Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Ship In Medieval Economy 600 to 1600; Part 1 (Ideas in Ship Design)

For centuries the ship has been a very large and significant part of man’s ability to deal with the world as he sees it. Not only has the ship been a vehicle for transport and warfare, but also a means of exploration and discovery. In addition to the above the ship has been a large component in the evolution and development of our civilization.

In the Mediterranean World the economy of many countries and virtually all of the population depended on the transportation of food items from the areas of plenty to the areas where food production was not possible. This was particularly true in the great cities that dotted the area. For the most part the grain crops which sustained these nations were found along the Northern shores of Africa and separated from the large populations by a large sea. A large sea whose storms and bad weather were often the reason for prudent maritime vessels to stay protected in port. However, it was these same vessels whose task it was to bring vast amounts of grain as a food supply to the areas of Southern Europe. One of the aspects of the storms that laced this sea was that most bad weather was confined to a single season and this determination held true over the many, many, years. In order to address this task the ship designers of old had to take many things into account such as volume of cargo, and seaworthiness. Speed of advance was also a factor and the ability of the ship to withstand the buffeting that was part and parcel of being able to sail the seas. Once a design had been settled upon, in consequence, the economy was very much settled as well. The owners of the ship had to make money from their investment, and this accounted for the volume of cargo, speed of advance and how long the ship would last in it’s task. Once the design of the ship was settled and the economy was determined, the ideas and views of conversion of these ships depended to a great degree upon the economics of the industry. Would the new ideas of ship design advance the amount of cargo carried, speed of advance and would improvements of sea worthiness damage or reduce the gain of the ship owners. All these questions were carefully compared to the cost, effort, and construction of vehicles to move the food and goods along land routes. During the period of the middle Roman and Persian Empires, good roads were constructed for military purposes, and these routes could also be used for the transport of mercantile goods. However, with the decline of both of these empires the roads gradually became very hard to use for freight wagons and of course roads did not answer the necessity of crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Change is just as suspiciously engaged in a changing ship design as in most other areas, particularly when it may be a means to advance an aspect of the ship but reduce the income of that ship even temporarily. For example, if a new sail rig was determined either by the ship designers themselves or by some bits of information gained from other ship designers and builders, the conversion of a ship took time, and needed materials, and during that time of conversion, the ship would not be earning money for the owners, Added to that, the owners would be paying for materials and labor to convert the vessel, and the question foremost during this time was -- would the conversion pay for the money lost, and would the conversion provide a further advantage to the owners of the vessel over and above the current ship design? Multiply these questions by the number of vessels to be converted and one can see that economic conditions very often decided against new ideas in ship design until such conversions were proven to be advantageous. New ideas for ship design were not hard come by. Those ships which dealt with the northern European countries brought their designs to the eyes of the northern shipbuilders, while the northern ships showed the Mediterranean sailors the new ideas that were in use in that part of the world. This exchange of ideas was ongong, but the usefulness of the ideas in combination with the economy of the world from which these sips sailed was a strong hold upon the major modification of existing ships and the risk of building a ship which would not be as useful as a ship of a more proven design

New designs in warships were similarly looked upon. The warship had to be effective in battle. That was the primary need, and as cargo it had to carry or have designed into it the weaponry that was determined by result to be the best that could be utilized for the size and task of the ship. There were different graduations in these concerns, of course, from the fast “runner” lightly armed style of vessel to run down slower vessels with no arms, or the great lumbering warships which depended upon size and weight to complete their tasks. Of course, in all of this, the economy has a large part since governments, like merchants, wanted the best for their money, but they also wanted good performance and new ideas always raised the question would these new ideas and conversions to those ideas be worth the money spent on such, the time it took to make the conversions, and would the newly converted ships be as effective as previously seen.

In the coming studies we shall take up some of these questions and discuss them from the basis of the ancient information that is available, which is a concern in itself. The knowledge and data of ancient ship design is a continuing one as we see in the advance of underwater archaeology and the new discovery of sunken vessels in our area of research.


-- R.W. Unger, “The Ship In the Medieval Economy 600 to 1600,” Croom Helm, London, 1980;
-- A. R. Lewis and T. I. Runyan, “European Naval and Maritime History, 300 to 1500,” Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Ind., 1985;

--Attilio Cucari, “Sailing Ships,” Rand McNalley & Co., Chicago, 1978


Marcus Audens

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