Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Fantastic Medieval Ships (And Where to Find Them)

There is something seductive about a ship. The sleek beauty of its streamlined hull. The glistening, water-polished gunwales. The primal scent of the surrounding ocean. They promise adventure and paradise. I could watch them dip and bob in the harbor, masts drawing slow circles, for hours.

A carrack, caravel and other types of ships from the Middle Ages
Two carracks and a caravel
Of course, there are many types of ships. From tiny skiffs that skip over the water like flat stones to massive, lumbering barges tooting their baritone horns. It's the sailboats, however, in all their varieties call to me the most. Maybe it's that they're powered solely by the wind rather than some roaring, smoke-churning motor. Or maybe it's simply that the art of the building and piloting a sailboat is nearly as old as culture itself. Sailboats are beautiful ships that elicit dreams of places you might explore aboard them: the rugged coasts of Northern California and Oregon, the palm-tree paradise of the Caribbean, the calving glaciers of Alaska. Nowhere on Earth is more free than the open ocean and there is no way to experience that freedom more profoundly than from the deck of a sailboat.

I suffer from the lifelong affliction of dreaming to become a published novelist. In my most recent flare-up of this cursed disease, I found myself facing the topic of the sailboat. Well, more specifically, a medieval sailboat. One of my characters was a pirate (he prefers to be called a "smuggler," so you'd be wise to watch your word choice around him so as to avoid a hook through the jaw), and while writing for him I found myself using the word "ship" far too often. Surely, there were more specific names for these damn crafts. Names that would have a better mouthfeel in certain sentences, or lend a greater measure of authority and authenticity to the voice of the narrator. As with horses, I had uncovered a crack in my knowledge that needed plugging.

Alas, the dramatic entrance of the mysterious, wise magician they call google....

Medieval Shippery

No, "shippery" is not a word. But yes, I'm going to use it anyway. I like how it sounds. Call me a renegade....

Anyway. Of course, this is an over-simplification of what surely could be a lengthy discourse. There were many phases, spanning many centuries and myriad geographic locations, of what we now call the Medieval Period. Generally, it is defined as beginning with the downfall of the Western Roman Empire (roughly 476 AD when Romulus was deposed) and lasting until and merging with the Renaissance. The Middle Ages can be broken into three sub-time periods: the Early Middle Ages (the time of the Byzantines, the Germanic Goths, and the supposed reign of King Arthur), the High Middle Ages (a time of great population expansion and the invasion of Britain by the Normans), and the Late Middle Ages (which included fascinating events like the Black Death and the Hundred Years' War). In that vast stretch of 1,000 years, many different types of seafaring craft were used by many different people. What follows is a summary of a few of them.

Galleys are long, sleek rowing ships used for centuries primarily as vessels for war. Most galleys had small sails but all relied on oar power as their main source of propulsion. Galleys date back as far as the second millennium BCE and were employed by many cultures from the ancient Greeks onward. Though they were eventually transitioned out in favor of sailing ships, galleys were still used in certain circumstances far into the Middle Ages.

The Viking longship was developed separately yet simultaneously to the galley. Picture a Viking craft... You are probably thinking of something like the longship. Longships were sometimes called "dragonships" by Norse enemies, due to their unique appearance. Though they were developed over centuries, the height of their use was between the 9th and 13th centuries. There are various sub-categories of the longship, including the karvi, snekkja, skeid and others. 

medieval ships, cog, middle ages
A replica of a cog
If the longship was the Vikings' preferred craft for war, the knarr was the workhorse. A single-masted sailboat capable of hauling loads of food, goods, livestock and men over long distances. They were around 50 feet in length and 15 feet wide and could haul up to 24 tons. Only one well-preserved knarr has ever been found, that in 1962 in  the Roskilde Ford in Denmark. The knarr, and the Vikings, were ahead of their time, and Viking technology went on to influence much of the maritime tradition in Europe and all over the world.

In some senses, the cog was the successor to the knarr. It was another single-masted ship but had a flat bottom that made it easier to load. They varied more in length than the knarr, the bigger cogs extending up to around 90 feet in length. They could hold nearly 10 times the load. They were popular for trade in Medieval Europe, particularly by the Hanseatic League, and had high hulls to make them more difficult for pirates to board.
Photo of a Medieval caravel ship
A two-masted caravel

The caravel appeared in the 1400's and ushered in a new age of medieval shippery. Thus far being limited to coastal navigation, the nimble caravel had a shallow keel that allowed it some ability to travel upstream in rocky rivers. Though it could only handle a relatively small crew and cargo, it was fast, light and had triangular sails that allowed it to sail against the wind. Though not all ships that fall under this umbrella category were multi-masted, the caravel often had two or three masts. Caravels are famous in history for being the ship of choice for many 15th century explorers such as Christopher Columbus, Prince Henry and Bartolomeu Dias.

In some sense the carrack was the super-sized version of the caravel. Having three or four masts and six or more sails, these massive ships were capable of carrying vast amounts of goods on very long journeys. They were able to withstand heavy seas and haul large numbers of people. The biggest carracks weighed around 1,000 tons and were the product of the blossoming era of global trade in which explorers from Portugal, Spain and other parts of Europe would make runs along the coast of Africa and to India for spices and other commodities. Famous examples from history include the São Gabriel, the flagship of Vasco De Gama's fleet that sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in 1497, and Ferdinand Magellan's Nao Victoria, which became the first ship to circumnavigate the world. The carrack was later replaced by the more modern galleon which was used extensively in the 17th and 18th centuries for war and exploration.
public domain image of a carrack
Modern replica of a medieval

There can be no doubt, ships are fantastic. Especially the classy old wooden ones. While the reality of sailing in the Middle Ages was of hardship, danger, risk and death (209 of the 227 men that set out on Magellan's global circumnavigation died, after all, including Magellan himself), I cling to a romanticized notion of the era. It was a time when vast spaces of the map were either completely inaccurate or utterly blank. Whole continents were still being discovered, and on the sea ultimate freedom was the way of life.

As always thanks for reading. If you enjoyed it, found it useful, or just plain want to hate on me, consider commenting below or better yet, sign up for my weekly mailing list. Not only will I love you forever (unless, of course, you actually do want to hate on me), but I will reciprocate by reading, signing up for and actively commenting on your blog as well. I use this space to generally blather on about everything from the novel writing process to Giant Redwoods, the Fountain of Youth and more.

find us on facebook

All writing is the original work of Brian Wright and may not be copied, distributed, re-printed or used any form without express written consent of the author. Find out here how to CONTACT me with publishing and/or use questions


  1. So what kind of ship did your pirate, ahem, I mean smuggler, get?

    I need to do some water craft research too. Any recommendations for something to carry cargo up and down a huge river? What about people?

    1. He uses a caravel. Fast and easy to handle with a small crew. Interesting question about river craft. I haven't put as much thought into it as sea craft. You can always use the somewhat generic "barge" term. One thing I hadn't thought of (and rarely see in books) is that they often used towpaths along the shore so animals could drag the boats upriver. Especially in sections with bridges, strong currents or bad winds

    2. I currently use "barge", I just wonder if it's the best term. I'll probably go out and buy a book about medieval rivercraft, but then I'll want to write a whole novel centred on them, so it's pretty dangerous... :)

    3. After a quick bit of research, I mostly see them called barges. Though I did find that caravels could be used to go upriver, if they were small and light and the river big enough. Apparently, a "wherry" was a type of small craft used to transport people and cargo, though it sounds like mostly for short distances

  2. You write some interesting blogs. A pleasure to read, and i have learnt some new words for floating boaty thingies. http://cindytomamichel.com

    1. Thanks for reading! I learned a lot through having to do research as well. I enjoy reading your blog as well!