Saturday 29 February 2020


It is an unfortunate side effect of the history of historiography that we compartmentalise the past into different eras. Thus we get, as a hang-over from, perhaps, Victorian history, the terms ‘ancient’, ‘medieval’ or ‘middle ages’ and ‘modern’. Exactly how these are defined depends a lot on how your own view of history goes, which depends on where you are located, both geographically and culturally.

To explain a little more and I suspect I might have banged on about this a bit before, if you are in the Anglo-American historical tradition, and vaguely Victorian (or perhaps Whiggish in your historiography) the ‘medieval’ period came to an end in 1485, when Henry Tudor defeated Richard III on the field of battle at Bosworth. Everything after that is ‘modern’, or, at least, if you refine your categories, ‘early modern’. Thus you get the natural progression from Henry VII to his son, the Reformation (a necessary precursor to modern capitalistic liberalism), the glories of Elizabeth I and the founding of the Empire, the assertion of the rights of Parliament over Monarch in the Seventeenth Century, followed by the inevitable assertion of the English speaking peoples as a world power.

The problem is that the world looks rather different from other perspectives. 1485 does not mark a particular break in most histories. For example (you will be expecting this, I am sure) in 1485 Spain was part of the way through the final Reconquista of Granada. The date marks, in that history, the central point of a process, not its end. I dare say that the same issue could be taken up in many other national and regional histories. The past is continuous, not punctuated with boundaries which we, as human beings, like to impose. As with the classification of biological species, we get objects of history or plants which do not fit into our neat categories. From the point of view of Anglo-American historiography, the aforementioned Reconquista is one of these.

The problem with the final Reconquista is, therefore, that it has largely been ignored in historiography in English. This is a shame because it actually strengthens the case for some of the ideas about military revolutions which are floating around. That is, there is a strong argument that the Reconquista was, essentially, dependent on gunpowder. Granada had, after all, held out for centuries before the Fourteen Eighties. For the conquest to be achieved in around a decade should raise a few eyebrows, at least.

I have been reading again, this time a key paper aimed at putting the Reconquista back on the military history map:

Cook, W. F., 'The Cannon Conquest of Nasrid Spain and the End of the Reconquista', The Journal of Military History 57, no. 1 (1993), 43-70.

Cook argues that the key point of the Reconquista was, exactly, the acquisition and use of cannon in the sieges of Grenadine fortresses. These fortresses had been, up to that point, fairly immune to siege. The difficulty of logistics compounded the geographical strength on the position, often on hills with large walls and strong citadels. The garrisons could hold out for long enough for the central authorities to raise an army (Granada had a core standing army) and march to the relief of the place, usually when the supplies of the besiegers were running low.

The only alternative was to take places by surprise and this is what happened at the start of the final war. The Grenadines surprised Zahara and, in retaliation the Marquis of Cadiz took Alhama, not quite so much by surprise but certainly decisively. Going by the script, the Grenadine army marched to the relief of the place, arrived too late, and settled to recapture it by siege despite the lack of equipment. The Duke of Medina Sidonia marched, despite his feud with the Marquis, to its relief, arriving, in accordance with the drama of the events, in the nick of time and effecting a battlefield (or siege line, in this case) reconciliation with his enemy.

So far, so normal. The Grenadines returned and the place had to be relieved again. The next year Ferdinand attempted to take Loja, to open communications with Alhama and failed. Yet something changed in 1483 according to Cook. Ferdinand’s army, again on the march to relieve Alhama, used cannon to attack castles and outlying fortresses on the way. Lighter artillery swept the battlements and repelled any sallies by the garrison. Heavy pieces battered the walls. The way to Alhama was secured but, more importantly, Ferdinand and his artillerymen had learnt about the power of concentrated cannon fire.

From 1484 the Castilian strategy was to take fortresses using heavy cannon fire. The Grenadines had little by way of an answer to this, as there seems to have been little in the way of production of gunpowder or artillery within the Grenadine state. Christian supplies were, at times, parlous enough, but the coast of Granada was sealed by the Aragonese and Castilian fleets, preventing supplies and reinforcements arriving. While the Grenadine garrisons did have artillery pieces, these tended to be in fixed positions and could be (relatively) easily disabled.

In short, until Granada was clearly defeated in 1489, Ferdinand and his armies blasted their way through the kingdom. While the Grenadine state had its problems, particularly with internal feuding, these were not decisive. After all, most states on the Iberian Peninsula had had similar feuding and had not fallen, including Granada itself. Cook argues strongly that the decisive difference was the Castilian use of cannon.

And so we loop back to the arguments about the gunpowder military revolution. Cook notes that Parker, even though a historian of Spain, does not give the Reconquista a part in his military revolution, even though, in terms of gunpowder and increasing size of army it fits the bill. Other historians regard the arrival of highly effective Spanish forces in Italy in the 1490s as remarkable, as if they had just dropped, fully armed and organised, from the heavens. This seems to be an artefact of our categorisation of the periods of history: the Reconquista was ‘medieval’ while the early Italian Wars are ‘early modern’. The Reconquista was, in fact, an important training ground for Spanish forces and a springboard to their later success.


  1. Much like the fall of Constantinople is often attributed to the employment of cannon a few decades earlier. Albeit with the twist that in that case it was the Christians on the receiving end. I imagine word got around the Mediterranean quite quickly about that.

    1. Pretty similar I think, except that Constantinople was a long way away. It wasn't until Otranto that the Christian world started to wake up to the Ottoman 'threat'; the Reconquista was a response, in part, of course, but as with so much else, religion was only a part of it.

  2. That is a great post, really thought-provoking.

  3. I wonder if in France they date the 'modern' era from when Charles VIII cut through the Italian fortresses with his new-fangled mobile siege train? Or just dismiss the whole thing as merely another collection of 'evenements'. ;-)

    1. 'Events, dear boy, events' (Harold Macmillan). Mind you, Braudel would just regard the whole business as short term froth.

      I'm not sure about France, but western categories do not fit India, for example. Or China....