By Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
The Middle Ages saw the invention of a family of firearms, cannons, bombs, and other types of ordinance fueled by a saltpeter propellant that had been developed in China—mainly for fireworks displays, though it was also used, in some locales, to power projectiles.
The tactics and materiel of medieval warfare had been escalating for several centuries. The Second Lateran Council at Rome had attempted to “prohibit, under anathema, that murderous art of crossbowmen and archers, which is hateful to God”—or, at least to prohibit the use of these deadly long-distance weapons against fellow Christians.
The longbow and, especially, the spring-loaded crossbow were also condemned by horseback-fighting elites, who wanted to safeguard their warrior status.
Times, They Were a-changin’
However, the scale of warfare against neighbors Christian, Muslim, and pagan was gradually eradicating the effectiveness of cavalry skirmishes and small-scale mounted mélées.
By the mid-14th century, infantry troops equipped with pikes were supplemented by archers and crossbowmen and were also weaponized by projectile-hurling siege engines. The earliest recorded use of cannons—shooting arrows, rocks, and shrapnel—is at the Battle of Crécy in 1345–46—an early English victory in the Hundred Years’ War with France.
But we have an even earlier manuscript illumination of a cannon predating that battle, made in 1326, illustrating a treatise “On the Nobilities, Wisdom, and Prudence of Kings”. In that very same year, the Signoría of Florence is on record as seeking to acquire canones de mettalio. This was a foresighted measure, since another northern Italian city would suffer an attack involving gunpowder just a few years later, in 1331.
Moreover, there is a contemporary artifact of a cannon, found in Sweden, from about that same date. Military historians now have reason to believe that guns were in relatively wide use by the later 1320s, although the first depiction of siege warfare aided by cannons is a view of the Battle of Orléans in 1429, 100 hundred years later—the defining victory in Joan of Arc’s short career.
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From the development of cumbersome cannons to handheld firearms was a relatively short step. By the end of the 14th century, smaller, more portable cannons called schioppi manesci, were being cast and used in warfare.
The earliest extant example of a hand cannon, found in Estonia, was probably manufactured for the Teutonic Knights as a terrifying secret weapon in their crusade against the Baltic peoples.
Thereafter, a rapid evolution of handgun technology occurred in the 1420s, driven by the Hussite Wars in the kingdom of Bohemia. These were religious and civic rebellions fought mostly by civilians avenging the recent execution of the popular reformer and theologian Jan Hus, at the hands of the Roman Church, in 1415.
The Hussite militia, made up of ordinary men and women, did not have the traditional skills or training to fight the military orders, including the Teutonic Knights, deployed to destroy them; and so handguns, known in Czech as píšťala, became their weapons of choice.
The Hussites were also equipped with larger artillery guns called houfnice. Our English words pistol and howitzer are thus derived from these medieval Czech terms.
The varieties of handheld weapons diversified rapidly, too, and came to include the small cannon known as a fauconneau and the arquebus, ancestor of the musket. A famous fresco in Bergamo, Italy, “The Triumph of Death”, painted in 1485, shows Death as king of the world, standing astride the sepulcher of two decaying bishops and flanked by murderous skeletons. The one on the left is firing three arrows from a longbow, while the one on the right shoulders an harquebus.
The Deathly Distance
For one thing, firearms would continue to be far too expensive and high maintenance to be owned by most individuals. For another—and this was a topic of much comment at the time—they seemed to take away the agency of the warrior and the close connection between the killer and his victim.
The same has always been true of archers, which may be why the little god Cupid (or Eros) is figured as childish and irresponsible; real warriors did not kill from afar, and bowmen were not the equal of knights. But now, anyone could kill anyone else, anywhere, for any reason—at least in theory. We continue to hear the resonance of this disquieting distance-killing in our own day, when grim reaper drones, operated from the safety and comfort of an office, can kill a target thousands of miles away.
In fact, it is precisely this rejection of modern, mechanized violence that Don Quixote de la Mancha adduces as justifying his wayward, eccentric career to Sancho Panza, in Cervantes’s novel of 1605.
Needless to say, this invention transformed the speed, scale, anonymity, and intimacy with which human beings are able to harm or kill one another.
Common Questions about Medieval Inventions of Guns and Firearms
The earliest recorded use of cannons—shooting arrows, rocks, and shrapnel—is at the Battle of Crécy in 1345–46—an early English victory in the Hundred Years’ War with France.
By the end of the 14th century, smaller, more portable cannons called schioppi manesci, were being cast and used in warfare.
The invention of guns and firearms transformed the speed, scale, anonymity, and intimacy with which human beings are able harm or kill one another.