Charles D. Stanton, Norman naval operations in the Mediterranean (Rodriguez)

Charles Stanton Norman naval operations in the MediterraneanCharles D. Stanton, Norman naval operations in the Mediterranean. Series: Warfare in History. The Boydell Press, 2011. 323 pp (14 B/W  maps and 14 figures)

Reviewed by Jose Manuel Rodriguez

In the last years there have been an increasing number of works about medieval naval warfare that try to fill a huge gap in the study of medieval military. The present volume is a welcome addition to this trend although it does not completely fit in it.

Certainly the title is a bit misleading. One could expect to find a pure military maritime history book, on naval warfare, focused on technology and logistics, but this is not the case as the author himself makes clear in the first page: “This is not an in-depth examination of Norman naval organization and infrastructure in the Mediterranean. The sources to permit such an investigation simply do not exit”. The technological aspects are considered in a short appendix 1 (pp. 225-272), and although he claims lack of sources is one of the more appealing parts of the book to me. In fact the book is, mainly, a political and military history of the conquest of Sicily by the Normans and the struggle to control southern Italy, although it also tackles the West-East communications in the Mediterranean and the impact on the Holy Land.  Besides, although the book seems to cover the period from 840 to 1250, in fact the author is at his best describing the events of the 11th and 12th centuries, in a chronological way according to the author’s hypothesis of the rise and decline of the Norman Sicilian navy, with its peak at the time of Roger II, and a later “revival” under Frederick II. In fact, Stanton makes some claims about certain continuity and innovations under Fredrick II, but I think that this part is quite weak compared to the two previous centuries. The book, after the chapter 4 (Impact), closes with two appendixes, the already mentioned “on the fleet”, and an useful one about sources.

Stanton is heavily dependent on the previous works of Abulafia, Loud and Pryor. Abulafia stated that those who control certain islands would control the Mediterranean.  Pryor, besides being a naval technology “geek”, considered that “control of the land meant control of the sea” due to the technical and logistic limitations of the navies and galleys of the 11th and 12th centuries, therefore Stanton also focus on the military campaigns to assure those landmarks.

The main point is that the rise of the Norman Sicilian navy changed the geopolitical and economic shape of the Mediterranean in the way that the western sea (and “middle sea”) was no longer a Muslim controlled area only open to their merchants, Jews and some interested allies (such as the Amalfitans, according to the author). In that way, the Hauteville, through their control of Sicily, southern Italy, and points on the northern African shore, made possible not only the Christian economic expansion but also the crusades – despite that “Norman naval power participated only peripherally in this phenomenon”- at the same time that made them rich.

It´s a pity that Stanton seems to not be aware of an article published in 2007 by Bachrach were the later stated that the Western Christian powers were capable of launching an all naval/amphibious assault upon Jerusalem in 1090s [1]. In fact that was the main argument used by Bachrach to proclaim that the Pope did wanted a land expedition to pass through the Byzantine Empire in order to “resolve” some problems. But according to what can be interfered from Stanton neither the technology nor the logistics were in situation to support such a campaign by that time, although the situation seemed to have changed significantly twenty years later at the peak of Roger II power. In fact, Stanton defends that Roger had a true vision of naval strategy and geopolitics.

So Stanton makes use of the naval implications to explain history. Furthermore, Stanton points out that the Normans were quite aware of the strategic importance of Sicily, or at least the control of the Strait of Mesina. I have no problems with this assumption although it is not clear if that was the case for everybody.

Being an interesting and worthwhile book I find some problems with it, apart from the title.

Firstly, bibliography. The author is aware of all the main works in English, and some classics in French, Italian and German. However, although Stanton is supposed to be proficient in Italian and French, only a dozen of works written in those two languages in the last forty years seem to have reached his table. He does mention some must books, such as Picard, Martin, Taviani and Deuve, for example, but I believe that the author could have benefited from a much wider range of authors and works. If Metcalfe has been read (although not his last book. The Muslims of Medieval Italy, Edinburgh, 2009) I do not know why Stanton did not use the works by Annliese Nef on Muslim and Norman Sicily. In the same way, Stanton could have found his work easier if he had read the works by Amatuccio, Aubé, Balard, Bresc, Delogu, Durand, Giunta, Guichard, Jehel, Pontieri, Settia and Scale, for example (and all those only referring to the period 1040-1110). I’m afraid that some English historiography seems to obviate any work not written in English despite the fact they may be dealing with Italian, French, German or Spanish history. Stanton is not a worst case – I repeat that he does know quite a bit of the “local” production – but this tendency is something quite obvious at the eyes of non English speaking historians. On the other hand, in his bibliography, he has used some works of some historians, but not the most updated, such as in the case of Metcalfe (2009), Houben, Benet, Kreutz, Fahmy, Picard, Bachrach (2007), Cuozzo and Brown (2003).  Finally, it is obvious that nobody can read everything, and so it is understandable that some interesting papers have escaped the attention of the author like the different contributions in Les Normands en Méditerranée  (éd. P. Bouet, et F. Neveux, Caen, PUC, 1994-2001), or even in English such as the article by Lawrence Conrad on Islam and the sea (reviewing a Planhol’s book[2])

Secondly, approach. Stanton is too focused on Sicily and its importance. It is true that Sicily is the core of his research and that he does play attention to the Byzantine and Arabic influences in the 11th century, both on the political and naval military aspects as he considered them the “fathers”, models, inspirators or starting points of the Sicilian navy, but I would like to have seen a much more comparative approach, specially within the Italian and Iberian framework. Italian maritime republics and Iberian powers had a lot to say in the struggle for the Western Mediterranean, as Pistarino (talking about Genoa and Sardinia, and who is never mentioned in the book, like Balard), and other Italian and French historians have already pointed out.  He does mention the importance of Genoa and Venice in his chapter 4 (Impact) but I think that perhaps overestimate the significance of the Normans (i.e. the  Hauteville)  as the true makers – or operators – of the West-East trade routes, and fails to establish comparisons between those powers and the development of their naval status.

No doubt, Stanton’s work is noteworthy and valid. He has a good command of the primary sources (although sometime he stretches them too far), and has had the merit of using the naval thread to weave the tapestry of the political history of the Normans, the kingdom of Sicily and Western Mediterranean in a clear and suggestive way. There is still a lot of work to be done on the maritime history of the Middle Ages, but Stanton’s is a meaningful point on the road.


[1] Bernard S. Bachrach,  “Papal war aims in 1096: the option not chose”, In Laudem Hierosolymitani. Ed. I. Shagrir, Ashgate, 2007,  pp.  319-344.

[2] L.I. Conrad, “Islam and the sea: paradigms and problematics”, Al-Qantara, 23 (2002): 123-154.

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