Gunpowder is considered the most important military invention of the medieval period. With the advent of gunpowder in Europe, the nature of warfare changed radically and this had a deep impact on the social and political outlook of late medieval Europe. In many ways, the arrival of gunpowder also contributed to the transition of Europe from the medieval to the Renaissance periods.
Gunpowder was invented in China sometime around the 9th century. It was only in the 13th century that Europe became aware of the vital importance of gunpowder and began to experiment with it. The use of gunpowder probably reached Europe due to the exposure of European armies to Mongol attackers in the 13th century who wielded gunpowder weapons.
It is also possible that European traders and merchants along the Silk Road brought the invention back to their homelands. The earliest literary reference to gunpowder in Europe is found in a work of Roger Bacon dated 1267. There is evidence of the use of gunpowder in Moorish Spain in 1262.
By the early 13th century, most European regions were aware of the potential of gunpowder and had begun to experiment with it using many basic gunpowder weapons.
With the arrival of gunpowder in Europe, royal armies all over the continent began to strive and build weapons appropriate for such an effective explosive. The earliest major battlefield use of gunpowder weapons came about at the Battle of Crecy in 1346 where the English forces used one of the earliest types of cannons.
Within a few years of this battle, cannons were used by virtually every European army. The widespread use of cannons soon led to the invention of smaller gunpowder weapons. An early example of this was the arquebus, a sort of handgun using gunpowder. By the late 14th century, other types of gunpowder weapons such as muskets and different kinds of handguns had become a regular part of the European battlefield.
The arrival of gunpowder radically transformed the nature of military warfare in late medieval Europe. Until the arrival of gunpowder, the knightly class had remained the most important component of European armies and an embodiment of the chivalric ideals.
Knights would typically spend a lifetime training in the art and craft of warfare, dedicating a greater portion of their life to it. Gunpowder radically changed it all by eliminating the significance of the knightly class.
It was now possible for a regular peasant to wield a handgun and shoot down a knight without much ado. Although frowned upon and despised by many at first, gunpowder weapons soon became the norm on European battlefields and heralded an end to the traditional knightly class.
Before the arrival of the gunpowder weapons, European knights had to train extensively in combat and warfare skills. With gunpowder weapons, soldiers no longer had to train extensively and were still effective with their weapons.
In this way, gunpowder ended the military-centric social culture in Europe which had reigned since the early medieval period. Castles became obsolete, and so did the knightly class and chivalric ideals. As a result, European societies began to focus on other occupations such as arts, sciences, education, and new inventions.