Book Review: European Naval and Maritime History, 300-1500

Archibald R Lewis and Timothy J Runyan, European Naval and Maritime History, 300-1500.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.Pp. xi, 192. 

Lewis and Runyan’s work was the first popular attempt to present a survey of the develop of European maritime and naval power through the middle ages. (Runyan xi). Archibald Lewis co-authored fourteen books on medieval European history and was a professor of history at the University of Texas and University of Massachusetts. Timothy Runyan is a professor of maritime history at East Carolina University and has written extensively on shipping and medieval England. This survey includes politics, naval architecture, naval administration, naval warfare, strategic planning throughout the different eras it addresses.  The authors use primary and secondary sources as well as preceding historical works and archeological journals. 

The book’s seven chapters are approximately twenty pages each. They concisely discuss the rise and maritime arc of the Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Celts and Norse, English and finally Iberian peoples.  Each chapter discusses technological contributions such as Byzantine offensive dromon.  It covers naval tactical developments such as Venetian and Genoese convoys. Operational matters such as Constans II’s administration of the Byzantine hinterlands with a well-compensated militia supported by a strong national Navy which allowed him to elude the cost of a large standing army.  Finally, they include element of grand strategy such as the complete integration of financial, industrial, commercial and maritime aspects of the Islamic reign over the Middle Sea.  

The main ideas that Runyan and Lewis develop are that there was very little technological change other than the incremental development of ships throughout the middle ages. Other than ramming or Greek fire, naval tactics were typically constrained to boardings for hand to hand combat. This did not dramatically advanced until the 12th century when crews began to fight the ships on the open seas. While technological and tactical advances were limited, major developments in naval strategy and administration gave groups like the King Canute’s Vikings, Muslims and Venetians the ability to consistently project power across vast distances for extended periods. With the security provided by sea power, the authors discuss how economic and diplomatic efforts flourished for each of the reigning empires. Finally, the limitations of sea power are demonstrated with examples like the Byzantines ceding territory to the Slavs or King John’s ceding northern France and other land-based groups who they could not defend against. Sea power works well as a part of a comprehensive strategy, but it is insufficient without intelligent diplomatic, economic and land-based military policies in place.  

The statement that none of the amphibious assaults the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War or World War II surpasses medieval Europe’s tactical abilities (Runyan 167) must be taken as exaggeration as the added elements of air power, advanced munitions and undersea warfare surely eclipse the complexity of medieval amphibious operations. However, this comparison is surely to highlight the complexity of planning and execution performed by the medieval forces before modern technologies.  

The book reads easily and doesn’t require scholarly background to enjoy.  It does an excellent job in its stated goal of providing a comprehensive general survey of the progress of sea power through the medieval period.     

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