Book: Medieval Ships and Warfare


Edited by Susan Rose, Open University, UK

The International Library of Essays on Military History

This collection of essays and articles from a wide range of journals is intended to make more accessible to students and scholars some of the most important writing in English in this field from the 1950s to the present day. The volume draws attention to work on both the design and the use of ships in warfare in the period c.1000-c.1500. The collection deals with both the Mediterranean and northern waters in this period and not only makes clear what work has been done in this field but indicates areas where more research is needed.

Contents Series preface; Introduction; Part I North Western Europe: Ships and Boats: Issues of Technology and Evidence: Documentary sources and the medieval ship: some aspects of the evidence, Ian Friel; English galleys 1272–1377, J.T. Tinniswood; The building of the Lyme galley, 1294–1296, Ian Friel; Bayonne and the king’s ships, 1204–1420, Susan Rose. Piracy and Pirates: John Crabbe: Flemish pirate, merchant and adventurer, Henry S. Lucas; Henry IV and the English privateers, Stephen P. Pistono; Piracy or policy: the crisis in the Channel, 1400–1403, C.J. Ford. Fleets and Warfare: The Battle of Damme – 1213, F.W. Brooks; God, leadership, Flemings and archery: contemporary perceptions of victory and defeat at the Battle of Sluys, 1340, Kelly De Vries; The effects of the Battle of Sluys upon the administration of English naval impressment, 1340–1343, J.S. Kepler; The naval service of the Cinque Ports, N.A.M. Rodger; The Earl of Warwick’s domination of the Channel and the naval dimension of the Wars of the Roses, 1456–1460, Colin Richmond. Part II The Mediterranean: Islam versus Christendom: the naval dimension, 1000–1600, Susan Rose. The Islamic Powers: The Fatimid navy during the early crusades, 1099–1124, William Hamblin; The Mamluks and naval power: a phase of the struggle between Islam and Christian Europe, David Ayalon; The place of Saladin in the naval history of the Mediterranean sea in the middle ages, A.S. Ehrenkreutz; Piracy as an Islamic-Christian interface in the 13th century, Robert I. Burns; Rotting ships and razed harbors: the naval policy of the Mamluks, Albrecht Fuess. Iberia: The naval battles of Roger of Lauria, John H. Pryor; The Catalan fleet and Moorish sea-power (1337–1344), J.A Robson; Ships of the 13th-century Catalan navy, Lawrence V. Mott; The warships of the kings of Aragon and their fighting tactics during the 13th and 14th centuries AD, Frederico Foerster Laures; Reportage representation and reality: the extent to which chronicle accounts and contemporary illustrations can be relied upon when discussing the tactics used in medieval galley warfare, Susan Rose; The lexicon of naval tactics in Ramon Muntaner’s Crònica, William Sayers. Genoa and Venice: Naval strategy in the first Genoese-Venetian war, 1257–1270, John E. Dotson; Fleet operations in the first Genoese- Venetian War, 1264–66, John E. Dotson; Foundations of Venetian naval strategy from Pietro II Orseolo to the Battle of Zonchio, 1000–1500, John E. Dotson; Name index.

About the Editor Susan Rose is from the Department of History at the Open University, UK.


Book Review of War at Sea in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

John B. Hattendorf, Richard W. Unger, eds. War at Sea in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Woodbridge and Rochester: Boydell Press, 2003. xiv + 276 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-85115-903-4.

Reviewed by Marguerite Ragnow (Department of History, Center for Early Modern History, University of Minnesota)
Published on H-Atlantic (June, 2004)

Toward a Theory of Medieval Naval Power

It may come as a surprise to some readers that the possibility of developing a theory of medieval naval power exists at all, much less that a collection of essays has been published to that end. Little attention has been paid by medieval historians in recent years to the development and use of aquatic craft, whether for commercial or military purposes, in comparison with the tremendous amount of ink spilt to further the project of medieval history generally, and this despite new technologies that have increased our knowledge exponentially through the recovery of artifacts. Military and maritime historians have begun to redress this lacuna, but as Hattendorf and Unger point out in the preface to War at Sea in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, a general reappraisal of the use of armed force at sea is needed. This collection of sixteen essays, which developed from discussions at a 1997 American Historical Association meeting and, more directly, from a 2000 conference on maritime history sponsored by the Fondaço Oriente in Portugal, makes a valuable contribution toward that end.

Advances in technological development, most particularly advances in military technology, are among the many factors considered by historians to have contributed to the rise of the West in the early modern era. The relationship between this technical advancement and social development is often thought to be reciprocal, even symbiotic. In the late-nineteenth century, German military historian Hans Delbrück was one of the first to address the interaction of military development and social change. He emphasized the relationship of strategy to policy, shifting historical focus from the fighting of war to the making of war.[1] In the same vein, the work of the nineteenth-century naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 (1890), became a classic study on the interaction of military technology and economic development. His work influenced many twentieth-century scholars, who have effectively linked developments in maritime technology with those in the production and use of firearms to explain Europe’s expansion during the early modern era, and especially its commercial dominance of other regions throughout the world. As John Hattendorf’s perceptive introduction adumbrates, historians of medieval naval and maritime history have applied Mahan’s theories to less effect.

Mahan based his theory, that naval power was necessary to advance commercial interests and that its most effective use was to reduce the enemy’s capacity to make war at sea, almost entirely on eighteenth-century relationships between maritime trade, naval force, and government support of colonial empires. He was not interested in looking back to earlier periods in search of the historical roots of what he observed for the eighteenth century; Mahan was much more concerned with looking forward to develop new naval strategies. However, rather than dismiss Mahan out of hand, despite or perhaps because of his dominance of Anglo-American naval theory over the past century, the editors of War at Sea chose to juxtapose the essays in this volume against Mahan and current thinking about him and his theories. In particular, they consider how historians might usefully apply the questions Mahan raised to develop a better understanding of naval power during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Editors John Hattendorf and Richard Unger, themselves among the leading authorities on this topic, assembled fourteen experts in medieval or early modern maritime and naval history charged to re-evaluate for the Middle Ages and Renaissance “the topics of force, power and the sea, the roots, functions, and the concept of naval power,” “taking the older literature as a starting point or foil” (p. xii). The resulting essays advance our understanding of medieval sea power in interesting and important ways.

Parts 1 and 2 examine northern and southern Europe respectively between the tenth and sixteenth centuries. This organization preserves the conventional view that northern Europe lagged behind the south in almost every respect. At the same time, it does make comparisons relatively easy, especially if one is interested in how both economic and geographic considerations affected technological development in each region. Within these essays, the eleventh century emerges as a significant transitional period in naval development, as it has similarly been identified for other aspects of medieval life. Of particular interest is John Pryor’s examination of Byzantine fleets under the Macedonian emperors in the tenth and early eleventh centuries. His command of sources not readily available or not translated from the Greek underpins a technical study of the design and operation of dromons during this period, ranging from the water requirements of the crew to the disappearance of the waterline ram. He reaches the same conclusion for the Middle Ages that John Guilmartin reached for the sixteenth century: Mahan’s strategic theories are inapplicable to the pre-modern Mediterranean.[2]

Part 3, which examines the sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries, confirms that this period was one of significant change in naval organization and policy fueled by concurrent changes in state organization and advances in military and maritime technologies. As Nicholas Rodger states in his essay on the “new” Atlantic: “Important emphasis, however, is given to the strong relationship between domestic interests and overseas expansion and its implications for naval organization and warfare. In the sixteenth century, the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and northern Europe collided” (p. 241). The essays in this section examine the transition from the medieval to the early modern world, engaging accepted naval theory more directly than do those essays addressing the earlier medieval period. Jan Glete’s examination of sixteenth-century naval power in the Baltic explains the importance of technological change to the development of strong naval administrations in Denmark-Norway and Sweden at a time when the naval strength of the Hanse towns was waning. Rodger offers an insightful examination of the different forms of naval organization existing prior to the seventeenth century and the advent of Mahan’s modern navy. His insistance that it is a mistake to clothe pre-modern maritime history in “modern dress” is one that Richard Unger continues in his conclusion.

It is Unger’s conclusion and Hattendorf’s introduction that make this volume a must-read. Hattendorf’s perceptive analysis of the state of the question is redrawn by Unger to incorporate the new work presented here. Rather than summarize the contributors’ conclusions, Unger attempts to create a new framework for medieval naval power that links it to the unique political structures of the Middle Ages. Most useful are the connections he makes that cross the chronological and geographical boundaries reinforced by the volume’s organization. Although this collection does not, in the end, accomplish its goal of constructing a theory of medieval naval power, it takes some giant leaps in that direction.

Practically, the volume suffers from its lack of a bibliography, although kudos go to the publisher for using footnotes rather than endnotes. There is a list of illustrations that includes several maps, but it does not, unfortunately, mention the useful tables also present. As in many essay collections, the topics not covered are regrettable: the development of French naval forces, the naval actions of the crusading orders and the Hanseatic League, and all developments of non-Christian sea power during this period, among others. Nevertheless, this is a volume that will prove useful to scholars at every level, and which also could be used in the classroom. In the best of all possible worlds, it will lead scholars to re-imagining the Middle Ages and Renaissance as a period in which maritime activity, including naval power, played an important role.


[1]. Hans Delbrueck, History of the Art of War within the Framework of Political History 4 vols., trans. Walter J. Renfroe Jr. (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1975-85); originally published as Geschichte der Kriegskunst im Rahmen der politischen Geschichte (Berlin, 1900-36).

[2]. John F. Guilmartin, Gunpowder and Galleys: Changing Technology and Mediterranean Warfare at Sea in the Sixteenth Century (London and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975). Readers are directed to Pryor’s forthcoming book, with Elizabeth Jeffreys: The Byzantine Navy: Evolution of the Ships and their Capabilities.


For centuries the pentecontor, the ‘fifty-man’ ship with a single bank of oars, was the standard Mediterranean warship. This vessel was very long and slender, expensive to build, hard to manoeuvre and not very seaworthy, especially when using the great technological innovation of ninth-century naval warfare, the ram. The ram, a heavy beam sheathed in bronze and attached to the keel under the water-line, first appears in art in about 850 BC.

It seems to have been a Greek invention. With the addition of the ram, the ship itself became an instrument of war, rather than just transport or a platform for warriors. A well-trained crew could rapidly bring their ship about to ram the relatively unprotected stern or side of an enemy vessel, then back water to let water in, swaluping the enemy craft: unballasted lightweight fighting ships were actually too buoyant to sink. A clever crew could even hope to shear off the enemy’s oars with their vessel, passing close beside the opposing ship and pulling in their own oars at the last second. Their victims would be left unable to manoeuvre.

Rams in Battle

The first recorded battle won by ships using rams was in 535 BC, but they must have seen service well before that time. In this battle, the Phocaeans (inhabitants of a Greek city-state who had resettled in Italy) met a combined Carthaginian-Etruscan fleet twice the size of their own off the coast of Sardinia. The Phocaeans won the day, thanks to a very high level of training that enabled the whole fleet to penetrate through the enemy line, then swivel and ram the sterns of enemy ships. This manoeuvre – the diekplous or ‘breakthrough’ – is one of the two main naval manoeuvres made possible with the ram. The other, the periplous (‘sailing around’), was easier, running ships around the enemy’s flank to take his line from the rear.

Use of a ram puts a premium on speed sufficient to penetrate an enemy hull while avoiding the enemy’s own rams. But how to increase speed? The only source of power available during battles was human muscles. An ambitious ruler could not simply increase muscle power by increasing the length of his ships to contain more oarsmen. The pentecontor was already disproportionately long and correspondingly unseaworthy. So already in the eighth century BC, there was experimentation with adding a second level of oars, creating a bireme, a two-level vessel in which two oars could operate in the same length of ship. The oldest picture of a bireme is an Assyrian relief from Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh, dating to 701 BC. The new ships were at least one-third shorter and more compact and sturdier than single-banked galleys, while having the same amount of muscle power available to move them in the water. From the bireme it was a short step to the trireme, a three-banked ship rowed with one man to an oar, seated in three ranks: in the hull, at the deck level and on an outrigger that projected from the gunwales over the water. The trireme, with 170 rowers propelling it at speeds of up to 10 knots for short periods, became the dominant battle ship of the ancient world. The Olympias, a very impressive replica trireme built in 1987, has demonstrated the great manoeuvrability and power of these vessels. The replica is seaworthy under both sail and oar, and can travel for hours at 4 knots, with half the crew rowing at a time. It can execute a 180-degree turn in one minute, with a turning arc no wider than two and a half ship lengths. Clearly this was a ship to be feared.

Little use was made of this innovative technology for a long time, however. The problem was cost. It is very expensive to build and outfit a trireme; even more expensive was paying the wages of the rowers. The oarsmen required months of intensive training to be able to work as a team. Contrary to popular fiction, these rowers were almost never slaves, both because the oarsmen might be required to fight and because it was simply too expensive to buy and maintain slaves for occasional naval use. Instead the crews of warships were recruited from among the poorer citizens, who were unable to afford the heavy equipment required for infantry fighting or the time away from their regular work, unless they received wages. Between the cost of the ships and the cost of the rowers, only a developed state with strong economic organization could maintain a fleet. In the Mediterranean, political structures which had sufficiently developed to support a navy did not exist anywhere except Egypt and Syria before about 500 BC.



The standard Byzantine warship that employed both sails and oars. A typical 10th-century dromon had two banks of oars employing 200 rowers, in addition to a battering ram on the prow, and enough heavily armored marines to board an enemy ship if necessary. In other words, it looked and acted very much like the bireme of classical Greece. However, from the late seventh century on, the prow was a bronze-tipped siphon for discharging Byzantine napalm, the famous Greek Fire that proved decisive in so many battles. Hides and lead sheathing protected the ship’s sides against enemy incendiaries. Also new was a wooden tower amidships that allowed catapults and archers to launch stones, arrows, and other antipersonnel devices.


There are few images more representative of the Mediterranean Sea in the Early Middle Ages than that of the famous Byzantine war galley known as the dromon. At sea, the succession of the dromon to the Roman bireme liburna and its predecessors, especially the Greek trieres, has been presented in the conventional historiography of the maritime history of the Mediterranean as marking a transition from Rome to Byzantium. Similarly, the succession of the Western galea to the dromon in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries has been presented as marking a transition from the Early Middle Ages to the High Middle Ages in so far as the maritime history of the Mediterranean is concerned.

Behind this conventional presentation lie two intellectual assumptions which have underpinned the historiography. The first is that specific ship types, known by different names, existed in different chronological periods, or in different civilizations, and that these had distinctive construction features which either can be ascertained or, if they cannot be ascertained, would be able to be ascertained if sufficient evidence were available. The second assumption is that when the writers of ancient and medieval texts used terms such as trieres, liburna, dromon, or galea, they actually intended to refer to such specific ship types because these names were applied to the ship types by their contemporaries. Therefore, if a new name began to be used in the texts from a certain period, this reflects the fact that a new type of ship appeared in that period. Conversely, if a name faded from use in the texts in a certain period, then this indicates that the type of ship to which it referred had disappeared. It has been assumed that there were definite relationships between the words and the physical objects to which they referred, relationships which were both stable over long periods of time and also consistent in usage from place to place and person to person at any one time.

In certain periods Byzantines certainly referred to galleys by the term dromon, and also by chelandion and other terms, but did they always really intend that their use of these terms should actually designate specific galley types with distinctive design characteristics?

On the one hand, maritime historians know well that throughout history gradual evolution has almost invariably been the norm in so far as ship design is concerned. There has very rarely been any sudden technological innovation which has produced a distinctive new ship type overnight. Even submarines and aircraft carriers were developed gradually as new features were experimented with. Ship types have never remained static and fixed in design over time. They have always evolved slowly as generation after generation has progressively refined them and adapted them to changing circumstances. The evolutionary norm has been that eventually changes have become so marked that the ships have become distinctive new types which can be distinguished from their progenitors. Sometimes a previous name or term for a ship type has been taken into a new technological context; for example, the medieval Italian galeone for a small galley eventually became galleon for sailing ships of the sixteenth century. Sometimes a term for a ship type has been replaced by another term; for example, the Scandinavian knörr, which evolved in England into the Anglo- Norman buss. This being the case, we are led to consider whether “a” distinctive Byzantine warship, known as a dromon, ever actually existed at any time or whether, in fact, different forms of galleys over many centuries were referred to by Byzantines and others by the name dromon? There is no reason per se why the same term used in, say, the sixth century and the tenth, should not have been used with reference to quite different ship types. There is no reason, per se, why the same name should not have continued in use even if the construction features of the ships had changed dramatically.

On the other hand, when we examine texts which use terms such as dromon for ships, the reality for us lies in the texts and terms themselves. In most cases, we cannot see beyond the terms and cannot know whether two authors using the same term, even in the same time period, really had the same type of ship in mind. The same would true of the use of terminology in different geographical regions. Was a ship referred to as a chelandion in Byzantine South Italy in the tenth century really the same as that which was referred to by the same name in Constantinople? Futhermore, in most cases we cannot even know whether authors really even intended to refer to any specific ship type by their use of such terms. Indeed, in many cases, collateral evidence suggests that their use of them was no more specific than is that of “yacht” in our own time: a term which began with a specific reference to a seventeenth-century Dutch ship but which has since been applied to almost any kind of sailing pleasure craft. The popular use of “battleship” is another case in point. The word is correctly used for first-rate capital ships of the modern era of iron ships but is frequently used in popular literature with many other references. Nelson’s Victory, for example, is often referred to as a “battleship”; whereas, she was properly a “first-rate ship of the line”. Only if we had texts which empirically described the construction or operation of galleys referred to as dromones at any particular time could we be confident that we were being informed about actual ships in contemporary use, but even then only for that time and place and for those texts.

We have then approached the reality of “the” Byzantine dromon from alternative perspectives. On the one hand, from the sixth to the twelfth centuries, Byzantines and others certainly referred to some kinds of war galleys by the name dromo2n. On the other hand, real war galleys certainly existed. But, what did contemporaries intend their terminology to signify and what can we know of the physical objects to which they referred? Beyond that, with what degree of confidence can we use their texts to research the construction characteristics of the galleys and the ways in which they may have evolved over time?

ISLAMIC DESIGN – Boats and Ships

The Hariri Ship, the first known picture of an Arab sailing vessel.

The traditional boats of the Gulf are obviously neither Islamic in any way nor are they elements of Gulf architecture. However, they seem to me to have so much in common with traditional Gulf architecture and the way of life prior to development irrevocably changed the life of Qataris. In this sense I see boats being as important as the traditional architecture, and I feel that they should be looked at in parallel with land-based architecture.

Forced and Slave Labor in Nazi-Dominated Europe

…Forced and Slave Labor Across Europe, began with Andrej Angrick’s (institution, place) discussion of the use of SS-assigned slave labor in the construction of DG-IV, a main transit road built by the Germans and essential to their assault on Stalingrad and the Caucasus. Sarah Farmer of the University of California–Irvine then addressed the use of foreign labor (“Groupements de Travailleurs Etrangers”) in Vichy France. Finally, Rolf Keller of the Niedersächische Landeszentrale für Politische Bildung examined the contradictory “racism-versus-pragmatism” policy applied to Soviet prisoners of war used as forced and slave laborers in Germany in 1941/42.


Charles V meets with the Bey of Tunis, 1535. Both Habsburg and Ottoman power in North Africa depended in part on agreements with local clients. Here the size of the Imperial expedition of 1535 is apparent. Note the lines of galleys in the bay to the upper right – projecting power across the Mediterranean took enormous resources.

The Ottoman sultan, especially after the conquest of Mameluke Egypt in 1517 (during the first year of King Charles’s reign), enjoyed his own growing influence along the central North African coast. The sultan’s most successful client was Khayr ad-Din, the Barbary pirate better known as Barbarossa for his red beard. Fearful of the growing Spanish influence which threatened his corsairing, in 1518 Barbarossa pledged himself to the sultan Selim and in return received a title and military aid. With a large galley fleet and a mixed army of Maghrebis, Christian renegades, Moorish refugees from Spain and Turkish adventurers, Khayr ad-Din seized Algiers (1529) and Tunis (1534) from local Muslim rulers. In 1533 Süleyman made the pirate his high admiral with all the substantial resources of the Galata dockyards at Constantinople. Barbarossa continued to plague the shores and shipping of Christian Europe until his death in 1546. These were not insubstantial raids, threatening only unlucky fishermen and villagers, but major acts of war. In 1543, his most spectacular year, Barbarossa first sacked Reggio Calabria (for the second time) and then, cooperating with the sultan’s French allies, the city of Nice (a possession of the Spanish-allied Duke of Savoy). The war in North Africa and on the waters of the western Mediterranean thus became a confrontation between the emperor Charles and the sultan Süleyman.

In Charles’s first Mediterranean offensive he personally led the great invasion fleet and 25,000-man army that sailed from Barcelona to take Tunis in 1535, a direct response to Barbarossa’s seizure of the city the previous year. The fortified island of Goletta off Tunis became one of the principal Spanish forts of the Maghreb, and the southernmost position of a Habsburg cordon stretching down from Naples, Sicily and Malta to block further Ottoman expansion. Süleyman replied to the loss of Tunis with a planned invasion of Italy in 1537, landing a preliminary force of horse under the command of an Italian renegade to scour the countryside of Apulia. To secure his crossing to Italy Süleyman first laid siege to the Venetian fortress of Corfu, extensively protected by massive new-style fortifications. The Turkish besiegers proved incapable of reducing the Venetian citadel, and the entire operation had to be abandoned. The next year Charles continued the Spanish offensive, his Genoese admiral Andrea Doria taking Castelnuovo (now Herceg Novi) in Montenegro. In the late summer of 1539 Barbarossa retook Castelnuovo at a tremendous cost of life. Neither power could successfully bridge the straits of Otranto.

In 1541 Charles directed an enormous fleet against Algiers, a twin to his successful operation against Tunis in 1535. Again the emperor was personally in command, and success looked certain: Barbarossa was in the eastern Mediterranean; the janissary garrison tiny. But soon after disembarking a tremendous three-day gale utterly wrecked the supporting Spanish fleet, and the invading force (reduced to eating their horses) had to be evacuated. For almost ten years following this Spanish disaster there were no major land operations in the Mediterranean.



The original drawings of this galley are from Traitté de la construction des galères a French book written in 1691, although the drawings you hold in this product are completely original. For more information about the galley you can consult the wikipedia ( Galley). Below you can find a brief excerpt:

A galley (from Greek .a.ea – galea) is an ancient ship which can be propelled entirely by human oarsmen, used for warfare and trade. Oars are known from at least the time of the Egyptian Old Kingdom. Many galleys had masts and sails for use when the winds were favourable.

Various types of galleys dominated naval warfare in the Mediterranean Sea from the time of Homer to the development of effective naval gunnery around the 15th and 16th centuries. Galleys fought in the wars of ancient Persia, Greece, Carthage and Rome until the 4th century. After the fall of the Roman Empire galleys remained in use to a lesser extent by the Byzantine Navy and other successors of the Roman Empire, and by new Muslim states. Medieval Mediterranean states, notably the Italian maritime republics including Venice, Pisa, and Genoa, used galleys until the ocean-going man-of-war made them obsolete. The Battle of Lepanto (1571) was one of the largest naval battles in which galleys played the principal part. Galleys continued in mainstream use until the introduction of broadside sailing ships of war into the Mediterranean in the 17th Century, and continued to be used in minor roles until the advent of steam propulsion.