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The history of Italian warfare from 1300 to 1500 has been dominated by discussion of mercenary soldiers. Italian states used them throughout the Middle Ages and by the fourteenth century the practice evolved into a species of “system,” characterized by reliance on preformed bands of substantial size, containing also foreign soldiers from outside of the peninsula. The era of the “companies of adventure” (compagnie di ventura), as it is known, lasted from roughly the second decade to the end of the fourteenth century. It was followed by the emergence in the fifteenth century of individual native mercenary captains, condottieri, who settled into regular service with states and were the precursor to more permanent armies by the middle of the century. The reliance on mercenaries rendered Italian warfare out of touch with developments elsewhere in Europe, and left the peninsula unprepared for the onslaught of the armies of France and Spain and the Italian Wars in the sixteenth century. The invasion of Italy in 1494 by the French king Charles VIII was the signal event that revealed the weakness of Italian military institutions and more generally the strength of the rising nation state over its evolutionary predecessor, the city-state.
The Tang dynasty (618–907) went into steep decline as a result of the Huang Chao Rebellion (874–84). The imperial government and the emperor himself became the tools of regional warlords, each maneuvering for his own power in an increasingly uncertain political and military milieu. These struggles were played out in the final decades of the Tang dynasty and beyond, lasting until the mid-point of the tenth century, when the various factions and power groupings of the late Tang had become so enervated by constant warfare and the deaths of the principal players that a new generation of ambitious power-seekers rose to the top. Steppe influence remained important in these conflicts and indeed, from the retrospective standpoint of the Jurchen Jin dynasty (1115–1234) and then the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1272–1368), the intervening control of north China by the Chinese Song dynasty (960–1279) almost seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
After the collapse of Rome Europe was dominated by relatively small powers. Its development, therefore, was different from that of China or some of the powers of the Middle East. Lacking continuous existence and permanent facilities armies depended on native skills which recruits brought with them. The retinues of the powerful, who could train and buy equipment, were at an advantage. In time they became predominantly mounted warriors, the knights. Infantry were never a negligible force, but without training they lacked the coherence to make their mass effective. In the later Middle Ages standing armies in Europe grew out of rising prosperity, the improving structures of a few states and the demands of continuous warfare. By contrast Mamluk Egypt developed a standing army by about 1240, while China always had one. The Mongols, by virtue of their way of life with its ‘native skills’, constituted a permanent army. Although improved metallurgy increased the supply of better weapons and armour, and experience in stonework led to better fortifications, the technology of war changed little. War remained up close and personal, an affair of plundering and, when battle became necessary, close-order formations fighting at close-quarters. Gunpowder, therefore, was a major challenge whose impact on war before the mid 15th century was limited.
This chapter analyzes how and why the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires were militarily powerful but economically uncompetitive and intellectually stagnant. It emphasizes that out of the three technologies Western Europeans used effectively – the printing press, nautical compass, and gunpowder – these three Muslim empires employed only gunpowder effectively. The chapter explains this situation by the dominance of the military and religious classes and the marginalization of the intellectual and bourgeois classes in the Muslim world. In Western Europe, by contrast, the intellectual and bourgeois classes were influential; they played crucial roles in overlapping processes of the Renaissance, the printing revolution, the Protestant Reformation, geographical discoveries, and the scientific revolution, which led to the “rise of Western Europe.” The chapter critically evaluates alternative explanations to both the decline of the Muslim world and the rise of Western Europe.
This chapter begins by examining Muslims’ military, commercial, and intellectual achievements between the seventh and eleventh centuries. At that time, most of Islamic scholars (ulema) were funded by commerce, while only a few of them served the state. The merchants flourished as an influential class. The chapter goes on to analyze the beginning of the intellectual and economic stagnation in Muslim lands in the eleventh century. It explains how, gradually, the ulema became a state-servant class and the military state came to dominate the economy. The alliance between the ulema and the military state diminished the influence of philosophers and merchants. This changing distribution of authority led to the long-term stagnation, if not the decline, of Muslim intellectual and economic life. This gradual process began in the eleventh century and continued for centuries, as subsequent chapters elaborate.
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