Northern European vs Muslim Mediterranean naval power in the Middle Ages

Feb 2017
526
Latin America
What's your view on the naval power of Northern Europeans (Normans, Scandinavians, Franks and Germans, to be more specific) compared to Mediterranean Muslim naval power? It seems to me that the Northern Europeans here had an edge since the Viking Age, as the Normans and other Northern Europeans conquered Sicily, the Balearics, Cyprus, and even momentarily held part of North Africa while the Crusader states formed by naval invasions lasted for centuries and the Muslims seem to have been rather powerless in stopping the Crusader invasions at sea. Of course, it was the Crusaders who conquered the Byzantines before the Muslims did and naval power played an important role in that process. What do you think?
 

Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
6,510
Portugal
What's your view on the naval power of Northern Europeans (Normans, Scandinavians, Franks and Germans, to be more specific) compared to Mediterranean Muslim naval power? It seems to me that the Northern Europeans here had an edge since the Viking Age, as the Normans and other Northern Europeans conquered Sicily, the Balearics, Cyprus, and even momentarily held part of North Africa while the Crusader states formed by naval invasions lasted for centuries and the Muslims seem to have been rather powerless in stopping the Crusader invasions at sea. Of course, it was the Crusaders who conquered the Byzantines before the Muslims did and naval power played an important role in that process. What do you think?
Since my major perspective about the Middle Ages is about the Iberian Peninsula, I think that often when we narrow the things just between Western Christians (not Northern Europeans) and Muslims we have the big picture but we lose many details.

But in that big picture, I think that is accurate to say that in the High Middle Ages the Christians begun to have a growing power in the Mediterranean Sea, overlapping the Muslims, after a Muslim dominium in the Early Middle Ages. Besides the examples that you gave, we saw the rise of powerful Italian maritime cities like Pisa, Genoa, Venice, Amalfi, or Iberian ones, like Barcelona. While we don’t see that projection of maritime power on the Muslim side, that during wide periods concentrated more in the piracy (that was also intensely made by Christians).

A side note: the Northern Europeans didn’t conquer the Baleares, the definitive conquest was made by the Crown of Aragon:

Conquest of Majorca - Wikipedia

Even if there were previous attempts, as for instance:

1113–1115 Balearic Islands expedition - Wikipedia
 
Apr 2018
338
Italy
Depens by the age are you talking about: in Europe the only military owers with a regulary fleet wer Byzantines and Fatimid, and laters Sicily. No Northen European state had this. As for norman conquest of Sicily and crusaders the naval help of maritime republics was fundametal.
 

johnincornwall

Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
8,008
Cornwall
Huici Miranda writes that Saladin made a request to borrow the Almohad fleet against the Crusaders at one point. They declined, not apparently (he says) because they were ideologically and politically opposed (which they were) but because it wasn't available due to the impending reconquest of Mallorca and the Balearics from the Banu Ganiya Almoravids.

Personally I think they told him to get stuffed bearing in mind previous differences over 'Libya', but either way it proves that most powers tend to have a fleet.

Shall we call the Vandals Middle Ages? They certainly made the central Med their own at one point
 

Larrey

Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
6,107
Well, the piece of relevant Norse history is the "ledung" institution, that raised and organized ships and men for both national defense and raiding.

The figure given for the powerful Norwegian kings well into historic Christian Middle Ages is 279 ships with crews. The even more powerful Danish kings would be estimated to be able to raise twice or more that number.

The Swedish situation is both more detailed, and less clear cut. In Sweden the administrative division of the "hundare" (the "hundred", 100) was tasked with building, maintaining and crewing warships. The Swedish kings could call up 4 ships with per hundare in the province of Uppland (heartland of his kingdom). With 22 hundare, that corresponds to 88 ships and a total crew of 2200 men. Apparently he could claim not quite as many ships and crews from the other provinces (Västmanland, Roden, Östergötland, Västergötland, Härjedalen, Gotland, Öland) – but something similar to the Norwegian situation is reasonable.

It seems the Normans knew of and used some form of the "ledung" system, and the Hauteville dynasty introduced it in their Sicilian kingdom – though commanded by an "Amir al-Bahr".
 
Oct 2010
291
Paomia, Corsica
I'll take the opposing view. Radically.

Muslim navies would have swept the floor with anything Northern Europeans would have sent their way until, say, the year 1100.

Most importantly, major Mediterranean Muslim states had organised armed forces with professional navies, both things European powers could barely conceive at the time, let alone imitate. The Syrian Umayyads, Abbasids, Spanish Umayyads and Fatimid dynasties all had well organised navies, with state-owned shipyards, able commanders and well-trained sailors.

We're not talking civilian ships hastily transformed, here, but proper, made-for-purpose warships. The state had a whole organisation for that effect, from specially-selected forests where to source the wood necessary for shipbuilding all the way to hubs built to support the fleets during their campaigns. The all-important taxes were also specially levied to fund the navies.

Actually several Arabic words still commonly used in English today illustrate the gap that existed between European and Muslim powers on the sea. Namely admiral and arsenal are both directly borrowed from Medieval Arabic. Europeans also borrowed ideas, tactics and people from the Muslim navies. The powerful Sicilian navy of the Hauteville dynasty, for instance was a copy of what existed in the Muslim world up to that point.

One famous example of the naval capacity of the Muslim states is that of the response of the Spanish Umayyad caliphate to the unexpected appearance of the Vikings in Iberian waters. After being caught unprepared by the earliest raids, the caliphate created a string of arsenals along the Atlantic coast of modern Spain and Portugal which afterwards essentially managed to keep new Viking incursions at bay.

When on the offensive, Muslim navies could launch large-scale and well-organised operation. The 869 invasion of Byzantine Crete by a Spanish Umayyad (!) fleet being a famous example. And there are plenty of such famous long-range raids both against the Byzantine arch-foe and other Muslim powers (cf. the assault on and destruction of Pechina by a Tunisian fleet).

Even their failures betray the amazing scale and professionalism of the medieval Muslim fleets. Case in point: the blockades of Constantinople -- though ultimately defeated -- were military operations on a truly massive scale.

The men on the Muslim ships were also as able sailors and warriors as anything the Northern European could muster at the time. The Pechina and Mahdiya corsairs, for instance, who raided as far as St Gall in Switzerland and basically held Christian Italy to ransom during the 9th century seem to be every bit as ferocious as any ax-wielding Barbarian coming out of the North Sea.

The general aptitude of the Muslim powers for maritime warfare is all the simpler to understand when one considers that they inherited a lot of able seamen and infrastructures from the places they conquered. Despite a strong emphasis of the religious war aims that can be found in the text, for the best part of the period, a lot of the crews and officers were actually Christians Dhimmis.

Of course, navies are expensive and delicate things to maintain so as soon as the Muslim powers began to suffer from internal issues, they were among the first things to go. It is worth remembering that while there was less than half a dozen Muslim polities along the Mediterranean shore in ca. 1000, there were nearly 100 one century later. On top of that, every single large Muslim city had been captured by a foreign power or rebels at least once in that time. So, after that time of crisis, Muslim power would not pretend to rule the waves any more. Some had strong navies (here Almohads and Mamluks come to mind) but their heyday was long since gone.

A possible place to start for more on the subject is Picard's Sea of the Caliphs. Not a great book, but the sheer amount of information makes up for its messy structure.
 

Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
6,510
Portugal
I'll take the opposing view. Radically.

Muslim navies would have swept the floor with anything Northern Europeans would have sent their way until, say, the year 1100.
In the Mediterranean, around that year, or probably a bit sooner:

“Ibn Khaldun, a later Arab historian, wrote of this period with perhaps pardonable exaggeration, ‘the Christian nations could do nothing against the Muslim fleets anywhere in the Mediterranean. All the time the Muslims rode its waves for conquest’.4 There is also a widely-held view that in the later tenth and eleventh centuries the Christian nations of the northern shores of the Mediterranean regained the initiative in naval warfare and maintained their supremacy over the navies of the southern states at least until the mid-fifteenth century.”

Susan Rose, “Medieval Naval Warfare, 1000–1500”, p.34.

One famous example of the naval capacity of the Muslim states is that of the response of the Spanish Umayyad caliphate to the unexpected appearance of the Vikings in Iberian waters. After being caught unprepared by the earliest raids, the caliphate created a string of arsenals along the Atlantic coast of modern Spain and Portugal which afterwards essentially managed to keep new Viking incursions at bay.
Can you elaborate on this? I have the idea that the Vikings raided the Atlantic coast of peninsula for most of the period.
 

johnincornwall

Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
8,008
Cornwall
One famous example of the naval capacity of the Muslim states is that of the response of the Spanish Umayyad caliphate to the unexpected appearance of the Vikings in Iberian waters. After being caught unprepared by the earliest raids, the caliphate created a string of arsenals along the Atlantic coast of modern Spain and Portugal which afterwards essentially managed to keep new Viking incursions at bay.

When on the offensive, Muslim navies could launch large-scale and well-organised operation. The 869 invasion of Byzantine Crete by a Spanish Umayyad (!) fleet being a famous example. And there are plenty of such famous long-range raids both against the Byzantine arch-foe and other Muslim powers (cf. the assault on and destruction of Pechina by a Tunisian fleet).
You are making the classic mistake of thinking all muslims are against Christians and vice versa, when in fact most of the enmity was with other muslims. 'Muslim power' was a thing that was never truly united and often preferred frineds in the christian camp to each other - although you sound like you will know a good few of those bitter rivalries.

The main and most famous Viking raid of 844 happened at a time when there was no Omeya Caliphate. In the west (Iberia) was a fairly disjointed Emirate and in the east the Abbassid Caliphate, large at the time but lost ground in Morocco to the Idrissids. You rightly say they didn't know what to do with the raid until it over-stretched itself and also rightly they did get a bit of a grip on it for next time. Raids during the Caliphal time were wisely confined to Galicia etc.

Crete was nothing to do with the Omeyas per se. In 818 - so the story goes - the people of the arrabales of Cordoba rebelled against Al Hakam I (or Alhaken) and in a strong show of intolerance he burned the suburb to the ground and exiled everybody living there. Some settled in Morocco but the bulk ended up in Crete via Alexandria where they set up their 'Emirate of Crete' which lasted a fair old while on and off. Over a hundred years before it fell to the Bizantine version of the intolerance of the day!

A lot of your post seems quite good so I'm surprised you try and pass Crete off as some sort of Omeya naval effort.
 
Oct 2010
291
Paomia, Corsica
You are making the classic mistake of thinking all muslims are against Christians and vice versa, when in fact most of the enmity was with other muslims. 'Muslim power' was a thing that was never truly united and often preferred frineds in the christian camp to each other
That's true, but as the question is an hypothetical "Muslims v Christians" I stayed in this frame. But indeed, iirc some of the Umayyad campaigns against the Fatimids were launched with direct Byzantine support.

The main and most famous Viking raid of 844 happened at a time when there was no Omeya Caliphate. In the west (Iberia) was a fairly disjointed Emirate and in the east the Abbassid Caliphate, large at the time but lost ground in Morocco to the Idrissids. You rightly say they didn't know what to do with the raid until it over-stretched itself and also rightly they did get a bit of a grip on it for next time. Raids during the Caliphal time were wisely confined to Galicia etc.
All good points, ultimately I was trying to emphasize the naval effort deployed in what is today Southern Portugal and Atlantic Andalusia. I was struck by the capacity of the state to just create a string of arsenals out of pure fiat.

Crete was nothing to do with the Omeyas per se. In 818 - so the story goes - the people of the arrabales of Cordoba rebelled against Al Hakam I (or Alhaken) and in a strong show of intolerance he burned the suburb to the ground and exiled everybody living there. Some settled in Morocco but the bulk ended up in Crete via Alexandria where they set up their 'Emirate of Crete' which lasted a fair old while on and off. Over a hundred years before it fell to the Bizantine version of the intolerance of the day!

A lot of your post seems quite good so I'm surprised you try and pass Crete off as some sort of Omeya naval effort.
Well spotted. I do have issues with the way the story is told usually. We are meant to believe that a bunch of ragtag recently-defeated rebels just boarded ships and snatched Crete from Byzantium without any support from one of the neighbouring state? The story never sat well with me. I'd be a lot readier to buy a Umayyad- or Abbassid-sponsored invasion. Of course, distance implies a rather loose supervision, exactly like what was going on at the same time in Sicily. But, it's just a hunch.
 

johnincornwall

Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
8,008
Cornwall
Well spotted. I do have issues with the way the story is told usually. We are meant to believe that a bunch of ragtag recently-defeated rebels just boarded ships and snatched Crete from Byzantium without any support from one of the neighbouring state? The story never sat well with me. I'd be a lot readier to buy a Umayyad- or Abbassid-sponsored invasion. Of course, distance implies a rather loose supervision, exactly like what was going on at the same time in Sicily. But, it's just a hunch.
Real good point. I think - bearing in mind this is an era of legend and scarcity of information - if you remember how absolutely disjointed muslim 'Spain' was throughout most of the 8th and 9th centuries, with so many different factions, clans, rivalries, racial origins etc, then the inference about 'a load of poor people living in the slums' is probably another of those legends. But then again there was so little control that projecting power overseas is unlikely

So whoever was expelled, and we are undoubtedly talking well over 10,000 and maybe 20,000, would have been a whole group of people including soldiers, artesans and all the rest of it, with community leaders etc. And everybody had to know how to look after themselves of course. Any large mass turning up anywhere is really going to take over, especially if the Byzantines - in this case - were looking the other way!

Until Abderraman III got a grip on things and eventually (10th C) created the Caliphate, Cordoba was really only a hub rather than a centre of control - the areas to the east and north hardly took any notice of Cordoba at all. Many areas were controlled by berbers, enemistic arabs, converted Visigothic nobles or even independent warloads 'perm any from above'. No wonder the Christians kept a grip in the north. If any grand strategy had been followed they would have been wiped out in 711-718 - but it's very noticeable that the footprint of the arab conquest almost exactly mirrors the Visigothic Kingdom of Toledo, as both included the Narbonne and not the far north coast and vascones. So how much was conquest and how much simple takeover/pacting and all lumped together?