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Book Review, NRJ 58.4

November 15, 2013 12:00 PM | David Eddy

Roles of the Sea in Medieval England

Richard Gorski

For the British, perhaps no other subject has been as studied or as linked to national pride as the history of their nation at sea. Particularly in the Victorian era—the great age of Nelson himself—British historians looked to their nautical past in order to define themselves and explain their Empire’s successes. Even now, the study of England’s maritime history (especially through the lens of nautical archaeology or as part of the rising field of Atlantic World history) continues unabated. The study of sea power and maritime history in the Middle Ages, however, has received comparatively little focus. In a new collection of essays, Roles of the Sea in Medieval England, editor Richard Gorski and a wide range of other scholars seek to address this imbalance.

The result of a conference held at Rye in October 2008, the essays in this collection cover a broad range of topics and a wide background of historical fields. Richard Unger’s essay, for instance, is entitled “Changes in Ship Design and Construction: England in the European Mould,” but is not simply an archaeological examination of riggings and sails. Rather, it includes sections on the economic reasons for changes in ship design, the role of religion in the process, and a particularly useful section on “Play, Curiosity, and Human Aspects” of changing ship designs, following the work of Huizinga. Other essays focus on the economics of the Cinque Ports, an examination of England’s admirals in the late fourteenth century, and, in two later essays, England’s relations with the Hanseatic League and Ireland. The final essay, Friel’s “How Much Did the Sea Matter in Medieval England (c.1200-c.1500)?” provides an excellent closing chapter for the collection, concluding that “the sea and its uses mattered enormously to medieval England,” even if the majority of the common population was unaware of the fact. 

The most useful section of the book is Gorski’s own introduction, “Roles of the Sea: Views from the Shore.” The essay serves not only as an introduction to the various other topics, but also as a primer on the field of maritime history in general. For the non-specialist, it offers a brief overview of the historiography and particular features and problems of studying maritime and naval history, while specialists are given much to think about regarding, for instance, the sea itself as an actor in the historical record. Gorski, along with all of the other authors in the collection, provides extensive footnotes, drawn prodigiously from both primary sources and secondary sources in English and other languages. A single minor complaint that can be made is that the book’s title may be somewhat misleading: “medieval England” is a broad period of time that includes a large swath of history, from circa AD 400 to 1200, that this book mostly ignores. As a collection of essays on England and the sea in the High Middle Ages, however, Roles of the Sea is a welcome addition to any maritime or English history shelf.

  • Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2012
  • 6-1/4” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, x + 194 pages
  • Map, tables, notes, bibliography, index. $90.00
  • ISBN: 9781843837015

Reviewed by Ryan T. Goodman, East Carolina University

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