Knight Landing Ships!

Okay, so, that’s all very depressing, makes you wonder why on earth you’d be a medievalist no doubt. Well, here’s one reason. While updating myself on the Fourth Crusade by reading Jonathan Phillips‘s excellent The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, I found something I never knew before. Stupidly I gave the book back to Cambridge UL before transcribing the relevant section, and the way the UL works, it won’t be back on the shelf yet. However, I find someone who clearly read the same book writing an article on Historynet.com which basically repeats the relevant text:

To complete their side of the bargain, the Venetians closed their entire commercial operations for a year — a demonstration of the massive effort required to build and equip a fleet of such a size. The ships were of three basic types: troop carriers, horse transports, and battle galleys…. The horse transports had specially designed slings to carry their precious cargo; once the ship drew close to shore, a door below the waterline could be opened to allow a fully armed and mounted knight to charge directly into battle — rather like a modern landing craft disgorging a tank.

I try and restrict my use of this term, but: dude! Why did no-one ever tell me the Fourth Crusade had Knight Landing Ships before? (And, research reveals, so did the Byzantines, as early as 960, so it’s on topic!) Seriously, you reenactment types, you should get on this, that’s a spectacle I’d cross the Atlantic for all right. And you might not have to do all the work yourselves: fruitless Googling for images turns up a guy who’s trying to make a film about the Fourth Crusade and has already started building a 23 ft model of one of these vessels to use in it, of which this seems to be the skeleton:

Ribs and keel of a model Venetian ship for the film Blackernae

Ribs and keel of a model Venetian ship for the film Blackernae

This is not the only reason to be a medievalist in this. There is also the fact that someone has done some work on this, and in particular the question of whether or not the door (or ‘horse-port’—y’see, what’s not to love about this?) was really below the waterline. Do we imagine these things beaching? It seems that we have to, or disbelieve Joinville. But dammit: I am in a field where people struggle to work out how people eight hundred years ago landed fully armed knights onto beaches from ships. If you don’t think that’s cool, er, what are you doing reading this?


Jonathan Phillips, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constaninople (London 2004), which compares startlingly to his Defenders of the Holy Land, 1119-1187 (Oxford 1996) because, where that is dense and detailed and learned, this, while not lacking the learning, is nonetheless a page-turner. He has of course a great story to tell, but I knew how it ended already and I still stayed up late to finish the book. Seriously engaging writing style, and as I say, one much changed from the earlier book, which is still very useful. The detailed work on the ships that I found, meanwhile, is Lillian Ray Martin, “Horse and cargo handling on Medieval Mediterranean ships” in International Journal of Nautical Archaeology Vol. 31 (Oxford 2001), pp. 237-241, and has a few very fuzzy illustrations that weren’t worth breaking the copyright to reproduce here but might be better in hard copy.

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29 responses to “Knight Landing Ships!

  1. I haven’t read that specific book, but the ships built by the Venetians are a big part of the argument for the Crusade attacking Constantinople NOT being a conspiracy. The shallow hulls would have been necessary for an attack on Egypt, but Constantinople had a deep-water harbour, so there’d be no reason for such galleys.

    In terms of the landing ships, they were pretty awesome, but also hella confusing. We have no idea how the hell they kept the area under the deck ventilated or how they cleared out the huge amounts of dung that must have been produced. The whole thing is just so awesome.

    If you want to know more, John Pryor is the go-to man on this stuff. I’ve sat through his lectures on these ships 4 or 5 times and every time I end up impressed beyond words at how skilled the shipwrights and sailors were. I can’t remember a specific article to look for, but there’s a good list here.

    And looking at that, I found this: “Transportation of horses by sea during the era of the Crusades: eighth century to 1285 AD”, Mariner’s Mirror, 68 (1982), 9-27 and 103-25.

    Not sure if it’s exactly right but it’s in the same vein.

    • Worth a look, certainly! Thankyou. But as to the conspiracy theory, I’ve seen the galleys explained (at that same link, indeed) as defence at sea, warships to protect the fleet from naval attack, and Phillips suggests that at one point in the 1204 attacks the landing ships were used, so I don’t know how well that holds up. I don’t actually believe in the conspiracy, I should make clear, but I don’t know that this works as an argument against.

      • I think a big part of it is that there were no ships commissioned that weren’t shaped like galleys. They were all shallow-hulled and if one was to attack Constantinople by sea, one would want the stowage capacity of deeper ships because it was such an imposing target.

        The landing ships were still useful, but more so in the narrow passages of the Nile Delta than the deep waters around Constantinople.

        But then, the only academic I know who believes in the conspiracy theory is a Byzantinist, who bases his argument on Dandolo’s dislike of Byzantium, which is…iffy at best. As JHP is so fond of saying, “Egypt was by far the more glittering prize”.

        • I think a big part of it is that there were no ships commissioned that weren’t shaped like galleys.

          I would have to check the sources there, but that’s certainly not the impression Phillips gives, and both the roughly contemporary illustrations I can think of show deep-hulled cogs as well as (or to the exclusion of) galleys. What’s your basis for this, can I ask?

          I still agree about Egypt, of course, but as above, not sure how much water this particular argument holds.

          • I could well be wrong, but the impression I’ve got from JHP is that the fleet was overwhelmingly shallow hulled (saying that none of them were deep was me not thinking). But as far as I know, the fleet was disproportionately composed of ships that would be necessary for an amphibious assault on Egypt, but which would be a waste of resources if the Venetians wanted to go after Constantinople.

            • I think we need some sources. Niketas Choniates says:

              Within three full years one hundred and ten horse-carrying dromons and sixty long ships were built in Venice and more than seventy huge round ships were assembled (one much larger in size than the others was called Kosmos). (Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium: annals of Nicetas Choniates, transl. Harry J. Magoulis (Detroit 1984), pp. 294-97.)

              ; Villehardouin doesn’t specify one way or the other, though that article I mention remarks that he says the horses left via the sterns of the vessels and believes he was wrong; and Robert of Clari classes the fleet as “the great dromonds, the transports for carrying the horses, and the galleys”, and I’m not sure if that tells us anything or not, especially since his numbers for the ships turn out to be exaggerated compared to Niketas’s, and he thinks the dromonds and transports were different whereas Niketas seems to think the dromonds were for the horses. It’d be easier to beach a dromond than a cog, but I’d have thought beaching any ship carrying loaded horses was asking for broken legs all round! But, Niketas, who saw the ships, though who also would have wanted to make it plausible that they’d come to get Constantinople I suppose, says round ships too. What’s Pryor resting on?

              • First off I should say that I might be wrong and if I am that’s all me, not JHP. I do’t want to tar his reputation if I’ve misunderstood something. I’ll try to track down some of his work, I don’t think he’s around at the moment or I’d just ask him.

                Beaching a horse transport of the sort used for disgorging armed knights would probably be a necessity to get them onto the shore. Horses are fairly sturdy and I believe the ships had slings for extra support.

                I’ll try to find JHP’s argument,might take me a little while to get back to you.

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  3. Well, it IS cool. And kind of fascinating. But I am not very good at getting excited about weapons and armour and actual fighting – it’s the ideas people dress it in that interest me.

    I realise this is going to come back to bite me in two months when I teach an intensive course for interested teenagers on the Middle Ages. My colleague who did it last year promises they do it because they’re enthusiastic and the subject matter, and of course for a very high percentage of the boys who sign up for it, this means swords and armour.

    I think I fail as a mediaevalist if I cannot answer teenage boys’ questions about swords and armour.

    • There is, I fear, much in what you say, but the knowledge is fairly quick to pick up at least. And being able to keep teenage boys focussed on a topic is in itself a great desideratum in such circumstances.

  4. Just to say: very cool. are we to imagine fully battle-dressed knights on horseback charging out of landing craft, or a more sedate unloading of horses and bundles of gear?

    • In Robin Hood starring Russell Crowe you can watch Philippe II’s knights disembarking on medieval Higgins Boats, eventually to be pushed back across the Channel by Robin’s bows and arrows. A great battle scene, albeit lacking medieval Spitfires or Messerschmitts to buzz the troops… ;-)

      • I’ve been forewarned about that scene by the number of links to this post from fora discussing it, indeed! Suffice to say that Ridley Scott did not consult me :-)

  5. The former, of course. Since it’s imagination, why would we go for the sedate? I’m sure if Froissart was around at the time he’d tell us that was what happened. Imaginative potential writes history!

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