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Geoffrey de Vinsauf
Itinerary of Richard I and others to the Holy Land
page. 23


privation of liberty, and determined to try the issue of a sea-fight. They therefore led forth their galleys by twos, and keeping good order, they rowed into the offing to meet and attack those that were coming; our men prepared to meet them as they came on, and since there was no means of getting away, prepared to face them with greater resolution. [On the other hand our men got on board our war ships, and straining to the left by an oblique course, retreated to a distance, and gave the enemy free means of egress.] And now that mention is made of a sea-fight, we judge it right to describe briefly the fleet, and what difference there is between those of the moderns and ancients. With the ancients, a larger number of oars was required in ships of this kind, which were arranged in stories, so that some plied the oars at a longer, others at a shorter distance from the sea. These vessels had frequently three or four banks of oars each, some even five; and a few of the ships used at the battle of Actium between Antony and Augustus, are said to have had six. Furthermore, ships of war were called liburnǽ; for the ships used in the battle of Actium were chiefly built at Liburnia in Dalmatia; whence it became usual among the ancients to call them liburnǽ. But all that ancient magnificence has passed away; for ships of war, which once had six banks of oars, have now seldom more than two. But what the ancients used to call a liburna, we call a galia, with the middle syllable lengthened; it is long and graceful, not high out of water, and has a piece of wood at the prow, which is commonly called the spur; with which the enemy’s ships are struck and pierced. Galleons are vessels with one bank of oars, manageable from their shortness, easily turned, and light for running to and fro; they are better suited for throwing fire. When, therefore, they went forth on both sides to fight, our men drew not up their ships in a straight line, but in the form of a crescent; that if the enemy should charge the inner ships, he might be shut in and crushed. They placed their most powerful ships at the points of the crescent, as against them would be directed the enemy’s most vigorous attack; on the upper row of benches were arranged shields close together; and in one the rowers sat, in order that those who were on deck might have free space for fighting. The sea was perfectly calm and tranquil, as if it favoured the battle, and the rippling wave impeded neither the shock of the attacking ship, nor the stroke of the oars. As they closed, the trumpets sounded on both sides. A terrific clang is roused, and the battle is commenced by the throwing of missiles. Our men implore the Divine assistance, and ply their oars strenuously, and dash at the enemy’s ships with their beaks. Soon the battle began; the oars become entangled and they fight hand to hand, having grappled each other’s ships together; and they fire the decks with burning oil, which is vulgarly called Greek fire. That kind of fire with a detestable stench and livid flames consumes both flint and steel; it cannot be extinguished by water, but is subdued by the sprinkling of sand, and put out by pouring vinegar on it. But what can be more dreadful than a fight at sea? what more savage, where such various fates await the combatants? Some are tortured by the burning of the flames; some falling overboard are swallowed in the waves; others wounded perish by the enemy’s weapons. One galley, unskilfully managed by our men, exposed its flank to the foe; and being set on fire, received the Turks as they boarded her on all sides. The rowers in their fright fall into the sea; but a few soldiers, impeded by their heavy armour, and restrained by ignorance of swimming, took courage from desperation, and commenced an unequal fight; and trusting in the Lord’s valour, a few of them overcame numbers; and having slain the foe, they brought back the half-burnt vessel in triumph. Another ship was boarded by the enemy, who had driven the combatants from the upper deck; while those who were below strove to escape by the help of their oars. Wondrous and terrible was the conflict; for the oars being pulled different ways, the galley was drawn first one way, then the other, as the Turks drove it; yet our men prevailed, and the enemy, who rowed on the upper deck, being overcome and thrust down by the Christians, yielded. In this naval contest, the enemy lost both the galley and a galleon, together with their crews; and our men, unhurt and joyful, gain a glorious triumph. Having drawn the captured galley on shore, they gave it up to be plundered by both sexes who came to meet them. On this our women, dragging the Turks by the hair, after treating them shamefully and cutting their throats in a disgraceful manner, beheaded them. And the weaker the hand to strike, so much the more lengthened was the punishment inflicted; for they used knives, and not swords, for cutting off their heads. A like sea-fight was never seen, so destructive in its issue, accomplished with so much danger, and completed with so much cost.

Chapter XXXV. - Meanwhile the Turks from without, eager to fill our breach with earth, fiercely attack our men who were within.

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