Many people and medieval recreation organizations assume that the Middle Ages and the Medieval Era ended with the accession of Queen Elizabeth I to the throne of England in 1558, but that’s only because we speak English and English speaking historians like to place themselves at the center of the universe. Most medieval historians place the end of the Middle Ages 64 years earlier with France’s Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy in 1494 and the beginning of The Italian Wars.
During the Middle Ages, warfare was dominated by sieges of castles and fortified towns. Contrary to popular belief, medieval open field battles were rare: they were just too risky. Knights were expensive, soldiers were needed for the harvest, the fighting season was short, castles and walls were relatively cheap, it was difficult to corner an adversary, and most importantly, both commanders in an open field battle had to believe they could win or they wouldn’t risk it. Defenders almost always had the option of just waiting behind their walls until disease, lack of supplies, reinforcements, or the winter defeated the attackers. The list of sieges during Middle Ages dwarfs the relatively few, albeit dramatic, open field battles. This all changed in 1494.
For a thousand years since the end of the Roman Empire, the French considered the Italian peninsula their political playground. Italy at the end of the 1400s was in the midst of the Renaissance but was made up of a myriad of ultra-rich merchant families, Papal States, petty kingdoms, tiny principalities and small dukedoms. Playing politics with these small states was a French pastime. One of the largest and richest was the Kingdom of Naples, far down the Italian boot, which was reaping the benefits of Spain’s discovery of the New World. Charles the VIII of France wanted a piece of this new action. So he crossed the Alps in November of 1494 and invaded Italy.
The Pope and the Italians weren’t too worried. The French had done this before and always got caught up in sieges of the northern Italian city states, such as Milan, Florence, Bologna, and Venice. As they had dozens of times before, the French were sure to eventually go home when they ran out of money and couldn’t pay their Swiss pikemen, German landsknechts, or Italian condottieros (mercenaries). Even if they had the money, the wet and freezing Italian winters usually sent all but the most resilient home. But this time the French had a new weapon: siege cannon.
Cannon and gunpowder had been around for a few hundred years, but Charles VIII was the first to standardize it and make it mobile enough to accompany a marching army. Charles inherited the fruits of France’s victory in the Hundred Years War in the form of expanded Crown lands to the point that France was a proto-national state. He amassed the best metallurgists, artillerists, iron workers, bell makers, and wagon makers in the realm to improve the effectiveness and mobility of the massive medieval bombard. What they came up with was an 8 foot long bronze cannon on an integral carriage that fired fitted solid iron shot which was a great improvement over the ill fitting and time consuming to produce stone shot of the bombard.
Medieval castle walls were no match for his new guns. The speed in which Chalres’ gunners had the cannon in position amazed the Italians. Whereas medieval bombards requires days to position, Charles bronze cannon were in place and firing within hours. Moreover, the fitted solid iron shotwere more accurate, flew further on less gunpowder, and did more damage than the stone balls the Italians were used to. Even the thickest castle walls crumbled after a few volleys. Cities that normally took months to reduce through siege were taken in an afternoon. The Neapolitan fortress of Monte San Giovanni fell in eight hours; it had once withstood a siege for seven years. The French blitzed through northern and central Italy, and seized every major city in less time “than it would take to seize a villa”. It was truly a Revolution in Military Affairs.
The massive and beautiful castles of Europe, around which all medieval power was based, were instantly obsolete.
On 22 February 1495, Charles VIII triumphantly entered Naples, and his army celebrated their tremendous and historic success. But the Neapolitans got the last laugh: many of their sailors had just returned from Columbus’ expeditions to the New World. Along with their discoveries, they also brought back syphilis, common among the native Americans but unknown in Europe. They immediately gave it to the prostitutes of the city, whom then passed it on to the French soldiers. Charles’ Army took it back to France where “the French Disease” spread throughout Europe.
Along with syphilis, Charles’ invasion of Italy sparked fifty years of warfare on the Italian peninsula. Because of Charles’ cannon, it was much easier to take a city than it was to defend it, resulting in the resurgence of open field battle. Exactly thirty years after his capture of Naples, Charles’ son, Francis I, lost the Battle of Pavia on 24 February 1425. Pavia saw cannon used to great effect not only on walls, but also on troop formations. Unwilling to wait for his cannon to reduce the attacking Austrians, Francis unleashed his knights. The gallant charge of his gendarmes was the stuff of legend but it was of limited effectiveness. Much more importantly, the riders masked Francis’ cannon and cost him the victory. The Battle of Pavia was the last time that the heavily armored knight would play a major role on the field of battle.