Charles D. Stanton
Medieval Maritime Warfare
(Pen & Sword, 2015) 359pp. $39.95
Pen & Sword Books Limited of Yorkshire has come a long way. Having secured a hefty market share of popular military history over the years, the company has ventured successfully into the publication of scholarly works. Take the book at hand as an example, from the Pen & Sword Maritime Series and distributed by Casemate Publishers. The author is a proven, Cambridge-trained academician. The tome itself is a proper hardback with dust cover and sewn binding. It’s comprised of 359 pages of text, boasts forty superb color illustrations on glossy paper, and features fifteen nicely executed “in-text” maps. The price tag? Twenty five pounds sterling in the United Kingdom, and less than forty dollars in the USA. Now, compare that with Charles D. Stanton’s well-received first book, published by Boydell & Brewer. Norman Naval Operations in the Mediterranean possesses 323 pages, no color plates, no dust jacket and is held together with a glued binding. Price tag in the United States: $99 (though $20 less on Amazon). To be fair to academic publishers, some scholarly titles are so arcane that few copies may be sold and thus fail to offset production costs (though chain-mailed Norman knights will likely always garner a wide readership). We should hold in great reverence publishing houses that will still help academicians get specialized works in print. The book under review, however, shows how Pen & Sword is closing the gap in the military history genre.
Another likeable trait of Pen & Sword is its lack of inhibition about soliciting mainstream (some might say old-fashioned) military history. One senses that after following traditional academic protocols and penning a solidly researched monograph on a tightly focused topic, Charles D. Stanton found it refreshing to have an editor ask him to do a book about “sea battles” (p vi). And the author should be commended for retrieving the gauntlet. There is a certain philosophy that once a doctoral dissertation has been revised and proffered to the wider academic world, as proof of one’s mastery of the historian’s craft, that second book ought to be a bit bolder and throw a wider net on topic. Wide-ranging subjects may please series editors, but academicians take the risk of suffering hostile reviews. Fortunately, Stanton braved that danger. One recalls the late Lord Dacre’s justification for venturing into broader avenues of inquiry, despite the disapproval of specialists. In the preface to The Rise of Christian Europe he acknowledged the “flashing medieval knives” that awaited his book’s appearance. The fact is that hazarding historical writing about a field different from one’s doctoral training goes a long way in discouraging inbreeding in the profession.
So, Pen & Sword seems pleased that it got its book on sea battles. The inner jacket notes promise the buyer tales of “seaborne struggle” and in each chapter “a vivid reconstruction of a key engagement,” replete with “battle tactics” and “bloody hand-to-hand mêlées”. Such publicity conjures up a vision of Admiral Nelson clad in armor, urging on crossbowmen in the rigging. The spectacular image emblazoned on the cover features deck-to-deck fighting, taken from a manuscript of (appropriately) De Re Militari crafted in the thirteenth century. But one ought also ponder the title on the dust jacket: Medieval Maritime Warfare. Not Medieval Naval Warfare or Sea Battles of the Middle Ages. At risk of seeming pedantic, that is because this book really isn’t so much about naval history or battles fought in the open seas. Medievalists, quite rightly, are ever on their guard against anachronism, and insist on proper contextualization. “Maritime” possesses a wider connotation than naval, doesn’t it? There are few great collisions of fleets here, nor swordplay in the vicinity of the focsle. Rather this is a book about conjunct operations. This is medieval amphibious warfare, and again and again Stanton’s narrative weaves around conflict on the interface between sea and littoral, littoral and coastline.
Wisely, Stanton cites John Pryor’s observation (and later elaborates on it) that “maritime technology” (p 63) kept vessels close to shore for reasons of logistics, safety and navigation. At this juncture the present writer would dare remind naval historians that amphibious warfare existed long before naval warfare per se. Indeed, the Normans make their debut in the pages of this book waging defensive amphibious warfare in 1000 AD at Salerno. Stanton ends his tome with a surprisingly brief conclusion that the gradual appearance of gunpowder weaponry and related technological advances ushered maritime warfare into the modern world shortly before 1500 AD. In all, Stanton provides an overview of a millennium of warfare afloat.
The book is configured in two parts, the first focusing on the Mediterranean, the latter half on the English Channel, the North Sea, and the Baltic. Each of the ten chapters provides narrative punctuated by analysis, capped off with an in-depth recounting of a representative “sea battle,” most of which would best be described as combined/conjunct operations (with the caveat that of course no service branches existed in this era). The evidential basis, especially in the early going, is drawn heavily from printed and translated primary materials. The number of these types of sources diminish as Stanton moves through the centuries, entirely understandable in a work covering a thousand years. However, if the latter chapters lean heavily on secondary works, one ought to utilize as many quality works as possible. Which leads to the only criticism that this reviewer would proffer. The chapter on the Hanse and Baltic maritime warfare would have benefited greatly from inclusion of the scholarship of marine archaeologist and historian Louis Sicking (who is equally at home in scuba gear as ensconced in an archive). Stanton’s bibliography reveals he had before him an anthology that included Sicking’s work on the chapter’s topic, but apparently chose not to use it. But that is a cavil considering Stanton’s achievement. Medieval Maritime Warfare succeeds both as a scholarly monograph as well as compelling survey for the military history buff.
Mark Charles Fissel