In the nine hundred years from A.D. 600 to 1500 ships developed from the Viking galleys of the Scandinavian shores to the caravels of Columbus and other famous navigators. In many ways this period was the most adventurous in maritime history
A RIGGED MODEL OF A FIFTEENTH CENTURY FLEMISH CARRACK made by R Morton Nance. The hull is carvel-
IT was well said, centuries ago, that the first shipwright produced a ship that was no better than a bird without any feathers. Such a vessel could certainly float but had not the power to use wind. The primitive dug-
Of the rough dug-
Across the North Sea along the Scandinavian coast with its innumerable islands, narrow channels and long fjords, there existed every inducement for going afloat. The rock scratchings at Bohuslan, near Gothenburg, indicate no fewer than forty types of craft -
Thus seafaring of sorts is one of the oldest North European, occupations, but the Pacific Islanders, long before the white man ever reached the Pacific, had been enabled by the regular trade winds to make quite long voyages in canoes fashioned from hard logs, with a gunwale or topside sewn on by coco-
As. to navigation, the most primitive people are the keenest observers of natural phenomena and amass considerable knowledge about weather, seasons, currents and stars. They had no compasses, yet the steady trade wind gave them their course, and they reckoned their latitude by the simplest form of sextant. They used a calabash with holes in it and, having found the angle that the North Star made with the horizon, they compared the result with the known angle of their home port. Elizabethan navigators, and even uneducated sailing -
If we take the years from A.D. 600 to 1500 as covering the Middle Ages, we shall find a time when, by trial and error, by experiment and failure, a sailing vessel with multiple masts, yards and sails, gradually emerged big enough to cross oceans, and deep-
The hardy mariners who lived round the Scandinavian and Baltic shores built fine double-
The Gokstad ship discovered in 1880 near Sande Fjord lay concealed beneath a mound some 18 feet above sea-
THE VIKING SHIP, found in 1903 at Oseberg, near Oslo, Norway, is shown in this photograph of a model. The ship dates from the middle of the ninth century and is 70½ feet long, with a beam of 16 ft. 9 in. and a depth of more than 5 feet. The galley was propelled by fifteen oars a side, which passed through oar-
We can visualize these first northern ocean ships coming over the Atlantic in the long swell, their sails of white canvas striped with red, blue, green and yellow, but sometimes all purple, with gilded sterns, a marvellous sight when sailing in squadrons. The famous English epic, Beowulf, which is so rich in accurate picturesque detail, has for its background the shores of Sweden and Denmark. The poet refers to these single-
The Norsemen voyaged in these open double-
They were well acquainted with the Scandinavian coastline and had become brilliant in seamanship. To aid navigation, they had the rising and setting of the sun and the Pole Star. On board they carried a number of ravens which were released when land was suspected to be near; by following the direction of these birds a distant shore could be anticipated. Bad mistakes were inevitable, as, for example, when Thorstein Ericson set out from Greenland bound for America and arrived in Iceland. By the year 1267, if not earlier, they endeavoured to calculate the sun’s altitude by observing where the shadow of the gunwale fell on a man lying athwartships, when the sun was in the south.
The Norsemen were helped by the flight of wild fowl, as they differentiated the particular species of sea-
If these noble and courageous ships, whose design has left a permanent influence on the shape of our lifeboats, by their pioneer voyaging completely altered the existing ideas of geography, it was only by compelling their hardy crews to live roughly. At sea they were exposed to cold and wet, with a bit of awning or “tilt” under which to crawl. In sheltered anchorages a Y-
The heaviest task happened when sail had to be lowered and oars relied upon. Each rower had about three and a half feet in which to work, but their benches did not stretch right across the vessel; otherwise the mobility of the fighting men would have been restricted. The commanding officer certainly had some sort of bed aft, and his own “meat-
These vessels had small raised decks at-
Gradually, as the years sped by and more voyaging was made in northern Europe, the need for bigger tonnage grew. The experience gained by transporting warriors to the Crusades or pilgrims to visit Palestine and the opening up of Mediterranean trade influenced the coming of the three-
The more extended trade with the Low Countries, Denmark, Germany, Scandinavia, the Iberian Peninsula and southern France gave a great encouragement to the creation of better ships. The sea was the route to wealth.
From this realization there grew up collaterally increased piracy and the responsibility for keeping the trade routes safe. Nautical terminology became enriched in the thirteenth century by the importation of such words as “admiral”, first introduced to the Mediterranean by the ancient Arab mariners.
Such annual expeditions as that of the wine fleet from Bordeaux to England under the care of English admirals were some of the earliest instances of medieval convoys. A code of sea laws, primarily as instructions for an admiral in the governance of his fleet, gradually expanded to regulate such matters as the wages of seamen, prize money, punishment of offences at sea, and reimbursement for collisions. English literature of the fourteenth century provides a few illuminative glimpses of contemporary seafaring. We read of the sailors overhauling their gear, hoisting the “crossayl”, heaving up anchor by means of the windlass, climbing aloft by the backstays to let go the gaskets that kept sail to yard, so that now “the grete cloth falles”, and the mainsail is set. The “lodezmon” (leadsman, or pilot) stands by to guide the ship out of harbour, and the crew are busy trimming sails.
The poet Chaucer describes a west-
In the poem of the period of Edward III, beginning “Men may leve all gamys”, we have a human impression of life aboard an English merchant vessel bound to Spain with pilgrims for Santiago de Compostela. The shipmaster sings out his orders, the boys go aloft to loose the mainsail. The master calls “Haul the bowline! Veer the sheet!” and to the helmsman, who is sailing too close to the wind, he cries “No nearer!”
A KING’S SHIP OF THE THIRTEENTH CENTURY. The distinguishing features of ships of this type were the fore and after castles designed for fighting purposes. They were at first temporary structures, but when the English kings started building their own ships instead of hiring merchant vessels, these structures became permanent. The steering paddle was later replaced by a rudder
hung on a stern post.
Among the crew were the boatswain, cook, carpenter and steward. They drank beer and ate bread and meats roasted or boiled; but the unfortunate seasick pilgrims preferred hot malmsey wine and salted toast. Miserable on their first trip down the Bay of Biscay, they would “cowgh and grone”, lose all appetite, and lie down complaining that their heads were split in three. An unpleasant voyage was made little less unendurable by having to sleep on a sack of straw confined within a few cabins roughly knocked together by the ship’s carpenter. Not for many generations was the slightest regard to hygiene paid afloat, and the death rate mounted rapidly only a few days after the vessel had left harbour.
In southern Europe there was greater supervision by the State. Fourteenth-
The Italian ship was not allowed to proceed till she had the regulation number of anchors and ropes of the right weight, and she dare not be loaded beyond her marks; yet for the passengers this was no pleasure cruise.
A Crew of Thieves
The crew, engaged from March 1 to the end of November, were paid in advance every three months. They were such thieves, however, that passengers were frequently robbed. Even the spare anchors would be sold at the first port of call. Unless a merchant deposited his gold with the shipmaster, it was more than likely that he would find himself with no money.
In the Middle Ages ships sailed from Venice, Genoa and Pisa bound for Acre. Their merchant passengers were engaged in the Levantine trade of pepper, sugar and silks that had come overland from the Orient. Such was the prevalence of pirates that these mercantile fleets had to be convoyed by fighting galleys. The first convoy from Venice set forth in the spring and reached home in September. The second left the Adriatic in August, and wintered either in Syria or in Egypt, returning home in May.
A considerable passenger trade was created by pilgrims to the Holy Land. They used to embark at Venice, Genoa and Marseilles -
The skipper would sit under his awning at the stern of the two-
BUILT FOR KING HENRY VIII, the famous Henri Grace a Dieu, shown above in model form, was laid down in 1514 and built near Erith (Kent), on the River Thames. She was regarded as the finest ship of her time, and had a tonnage of about 1,500. She had topgallant sails on fore, main and main-
Before the fifteenth century had closed there had been evolved in the carrack what was to become the standardized big merchant ship for North Sea and Mediterranean cargoes. The carrack was a three-
When setting out on a long voyage the ship would be provisioned with wine, corn, salt meat, bacon, biscuit, and also with livestock, sheep, lambs, calves and heifers. On such long trips the navigation was anything but scientific, and especially anxious was the period when land might be sighted. To keep the lookout alert and vigilant, a reward was paid to the man who first sighted the shore. Thus, at the end of weeks spent rolling to the swell, the ship would suddenly become full of excitement, as in one breath the lucky owner of the keenest eyes would claim his reward and announce his discovery. “Largess!” he would shout. “Land in sight! Largess!”
Before the age of discovery could begin it was necessary for some real progress to be made in the study and practice of navigation. The handling of a ship, the steering, the hoisting and trimming of sails, the shortening of sail in bad weather -
Little does civilization appreciate all that it owes to Prince Henry of Portugal, third son of King John I of Portugal, and nephew of King Henry IV of England. In the year 1415 this intellectual prince withdrew himself from the hurly-
Henry the Navigator
All this research work, the training of navigators, the making of maps and the fashioning of nautical instruments, were the essential preliminaries to the achievements of Vasco da Gama, Magellan and all later maritime explorers. Then this brilliant innovation spread from Portugal to Spain. From Spain it came north to England. It was Charles V who founded at Seville a lectureship in navigation. Henry VIII founded or confirmed at Deptford-
The danger of fire continued to be a perpetual fear. Aboard these ships all lights were forbidden after dark except one for the helmsman, and one below deck carefully protected by a lantern. A bigger lantern was shown over the stern, so that other ships of the squadron could keep the senior vessel in sight through the dark hours. Prayers were said daily, and there were stringent rules against misbehaviour. Apart from Columbus, only the pilots had the slightest knowledge of stellar navigation.
Externally these ships were painted with tar; below water-
EARLY SHIPS OF THE THIRTEENTH CENTURY had a form of bowsprit that served not only to support a small grapnel, but also where possible to give a longer lead to the bowlines. Until rudders came to be used instead of steering paddles, the bows of these King’s ships did not differ greatly from the sterns.
[From part 24, published 21 July 1936]
“Ships in Miniature” on this website.