A Brief History Of Engineering

Chapter 3 Case Study: Is Gunpowder Responsible for the Modern State?

Geoffrey Parker is one of the major figures who draws a strong connection between the invention and later introduction of gunpowder into Europe and the conditions under which Europeans came to militarily dominate the globe in the 19th century and the existence of the modern state staffed with professional bureaucrats and paid for by regular taxes. Parker argues that when gunpowder was introduced into Europe, there was no single dominant power or hegemon, and so the situation was one of continual warfare and constant striving for advantages. European states quickly realized the potential of gunpowder to provide military advantage and began many different strategies to place them into battle. While gunpowder was invented in China in approximately the 9th century, its use on the battlefield in Chinese and Mongol armies was limited. Europeans come into contact with gunpowder in the 13th century. By the 16th century, they had developed large cannons, which eventually made castle walls and large stone fortresses obsolete. By the late 1300s, primitive guns were replacing crossbows and even infantry. Yet, because the rate of fire was so slow, they did not immediately take over. Early guns were fired from a stand and not particularly mobile, but by the time of the matchlock and later flintlock musket in the 1600s, they were more mobile than men with pikes.

The invention of the bayonet in 1690 marked the end of the few remaining traditional pikemen. The changing dynamics of battle dominated by guns favored larger armies—the rate of fire was a factor. Also, the fact that expensive armor of the nobility was obsolete and that infantry were now more valuable than cavalry led to major increases in the size of armies. Initially, government had trouble paying for the ever larger armies and more extended campaigns; overall strategy increased during this time as armies grew. It was not uncommon for monarchs to go bankrupt attempting to pay for the increasing costs of warfare. Budget problems from warfare arguably led to the English Civil War and the French Revolution a century later; both ended with monarchs losing their heads.

At the beginning of the early modern period, government staffs were quite small by modern standards and most executive offices were effectively positions in the king’s household, typically held by nobility who had some pre-existing tie of loyalty to the king. It was not uncommon for a single man to hold numerous offices at once, several of which he sublet out to others to actually administer. There is no question but that government at this time was incredibly inefficient. Taxes were also quite unreliable. In England, there were no regular taxes, but rather the king had to call a parliament to gain consent for a tax, and the tax itself was of only a finite duration and amount. An infamous parliament summoned for the purpose of taxes helped begin the English Civil War. As more money was needed, states found more efficient and regular methods of tax collection and monarchs began relying upon university-trained professionals to administer the growing government. The modern state today entirely run by professionals and perpetual taxations is ultimately formed from these pressures on state-building.

Does the case of gunpowder favor technological determinism or social constructivism? Why or why not?

Case study by Robert Reed

Parker, Geoffrey. The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West 1500–1800. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Ertman, Thomas. The Birth of Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Parrott, David. The Business of War: Military Enterprise and Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Weber, Max. Economy and Society. 2 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.


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