Medieval Maritime Warfare

medieval maritime warfareMedieval Maritime Warfare

By Charles D Stanton

Pen and Sword Books, 2015
ISBN: 9781781592519

Following the fall of Rome, the sea is increasingly the stage upon which the human struggle of western civilization is played out. In a world of few roads and great disorder, the sea is the medium on which power is projected and wealth sought. Yet this confused period in the history of maritime warfare has rarely been studied – it is little known and even less understood. Charles Stanton uses an innovative and involving approach to describe this fascinating but neglected facet of European medieval history. He depicts the development of maritime warfare from the end of the Roman Empire to the dawn of the Renaissance, detailing the wars waged in the Mediterranean by the Byzantines, Muslims, Normans, Crusaders, the Italian maritime republics, Angevins and Aragonese as well as those fought in northern waters by the Vikings, English, French and the Hanseatic League. This pioneering study will be compelling reading for everyone interested in medieval warfare and maritime history.

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Read an excerpt: Battle Tactics

The low state of medieval maritime technology ensured that battle tactics were just as basic. They had hardly progressed since Roman times. Confrontations at sea remained messy affairs that almost invariably devolved into unpredictable ship-against-ship melees. This helps explain why large-scale naval engagements were rare during the Middle Ages. Few naval commanders were willing to risk all in a single battle subject to so many uncontrollable variables. As on land, clashes at sea normally occurred only when one side or both could not avoid it.


The fact that there was no reliable ship-killing weapon compounded the uncertainty surrounding the outcome. The waterline ram or rostrum of the classical era was ineffective against the sturdier, frame-first hull construction which began to develop in the Mediterranean as early as the seventh century and found full implementation by the eleventh century. It proved utterly futile against the more robust ship architecture of the northern seas, even in Roman times. In his Commentarii de Bello Gallico (‘Commentaries on the Gallic War’), Julius Caesar said of the dense oak vessels of the Gauls, ‘Our ships could not damage them with the ram (they were so stoutly built).’ As a result, no warship in either the north or the south was known to have sported a ram by the seventh century. It was replaced on the Byzantine dromon by a spur, a sort of reinforced bowsprit used to assist in seizing and boarding an enemy ship. The only weapon developed in the medieval period capable of destroying an entire vessel was ‘Greek fire’, a secret petroleum-based incendiary invented by a Syrian artificer named Kallinikos in the seventh century. Documentary and graphic sources indicate that it was spewed from specially constructed siphon tubes mounted on the bows of dromons. Unfortunately its utility was extremely restricted. It had limited range and could only be deployed in calm or following winds. The most practical onboard armament of the Middle Ages was the swivel-mounted ballista, a large crossbow contraption which used torsion to fire iron quarrels called ‘mice’ or ‘flies’, but none of these was large enough or powerful enough to sink a ship. It was more of an anti-personnel weapon.

Besides, the goal of medieval maritime combatants was not to sink or destroy opposing vessels. Most often it was to capture them as prizes, if at all possible. After all, the chosen vocation or avocation of most seafarers of the age was piracy. The parcelling out of prizes was how crews were often compensated – even merchant crews. Accordingly, combat at sea routinely commenced with exchanges of missiles. Usually these were crossbow bolts, arrows, lances, stones, caltrops, etc., but the chronicles also contain reports of more atypical projectiles, such as clay pots filled with vipers, scorpions, quicklime, naphtha (a highly flammable petroleum distillate) and so on. The idea was to clear the deck of an opposing vessel as much as possible prior to closing. The next phase of the encounter was grappling, followed by boarding. The outcome of the engagement was almost always decided by hand-to-hand combat on the decks of engaged ships.


This is not to say that strategy was not involved. It often was, at least at the outset of an engagement. Some naval commanders may even have heeded the advice proffered by Vegetius in Book IV of the Epitoma Rei Militaris, which covers naval warfare. But if any military manual was consulted at all, it was more likely the early tenth-century Taktika of Emperor Leo VI or those of other Byzantine tacticians of the period. First of all, in Constitution XIX of the Taktika which concerned naval warfare, the emperor counselled caution: ‘Certainly, apart from some urgent necessity forcing you to do so, you should not throw yourself into a pitched battle. For many are the reversals of so-called fortune. What happens in battle is not what one expects.’ Along those lines, a ninth-century treatise by a certain Syrianos Magistros (perhaps a naval strategos or commander) advised anticipating any encounters with enemy fleets through the deployment of scout ships: ‘There should be four of these, two keeping about six miles ahead of the main fleet and the other two in between so that the second group are informed of the disposition of the enemy by the former through certain signals which they will have arranged with each other, and should have done the same with the fleet.’

If, however, it turned out that conflict was unavoidable, it was considered imperative to draw all vessels up into battle formation. (There are multiple contemporary accounts of ships being linked together with chains or cables in order to ensure formation integrity, though the wisdom and practicality of this practice has been questioned.) The favoured formation was what Leo VI called ‘crescent-shaped’, i.e., a semi-circle line abreast with the flagship in the concave centre and the larger, more formidable ships at the tips of the horns. The objective was to effect an envelopment of the enemy fleet, if possible. The larger or taller ships were selected for the wings, because height mattered in the missile exchanges which ensued. Once ships were engaged with grapples and pikes, caltrops and stones were generally dropped from masthead platforms of one kind or another in an attempt to hole the hull of an opposing vessel. Nonetheless, despite whatever stratagem was initially employed, the clash inevitably degenerated into a chaotic free-for-all on the decks of the conjoined ships, much like in a land battle.

In point of fact, medieval fleets were hardly ever assembled for the purpose of engaging in pitched battle at sea. The intent of almost all medieval naval actions was amphibious assault, logistical support for land operations or the blockade of a hostile port. This is why John Pryor contends, ‘Appreciation of the fact that all medieval naval warfare was essentially coastal and amphibious warfare is important since many of the recommended strategies and tactics were devised in that context.’ This is particularly true when one takes into account that the primitive state of nautical navigation at the time, the vulnerability of galleys to inclement weather and the need for constant resupply constrained medieval fleets to cling to coastlines anyway.

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