Lest anyone say otherwise, the men who went to sea in medieval times were every bit as brave as the knights who waged war on land. Theirs was a largely uncharted world filled with deadly perils, devoid of road maps or route signs. No weather forecaster warned of approaching storms; what charts there were were often inaccurate. In an era when the unknown was greatly feared, it took great courage to face it armed only with faith in ones abilities and in God.
            Cogs were the principle ships used for trade and fighting. Approximately seventy feet long by twenty feet wide, the cog closely resembled a floating wooden bowl with a pointed bow and squared off stern. Because little has been written about sailing during the middle ages, I went to New York for The Festival of the Tall Ships to see one first hand.
            One of the greatest surprises was the absence of a wooden wheel. Steering was accomplished by means of a large tiller or pair of tillers, one at each side of the stern, connected by a whip staff. The helmsman stood on a raised platform, sheltered from the elements beneath the after castle, a wooden structure at the stern that housed the cabin. Small wonder ships headed for shore at the first sign of bad weather! The cog was so unwieldy that it took many men with ropes and tackle to turn her if rapid movement was required to face a storm or another ship in battle.
            Closet best describes the ship's cabin, which boasted a bunk built into the wall, a trunk for the master's clothes and charts and a small table nailed to the floor. Light and a bit of air came in through a small oriel (bay) window. The rest of the crew slept on deck under the after castle or on pallets in the airless confines below deck with the cargo some of which included livestock destined for the dinner pot.
            When the sea was calm enough to safely light it, meals were cooked over a brazier on deck. On a long voyage, men subsisted on dried meat, salted fish and biscuits. The weevils that inevitably infested the latter were an accepted fact and served to supplement the otherwise limited protein intake. Fresh water was an even more critical concern, and it was often necessary to add wine or ale to the kegs to cover the foul taste.
            Two other staples, carried especially by those ships who traded in the Mediterranean, were vinegar and sand. Sand provided traction on a blood-slick deck during a battle and both substances were used against the pirate's weapon of choice-Greek fire. Naphtha's sticky, quick-spreading flames could only be extinguished by sand, vinegar or urine.
            Of all the dangers mentioned, none terrified the medieval sailor as much as running aground or losing his way in the vastness of the sea. By 1300, the compass had made a transition from primitive pointer to a needle swinging freely on a dry point. Beneath the needle lay the wind-rose, a card calibrated by the principle winds. The wind-rose, in combination with the new Portolan charts—a set of sailing directions (text) and a to-scale chart showing the coast and location of ports—and an incremented hour-glass were used to determine speed and direction. Loxodromes (compass bearings) emanating from the wind-rose gave a set of courses, which gave the navigator the heading he needed to steer. Celestial sightings were useful on clear days, but overcast skies forced pilots along the North and Baltic Seas to depend on soundings taken with lead and line...one reason why many ships stuck close to land and always anchored at night.

 

            Knight's Honor, my third book in the Sommerville Tales, is set in the mid-fourteenth century, by which time the English had an impressive fleet of royal galleys and merchant ships. Typically, these ships would take a cargo of English wool to Flanders to be woven, stop by a German port to load Polish grain (wheat and rye), Russian timber or casks of salted Scania herring bound for the coastal cities of Brittany, Avignon, Spain or Italy. There they would pick up Italian silks, spices from the East, Spanish oranges or other exotic goods. With a final stop back in Flanders to secure the cloth, they'd sail back to resupply the ever-hungry London merchants.
            The trade routes were risky enough, fraught with dangers from weather, sickness and the privateers lurking in the Channel and the Mediterranean. But a battle at sea was truly the stuff nightmares are made of. Beneath a hail of iron quarrels from cross-bows and stones hurled from the turrets, lightly armored men (a forty-pound suit of body armor being a definite liability if one fell over board) protected themselves as best they could while trying to maneuver their own ship and return fire. Cannon and gunpowder were unknown as yet, but a flaming arrow could reduce a wooden ship to a death trap in moments.
            Yet with each engagement came greater knowledge. With each unexplored sea that was charted, man moved out from the land of his birth to explore those beyond the wide waters. If not for the courage and curiosity of the men who braved the unknown, you might not be reading these words today.

Medieval Sailing
A Cog of the 1400s

 

Suzanne Barclay wrote sixteen books fifteen of which were medieval romances with two of these being anthologies and one, her last book published in 1999, The Champion, was part of a published multi-author mini-series by Harlequin Historical.  She published one contemporary, Man with a Mission, for Harlequin Silhouette Intimate Moments. Many of her books are still available by going to the Medieval Books Abound page and linking to either Amazon.

Click here to return to Village News >>