The Increasing Horrors of War in 16th Century Western Europe

by Heather R. Darsie

The 16th century saw rapid changes in military capabilities. The medieval knight and a knight’s form of armor and fighting reached peak efficiency by around 1450. After 1450, advances in military science made armor more and more vulnerable. The advent of pike attacks and guns made armor almost ineffective, and the flat walls of many fortifications made excellent targets for canon fire. Additionally, by the 17th century, wars ceased being fought on a seasonal basis and began taking place year-round. This increased the sorrow, destruction and ferocity of war and its impact on not only soldiers, but innocent civilians.

Codex Manesse, UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 17r, “Herzog von Anhalt”, between 1305-1315, via Wikimedia Commons.

Other changes in military functioning included how troops were provisioned. The 16th century and on into the 17th saw a rise in violent behavior towards civilians, in part because mercenary soldiers and formal armies were not always properly compensated. An excellent example of this is the 1527 Sack of Rome. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s troops were not well-provisioned, so they determined attacking and pillaging Rome was there best solution. Pillaging by disgruntled troops became a common theme throughout the 16th century, which eventually led to the development of a taxation system imposed upon the locality. If the tax were paid, then the civilians were safe from attack. Corpses were usually looted indiscriminately, and provided some income to soldiers and mercenaries, too.

In 1495, Alessandro Beneditti, a physician from Venice, described the the battle between Habsburg and Valois forces at Fornovo, Italy. He described how the gravely injured and dead were indiscriminately plundered by anyone brave enough to wander onto the battlefield,

“Very many wounded were found naked among the corpses, some begging aid, some half-dead. They were weakened by hunger and loss of blood and wearied by the heat of the sun and thirst; with tongues thrust out they begged for water. In this affair no form of cruelty seemed to be lacking. There were about 115 of these; some Frenchmen were mingled among them, begrimed with mud and blood and looking like slaves, and these without distinction were brought into the Venetian camp and attended by the surgeons at public expense. Some still breathing after hands and feet had been amputated, intestines collapsed, brains laid bare, so unyielding of life is nature.”

Turning back to mercenary soldiers, the late 15th through the 16th centuries saw the rise of the German Landsknechte, which were regiments of soldiers-for-hire. Landsknechte armies could be quite large in size, especially because women and children commonly followed the armies, and consumed a vast amount of resources. Physicians traveled within these trains and armies, too, and provided services to nobles and commoners within the train or army. Physicians in this time period made significant improvements in the treatment of battle wounds in part because of new weaponry.


The Five Landsknechte, by Daniel Hopfer c. 1530, via Wikimedia Commons.

Gun powder, long guns (canons), muskets, harquebuses, and the like, rapidly increased in usage from the late 16th through 17th centuries. The increasing use and accuracy of firearms led to injuries from shrapnel, led bullets, and powder accidents. For example, if gunpowder was not properly loaded into a musket, there was a chance that the gunpowder would explode in a soldier’s face. Aside from deformity, these explosions frequently resulted in blindness and deafness. Gunshot wounds were a natural result of the increasing use of firearms. Military physicians had ample opportunities to develop better methods of amputation, gunshot treatment, and burn treatment because of the carnage introduced by firearms.

The surgeon Ambroise Pare wrote in 1537 while in Turin about soldiers whom he saw,

“…leaning against the wall, their faces wholly disfigured, and neither saw nor heard, nor spoke; and their clothes did yet flame with the gunpowder which had burnt them. Beholding them with pity, there happened to come an old solider, who asked me if there were any possible means to cure them, I told him no: he presently approached them, and gently cut their throats without choler. Seeing this great cruelty, I told him he was a wicked man, he answered me that he prayed to God that whensoever he should be in such case, that he might find someone that would do as much to him, to the end he might not miserably languish.” 

Bearing in mind that a great number of wars took place throughout the 16th century, some over territorial disputes and a large amount of others over religious differences, it is easy to see why people of the time truly thought the End Times were upon them.

Love learning about the Early Modern period? Are you interested in Tudor history or Women’s history? Then check out my book, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, a new biography about Anna of Cleves told from the German perspective!

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You Might Also Like

  1. Who were the Landsknechte?
  2. The Habsburg-Valois Wars
  3. 16th Century Religious Reformation: What Did the Term “Reform” Mean?
  4. Dashing through the Snow: Dangers of Alcohol Consumption in Reformation-Era Augsburg
  5. The End of Kett’s Rebellion


Sources and Suggested Reading

  1. Cunningham, Andrew, and Ole Peter. Grell. War, Famine, Disease, and Gospel in Reformation Europe: the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2000).
  2. Darsie, Heather R. Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’. Stroud: Amberley Publishing (2019).
  3. Keynes, Geoffrey. The Apology and Treatise of Ambroise Pare. London: Falcon Educational Books (1951).
  4. Schullian, D. M., ed. Diario di bello Carolino by Alessandro Bellini. New York (1967).



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