by Prof. Catherine Fletcher (Manchester Metropolitan University)
Asked to draw up a list of important early modern technologies, few historians would ignore guns and gunpowder. Yet the detail of firearms’ impact on sixteenth-century Europe is less well-known than it might be. This is all the more surprising given the parallels between the debates of the sixteenth century about how to handle this problematic new technology, and those of today. Writers of the period knew that while handguns might be in demand for self-defence, in reality they were a poor defensive weapon. Local authorities realised that concealed carry was a challenge to social order. Political thinkers argued that gun proliferation required an international solution. Aspects of which I explore in my article “Firearms and the State in Sixteenth-Century Italy: Gun Proliferation and Gun Control” in Past & Present No. 260 (August 2023).
From the earliest days of gunpowder technology there was deep ambivalence in Europe about its use. Firearms were the devil’s work (one manuscript illumination of the Resurrection shows demons firing at the risen Christ); they were unmanly and ungallant, and in more lethal ways than previous technologies. On the other hand, they were becoming a vital military technology, and given the importance of conquest to sixteenth-century rulers, this was hardly something that could be ignored. During the Italian Wars of 1494 to 1559, handguns proved decisive to Spanish victory in battles like Cerignola (1503) and Bicocca (1522).
The wars also prompted new measures for civic defence and multiple Italian states established local militias on models borrowed from Spain and the German states. They incentivised the acquisition of shooting skills through competitions, encouraging practice in the interest of securing civic liberty. The accompanying proliferation of firearms, however, posed questions. Who should have permission to use guns and in what context? Were there cases for exemptions?
The tension was in part addressed by strict regulation of the type of gun perceived as a more serious threat to social order. This was the wheellock, which did not require a lighted match to fire, and could therefore be primed and concealed beneath clothing: ideal for the assassin or bandit. As the century wore on, however, and guns became more widely used, exemptions to the wheellock ban were increasingly accorded, especially to men of high social rank and their bodyguards, and to travellers at risk of robbery. Matchlocks, the common military handgun, also used for hunting, were similarly subject to regulation, with particular limits on their use within cities.
Indeed, many of the modern systems designed to regulate firearms can be identified almost five hundred years ago. In Bologna individuals could apply for firearms licences; in Brescia exports of guns were similarly subject to an export licensing regime. On the other hand, there are also plenty examples of loopholes, corruption and smuggling that undermined initiatives to check the spread of firearm use.