Forging the western army in seventeenth-century France

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The art of war in seventeenth-century Europe passed through a transformation so fundamental that scholars have proclaimed it a “military revolution.” Changes in everything from tactics to institutional hierarchies gave armies many of the characteristics now recognized as modern. After initial advances credited to the Dutch and the Swedes, the French led the wave of change during the second half of the century. This essay focuses on French military refinements and innovations in the grand siècle in which Louis XIV, renowned as the Sun King, set the style in armies as much in architecture. Historical debate on seventeenth-century military development centers on two related issues. The first concerns the pace and character of change, and involves a semantic – but also substantive – dispute between advocates of “revolution” or “evolution”; the simplicity of the dichotomy belies the variety of innovations and changes in existing patterns. The language of revolution satisfies the inherent human desire for drama, but a more evolutionary interpretation fits the evidence better. The second point of contention involves the role of technology in driving the process of change, whatever its pace. Technology seduces all who examine the military past; hardware promises to explain so much and pretends to be the stuff of revolutionary change. But the transformation this chapter describes nevertheless owed relatively little to technology. Understanding the timing, causation, and importance of seventeenth-century military change requires analysis of the paths not taken as well as those that contemporaries chose to follow. The first section of the essay considers advances in weaponry that promised but failed to deliver rapid tactical transformation. Then the analysis shifts to the conceptual and institutional innovations that exerted immediate, enduring, and defining influence upon the military traditions of the West.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300-2050
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9780511817335
ISBN (Print)9780521800792
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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