View Full Version : Dark Age Naval Power: A Reassessment of Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Seafaring Activity

Thursday, July 7th, 2005, 01:12 PM
Dark Age Naval Power: A Reassessment of Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Seafaring Activity
Canadian Journal of History, Aug 1994
by Johnson, Hubert C

The relationship of the history of technology to that of warfare is very close, as interested historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists well know. In the cave painting s of southern France and of North Africa aggressive warriors unleash arrows or thrust spears a t one another, or at animals, testifying to another interesting connection: the relationship of military history to the history of hunting. Six books of different qualities and written by authors with different purposes, provide the material for this review. Each has at least some tenuous connection to military technology.

In the last generation William H. McNeill has provided the most sophisticat ed interpretation of the interrelationship of military technology to the broader content of histor y. In his Rise of the West and in The Pursuit of Power(f.1) he has provided a remarkable stimulus to the study of this subject. Previously it had been in the hands of the antiquarian collect ors of information regarding weaponry, or casually mentioned, without too much thought, by military historians occupied with campaign accounts. Perhaps the only historians who knew that weap ons should not be studied just in themselves were the classicists who had to use all the sc anty evidence they could find, including artifacts such as swords or daggers, to develop their inte rpretations. But some of the writers here considered have been little affected by McNeill's ideas . Each will be discussed individually before making an attempt to compare and contrast them.

Attempts to discover the nature of naval warfare in the early middle ages r equire an assortment of skills, a disciplined sense of evaluation, and careful weighing of limited evidence. Haywood has used numismatic, archaeological, and literary materials to develop h is interpretation. Basically, he believes, both the Franks and the Anglo - Saxons s ent forth sea raiders to the North Sea borderlands before the Vikings. From the standpoint of technology he describes the evolution of warships from being galleys constructed on Mediterran ean lines to those constructed with ribs and plank covering. Evidence of this evolution can be found in excavations of burial vessels, for example. In contrast to Pirenne(f.2) Haywood shows that these early states did use warships, including assault boats, pontoons, and, later, es tablished elaborate fortifications to defend themselves from the Viking ships. Charlemagne's empire , he maintains with some exaggeration, was a seapower as well as a landpower. Given the sparse nature of the evidence Haywood is usually careful not to claim too much, but his interpretatio n does modify the classical Pirenne thesis.

Certainly siegecraft formed an important component of medieval warfare, per haps the most important, and has been discussed by older historians such as Charles Oman as we ll as recent ones such as Philippe Contamine.(f.3) Bradbury does not intend to present a nov el interpretation of this subject but surveys its evolution from the pre - castle era on up to the final development which coincided with the introduction of gunpowder. By relating one incident of siegecraft after another, culled from contemporary chronicles, he provides an interesting and rea dable account. There is little that is new and those in search of broader interpretations must go to Contamine's analysis, which remains fundamental. In terms of military technology Bradbury g ives a clear discussion of the catapults, crossbows, and other arms, relating them to the per iods in which they evolved. Particularly good is the section on Greek Fire. It is probably t rue, as Bradbury states, that most sieges involved castles rather than cities.

Making no pretensions, De Vries attempts to provide a survey of all aspects of medieval technology using a number of recent secondary sources. There is nothing new in this discussion; the author proceeds to outline the evolution of armor, of fortifications, of art illery (including cannon), and of small arms. In each case he is content to describe the various implements of war and show how they changed over time. Nowhere does he try to connect such de velopments with the wider flow of medieval history. DeVries has written a kind of textbook which will serve to provide an elementary introduction, but Bradbury accomplishes the same job with greater success.

The main failure of Bradbury and of DeVries was to present medieval militar y technology within a rather narrow context. Recital of details of campaigns and of discrete changes in particular implements of war obscures the economic, political, and cultural reas ons for such changes. Contamine provides, on the other hand, a comprehensive analysis of mil itary technology as part of history.

Much has been written about the evolution of iron cannon and of ship design during the Tudor period and Loades does not pretend to add much more. The work of Geoffrey Parker and, less recently, Michael Lewis,(f.4) has clarified armament technology. In t his comprehensive study of Tudor naval matters, however, Loades does relate ship des ign to battle success or failure from time to time. In truth, administrative history is the m ain concern of this careful monograph. Despite the coming and going of monarchs during the century the original contract system evolved with the naming of Clerks who operated day to day with w arrants, to produce the admiralty by the end of the Elizabethan period. Henry VIII had crea ted a standing navy by 1520. By 1546 a primitive shipborne Royal Marine organization had start ed, replacing soldiers. By 1559 the Royal Navy was "modest in size but fully maintained and i n regular use." Shipyards were staffed with shipwrights and the administrative organization of t he Admiralty began to grow afterward. Loades considers campaigns and tries to show the polit ical ramifications of naval action but the administrative story is foremost.

The tremendous improvement in naval ordnance, stressed by Loades, gave the navy a decided advantage over the Armada in 1588 and reflects, perhaps, a growing naval establishment. Unfortunately, the development of this establishment is discusse d in various chapters but not comprehensively. Left unsettled is the policy of Elizabeth; di d she weaken the navy by her penny pinching and reliance on what Loades correctly calls private e nterprise? If so, then Loades has to modify his declaration that the Admiralty had been born b y the end of her reign. The administrative history of the European states in this period is extraordinarily difficult to write because of the mixture of public and private funding, the inf ormal and collegial nature of administration, primitive accounting and bookkeeping, and overlapping jurisdictions of officials. By later standards of probity the privateering (or piracy) condon ed by Elizabeth seems scandalous, but, in contemporary terms quite normal. Military and naval o fficers were often entrepreneurs responsible for the organization of support of their troops and ships. Elizabeth was no different from other rulers in expecting that her subordinates would take opportunities to obtain personal profit from their jobs. Loades may have missed an opportunity to portray Tudor naval administration in a systematic and rational way but it wo uld be unfair to apply the rational criteria of bureaucratic organization developed by Max Weber( f.5) to the infant admiralty.

Both the Elizabethan army and navy profited from the use of the cast iron o rdnance. English gunfounders were able to obtain lucrative contracts for the provisioning of these expensive weapons. Loades or some other naval historian should look at the fund ing of military technology more carefully, assuming that archival evidence can be discovered.

An ambitious attempt at comparative history, the effort by David Ralston un fortunately suffers from severe internal problems. He wants to show how five non - European societies responded to the threat of western dominance by instituting military reforms api ng the practices of their enemy. The states include Petrine Russia, the Ottoman Empire ending in the ascendency of the Young Turks, the Egypt of Muhammend Ali, the imperial China of Li Hung Ch ang and Yuan Shi Kai, and the Meiji government of Japan. Certainly in each case traditi onal regimes tried to westernize but in each case they were either partially or completely th warted by existing social and political establishments. None of this is new, and, indeed, Ralston seems correct to note that "indigenous institutions" had to lose their authority and power before "Europeanization" could occur. Widespread social revolts in each case, emerging from the breakdown of traditional governments and elites, were not only influenced by att empts to import western techniques, military and otherwise, but, in turn, caused pervasive chang e.

Each of the five cases is considered in a separate, short chapter and each chapter seems to be almost a textbook excerpt. At no time does Ralston concentrate on discrete p roblems of military techniques and technology in order to pursue, in depth, his analysis. Surveying the notes indicates that most of the sources are twenty years old or older; secondar y accounts form this corpus of evidence. In the discussion of Peter the Great's military reform s, one can obtain much more from reading Evgenii V. Anisimov's Reforms of Peter the Great (1993). Ralston could have examined, for example, the use of German military advisers in Russia, Turkey, and Japan by looking more closely at the military reforms in these states. To do so would require a much more ambitious effort, embodying archival research. The pedestrian natur e of the discussion precludes startling conclusions. Military technology is treated only in the most elementary fashion throughout. As an effort in comparative analysis this work is a failure.

In contrast to Ralston, the Word and the Sword is a challenging and intelli gent effort. Unfortunately, it too is riddled with problems. Dudley maintains that "historica l change . . . appears to have its origins in innovations that alter the optimal size of organi zations." He gives a number of examples, including ancient Sumer, the Roman Empire in its final pha ses, late medieval France, seventeenth - century Holland, late nineteenth - century German y, the Russian Revolution, and the decaying United States of the late 1970s. Influenced somewh at by William McNeill, Dudley indicates that the striking development of the Sumerian cities w as due to "command" economics in which the priesthood became a theocracy. A bureaucracy e merged, which, in the Weberian sense, replaced the adhoc, arbitrary, and biased decision s of the more primitive state. Yet, another bureaucracy, full grown, if overripe, introduced crippling taxation, thus causing the collapse of the Roman Empire. Preoccupied with the history of bureaucracy Dudley never comes to grip with the problem of its essence: large scale organiza tions such as Max Weber posited in his ideal type have been usually characterized by inability to adapt to change, a rigid hierarchy which attempts to prohibit independent action by under lings, a pattern of constant growth in spite of ups and downs in the economy, and the development of a corporative self - protective mentalite.(f.6) Dudley knows this and ascribes th e near collapse of Chrysler in 1979 and other American corporative giants of that period to orga nizational malaise. Perhaps he could have developed a stronger argument if he had said that state bureaucracies start out as lean, small, and innovative but become obese, huge, a nd anchored to stultifying routine: certainly this idea seems tobe faintly present in his writ ing.

Accompanying the growth and decline of bureaucracies has been the linear pr ogression of an informational technology and a similar, less complete, progression of a milit ary technology: hence the title Word and Sword. Invention of writing, Dudley thinks, led to the rise of cities by "increasing the optimal size of information networks." Because only the scri bes were literate they assumed commanding positions in ancient societies. The printing press and the Reformation greatly increased the literate population while the telegraph and the typewriter expanded the frontiers of communication networks. Finally, the integrated circuit led to min iaturization in electronics and the computer revolution. Citing Marshall McLuhan he develops an arresting picture of a data collection and distribution rationalization. Some things are overlooked: the importance of the typewriter after 1880 was that it permitted the easy copying, through carbons and through mimeograph systems of paperwork. By multiplying files this clerical revolution helped to cause the emergence of the white collar bureaucracy which is still pre sent in government and industry.

Computer networking may, as he suggests, lead to "atomization" but it may also l ead to even greater expansion of files, now kept on discs. More important, Dudley may not r ealize that political power in the control of information storage, retrieval, and disseminat ion is all important. The vast files of the C.I.A., for example, are vigilantly protected by security agents: secrecy is the raison d'e@tre of such organizations -- take that away and they are revealed naked to the world. Like a ll resources, those of information networks can be manipulated by those in sufficiently strong positions of power. Some computer network systems such as Internet were, after all, develope d by the U.S. Army.

Concerning military technology Dudley indicates that the Sumerians and Gilg amesh profited from the introduction of bronze spears and arrowheads. In possession of scarce, costly, metal such as bronze, the Sumerian bureaucracy was able to outfight its nomadic and pr imitive opponents as well as cowe its own lower classes. France, still divided between several sovereignties in the early fifteenth century, was united by 1500 because the roy al government had more of the expensive, new cannon than its opponents. Moltke led Prussia to achieve German unification because he had designed its railroad network to support the a rmy.

But, surely other factors come into play. As the merchants, peasants, and artisans clogged the street markets of ancient Sumer were not bronze implements and weapons commo nly exchanged? How many of the countless clay tablets which testify to this complex trading society contain details of such transactions? Neither Dudley nor the reviewer knows but the question is important. The rise of Sumer must have something to do with settled agricult ural society, an emerging trade, and the need to protect the community from outside attack. Simi larly, the unification of France in the fifteenth century had a lot to do with the making o f political deals (with King Rene of Provence for example), the previous subjugation of the Albige nciens, and the collapse of the English power in France as a result of domestic and dynastic problems. Cannon were, after all, used by every one but, because they were so expensive, n ot used in quantity. To base the unification of France on cannon seems difficult to suppor t. Dennis Showalter(f.7) has shown the importance of the Prussian railroad network but has never maintained that this, alone, permitted the military victories which led to unifi cation of Germany.

The history of weaponry is a curious story. Various types of arrow or bolt throwing devices were developed from prehistoric times onward. The Persians believed they had a s uper weapon: the fast chariot. They, and the Carthaginians, thought elephants would trample the phalanxes of the enemy. Introduction of the first cannon would terrorize the enemy, its e arly proponents urged. Rifled small arms would enable any army to overawe an opposite force equ ipped with smooth bore muskets. Every time a new and more deadly weapon has been introduce d claims were made that warfare would be revolutionized. But, in fact, much depends on h ow the weapon is used: tactics have to be devised to utilize it. Also, the basic probl em of leadership of military forces is all important: a Napoleon makes a difference on the battle field. The state of training and of morale of troops weighs heavily as well. Weapons do not, in themselves, guarantee victory. Perhaps the main misconception of Dudley is his belief that armies are "highly structured military bureaucracies." They aremore than that because rou tine management, the hallmark of the bureaucrat, may work in peacetime but cannot wor k in war. The perverse truth of military organizations is that they must be quickly adapta ble to emergency circumstances.

At least Dudley has some intriguing ideas and one would like to argue with him forever over one point or another. The same cannot be said for Ralston. Haywood and Loades have produced important monographs on their respective subjects and their books shoul d be read by military historians. Unfortunately, the least innovative are the surveys of med ieval technology written by Bradbury and DeVries. The importance of certain historians in the de velopment of these books becomes apparent: Henri Pirenne's celebrated thesis provided a stimu lus to Haywood. William McNeill remains the contemporary giant of the field of militar y technology: he has influenced Dudley most, although the other historians are certainly aware of him.


(f.1) William H. McNeill, The Rise of the West (Chicago, 1963). McNeill then wr ote The Pursuit of Power, Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000, (Chicago , 1982).

(f.2) Henri Pirenne, Mohammed and Charlemagne (London, 1939).

(f.3) Charles Oman, Art of War in the Middle Ages AD 378 - 1485, 2 vols. (London , 1924). Philippe Contamine, War in the Middle Ages, tr. Michael Jones, (Oxford, 1984).

(f.4) Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution (New York, 1988). See also C. Ma rtin and Geoffrey Parker, The Spanish Armada, (London, 1988). Michael Lewis, Armada Guns: A Comparative Study of English and Spanish Armaments (London, 1961).

(f.5) Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization (New York, 1964) .

(f.6) See Hubert C. Johnson, Frederick the Great and his Officials (New Haven, 1 975), pp. 2 - 3.

(f.7) Dennis Showalter, Railroads and Rifles, Hamden (Connecticut, 1975), pp. 22 3 - 26.

Thursday, July 7th, 2005, 03:41 PM
Link: http://www.24hourscholar.com/p/articles/mi_qa3686/is_199408/ai_n8718123

Thursday, July 7th, 2005, 04:21 PM
Yes. Thank you. I overlooked adding the link (which I always do if you'd taken the time to check).

Seems you overlooked adding the link SURT, here it is incase anyone is interested:
Manners cost nothing you know.

Thursday, July 7th, 2005, 05:04 PM
Sincere apologies, minimalist here.