Roles of the Sea in Medieval England edited by Richard Gorski (ed.) and eight other Contributors 204 pages, colour cover, 2 b&w maps, 16 tablesThe Boydell Press, PO Box 9, Woodbridge, Suffolk, IP12 3DF, £50 (hbk), 2012, ISBN 978-1843837015
Article first published online: 4 FEB 2013
© 2013 The Authors. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology © 2013 The Nautical Archaeology Society
International Journal of Nautical Archaeology
Volume 42, Issue 1, pages 224–225, March 2013
How to Cite
Flatman, J. (2013), Roles of the Sea in Medieval England edited by Richard Gorski (ed.) and eight other Contributors 204 pages, colour cover, 2 b&w maps, 16 tablesThe Boydell Press, PO Box 9, Woodbridge, Suffolk, IP12 3DF, £50 (hbk), 2012, ISBN 978-1843837015. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 42: 224–225. doi: 10.1111/1095-9270.12008_12
- Issue published online: 4 FEB 2013
- Article first published online: 4 FEB 2013
In this reviewer's experience, the problem with many books of collected conference papers is the lack of a consistent theme, even where one is stated. Such is the case of Roles of the Sea in Medieval England. There is nothing wrong with the nine papers presented in this book—but there is nothing particularly original or stimulating about them either, and crucially, the book doesn't address the theme of its title. ‘Documentary History and the English Seas in the High Middle Ages’ might have come closer to an accurate description, but that does not trip so neatly off the tongue.
As outlined in the introductory chapter, Roles of the Sea stems from a conference held in October 2008 in Rye, England. Richard Gorski goes on to explain that the book brings together a mix of established scholars and early career historians to ‘contribute to the maritime historiography of the medieval English kingdom, with a focus on the 14th century, and a slight emphasis on military and naval affairs’. A laudable if imprecise aim, I refer to my earlier point about the lack of a consistent theme, since the chapters actually range in date from c.1200–1500 AD, and from as far westwards as Sligo and as far eastwards as the Hansa. In fact, this reviewer's suspicion is that the aim of this book was actually to make an easy win in the upcoming 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), the system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions, in which academics have to submit publications for peer review on a sliding scale of ‘4*’ (world leading) to ‘unclassified’ (work that falls below the standard of nationally recognized work). That aim cannot be admitted in public, but it is the driving force behind countless academic publications at the present time. The tight timeframes and ruthless competition of the REF in terms of its grading criteria would explain this book's publisher (distinguished), content (diverse) and authors (respected): these papers have 4*—at worst 3*—written all over them. This book will thus tick REF boxes, but alas it does not really stimulate a wider audience. But that is the fault of the system, not the authors. Welcome to the world of academic publishing in the early 21st century!
To be fair to the editor and to the authors, all of these papers are sound pieces of work, and Gorski has done an excellent job in melding them into as coherent a whole as possible. Gorski's opening chapter, and Friel's closing one, do a particularly good job in framing the debate, and the chapters of some of the established authors are very good indeed; the ever-reliable Susan Rose and Craig Lambert in particular. Rose and Lambert both focus on the documentary history of the Cinque Ports, and in their chapters it is possible to pick up a sense of the conference that this book stems from. Had that conference and this book focused in on that issue alone, then this would have been an exceptionally useful work, since a full reassessment of the Cinque Ports (including discussion of new architectural and archaeological data—see for example this writer's review of work at Sandwich and New Romney (2011, IJNA 40.2)) is long overdue. Other chapters are more of a mixed bag, primarily because of the aforementioned issue of thematic consistency. After Gorski's introduction, Richard Unger considers changes in ship design and construction in chapter 2, placing England in a European context. This is an excellent and thought-provoking paper, placing particular emphasis on the impact of social changes on technological choices in ship design. For many IJNA readers it is likely to be the ‘standout’ paper of the volume. Similarly, chapters 3 and 4 by Rose and Lambert respectively stand alone as a distinctive and valuable section. But from chapter five onwards the content and quality of the book begin to vary. Chapter 5 is by one of the ‘early career’ scholars, David Simpkin, on English admirals between 1369 and 1389; chapter 6 is by another ‘early career’, Tony Moore, on the cost-benefit analysis of the 1387 ‘battle’ of Margate/Cadzand. Both of these are heavy documentary history of the most traditional sort, un-enlivened by the types of cross-disciplinary approach that many historians and archaeologists alike now employ. Both chapters add nothing to the wider discussion of the roles of the sea in medieval England; these are, rather, about the roles of individuals in the sea. They would be much better placed in a traditional peer-reviewed journal. Chapter 7, by another ‘early career’, Marcus Pitcaithly, is better. Discussing piracy and Anglo-Hanseatic relations in the 14th and 15th centuries, Pitcaithly's writing is stronger than the others and his theme—and its data—livelier. From an archaeological perspective, it made the reviewer ponder again the absence of physical evidence of vessels of this period from English archaeological contexts, and why this should be so. But while good, again, this chapter adds nothing to the wider discussion of the roles of the sea in medieval England. The same is true of chapter 8, by another ‘early career’, Tim Bowly on Bristol's maritime trade with Ireland in the 15th century. There is nothing inherently wrong with this chapter, but nothing about it that genuinely contributes to the aim implied in the title of the book. Ian Friel draws the volume to a close with a frankly heroic effort to tie all of these disparate threads together. He does this with aplomb but even so, clearly struggles at times—witness the opening sentence of the closing paragraph: ‘in many ways, the sea and its uses mattered enormously to medieval England’ (p. 184). The response to this, as to the whole of this book, is surely: ‘Yes, and …?’