Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Medieval landing craft?

The latest Robin Hood movie depicts a French invasion of England using amphibious landing craft that are suspiciously like World War II landing craft. This of course has aroused a certain amount of negative comment. but no one doubts that medieval armies transported warhorses by sea. What did the ships that accomplished this task look like?

Will McLean at A Commonplace Book
offers us these two intriguing quotations from primary sources, from only a few years after the supposed landing shown in Robin Hood.
I quote from Will:

[Source quote 1]
Then began the mariners to open the ports of the transports, and let down the bridges, and take out the horses; and the knights began to mount, and they began to marshal the divisions of the host in due order.
Geoffrey de Villehardouin [b.c.1160-d.c.1213]: Memoirs or Chronicle of The Fourth Crusade and The Conquest of Constantinople, trans. Frank T. Marzials, (London: J.M. Dent, 1908)
[Source quote 2]
So the fleet came to land, and when they were landed, forth came the knights out of the transports, all mounted; for the transports were built in such fashion that they had doors, which were easily opened, and a bridge was thrust out whereby the knights could come forth to land all mounted.
Robert of Clari's account of the Fourth Crusade
[Will himself]
Those sources called the horse transports uissiers. Other names included chelandium, tarida and dromon. They were big galleys capable of carrying 12-30 horses. The big thirty horse taride of Charles I of Sicily shipped 108-110 oars. The doors and ramps were at the stern between two sternposts, so the vessels backed onto the beach to unload and load. They were shallow draft: in Villehardouin's account the knights jumped from the transports into waist-deep water.
Does anyone have more information, textual or graphic, that would shed light on this question?
Will, can you provide a more complete citation on the matter of terminology?

Updated bibliography from various readers:

Martin, Lillian Ray. 2007. Horse and cargo handling on Medieval Mediterranean ships. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. Volume 31 Issue 2, Pages 237 - 241.

Bernard S. Bachrach, "On the Origins of William the Conqueror's Horse Transports," Technology and Culture, Vol. 26, No. 3 (July 1985), pp. 505–531.

See also comments to this post.


  1. Paul Hyams2:04 pm

    I recall Michel Mollat giving me the only information I ever got on this in an article long ago that ranged over a series of points concerning medieval shipping history. I imagine you know this well and can in any case do better, but if not I could probably find the reference for you.

    I saw the film last night, much enjoyed it, especially Cate Blanchett. I told the students around me that we now had a great deal of work to correct the textbooks, which clearly have it all wrong. And I thought the landing craft marvelous. Yes, eat your heart out PRIVATE RYAN and Operation Overlord in general.

  2. The vessels are covered in more detail in: Bull, M. (2003). The experience of crusading Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. There's a link to a google view now up on my site.

  3. Jonathan Jarrett covered this just a few months back with an interesting post that references slings to transfer the horses:

  4. I think the sling reference is mistaken. Other sources say the slings were to support the horses while the ships were pitching and rolling at sea, which makes sense. If you have ramps, why use slings for transfer?

  5. Anonymous1:08 pm

    I think Janice has perhaps misread my post, which was originally sparked by Jonathan Phillips's book The Fourth Crusade and cites that same chunk of Villehardouin, albeit at greater length. The stuff I got hold of there suggested slings to keep the horses upright at sea, but that they were unloaded through a horse-port with a ramp. We had quite a debate about how one would saddle them before landing and set up on shore. Villehardouin seems to suggest that mounting and marshalling happened on the beach, so it wasn't quite D-Day: Constantinople! Still impressive though, I assume! (The relevant extract is excerpted from the IMSB in my post.)

  6. What I find interesting is that Robert of Clari, who was also present, says that a knight could come to shore mounted. So perhaps both were done, but leading the horse ashore before mounting was more prudent.

  7. Anonymous10:55 pm

    John Pryor has written several articles on horse transports that can be found in the journal The Mariner's Mirror. I believe he also revisits the subject in the Age of the Droman. (I apologize for not have the precise references at the ready, but I am in Facebook-surfing, blog-reading civies right now.)

  8. Very good information, I'll write it verywhere.

  9. With our depth of regional experience and our vast scope of services, Sea Swift is the industry pace setter in marine transport in northern Australia. Our fleet of purpose-designed vessels delivers vital supplies and services to remote island and coastal communities and resource development outposts across Queensland and the Northern Territory. Sea Swift – since 1987. Here are available marine logistics, sea freight, bulk handling,, vessel charter, northern territory, Queensland, barges, landing craft, remote shipping and vessels.