Sarah von Hagen, M.A., M.St.

Scholarship holder of the Gerda Henkel Foundation


Poster Maritime Gewalten
Click on the image to view. Text in German.

Original title: Maritime Gewalten. Erfahrung, Darstellung und Technik von Kriegsgewalt auf See, 1665–1793

Naval violence became an ever-present element of the Atlantic world through the formation of professional and permanent naval forces in the second half of the early modern period. War violence threatened and cost human lives; it generated power effects and was a catalyst for the development of warships as the most expensive and advanced weapons and navies as the largest organisational units and administrative tasks of their time. Despite their central importance for the constitution of the Atlantic world, naval violence, and the war experiences of the seafaring people on warships have hardly been explicitly addressed in research so far. With a historical-anthropological investigation of violence in late 17th and 18th-century naval battles, the dissertation closes this gap in early modern naval history and history of violence, and provides a new perspective "from below" on the global conflicts of supremacy of the long 18th century.

Research Question and Sources

Based in the actions of British, French and Dutch naval forces in the North Atlantic and the North Sea, the project interrogates how naval violence was constituted within the framework of its specific spatial and technical conditions. It also considers how it was processed, as combatants and non-combatants sought to reflect on their experiences through text and image. The Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667) and the American War of Independence (1775-1783) mark the bookends of the period under investigations, conflicts that were predominantly naval wars, and form distinctive cornerstones for the perception and tactical developments of naval warfare. The aim of the project is to uncover the specific signatures of maritime war violence in this period by investigating how violence - understood as physical violence in the sense of an injurious power (Heinrich Popitz) - was experienced, exercised, portrayed and legitimised in its times.

The source basis for this is formed by individual as well as media reports of experience, courts martial and contemporary visual representations of naval battles, which together offer access to social stocks of knowledge, narratives of the processing of maritime violence and contemporary ideas of norms.

Experience - Technicisation - Mediality. Particularities of Naval Violence

Battle of Texel, 21. August 1673
Willem van de Velde, the Younger, Ships engaged in the Battle of Texel (21. August 1673), ca. 1675. Oil on Canvas, 114x183cm. SK-A-2393, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

Violent encounters at sea were a contingent phenomenon in which course and outcome could hardly be controlled. Environmental influences, their unpredictability, and technical factors determined the actions; ships and crews were at the mercy of sea and wind, making maneuvers and movements difficult to plan. The apparent featurelessness of the sea, the opposing limitation of the ships as ‘floating fortresses’ with their movement on a likewise moving surface constituted a specific spatiality of the events. Hence, they required their own (improvised) coping strategies in the events: supposed technological superiority and tactical know-how did not guarantee tactical advantages and military success. Technological and operational developments, for example in the form of ship types or changed strategy, had to prove themselves at sea - the need for change arose from concrete experiences of violence. At the same time, the violent actions at sea often eluded the direct grasp of contemporaries. For on the one hand, sea battles were events that could not be observed in their entirety, and on the other hand, they often took place without witnesses beyond the participants themselves. It was only through media processing that the experiences of war in the isolated, 'wooden world' (N.A.M. Rodger) became visible at all.

Methodological-theoretical Approach

Humans were necessary participants in naval battles, but not their sufficient condition: the course and outcome of a battle were determined as much by the weather, wind directions, waves, ships, cannon powder, natural conditions, and countless other factors as by human decisions and actions. The scope for action and the probabilities of possible outcomes of the battle changed constantly during the events and at times completely eluded human control. In order to fully grasp the phenomenon empirically, violence is therefore operationalised praxeologically on the basis of the naval practices of burning, boarding, chasing and shooting. Supplemented by elements of Science and Technology Studies (STS), such an approach considers human, technical, and natural actors symmetrically. In this way, violence can empirically be better observed as the effect of a spatially and temporally located, complex, open-ended, and rule-based interplay of human bodies, technical artefacts, natural and climatic conditions, movement sequences and specific normative concepts. In order to be able to portray the specifics of naval violence, the project works with dense descriptions of sequences of selected case studies, in accordance with the approaches of situationist research into violence. This close-up perspective is combined with a macro perspective that reveals the mechanisms of action of the individual violent practices beyond the specific situation.


  • since 2020: PhD candidate, University of Göttingen
  • 2022–23: research fellowship, German Historical Institute Paris
  • 2021–22: visiting PhD candidate, University of Exeter

  • 2020: M.St. in History of War, University of Oxford
  • 2019: M.A. in History, University Göttingen
  • 2017: B.A. in History and German Philology, University of Göttingen


  • since 03/2023 research assistant at Historical Institute, University of Göttingen
  • 2023: teaching position, Historical Institute, University of Göttingen
  • 2020–2021: research assistant at Historical Institute, University of Göttingen
  • 2018–2020: assistant editor of the Journal Historische Anthropologie
  • 2017–2019: student assistant at Historical Institute, University of Göttingen


  • since 2023: Gerda Henkel Foundation
  • 2022–2023: German Historical Institute in Paris
  • 2021–2022: German Academic Exchange Service
  • 2019–2020: German Academic Exchange Service
  • 2016–2021: German Academic Scholarship Foundation

Research Interests

  • Naval History of the 17th and 18th century
  • History of Violence
  • History of War of the 18th century
  • Early Modern History
  • History of Great Britain
  • Ego-Documents
  • Theory and Methods

Selected Publications

  • Violent Seas: A Cultural History of Naval Warfare, c. 1660–c. 1780, in: Harald Heppner (ed.), Wartimes in the 18th Century: Perceptions and Memories, Yearbook of the Society for 18th Century Studies on South Eastern Europe 6 (2023), pp. 13–19.

  • Everyone's a Winner? Militärischer Erfolg und Normenkonkurrenz am Beispiel der Belagerung von Toulon 1707, in: Militärgeschichtliche Zeitschrift 81/2 (2002), pp. 417–446.

    [Everyone's a Winner? Military Success and competing norms on the example of the siege of Toulon 1707, in: Militärgeschichtliche Zeitschrift 81/2 (2022), pp. 417–446.]

  • Berichten über das Unbekannte – Frühneuzeitliche Reisebeschreibungen als Zugang zu Fremdheitserfahrungen, in: Maria Rhode/Ernst Wawra (ed.), Quellenanalyse. Ein epochenübergreifendes Handbuch für das Geschichtsstudium, Stuttgart 2020, pp. 313–320.

    [Reporting the Unknown—Accessing Experiences of Otherness through Early Modern Travel Descriptions, in: Maria Rhode/Ernst Wawra (eds.), Source Analysis. A Handbook for History Studies (Paderborn 2020), pp. 313–320.]

  • Ehr-Korrekturen: Zur Redaktionsgeschichte des Journal de la Campagne en Flandre 1746 des Fürsten Carl August Friedrich zu Waldeck, in: Hessisches Jahrbuch für Landesgeschichte 69 (2019), pp. 115–139.

    [Corrections of Honour: On the Editing of Prince Carl August Friedrich of Waldeck’s War Diary of the Flanders Campaigns 1746, in: Hessian Year-book of Regional History 69 (2019), pp. 115–140.]