The mathematical and military sciences in Renaissance England

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The Renaissance saw the evolution of troop management, fortification and artillery into ‘mathematical’ sciences and those who practiced these tasks into ‘mathematical practitioners’. These terms have been allowed to imply that these areas were deeply theoretical, whereas they varied from theoretical to simply numerical. Gunnery, in particular, tended towards the latter. Practitioners of the simpler mathematics, however, gained by being able to connect their action to the more impressive study of ‘the mathematicks’. Future work must recognize more critically the distinction inherent in the term ‘mathematical’ when applied to the arts of the Renaissance.

It is taken for granted today that the art of warfare depends heavily upon science, in particular, upon mathematics. The arsenals of the world – be they conventional arms or nuclear warheads – are developed, deployed, controlled and analyzed with the tools of science, in particular mathematics. It is rare, therefore, to find anyone who would willingly admit that military sciences and mathematical sciences are unrelated, if not inextricably intertwined. It has not always been this way, however. Few would consider Caesar's legions ‘mathematical’, nor did El Cid overcome the Moors with geometry. But in the Renaissance, the ideas of mathematics and war became interwoven. In many ways this development was inevitable and is readily observable. In many other ways, however, the connection seems more assumed than proved. The initial forging of the link between Minerva (in the guise of Euclid) and Mars will be examined here, with particular reference to the Elizabethan conception of the ‘Mathematical Practitioner’1 and the field of gunnery.

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© 2000 Elsevier Science Ltd. Publisher's version of record:

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