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Susan Rose

Medieval Ships and Warfare

The International Library (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2008), 429 pages of text, 8 page index, some maps and illustrations.

In Medieval Ships and Warfare, maritime historian Susan Rose of the United Kingdom’s Open University, has produced an extremely useful collection that deals with both shipbuilding and naval conflict during the Middle Ages.  This hefty volume consists of twenty-seven articles by leading authorities that appeared in print between 1930 and 2003.  Although several authors, contribute more than one article (Professor Rose actually has three, including a wide-ranging piece introducing the section on Mediterranean warfare), the majority were written by different scholars.  And while almost all of the authors are specialists in maritime history, there is one major “crossover”—Kelly DeVries, most of whose work has dealt with land warfare, provides a detailed analysis of the way in which contemporary chroniclers treated the important battle of Sluys (1340).

In her very fine introduction to the collection, Professor Rose identifies what she herself calls “certain constraints...observed in choosing essays for inclusion”:

First, all essays were originally published in English, although this has meant the exclusion of interesting material in other major European languages.  This has produced...something of a consequent bias in favour of events occurring in English waters.  Secondly, essays which have been published in other collections, many easily available, have been excluded though mention will be made of some later in this Introduction; for example, the series of essays by James Sherborne on English warships in the later fourteenth century [and] “The Battle of La Rochelle and the War at Sea, (1372-75” being of particular interest.  Material from less widely circulated journals has also been included in preference to that found either in journals available in most libraries or those also published in an electronic version. [1]

Arguably, such principles of selection will gravitate against creating a collection made up of “the very best” articles on the topic of naval warfare.  On the other hand, the present volume sheds important light on what are the sources for doing medieval maritime history, how ships of the period were constructed and fitted out, how governments went about gathering the fleets they needed for transporting troops and fighting at sea, where such combats took place an how they were actually conducted.

Professor Rose has arranged her collection on the basis of geography into two parts each of which has been further subdivided into smaller topics as follows: 

  • Part I—North-western Europe:
    1. Ships and Boats:  Issues of Technology and Evidence
    2. Piracy and Pirates
    3. Fleets and Warfare
  • Part II—The Mediterranean:
    1. The Islamic Powers
    2. Iberia
    3. Genoa and Venice

Chronologically, articles range from around the time of the First Crusade (c. 1100) to the end of the fifteenth century.  None deal with naval events of the early medieval period such as the western campaigns of Justinian, the late seventh and early eighth century Arab attacks on Constantinople, or the Viking voyages.

While a certain number come from journals that specialize in maritime history such as the Mariner’s Mirror, American Neptune, and The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration, many are taken from outlets more widely-known to medieval historians, including Speculum, the English Historical Review, the Journal of Medieval History, and the Journal of Military History.

The collection should prove of particular interest to two sizeable constituencies within the medieval military fraternity.  Crusade historians will find interesting reading in the half dozen articles dealing with Islamic sea power and why it signally failed to win the naval war in the eastern Mediterranean, despite being much closer to the scene of action than the Crusader fleets that it faced.  The failure was of such magnitude that it ultimately led Islamic states to practice a “scorched earth” policy by destroying the thriving ports of Palestine when it proved impossible to hold them.  A consensus develops among several of the collection’s authors that a major problem lay in the disparaging attitude of most cavalry-oriented Moslem societies (the only noteworthy exceptions being the Ayyubids in the time of Saladin and the later Ottoman Empire) toward ships and those who manned them.  Two authors both quote the Mamluk conqueror, Baibars, whose words on several occasions amply demonstrated this attitude.

The second group to whom the collection may prove particularly interesting consists of the many historians (including this reviewer) whose attention centers on the Hundred Years War.  Fully eight articles either deal with or, at the very least, touch upon the issue of sea power in the conflict that dominated northern Europe during the later Middle Ages.  Of particular note are the three articles on piracy in the English Channel and the North Sea—“John Crabbe:  Flemish Pirate, Merchant and Adventurer,” “Henry IV and the English Privateers,” and “Piracy or Policy:  The Crisis in the Channel, 1400-1403”—which together chronicle the on-going war at sea against enemy shipping, a war that continued to rage even during periods of truce.  These articles raise important questions concerning piratical activities in the English Channel and along the North Sea coast.  Were the “pirates” simply “freebooters” acting on their own accord or were they following policies laid down by the English and French governments.  Concomitantly, to what extent could the two great monarchies influence or even control the predatory activities of their seamen?

As in the case of other Ashgate publications (for example, the Variorum volumes), this collection reproduces for each individual article the formatting used by the journal where it originally appeared; in other words, each article maintains its original typeface, with the original pagination, and the original system of citation, in some cases, using footnotes and in others, endnotes.  Visually, the only unifying factor is a heading at the top of each page containing the title of the volume and its internal pagination.  (As a result, each page has two numbers:  that of the original journal and that which it occupies within the collection.)  As in similar Ashgate publications, this is obviously done to keep down the publication costs that would be involved in resetting the entire text.  While this format gives the collection a rather disparate look, it presents no particular problem for the reader.  The only drawback lies in the size of the different typefaces, some of which are harder to read than others. In fact, there is at least one advantage:  the scholar using the collection can easily cite the original article if for any reason he or she wishes to do so.    Despite Ashgate’s economizing measures, the book still bears a hefty pricetag of more than 100 L., though it is the least costly of any volume in what is an expensive series.    

In the introduction, Professor Rose points out that land battles, at least those of the Middle Ages, tend to enter into national lore far more readily than encounters fought at sea.  In her words,

In the British Isles, the history plays of Shakespeare especially Henry V have given a heroic gloss to warfare against the French.  The play’s celebration of the Agincourt campaign, and, particularly, scenes such as the breach in the walls of Harfleur, or the visit of King Harry to his men on the night before the battle, are embedded in English folk memory.  Films and television series have reinforced this effect.  The battle-winning skills of English archers and the rituals of jousting, in truth training for the charge of knights in battle, are still practiced and recreated in summer festivals….It is hard to find similar encounters at sea which have the same place in the collective memory of the people of Europe.[2]

Perhaps this disparity may be in part explained, at least for Northern Europe, by a point made in one of collection’s articles—“The Battle of Damme-1213.”  In this encounter, which author F. W. Brooks hails as “the first great sea-fight between England and France” (as it turns out, it was really fought in a river estuary with the French ships at anchor), the thirteenth century is identified as the real beginning of fleet actions in that region.

Whilst it is true that the naval battles of the thirteenth century do not show any great understanding of the tactical handling of fleets, we mark, in the various wars of the period, a developing exhibiting “a developing conception of the use of the fleet for something more than transport.  It is gradually beginning to be regarded as a weapon of offence and defence, and the idea that a naval offensive is the best and surest defence against a threat of invasion is slowing beginning to dawn. [3]

Just as the clash of large armies is a sine qua non for great land battles, so too the clash of fleets is required to generate a major encounter at sea.  Hence, a relatively late development of fleet tactics will of necessity be a limiting factor when it comes to the number of famous medieval seaborne encounters, especially those that taking place over the coasts of Northern Europe. 

On the other hand, Professor Rose’s generalization holds true even for the fourteenth century, when important sea battles began to take place:  such significant encounters as Sluys (1340) and La Rochelle (1372) are largely lost in the shadow of great land battles like Courtrai (1302), Bannockburn (1314), Crecy (1346), Poitiers (1356), Nájera (1367), Nicopolis (1396), Tannenburg (1410), and, of course, Agincourt (1415).  Not until the modern period would clashes at sea such as Lepanto, the Spanish Armada, Trafalgar, Jutland, and Wake Island come to rival for popular attention those fought on land.

Professor Rose also points out a fact of medieval military historiography that has not escaped the notice of many of its practitioners.  There exists something of a divide between the study of land warfare and naval warfare in the Middle Ages, one without all that much crossover between the two.  In other words, most scholars tend to specialize either in one area or the other without venturing out onto one another’s turf.  (The aforementioned exception in this volume, Kelly DeVries, is in fact exceptional in the breadth of his scholarship.)  From the perspective of one of those historians who has concentrated on land warfare, this reviewer would highly recommend the book to his fellow “land rats” (to borrow a phrase from Otto von Bismarck).  For anyone working primarily on naval warfare, the articles would seem to be compulsory reading.


[1] Susan Rose, Medieval Ships and Warfare, The International Library (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2008), xiii.

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid., 121.

J. Andrew Villalon

University of Texas at Austin <>

Page Added: June 2009