Maritime Art

A Fifteenth-Century Merchant Ship

By Anon., c.1470

This print of a fifteenth-century merchant ship was taken from a line engraving c.1470, the only known impression of which is held in the British Museum.

She is shown with a large square sail set on the main mast and smaller square sail on a smaller mast at the stern. Two men stand on the stern and control the sails; they are particularly helpful as they provide a sense of scale for the viewer. The vessel’s deck is shown complete with a large hatch, forward of the main mast, which would have been used for loading and unloading cargo. This vessel is typical of the larger European trading vessels from the Middle Ages and would have measured around 50 feet in length and 25 in beam, with a tonnage of 80 burden. A large and physically imposing ship these vessels would also have been used for fighting if required. In such instances bowmen would man the fore and after castles as well as the large fighting tops which can be seen here on both main and fore masts. The rudder mounted on the stern post is clearly shown: a significant design feature that had by this period replaced the side-mounted steering oar.

The Society has published a number of important articles on shipping in this period.

‘A Fifteenth Century Trader’ analyses the image of a late fifteenth-century ship, signed “W.A.”, and known from a print at the Victoria and Albert Museum. As illustrated by a copy in the article, the vessel has two masts, no forecastle, and a raised poop. While some aspects of the hull and rigging agree with other paintings of ships from the period, others seem to be either of questionable accuracy or to reflect oversights by the artist. Based on details in the image, the author suggests the original may have been a “flute” or “hulk” rather than a fishing vessel.

‘Rutters, Courses and Voyages: Navigation at sea in north-west Europe in the fifteenth century’ discusses the way in which mariners set and followed a course across the seas around north- west Europe. Accounts have focused on the few surviving manuscript rutters. These are best described as an early form of pilot book. Very few now exist; it is generally supposed because of the conditions in which they were used at sea. Similarly, there are few accounts of medieval voyages in these waters which contain any information about navigation or in fact any other technical details of the sea passage. The most frequent descriptions found in these accounts are of heroic survival in a terrifying storm, leading to the suspicion that this was something almost expected by anyone reckless enough to go to sea, a form of ‘must-have’ experience. This article explores whether these circumstances can offer anything useful about navigational practice in the fifteenth century by looking both at the surviving rutters and the accounts of voyages. It is argued that careful study of these sources and comparison between them allows us to draw the conclusions that rutters were very useful in setting out the best course to follow but more as aides memoire in port than as guides when at sea.

‘The Commercial Shipping of Southwestern England in the Later Fifteenth Century’ examines the overseas voyages of south-western ships primarily through the surviving national customs accounts records for Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset. The ships of the south-west were called on to carry an extremely varied range of goods. They also took pilgrims destined for Santiago de Compostella to Corunna. Their voyages took them to as far the Algarve, Andalusia, Bordeaux, the Low Countries, and sometimes to the Baltic and even to Iceland but there were many links too with close neighbours in the English king’s overseas dominions; namely Ireland, the Channel Islands and (until 1453) Gascony. All four counties saw a marked rise in shipping movements, which reflected the increase in trade at the end of the century.



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