Cannon in the Middle Ages

Cannon in the Middle Ages

Cannon in the Middle Ages were large tubular firearms designed to fire a heavy projectile over a long distance. They were used in China, Europe and the Middle East during the period, and became an important type of artillery.

Although gunpowder was known in Europe during the High Middle Ages, it was not until the Late Middle Ages that cannon were widely developed. The first cannon in Europe were probably used in Iberia, during the Islamic wars against the Christians in the 13th century; their use was also first documented in the Middle East around this time. English cannon first appeared in 1327, and later saw more general use during the Hundred Years' War, when primitive cannon were engaged at the Battle of Crécy in 1346. By the end of the 14th century, the use of cannon was also recorded in Russia, Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire.

The earliest medieval cannon, the "pot-de-fer", had bulbous, vase-like shape, and was used more for psychological effect than for causing physical damage. The later culverin was transitional between the handgun and the full cannon, and was used as an anti-personnel weapon. During the 15th century, cannon advanced significantly, so that bombards were effective siege engines. Towards the end of the period, cannon gradually replaced siege engines—among other forms of aging weaponry—on the battlefield.

The Middle English word "Canon" was derived from the Old Italian word "cannone", meaning "large tube", which came from Latin "canna", meaning "cane" or "reed".cite web|url=|title=Definition and etymology of "cannon"|publisher=Webster's Dictionary|accessdate=2008-06-02] The Latinised word "canon" has been used for a gun since 1326 in Italy, and since 1418 in English. The word "Bombardum", or "bombard", was earliest term used for "cannon", but from 1430 it came to refer only to the largest weapons.cite web |url= |title=Cannons and Gunpowder | |author=Calvert, Dr James B |accessdate=2008-06-02 |date=2007-07-08|]

Early use in China and East Asia

Use in the Islamic world

With the invention of gunpowder, the cannon spread into India and the Islamic world prior to the Mongol intrusion in China. The Arabic "Karshuni manuscript" has editions of gunpowder recipes from the early 12th century, and there is mention of rockets or fire arrows being used in the mid-13th century, primarily defensively as psychological weapons.cite web|publisher=Ahmad Y Hassan|last=Hassan|first=Ahmad Y|authorlink=Ahmad Y Hassan|url=|title=Gunpowder Composition for Rockets and Cannon in Arabic Military Treatises In Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries|accessdate=2008-05-26] cite web|last=Hassan|first=Ahmad Y|authorlink=Ahmad Y Hassan|url=|title=Technology Transfer in the Chemical Industries|accessdate=2008-05-26|publisher=Ahmad Y Hassan]

Portable hand cannon ("midfa" in Arabic) were first used by the Egyptians to repel the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260, and again in 1304. The composition of the gunpowder used in these battles was later described in several manuscripts written in the early 14th century. Four different mixtures were used, the most explosive having a composition (74% saltpeter, 11% sulfur, 15% carbon) almost identical to modern gunpowder (75% saltpeter, 10% sulfur, 15% carbon). These mixtures were more explosive than those used in either China or Europe during this period. The Battle of Ain Jalut also saw the use of the earliest known gunpowder cartridges, employed by the Egyptians in their fire lances and hand cannon.

The use of cannon as siege machines dates back to Abu Yaqub Yusuf, who employed them at the siege of Sijilmasa in 1274, according to Ibn Khaldun. Also intended for siege warfare, the first supergun, the Great Turkish Bombard, was used by the troops of Mehmed II to capture Constantinople, in 1453. Urban, a Hungarian cannon engineer, is credited with the invention of this cannon.Bradbury, p 293] It had a convert|762|mm|in|0|sing=on|abbr=on bore, and could fire convert|544|kg|abbr=on|sing=on stones a mile, and the sound of their blast could reportedly be heard from a distance of convert|10|mi|km|0. The Great Turkish Bombards were cast in bronze and made in two parts: the chase and the breech, which, together, weighed 16 tonnes. [Gat, p 461] The two parts were screwed together using levers to facilitate the work.

Another weapon invented in the Islamic world, fashioned for killing infantry, was the first known autocannon. It was invented in the 16th century, by Fathullah Shirazi, a Persian-Indian polymath and mechanical engineer, who worked for Akbar the Great in the Mughal Empire. As opposed to the polybolos and repeating crossbows used earlier in Ancient Greece and China respectively, Shirazi's rapid-firing machine had multiple gun barrels that fired from a hand cannon. [Bag, p 431–436 ]

pread to Europe

In Europe, the first mention of gunpowder's composition in express terms appeared in Roger Bacon's "De nullitate magiæ" at Oxford, published in 1216. [cite book|title=Encyclopedia Britannica|year=1771|location=London|chapter=Gunpowder|quote = frier Bacon, our countryman, mentions the compoſition in expreſs terms, in his treatiſe "De nullitate magiæ", publiſhed at Oxford, in the year 1216.; Note the Long s.] Later, in 1248, his "Opus Maior" describes a recipe for gunpowder and recognized its military use:

In 1250, the Norwegian "Konungs skuggsjá" mentioned, in its military chapter, the use of "coal and sulphur" as the best weapon for ship-to-ship combat. [cite web |url= |title=King's Mirror, Chapter XXXVII: The duties, activities and amusements of the Royal Guardsmen | |accessdate=2008-07-20 |]

Muslim and Christian Iberia

The first confirmed use of gunpowder in Europe was the Moorish cannon, first used by the Andalusians in the Iberian Peninsula, at the siege of Seville in 1248, and the siege of Niebla in 1262.Manucy, p 3] In reference to the siege to Alicante in 1331, the Spanish historian Zurita recorded a "new machine that caused great terror. It threw iron balls with fire." [Partington, p 191] The Spanish historian Juan de Mariana recalled further use of cannon during the capture of Algeciras in 1342:

Juan de Mariana also relates that the English Earl of Derby and Earl of Salisbury had both participated in the siege of Algeciras, and they could had conceivably transferred the knowledge about the effectiveness of cannon to England. [Watson, p 331]

The Iberian kings at the initial stages enlisted the help of Moorish experts:

Britain and France

Cannon seem to have been introduced to the Kingdom of England in the 14th century, and is mentioned as being in use against the Scots in 1327.Bottomley, p24] The first metal cannon was the "pot-de-fer", first depicted in an illuminated manuscript by Walter de Milamete,Carman, W.Y.] of 1327 that was presented to Edward III upon his accession to the English throne. [Brodie, Fawn McKay; Brodie, Bernard] The manuscript shows a four-legged stand supporting a "bulbous bottle", while the gunner stands well back, firing the charge with a red-hot iron bar. A bolt protrudes from the muzzle, but no wad is shown. Although illustrated in the treatise, no explanation or description was given.Nossov (2006), pp 205-208]

This weapon, and others similar, were used by both the French and English during the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453), when cannon saw their first real use on the European battlefield. The cannon of the 14th century were still limited in many respects, as a modern historian summarises:

During the 1340s, cannon were still relatively rare, and were only used in small numbers by a few states.Nicolle, p 21] "Ribaldis" were first mentioned in the English Privy Wardrobe accounts during preparations for the Battle of Crécy between 1345 and 1346. These were believed to have shot large arrows and simple grapeshot, but they were so important they were directly controlled by the Royal Wardrobe. According to the contemporary chronicler Jean Froissart, the English cannon made "two or three discharges on the Genoese", which is taken to mean individual shots by two or three guns because of the time taken to reload such primitive artillery. [Nicolle] The Florentine Giovanni Villani agreed that they were destructive on the field, though he also indicated that the guns continued to fire upon French cavalry later in the battle:

Advances in the Late Middle Ages

Similar cannon to those used at Crécy appeared also at the Siege of Calais in the same year, and by the 1380s the "ribaudekin" clearly became mounted on wheels. Wheeled gun carriages became more commonplace by the end of the 15th century, and were more often cast in bronze, rather than banding iron sections together.Sadler, p 22-23] There were still the logistical problems both of transporting and of operating the cannon, and as many three dozen horses and oxen may have been required to move some of the great guns of the period.

Another small-bore cannon of the 14th century was the culverin, whose name derives from the snake-like handles attached to it. It was transitional between the handgun and the full cannon, and was used as an anti-personnel weapon.Bottomley, p 43] The culverin was forged of iron and fixed to a wooden stock, and usually placed on a rest for firing.Bennet, p 91] Some of the loopholes in the gatehouse at Bodiam Castle appear to have been intended for culverin use.

The culverin was also common in 15th century battles, particularly among Burgundian armies. As the smallest of medieval gunpowder weapons, it was relatively light and portable. It fired lead shot, which was inexpensive relative to other available materials. There was also the demi-culverin, which was smaller and had a bore of convert|4|in|cm.

Considerable developments in the 15th century produced very effective "bombards"Bottomley, p 25] — an early form of battering cannon used against walls and towers.Bottomley, p 17] These were used both defensively and offensively. Bamburgh Castle, previously thought impregnable, was taken by bombards in 1464. The keep in Wark, Northumberland was described in 1517 as having five storeys "in each of which there were five great murder-holes, shot with great vaults of stone, except one stage which is of timber, so that great bombards can be shot from each of them." [Bottomley, p 16-17] An example of a bombard was found in the moat of Bodiam Castle, and a replica is now kept inside.

Artillery crews were generally recruited from the city craftsmen.Miller, p 18] The master gunner was usually the same person as the caster. In larger contingents, the master gunners had responsibility for the heavier artillery pieces, and were accompanied by their journeymen as well as smiths, carpenters, rope makers and carters. Smaller field pieces would be manned by trained volunteers. At the Battle of Flodden Field, each cannon had its crew of gunner, matrosses and drivers, and a group of "pioneers" were assigned to level to path ahead. Even with a level path, the gunpowder mixture used was unstable and could easily separate out into sulphur, saltpetre and charcoal during transport.

Once on site, they would be fired at ground level behind a hinged timber shutter, to provide some protection to the artillery crew. Timber wedges were used to control the barrel's elevation. The majority of medieval cannon were breechloaders, although there was still no effort to standardise calibres. The usual loading equipment consisted of a copper loading scoop, a ramrod, and a felt brush or "sponge". A bucket of water was always kept beside the cannon. Skins or cloths soaked in cold water could be used to cool down the barrel, while acids could also be added to the water to clean out the inside of the barrel. Hot coals were used to heat the shot or keep the wire primer going.

Some Scottish kings were very interested in the development of cannon, including the unfortunate James II, who was killed by the accidental explosion of one of his own cannon besieging Roxburgh Castle in 1460.Sadler, p 15] Mons Meg, which dates from about the same time, is perhaps the most famous example of a Scottish cannon. James IV was Scotland's first Renaissance figure, who also had a fascination with cannon, both at land and at sea. By 1502, he was able to invest in a Scottish navy, which was to have a large number of cannon — his flagship, the "Great Michael", was launched in 1511, with 36 great guns, 300 lesser pieces and 120 gunners.

Use in Eastern Europe


The first cannon appeared in Russia in the 1370-1380s, although initially their use was confined to sieges and the defence of fortresses.Nossov (2007), p 52] The first mention of cannon in Russian chronicles is of "tyufyaks", small howitzer-type cannon that fired case-shot, used to defend Moscow against Tokhtamysh Khan in 1382. Cannon co-existed with throwing-machines until the mid-15th century, when they overtook the latter in terms of destructive power. In 1446, a Russian city fell to cannon fire for the first time, although its wall was not destroyed. The first stone wall to be destroyed in Russia by cannon fire came in 1481.

Byzantine and Ottoman Empires

During the 14th century, the Byzantine Empire began to accumulate its own cannon to face the Ottoman threat, starting with medium-sized cannon convert|3|ft|m long and of 10" calibre.Turnbull, p 39-41] Only a few large bombards were under the Empire's control. The first definite use of artillery in the region was against the Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1396, as the attackers did not yet have any gunpowder of their own. These loud Byzantine weapons, possibly operated by the Genoese or "Franks" of Galata, forced the Turks to withdraw.

The Ottomans had acquired their own cannon by the siege of 1422, using "falcons", which were short but wide cannon. The two sides were evenly matched technologically, and the Turks had to build barricades "in order to receive… the stones of the bombards." Because the Empire at this time was facing economic problems, Pope Pius II promoted the affordable donation of cannon by European monarchs as a means of aid. Any new cannon after the 1422 siege were gifts from European states, and aside from these, no other advances were made to the Byzantine arsenal.

In contrast, when Sultan Mehmet II laid siege to Constantinople in April 1453, he used 68 Hungarian-made cannon, or Great Turkish Bombards, the largest of which was convert|26|ft|m long and weighed 20 tons. This fired a 1,200 pound stone cannonball, and required an operating crew of 200 men. [cite web |url= |title=Military and War Weapons: the Cannon | |accessdate=2008-07-20 |author=Wallechinsky, David |coauthors=Wallace, Irving |work=Reproduced from "The People's Almanac" series of books] Two such bombards had initially been offered to the Byzantines by the Hungarian artillery expert Urban, which were the pinnacle of gunpowder technology at the time; he boasted that they could reduce "even the walls of Babylon". However, the fact that the Byzantines could not afford it illustrates the financial costs of artillery at the time. These cannon also needed 70 oxen and 10,000 men just to transport them. They were extremely loud, adding to their psychological impact, and Mehmet believed that those who unexpectedly heard it would be struck dumb.

The 55 day bombardment of Constantinople left massive destruction, as recounted by the Greek chronicler Kritovoulos:

Byzantine counter artillery allowed them to repel any visible Turkish weapons, and the defenders repulsed any attempts to storm any broken points in the walls and hastily repaired any damage. However, the walls could not be adapted for artillery, and towers were not good gun emplacements. There was even worry that the largest Byzantine cannon could cause more damage to their own walls than the Turkish cannon. Gunpowder had also made the formerly devastating Greek fire obsolete, and with the final fall of what had once been the strongest walls in Europe on May 29, "it was the end of an era in more ways than one".

Cannon at the end of the Middle Ages

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, the development of cannon made revolutionary changes to siege warfare throughout Europe, with many castles becoming susceptible to artillery fire. The primary aims in castle wall construction were height and thickness, but these became obsolete because they could be damaged by cannonballs.Chartrand, p 8] Inevitably, many fortifications previously deemed impregnable proved inadequate in the face of gunpowder. The walls and towers of fortifications had to become lower and wider, and by the 1480s, "Italian tracing" had been developed, which used the corner bastion as the basis of fortifications for centuries to come. The introduction of artillery to siege warfare in the Middle Ages made geometry the main element of European military architecture.

In 16th century England, Henry VIII began building Device Forts between 1539 and 1540 as artillery fortresses to counter the threat of invasion from France and Spain. They were built by the state at strategic points for the first powerful cannon batteries, such as Deal Castle, which was perfectly symmetrical, with a low, circular keep at its centre. Over 200 cannon and gun ports were set within the walls, and the fort was essentially a firing platform, with a shape that allowed many lines of fire; its low curved bastions were designed to deflect cannon balls.Wilkinson, "Castles (Pocket Guides)"]

To guard against artillery and gunfire, increasing use was made of earthen, brick and stone breastworks and redoubts, such as the geometric fortresses of the 17th century French Marquis de Vauban. Although the obsolescence of castles as fortifications was hastened by the developments of cannon from the 14th century on, many medieval castles still managed to "put up a prolonged resistance" against artillery during the English Civil War of 17th century. [Bottomley, p 45]

ee also

*Early thermal weapons



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