Gunpowder Transition in Poliorcetic Art
Siege with bows and bombards
The Grands Chroniques de France by Jean Froissart is a key primary source on the first half of the Hundred Years’ War between English Plantaganets and French Valois kings. It also has a unique position in the development of western European historical tradition. Setting down events “memorably recorded by just inquiry” of all participants, relating those events “without invention or taking sides, without tainting one more than the other, from whichever country they may be,” breaking out of verse where accuracy is more important than art, Froissart was indeed a historian. His work is seminal to both English and French national histories. Moreover, because his narrative aims to justify the neutrality of Liège, it is also a cornerstone to the national narratives of his native low countries, too.
As seen above, the illustrated manuscript held at the Bibliotheque Nationale du France includes a depiction of the Siege of Duras in 1377. It is one of several sieges he recounts, a higher number than field battles. In turn, almost all of the battles he relates were part of some campaign of siege. This is the character of what historian Geoffrey Parker calls “the Edwardian military revolution,” a series of tactical evolutions that took place during the late medieval moment when gunpowder had only just arrived on the scene and contract armies were increasingly taking a place in the battle array alongside drafted levies. Henceforth, ‘captains’ would raise ‘companies’ on behalf of sovereigns, or raise them and rent them out to sovereigns. This was the beginning of modern military organization.
Just as we see national characters born in war, we can also discern social history in the never-ending state of quasi-peace that took place between the various bursts of violence punctuating the multigenerational conflict. For example, according to historians’ reading of Froissart, the English experience at the hands of clever Frenchmen in diplomatic pourparlers led to the English legal habit of niggling definitional detail in all contracts. According to Froissart, cultured French language was simply too subtle for them too many times.
He was still collecting chronicles in the year that an army serving Charles V of France laid siege to Duras. Protected by marshlands and a substantial outer moat, the garrison house was considered impregnable when Bertrand du Guesclin, Constable of France, arrived with most of his siege train. I say “most” because according to Froissart, du Guesclin’s largest siege engine, a rolling tower with a trebuchet, was intercepted en route to Duras. Nevertheless, du Guesclin had still brought more than enough men and material with him to do the job. Which brings me to this detail of the illustration.
Start with the crossbowmen on the right. Crossbows have a slower rate of fire than longbows, but as I have detailed elsewhere, the whole point of shooting projectiles in siege was to keep up a steady fire on the wall’s defenders to support attackers. Speed was not as important as endurance. Crossbows are definitively a siege weapon, by which I mean that they have only ever been invented in places where cities often have sieges. Once you have the skill and knowledge to make a crossbow, you can make ten of them, and then in ten minutes you can train ten people to shoot them. Inexperienced, unarmored civilians will suddenly become capable of killing expensive armored knights with decades of training and indoctrination.
Little wonder that French aristocrats vehemently rejected the crossbow until its use was forced upon them by English aggression, and then understood it so little that they tried to use it against English longbowmen in open battle at Crécy with predictable results. (You can see what are probably English mercenary archers in the background of the illustration, though I have cut off their heads in the detail.) This history would echo later on in the slow acceptance of gunpowder arms by a resistant nobility — as well as the role of gunpowder cannons in reducing the independence of feudal vassals to newly-absolutist monarchies.
But enough of the boring social history stuff. According to Froissart, the annoying loss of the siege engine to future history nerds was also very annoying to Bertrand du Guesclin, Constable of France, who commanded the garrison of Duras to surrender in the name of his royal majesty King Charles V etc etc, and then opened fire with a cannon. Actually, a “bombard,” which is where we get the word “bombardment,” the English word for offensive fire in support of an attack.
Early gunpowder artillery looks weird to us and worked differently from the guns of just a century later. Not only was gunpowder “serpentine,” which affected the rate of burn, but the iron construction was experimental at best. Hauled in a wagon on the march, then lifted onto the wheeled cradle with a simple crane to be positioned for firing, the “bombard” was a sort of cone that focused the force of the blast behind a stone ball. Yes, stone. Those are carefully-chiseled, round stone balls gleaming in the sunlight at the bottom of the detail. Stone shot remained in use until the 15th Century, when iron was more plentiful, steel had improved, and cannon foundries were a bit more common. At that point, standardization and the wider availability of raw materials allowed common local blacksmiths to supply siege trains with cannonballs anywhere they went.
The bombards in du Guesclin’s siege train were not direct-fire weapons like the crossbows. As seen in the illustration, their high-angled fire was aimed over the walls rather than straight at them. For whereas a trebuchet could in fact knock down some medieval stone walls with very large rocks, a bombard did not have the muzzle velocity to break through. Instead, these were terror weapons designed to send great stones in arcing trajectories, crashing through wooden roofs, killing civilians, breaking things, hopefully even starting a fire or two, but generally just raising a response of some kind from the inhabitants. Stimulus leads to response: fight or flight, freeze or fawn.
In this case, it worked as intended. Duras surrendered after just one salvo. Although the site has changed, it exists today as Château de Gageac, which looks like a very interesting tour. I would like to visit, for it is where artillery became King of Battle.