Home Page

Stefan's Florilegium


This document is also available in: text or RTF formats.

med-ships-art - 6/29/98


Medieval Ships by Dom. Pedro de Alcazar. Late medieval ships and shipboard life.


NOTE: See also the files: boat-building-msg, Nav-Crosstaff-art, Seakeeping-p1-art, ship-measure-msg, ships-bib, travel-foods-msg, ships-msg, nav-inst-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in these

files, called StefanŐs Florilegium.


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be

reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first

or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


                               Thank you,

                                    Mark S. Harris

                                    AKA:  Stefan li Rous

                                         stefan at texas.net

                                         RSVE60 at risc.sps.mot.com



Medieval Ships

by Dom. Pedro de Alcazar


This is my term paper on late mediaeval ships and shipboard life.


     What was it like to be on a ship of the fifteenth

century? One can find representations of them in paintings

and carvings of the era, and archaeologists have found a few

shipwrecks, mauled by time and the elements. But these can

only provide a shadow of the seafaring experience. For

example, what sort of wood was used? Were the sails dyed?

What sort of laws governed sailors? What was their common

diet? None of these questions can be answered completely, but

this paper will attempt to shed some light on the lives of

the men, and ships they sailed in, that, by the end of the

century, would cross the Atlantic and round Africa and bring

Europe's isolation to an end.


     The easiest answer to the question of "what were ships

of the fifteenth century made of?" is, of course, "wood."

However, the question of "what sort of wood?" then arises.

The wood one might want for a ship would have to be resistant

to rotting, warping and splitting, as well as easy to work

with, for a ship's carpenter might have to repair his ship

with only a few simple tools. Of the woods that were

available, the best were fir and oak, which were common

exports of the Hanseatic League.1 However, a cheaper wood,

elm, was used for parts of the ship that were rarely exposed

to the air after getting wet, like the keel. Beech was also

commonly used, especially in England.2 Masts required single

tree trunks that often went from fifty to sixty feet in

length at first, and as time went on were constructed of

several tree trunks lashed together.3


     Once the wood was brought to the shipwright, what then?

For landsmen, the terms used in shipbuilding are confusing.

Words that are common to our ears are used in unfamiliar

ways, like "stepping" and "caulking", and some are simply

confusing, like "clinker" and "carvel." Unfortunately, such

jargon has to be used, as shipbuilding was a complex trade,

even in the Middle Ages. Clinker building was the early way

of building a ship in the north, for it was easier to do than

the carvel method used in the Mediterranean.4

     A clinker built ship is made by taking boards, and

overlapping them lengthwise in the shape of the hull. The

boards are then riveted together over copper discs called

roves. The last set, or strake, of boards, is attached to the

midline of the keel, a massive block extending the length of

the vessel.5 A framework of ribs is form-fitted to the

irregular inside of the hull, and the entire assemblage is

sealed, or caulked, with tar.6


     The second form of construction, called carvel, was

adopted gradually through the fifteenth century.7 With this

method, the ribs and keel are attached to each other, and the

boards are nailed to the ribs directly, and the space between

the boards is caulked.8 The carvel method was adopted

because, as a clinker ship gets larger, the risk of it

splitting along nail holes gets ever greater, but a carvel

ship does not face that problem, because the strain of the

ship is not in its thin hull, but in its thicker ribs.9 The

mast is raised, or stepped, by placing it into the keel

between the two central ribs, and then dropping two blocks of

wood to wedge it in place.10 No doubt, if a mizzenmast <a

rear mastwas required, it was raised in a similar fashion

towards the stern. The yards that held the sails were raised

into position by block and tackle, and the crow's nest and

the forecastle and stern castle were attached after the mast

and hull were finished.11, 12 The rudder, since the

fourteenth century, had been affixed to the stern, leaving

only the name of starboard <steerboardto the side where it

once was sited. Instead of using a ship's wheel, the rudder

was moved by an arrangement of lines.13, 14


     By the fifteenth century, the old sails of leather or of

homespun linen reinforced by strips of leather had been

replaced by canvas sails.15 The sail was composed of segments

of cloth, called bonnets, that could be removed from the body

of the sail, if the skipper wanted to shorten sail in case of

a tempest or simply to slow down.16 The lines that controlled

the sail, and the ratlines <a rope ladder stretching from a

side of the ship up to the crow's nestwere made of hemp, as

leather did not last as long.17


     Once the ship was done, it was customary to paint the

hull in different colors, with one color per "strake" or

level of clinkered boards.18 Even after clinker building had

gone out of fashion, it was still customary to paint the

gunwales <the topmost level of boardsa different color than

the rest of the hull.19 The sails were dyed in a bark dye, to

prevent their rotting, and could be used for heraldic

display, although simpler arrangements of stripes were more



     Northern Europe was undergoing a revolution in

shipbuilding in the fifteenth century. Three definite types

were in use in Northern waters, each having a particular

period of prominence. The earliest type was called the cog.

It was invented early in the fourteenth century by the Hansa

shipwrights.21 It was a radical change from earlier Northern

ships. Instead of having a rounded stern and a rounded bow, a

flat bottom, and a steering oar, as Northern ships had been

built since time out of mind, the cog had a stern line

perpendicular to the keel, and a bow that jutted forward at a

steep angle from the keel. It also was one of the first

decked vessels of Northern Europe, and after it, all other

vessels had at least one deck. The hull was not flat, but was

"U" shaped, giving it more stability and cargo space.22 Like

its predecessors, however, it had a single mast and was

clinker built.23 A typical cog was about sixty feet in

length, and could carry about 200 tuns <a sort of barrelof

wine, from which we get our "tonnage."24,25 When these

vessels first entered the Mediterranean, the local maritime

powers were impressed by the carrying capacity of the cog,

and began to tinker with it to suit their own needs.26


     As time went on, the form of the cog began to change.

The castles, which were once put on the ship in times of war,

were now part of the superstructure, with the sterncastle

becoming the modern quarterdeck or poop. The crow's nest,

once just a box nailed to the mast, became a round enclosure

at the pinnacle of the mast. The merchants' desire to cram

more goods into a hull turned the angular lines of the cog

into the rounder, "gentler" lines of the hulk by the middle

of the century. These could be larger ships, but probably

slower, as their shape was less streamlined.27


     The next type of ship was on the Northern seas at about

the same time. This was the carrack. The carrack was a

Mediterranean hybrid of the native lateeners and the hulks

and cogs that Mediterranean shipwrights had seen coming

through the Straits of Gibraltar. Unlike its ancestors, it

was one of the first ships of the North to have more than one

mast.28 The Mediterranean ships of the same time frequently

had two, if not three, masts, and they had also become

accustomed to using a different sort of sail, the lateen



     The lateen sail was originally a Moslem development.

Instead of the square sail of Graeco - Roman vessels, the

lateen sail was triangular, and mounted so that the yard was

parallel to the keel, so that it could use winds from many

directions to move the ship, instead of the stern wind

favored by the Greeks, Romans, and Northerners.30 However,

the square rig had more "pushing power," if it could get a

wind that could fill its sails.


     The carrack seems to have been invented as a compromise,

and as the first square rigged ship to have a mizzenmast.31

The sail carried by this mizzenmast was a lateen sail, which

was smaller than the large square sail of the mainmast.

Later, a foremast or jib was put into carracks, which was

also a square rig, for additional speed.32 Carracks were

carvel built, as befitted their Mediterranean origin and

large size, often twice the size of a typical cog.33 The

Santa Maria, which Christopher Columbus used as his flagship

in 1492, was probably a carrack.34


     A yacht of the size of the Santa Maria of the twentieth

century is a floating house, frequently more comfortable than

apartments of similar size on land. However, the sailors and

passengers of the fifteenth century had far fewer amenities.

For example, there was no galley or kitchen. Instead, an open

firebox made of stone or ceramic on the deck was expected to

suffice for cooking, if something needed to be cooked. The

diet of a sailor was not very nourishing, consisting of

biscuit, dried meat or vegetables, and little else.35 Instead

of the fresh water and juice served to sailors even by the

eighteenth century, the typical sailor of the fifteenth

century drank beer, or perhaps wine.36 If there was any

water, it was carried in barrels, and soon went bad due to

lack of sanitary procedures. Indeed, the lack of sanitation

on a fifteenth century ship was shocking. The ballast which

was carried for purposes of stability was frequently harbor

sand, which absorbed all of the wastes of the port, and

stank up the ship, as well as acting as a breeding ground for

disease.37 There was no head, except for a sort of box at the

bow open to the sea. Washing was either done in seawater or

just not done. Luckily, the journeys were all of such a time

that diseases of malnutrition like scurvy and beriberi did

not have time to materialize before the sailors could get

into port.38


     Guiding the ship from port to port had become easier as

the fifteenth century went on. The sounding line of antiquity

and the compass had both been in use since the Third

Crusade.39 The charts of the coast were usually not written

originally as maps, but stored in the memory of the skipper

or written down as a rutter. A rutter was literally a guide

to the coast of Europe. It gave compass bearings from one

harbor to another, told the skipper what landmarks to look

for, which were called kennings, and the tidal conditions of

his destination. It also described the bottom at various

points in his journey, so that he could scoop up samples

using the sounding lead and get an idea of how far he was by

looking at the depth and at the type of bottom ooze he

brought up.40 Sailors did not hug the coast, as is commonly

supposed by many landsmen, but sailed just close enough to

see the kennings, which were high mountains or capes which

could be seen many miles from shore.41


     The navigator's kit was improved in the later fifteenth

century by the addition of either a mariner's astrolabe or a

quadrant, and an almanac, thanks to the labors of Prince

Henry the Navigator of Portugal. The mariner's astrolabe was

a simplification of the astrologer's astrolabe, which removed

the complicated devices of the astrologer, and left just a

simple disc with a sighting tube.42 The quadrant was a piece

of wood or metal, shaped like a quarter of a circle, with

sights along one edge, and a plumb bob fitted to the vertex.

The curved edge was marked off in degrees. The navigator

would sight a heavenly body, usually the Sun or the North

Star, and fix the plumb bob in place with this thumb, which

gave him the altitude of the heavenly body.43 The navigator

then took the almanac, turned it to the tables of declination

<the heavenly analog to latitudefor that body, and using

geometry, would deduce his latitude.44 No such tool existed

for deducing longitude, and guessing one's speed was highly

inaccurate, as the log, which was invented in the sixteenth

century, was on ships of this century.45 This resulted in

making long journeys out of kenning-sight something which was

rarely done, and makes Columbus's trip much more like a

miracle than one might expect.


     Shipboard discipline was much looser in the fifteenth

century than it is aboard naval or even merchant vessels

today. The law code of the sea was called the Code of Oleron,

after an island on the coast of France. This code was

ancient, traditionally dating from the Third Crusade.46 The

statutes of this code protected the captain from lawsuits by

merchants if the cargoes were lost in a tempest or if the

ship sank. They also bade the captain consult with his crew

before sailing to determine the safety of the conditions, and

also made him take care of sailors who fell ill during their

service. However, the crew was not expected to take shore

leave until the ship was bound by three cables to the dock,

nor did their "medical insurance" cover injuries from bar

brawls.47 Also, some of the penalites were rather barbaric by

our standards. For example, a pilot who caused the ship to be

lost inside his harbor could be decapitated.48


     Entertainment seems to have been very rare. Ships' logs

document religious festivals being observed while en route

during the voyages of the explorers, and it is probable that

if the crew of a merchantman was at sea during a holiday,

that they would act in a similar fashion, very little can be

said of what the sailors did in their spare time. Instruments

were carried by troopships, but one cannot speculate if other

ships carried musicians other than the random man with



     In conclusion, what can we say about seafaring life in

the fifteenth century, the era of the Age of Exploration, the

end of the Hundred Years War and the Wars of the Roses? We

can get an idea of what a ship of the day looked like, and

how it worked on a mechanical level. We can get an idea of

how its shape evolved to become more efficient in its use of

wind and wood. We can also get a very good idea of how it was

guided from place to place, and a good idea of  admiralty

law. Unfortunately, there are several gaps in our

picture. Because of the obscurity of the life of the lower

class of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, one cannot fathom

how they amused themselves, save in the most cursory fashion.

One also cannot find mentions of sailor's wages through much

of this period, so that estimates of their economic status

are impossible. As social history progresses, perhaps an

examination of those vital areas will become possible.



1. Julian Munby, "Wood", English Medieval Industries, ed.

   John Blair and Nigel Ramsay <London, England, The

   Hambledon Press, 1991>, p. 382.

2. Paul Stamper, "Woods and Parks", The Countryside of

   Medieval England, ed. Neville Astill and Annie Grant

   <Oxford, England, Blackwell Publishers, 1992>, p. 138.

3. Bjorn Landstrom, The Ship, <Garden City, N. Y., Doubleday

   and Co., 1961>, p. 78.

4. David Howarth, Sovereign of the Seas, <N. Y., N. Y.,

   Atheneum, 1974>, p. 44.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. J. H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaisance, <Los Angeles, CA,

   University of California Press, 1981>, pp. 60-64.

8. Howarth, p. 44.

9. Ibid.

10. A. R. Lewis and T. J. Runyan, European Naval and Maritime

    History, 300-1500, <Bloomington, IN, Indiana University

    Press, 1985>, p. 118. <Note: this is from a photo on that

    page.11. Landstrom, pp.72-79, 92-103. <Note: this is derived from

    illustrations.12. Parry, p. 60.

13. Howarth, p. 44.

14. Landstrom, p. 122.

15. Parry, p. 67.

16. Landstrom, p. 73.

17. Ibid.

18. P. K. Kemp, "Sailing Ships of the Atlantic Seas", The

    Decorative Arts of the Mariner, ed. Gervis Frere-Cook,

    <Boston, MA, Little, Brown, and Co., 1966>, p. 42.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. Landstrom, p. 70

22. Ibid., pp. 70-73.

23. Ibid., p. 70.

24. Ibid.

25. Howarth, p. 45.

26. Lewis and Runyan, p. 74.

27. Landstrom, p. 73.

28. Lewis and Runyan, p. 83.

29. Parry, pp. 58, 62.

30. Ibid., p. 58.

31. Landstrom, p. 92.

32. Ibid., p. 96.

33. Ibid., p. 102.

34. Ibid., p. 103.

35. Parry, p. 72.

36. Ibid., p. 73.

37. Ibid., p. 74.

38. Ibid., p. 73.

39. Howarth, p. 47.

40. Parry, pp. 84-86.

41. Ibid., p. 84.

42. Ibid., p. 92.

43. Ibid., pp. 91-92.

44. Ibid., pp. 93-95.

45. Ibid., p. 87.

46. Howarth, p. 45.

47. Ibid., p. 46.

48. Ibid.



Astill, Neville, and Grant, Annie. The Countryside of

Medieval England. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992.

Blair, John, and Ramsay, Nigel. English Medieval Industries.

London: The Hambledon Press, 1991.

Frere-Cook, Gervis. The Decorative Arts of the Mariner.

Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1966.

Howarth, David. Sovereign of the Seas. New York: Atheneum,


Landstrom, Bjorn. The Ship. Garden City: Doubleday and Co.,


Lewis, A. R., and Runyan, T. J.. European Naval and Maritime

History, 300-1500. Bloomington: Indiana University Press,


Parry, J. H.. The Age of Reconnaisance. Los Angeles:

University of California Press, 1981.



Copyright 1996 by Craig Levin, 6700 Belcrest Road, apt. 1105, Hyattsville, MD 20782..  Permission granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided author is credited and receives a copy.



clevin at ripco.com


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org