med-ships-art - 6/29/98
Medieval Ships by Dom. Pedro de Alcazar. Late medieval ships and shipboard life.
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.
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Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous
stefan at texas.net
RSVE60 at risc.sps.mot.com
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
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.
7. J. H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaisance, <Los Angeles, CA,
University of California Press, 1981>, pp. 60-64.
8. Howarth, p. 44.
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.
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.
21. Landstrom, p. 70
22. Ibid., pp. 70-73.
23. Ibid., p. 70.
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.
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