Join the Navy! The Medieval version

By Cait Stevenson

In 1555, military commander Georg von Holle put out a call for Landsknechte (elite German mercenaries) to assemble at Wildeshausen. The duke of Calenberg had allotted him money to pay the salaries of 3000 soldiers, no more. When more than five thousand showed up to join, Holle found himself in the enviable position of selecting the best trained and best equipped, and being able to send away the dregs.

This was a situation of which medieval naval commanders didn’t even dare to dream.There were times in the tenth century when the Fatimids, for example, had to resort to kidnapping former sailors in order to fill out their troop transport fleet. Residents of Crete under Venice scrambled to join the hated defensive militia to render themselves ineligible for service at sea.


But even if the Venetians had to grit their teeth and recruit Spanish Christians, and the Spanish Christian commanders, in turn, had to recruit Muslims, navies in the medieval Mediterranean managed to cultivate enough dedicated, experienced sailors able and willing to confront pirates, haul army troops, conduct lightning raids ashore, and even engage in the occasional battle at sea.

Bibliothèque Nationale de France MS Italien 64 fol. 59v

In the face of such clear hostility to naval service, how did recruiters work this sorcery?


In places with a strong maritime tradition, there was a ready set of people with necessary skills, and commanders had great success by bypassing individual recruitment altogether. They negotiated with town councils to provide a set number of sailors, often with a given skill—several ships’ worth of rowers culled from Capri in the 1280s, for example, or 170 crossbowmen from Tortosa. Townsmen negotiating collectively had the power to secure terms making the navy more attractive, like shorter periods of required service. They could also win concessions that benefited the town and all its citizens: if enough sailors were provided, the financial or material tax on the town for war funds might be. However, sometimes town councils were unwilling to negotiate collectively (or the commanders were really, really needing to keep collecting dues of timber, grain, and other goods).

In this case, there seem to have been two basic strategies for recruitment, often applied together.

The first avenue of attack was to make naval service seem much more appealing than its reputation. Recruiters in Christian Iberia would set up a table or stall in a town, and provide entertainers like musicians to lure people in to listen! The goal was to sign people up on the spot—for service starting “in two or three months,” of course.

Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Han. Cod. 2571 fol. 43r

The Fatimids, on the other hand, specialized in making life at sea seem much more exciting than it actually was. What did their sailors actually do? Mostly, row (and row, and row, and row; and maybe put up the sails if they were lucky) armies across the Mediterranean. How did commanders sidestep this monotony? Periodic naval parades and extensive mock sea battles played out on the Nile, to cheering crowds. The pageantry and the sport created quite the alluring—but inaccurate—impression of navy life.


Sometimes it was less a case of making navy life look good, and more just making it seem less bad than conditions at home. A case in point was the food. Lawrence Mott points out the amusing fact that ship crews throughout the medieval (and early modern, for that matter) Mediterranean ate basically the same thing—that is, the same thing that other crews ate, and the same thing every day. Daily rations included up to four liters of water and maybe a little wine to drink. The food consisted of a stale biscuit and a mixture of salted meat, beans, salt, maybe garlic and other spices if they were lucky. Crewmen would typically mash up the biscuit into the “salsa” for increased edibility. (A cool variation: on ship crews with a substantial portion of Muslims—even in navies of Christian lands—cheese replaced salt pork as the chief “meat”.) Salsa-biscuit gruel: all day, every day, to the tune of four thousand kcal of it.

But as the Fatimids, then the Norman Sicilians, then the Aragonese, then the Venetians in Crete all figured out, the spartan navy diet sounds awesome if you don’t have enough to eat in the first place. So recruiters timed their sales pitches to points in the year when the previous harvest’s bounty was running low. They offered sailors who signed up on the spot for service down the road the same naval rations for themselves (and sometimes their families) in the intervening months.

Morgan M.804 fol. 44v

And thus we arrive at the second, undeniably successful tactic in securing naval recruits: money. The Fatimids in the eleventh century knew it; the Aragonese in the thirteenth; the Venetians in the fifteenth. Eliyahu Ashtor, the magister of Cairo Geniza studies, calculated that the monthly wage for a lower-class Egyptian in the twelfth century was two dinars. Thanks to a generous military tax system, the navy paid its regular sailors—not even officers—a monthly wage up to twenty dinars depending on position and experience.


Other leaders found even more creative financial ways to lure people into the navy. King Alfonso II of Aragon ordered that the royal treasury (which actually meant loans from Jews) would pay the debts of all new sailors for the first two years of service. Roger of Lauria in command of the Sicilian fleet, on the other hand, found his magic in reversing the rule that made the navy less appealing than the army  (from the military side of things) and from civilian shipboard jobs (from the sailing side). He didn’t prohibit, but encouraged crews to seize loot from encounters with hostile ships in both Italy and North Africa. Sometimes the profits for sailors was in the loot itself; other times, booty was auctioned off back in Sicily and the proceeds distributed among the ship’s crew.

Roger wasn’t shy about advertising either. The recruitment/motivational speech recorded by Messina chronicler Bartholomaeus Neocastro has Roger hitting all the right notes of piety: to raid Gerba (Tunisia) was to do God’s work against the Saracens; their victory was guaranteed, given the great past successes of the Sicilian navy; their coming triumph would resound through the ages as a sign of their homeland’s greatness. Pretty much as one would expect.

But these were exactly the kinds of arguments that had failed to sway potential sailors elsewhere in the Mediterranean. The key to Roger’s success was his final promise: “silver, goods, and spoils.”

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Click here to read more from Cait Stevenson

Top Image: A fourteenth-century Italian manuscript – Bodmer 78 fol. 32v


Sign up for our weekly email newsletter!