12.10.22, Gorski, ed. Roles of the Sea

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Vicki Szabo

The Medieval Review 12.10.22

Gorski, Richard. Roles of the Sea in Medieval England. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2012. Pp. viii, 194. ISBN: 978-1-84383-701-5.

Reviewed by:
Vicki Szabo
Western Carolina University

Maritime history is often seen as the purview of antiquarians and those obsessed with the minutiae of nautical technologies, or, as Richard Gorski muses, those with "an unhealthy fixation with rivets and rigging" (2). Medieval maritime history, we may surmise, is even more esoteric, both in technologies and source material. Gorski and his eight contributors seek to correct these common perceptions. Roles of the Sea in Medieval England offers every reader, including the unhealthily-fixated maritime historians, new approaches to ships, seafaring, and perceptions of the ocean itself. Moreover, individual essays offer new analyses to medievalists concerned with urban socio-economics, feudal relationships, environmental history, and of course, military and political histories of England and Europe. While England, circa 1200-1500, is the nominal focus of the volume, the essays are far more inclusive; England is a starting point, but maritime developments in England are linked to those across Britain, Ireland, France, the Low Countries, Italy, and beyond. Medieval historians of all approaches will find much in this volume that will render the maritime relevant to a range of questions and subdisciplines.

This collection of nine essays, which originated in a 2008 maritime history conference, begins with editor Richard Gorski's introduction, "Roles of the Sea: Views from the Shore," an especially useful primer for anyone interested in maritime history. He deftly elevates a traditional historical field into more contemporary theoretical discourses, while simultaneously calling for more interdisciplinary collaboration with other maritime scholars. His footnotes, likewise, introduce the reader both to historiography and recent, essential historical works that help provide context for this volume. The sea will be no staid backdrop (9) in these essays, but a responsive, unpredictable, and active force within medieval English life. Gorski leaves the reader with an expansive view of maritime history which is artfully realized in the essays that follow.

This volume includes the work of both senior and early career scholars; following Gorski's introduction, the collection begins and ends with two notable historians in the field, Richard Unger and Ian Friel. Unger's masterful contribution, "Changes in Ship Design and Construction: England in the European Mould," delivers precisely what Gorski promises, a maritime historical study that goes far beyond riggings and rudders. Questioning why and when developments occur within medieval English shipbuilding tradition, Unger, a singular master of the material, not only explains the technological changes, but the cultural, social, military, political, religious and other reasons why these changes may have occurred when and where they did. Ships cease to be inanimate tools of economic or military connectivity and become the creations of anonymous innovators, whose specific contributions are unrecorded by history, but are preserved in their maritime accomplishments. Unger reminds us to take the broad view and not to limit our perceptions to traditional ascriptions of cause, useful advice for all historians. Friel's essay, "How Much did the Sea Matter in Medieval England (c.1200-c.1500)?," is likewise masterful, but even broader in scope, as the panoply of maritime activities and the significance of the sea to the medieval English in general are his focus. This may have been another useful preliminary essay, as opposed to a conclusion, because of the important cultural background that Friel provides. However, Friel leaves us asking big questions and wanting to know more, just as Gorski began the volume.

The remainder of the collection features diverse and fascinating studies of the Cinque Ports, England's admirals, the campaign of Margate/Cadzand, Anglo-Hanseatic piracy, and lastly, the late medieval trading patterns between Bristol and Ireland. Each of these essays offers some new method, perspective, or data that drives home the editor's goal of innovative approaches to medieval maritime history. Several of the essays include detailed tables to clarify the interpretation of data, as well. Rose, Lambert, and Moore, in their articles on the Cinque Ports and the 1387 naval conflict at Margate, utilize methods of analysis that will appeal to medievalists seeking different, critical approaches to their own data. Tony K. Moore, in "The Cost-Benefit Analysis of a Fourteenth-Century Naval Campaign: Margate/Cadzand, 1387," revisits the costs and profits of this campaign, comparing it to other naval and terrestrial conflicts, and concludes that while meeting political goals was costly for rulers, individuals across England benefitted economically, if not socio- politically, from shared prizes after such engagements. The changing participation of the Cinque Ports in royal naval campaigns is artfully traced in two separate essays by Rose and by Lambert, who both clarify long-held distorted assumptions about the terms and nature of Cinque Port service to the crown and the particular contributions of Cinque Ports to the wars of Edwards II and III. Far more than maritime history, Susan Rose's contribution, "The Value of the Cinque Ports to the Crown, 1200-1500," is a useful addition to any study of feudal obligation and royal expectations from privileged ports. Coupling nicely with Rose's study, Craig Lambert's article "The Contribution of the Cinque Ports to the Wars of Edward II and Edward III: New Methodologies and Estimates," uses military service prosopography to reveal the changing utility of the Cinque Ports in royal campaigns. Both essays highlight the distinctions between the embryonic royal navy and contributions of merchant fleets to royal campaigns. The essays of David Simpkin, "Keeping the Seas: England's Admirals, 1369- 1389," and Marcus Pitcaithly, "Piracy and Anglo-Hanseatic Relations, 1385-1420," find common ground, despite all appearances, in two very different groups of men. Both admirals and pirates, according to these authors, are not well understood, but for rather different reasons. Simpkin, in revealing 25 men who became admirals between 1369 and 1389, uncovers dimensions of medieval naval warfare that are too frequently overlooked. His scrutinous use of sources provides a new view of this appointment, and the complex nature of early naval warfare in its provisioning, planning, and leadership. It is an essential addition to scholarship of the Hundred Years War, and beyond. The role and transformation of piracy in Anglo-Hanseatic trade and relations is clarified by Pitcaithly, particularly in his analysis of some of the individual merchants responsible for piratical activities. Finally, Tim Bowly's analysis of Bristol's trade, in "'Herring of Sligo and Salmon of Bann': Bristol's Maritime Trade with Ireland in the Fifteenth Century," takes a socio-cultural approach to an economic issue, revealing more about the individual merchants involved in the transport of goods between Bristol and Irish ports and their diminished stature, compared to continental merchants and traders.

Gorski and his contributors are exceptionally successful in this collection in adhering to and developing a thoughtful and complicated theme in such a diverse group of essays. As a result, there is little to criticize in this volume, perhaps apart from the absence of images, which could have helpfully illuminated several essays. The contributors throughout the volume overlap but do not repeat, often touching upon the same data, port, or individual, but with different methods and analytical goals. This interweaving of essays leaves the reader with a view of medieval maritime history that is far from the antiquarian image that many may possess.

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Author Biography

Vicki Szabo

Western Carolina University