Medieval Maritime Warfare


Remarkably little coverage has been given to maritime warfare before the 16th Century. This book is therefore particularity welcome because it covers the period from the Fall of Rome, through to the Renaissance. The well-written text is fully supported by sketches and maps, with a very interesting colour plate section.Compelling reading that covers much new ground, recommended.

NAME: Medieval Maritime Warfare
FILE: R2294
AUTHOR: Charles D Stanton
PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword
BINDING: hard back
PAGES: 359
PRICE: £25.00
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: wooden walls, sailing warships, maritime warfare, tactics, seamanship, guns, gunnes, archers, spearmen, coastal navigation, Byzantines, Muslims, Normans, Crusaders, city-states, Vikings, Hanseatic League, ships, navies, corsairs
ISBN: 1-781859-251-9
IMAGE: B2294.jpg
DESCRIPTION: Remarkably little coverage has been given to maritime warfare before the 16th Century. This book is therefore particularity welcome because it covers the period from the Fall of Rome, through to the Renaissance. The well-written text is fully supported by sketches and maps, with a very interesting colour plate section. Compelling reading that covers much new ground, recommended.

It is not all together clear why maritime warfare has been so neglected before the 16th Century. Even Greek and Roman maritime history is sparse. It is true that there is a shortage of artefacts, and that documentary and archaeological evidence is is short supply, but rivers, lakes and seas provided the major highways of the ancient world and continue to be extremely important today. That meant that much of the wealth in transit was being carried by water and could be intercepted by raiders. That required weapons and tactics to protect it.

The Greek, Romans and Persians all built large fleets of warships that engaged in major battles, on which the outcome of wars depended. When Rome fell those fleets continued to operate in much the same way under the new political powers. The sailors also became more ambitious in their navigation, with short coast-hugging voyages being augmented by fleets that sailed out from the shore and were able to operate in high seas and storms, but the Mediterranean was still the domain of oared galleys that depended on the manpower of slaves, rather than on sail and wind. The weapons of maritime war were still largely bows, spears, catapults and the ram, but there was also Greek Fire and firebombs. Coming into the Medieval period, the gun began to be employed at sea. For the most part it was still a new auxiliary weapon that was not trusted, but as the period unfolded, the gun became a more important naval weapon that was becoming increasingly effective and requiring new tactics to make best use of it.

The period also overlapped with the periods immediately before and after. The Mediterranean settled into a contest between Islam and Christianity that simply moved naval warfare forward in terms of weapons and tactics, without necessarily making many changes to the areas where battles were fought, or to the vessels themselves. In Northern Europe it was a different story. The Germanic and Scandinavian tribes expanded out in a series of invasions. First, the German tribes began a colonisation of the British Isles and expanded south. They employed open boats that used oars and sail, but where the crews were warriors who would land and fight ashore. When the Viking expansion began, it was a very similar process with similar vessels and weapons. However, the Vikings built more advanced craft that undertook much longer voyages and fought at sea. Ships sailed to North America, but they also crossed the Baltic and sailed down the river systems to the Black Sea and Mediterranean. They sailed down the European coast, taking large parts of France.

What made the Vikings such adaptable maritime warriors was that they and their ships integrated. They were as comfortable fighting at sea as on land. As the entire crews were volunteers who were warriors who also navigated and manned the oars, there was unity and economy. If a river was becoming too difficult to navigate, or an inconvenient peninsular sat across their course, they took their ships ashore and hauled them across the land until they had navigable water again. If the distance was too great, they carried their supplies and key maritime equipment across land and then built new boats when they reached navigable water. This was a very flexible approach that allowed them to surprise an enemy and cover journeys that had not been attempted before. They were able to operate for long periods beyond sight of land. We still do not understand exactly how they did this. They had discovered the compass so that they could always identify their direction of travel. They used the sun wheel on clear days and this device is also used today, particularly where there is magnetic disturbance. They had methods of calculating time so it is possible that they could make calculations in latitude and longitude. What we don’t know is exactly what a sun stone was or how it worked, but this device allowed them to know the position of the sun through cloud.

Where there is a problem with Viking history is that it was a largely oral history. There was a written alphabet and writing was used, but not as a major method of passing down knowledge. As they built ships of wood, very few examples have survived and, as these were funeral ships, we do not know whether they were built only for that purpose, or were older vessels that were used in burials. In the same way we do not know what purpose they were built for. The Vikings certainly had two types of very similar vessel. Trading vessels and warships had similar beams, but differed in length and number of oars. It is likely that trading vessels were also used in war but their smaller crews and tubbier form probably meant that they were usually under sail. The longer cutting line of the warship made it faster, it carried more people who were available to man oars and this probably meant that they normally spent more time under oars than under sail.

Beyond the Vikings, the Medieval period saw progressively larger boats built and with the reliance on sail replacing oar power. Where the Vikings built warships that were used on many raids, the Medieval period emerged from the Viking Age with much larger ships that were more comfortable with higher freeboard and closed decks, but where the warship was very rarely built. Normally, a trading vessel was taken into military service and modified by the addition of a wooden castle at each end of the vessel. When peace broke out, the castles were removed and the ship went back to trading. The gun became a more frequent addition when a ship was converted for war and progressively became the main weapon. The weight of guns and their special requirements probably drove the development of the dedicated warship.

The author has pioneered a study of this period, correcting the previous neglect. There is evidence of a thorough research on which to base the presentation of the period and the assertions are well argued. This is a compelling study and enjoyable.

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