’s military system.

Randall Storey

(University of Reading)



1. WW, p. 1.

2. WW, pp. 1-2.

3. E.g., M.R. Smith and L. Marx, eds., Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism (London, 1995); I. Spiegel-Rösing and D. de Solla Price, eds., Science, Technology and Society. A Cross-Disciplinary Perspective (London, 1977).

4. WW, pp. 44-5.

5. The physics of projectiles and siege engines were already a notable area of scientific inquiry in the thirteenth century (Jordanus de Nemore) and intrinsically linked to Thomas Bradwardine and Jean Buridan’s legendary treatments of motion in the fourteenth century.

6. WW, p. 4.

7. WW, p. 156.

8. World-history has grown rapidly during last quarter of the twentieth century and is now flourishing, A.G. Frank and B. Gills, eds., The World System: five hundred years or five thousand? (London, 1993); C. Chase-Dunn and T.D. Hall, Rise and Demise. Comparing World Systems (Boulder, 1997).

9. WW, p. 105.