A Brief History of Ships and Sailing 2/3: The Dark and Middle Ages

The early medieval ships were clinker built; a term which is bastardized from “clencher” and refers to the clenching of nails, a technique for securing planks. Lapstrake is perhaps a more accurate term which literally means “over-lapping planks”. In any event, the clinker design was derived from the construction of earlier skin boats in which the hides had to be overlapped to be made water tight. Such craft were in widespread use by northern European cultures as far back as 2000BC based on primitive rock scratchings.

More advanced vessels, like the Irish curragh, often had a wooden frame and a hide covered wicker hull.

The earliest evidence of plank built ships is the remains of a 50 foot boat built circa 350BC using sewn planks and a central keel. The first true clinker built ship with overlapping planks held with iron nails and powered by actual oars using oarlocks, is an 82 foot vessel dated to 350AD. This “Nydam” ship was likely the type the Saxons used to reach Britain, but was not yet equipped with a sail. Like all clinker built ships, the Nydam had a wooden frame inserted to strengthen the hull after the skin was built. The “Sutton Hoo” ship of 650AD was a full 90 feet long and of more intricate design using more and narrower planks, but it too lacked a permanent mast. Speculation exists however, that these early ships could be fitted with removable masts rigged with a primitive sail. The “Kvalsund” ship dated to Norway in 700AD has a central reinforcing plank which some suggests provided the footing for a more permanent mast.

The precise date of the adoption of the sail is uncertain. But it is clear that in this period the sail was secondary to the oar. The low freeboard (distance the hull extends above the water) of these ships is ideal for oar power, but dangerous for sailing when one considers how sail powered ships tend to heave over away from the wind. The first decisive evidence of voyages made predominately by sail power dates from about 800AD.

By 1000AD the famed Viking Long Ship permitted travel out of the Baltic, into the Mediterranean, and across the Atlantic. These ships were wider, and had a more advanced mast stepping design. The existence of two further strakes (the horizontal planks running the length of the ship) above the oarlocks gives evidence of a ship designed as much for sailing as rowing.

The Karv and the Knorr were ships similar to the Long Ship but designed for cargo.

The Knorr (a 54 foot example of which is dated as early as 1050) had very high sides for additional cargo and only a few oarlocks indicating the ship was primarily sail driven.

It is of interest to note here the origins of the words Starboard and Larboard. Both of these early ships employed a steering oar rather than a stern mounted rudder. These oars were almost universally mounted on the right or “Steerboard” side of the ship. So as not to damage the steering oars, the ship was loaded over the left or “Lading board” side.

Another interesting note, is that iron anchors dated to this period are little different from anchors 1000 years later, shank, flukes, and all. Some period ships were equipped with “lyftings” raised platforms at bow and stern from which armed men could fight hand to hand. These structures are likely the predecessors of the “castles” of later design.

Medieval Ships

An alternative form of northern European ship design was the hulk. An example of which (the Utrecht ship) is dated to 800AD. This ship was the principle vessel of the Frisian Islands and is found on many Carolingian period coins. Its planks are flush, butted end to end and tapered so as to draw up in the sides and together at bow and stern. This ship would have a long and difficult to precisely track career.

Ships would continue to develop in northern Europe as oversea trade became more and more important, reaching their pinnacle in the cog. The cog is a general term given to a wide range of ship types which bear certain similar characteristics. As a ship it is associated with the Hanseatic League, a north eastern European trade association which would eventually include some 84 cities. The cog, appearing about 1200AD combines in one ship many features which had individually been making their appearance over the previous 200 years.

In the late 1100s, a straight sternpost was added to some ships marking the first time in northern waters a ship aft would be shaoed differently than its bow. This change was made to facilitate the hanging rudder, an advancement that significantly improved the handling characteristics of a ship. However, that advantage was almost secondary.

Somewhat ironically, the chief advantage of the rudder was that it permitted larger ships to be designed. The effectiveness of the tried and true steering oar dropped dramatically when raised too high above the water. The rudder, having no such limitation, allowed for ships with increasingly higher and higher freeboards to be built.

The cog was built with a flat flush laid bottom which was ideal for the coastal islands and rivers where it was primarily used. The hull turns up sharply at the bilge (the point where the hull transitions from bottom to side) and rises from there in ever widening clinker type strakes. The nails, however, were not clenched like in Norse tradition (i.e. twisted around a cleat) but merely bent over and buried in the wood. The ship had a rather broad beam, well suited for its principle role as a merchant craft. Strangely, however, the deck planking was laid out horizontally and with gaps which intentionally allowed water to drain below decks to the cargo hold where it was pumped out by primitive bilge pumps. This deficiency was understandably hard on the cargo.

Interestingly, this led to a unique way of measuring a ship’s capacity. Because of risk of water damage, most cargo was transported in large 252 gallon barrels (35 cubic feet) called tuns. This gave rise to the term tunnage (or tonnage). Of equal interest is the use of the ships yardarm (the horizontal spar holding up the sail) as a crane to assist in loading the vessel.

Cogs were single masted ships with a single huge (and difficult to handle) sail.

They were built with a large low stern castle, a small forecastle, and a top castle (basically an “armored” crows nest). The crew slept in leather bags on the deck, although the tiller was roofed in shingles and provided some cover for the ship master and passengers. This passenger space was termed the “steerage” because of its association with the tiller; a term that is still used today to refer to passenger accommodations of minimal facilities.

The first use of the cog as a war vessel came in 1234 when the city of Lubeck armed their cogs against the King of Denmark who sought to gain control of the city. A larger action came when the King of Norway, jealous of the League’s financial success, began imposing tariffs and pirating League ships. The entire League mobilized to blockade the grain trade to Norway, starving the King into Armistice in 1285.

The English did not adopt the cog in any numbers until the 1300s. Prior to this the English relied on the nef, a generic term for ship used in many parts of Europe. In England 3 the term nef referred to a specific vessel that was a more direct descendent of the Norse karvs and knors. The English had no standing navy at this time and relied on the Cinque Ports for maritime defense. Originally 5 (hence the name) and later 7 cities along the Straights of Dover supplied ships in times of war in exchange for financial privileges.

Interestingly these ports were among the first in the north to establish true tower based lighthouses as navigation aides as early as 1261.

The Hundred Years war (1337-1453) provides the first examples of the Privateer. It being very difficult for a merchant to trade when his trading partners are at war, many merchants took to raiding the commerce of thier enemy when the numerous flair ups of the “war” interrupted trade. In the largest fleet action of the period, King Edward III, in 1340, led a fleet of 200 ships to victory against the French in Flanders. It is important to note here that naval combat at the time, was essentially land combat at sea, and consisted entirely of laying along side for boarding and archery fire. In 1400, the concept of the naval convoy was introduced as armed cogs were employed to escort the Bordeaux wine ships.

The most significant contribution of the English nef to future ship design was the raised fore and aft castlee as superior fighting platforms. The earliest example of ships being armed with cannon is a Hanseatic ship armed with 19 small deck guns in 1470. The earliest record of larger guns being carried below decks through pierced gun ports dates to 1493.

And now at long last we return to the hulk, which enjoyed a renaissance of sorts when it replaced the cog almost entirely between 1400 and 1450. The hulk, which had evolved significantly from its early origins had a larger, rounder, hull than the cog, and a sealed deck running the length of the ship which provided superior cargo protection. It was clinker built all the way to the keel which made for a more stable wedge shaped hull which made the ship more sea worthy than the cog’s flat bottom, and also helped prevent the ship from making as much leeway (which means continuously drifting in the direction of the wind, regardless of the primary direction of travel). The hulk bore the raised fore and aft castles of the nef but these appear to be an integral part of the design rather than being mere superstructure added on afterward. It also carried a top castle like a cog, but added ratlines to facilitate access. As trade grew beyond the sheltered waters of the Baltic the hulk’s sailing abilities proved superior.

It is interesting to note the unknown derivation of the term hulk. The first naval references to hulks were Greek cargo barges designed to be towed. The earliest hulks of this period seem to have been designed to be towable with a severely far forward mast placement but it is unclear if the terms are related. There is also no clear connection between this ship and the term’s later use for a damaged dismasted vessel.

In the Mediterranean, ship design took a different turn. We will ignore the many derivations of the galley, for the age of sail was driven primarily by evolutions in merchant ships. In the Mediterranean the merchant ships evolved more from the giant Roman grain ships than from the long narrow galley.

The first distinctive feature of Mediterranean design was plank on frame construction. Rather than first building the skin and then inserting framing pieces for added strength, plank on frame first built the framework and attached the planks there to.

This permitted much larger ships to be built in the same manner that skyscrapers which are hung on a beam and girder frame can be built much larger than buildings which rely on a skin of masonry for support.

The earliest example of this kind of construction is a trading ship from the Eastern Mediterranean dated around the seventh century. The ship was skin built from keel to water line with a frame then inserted which rose up the side and to which the freeboard strakes were attached. Another transitional vessel has been dated to 1020. This was largely of skin based construction but demonstrates the use of a partial frame to force the skin to take a more spacious shape for cargo. These ships were loaded though a large door cut in the side of the vessel which was then sealed and caulked for the journey.

The second distinctive feature of Mediterranean ship building was the Lateen sail.

The single large square sail had dominated classical ship design but appears to have completely disappeared by the ninth century. The first evidence of the Lateen sail is with Byzantine Emperor Justinian’s fleet in the mid sixth century. When sailing into the wind, a sail does not push the ship ahead. Rather it acts as an airfoil, creating an area of low pressure in front of the sail, pulling the ship forward. The long triangular shape of the Lateen sail makes a far more effective airfoil than a square sail. It is likely that the widespread adoption of a type of rigging that allowed sailing in almost any direction was a direct result of the dissolution of the Roman world. Trade now occurred from nearly any port to any port and available routes changed as frequently as local politics. Thus, there was a need for a ship that could sail from anywhere to anywhere.

A crucial problem with Mediterranean ships was that they still employed steering oars. Despite their great size and the ability to sail close haulted, their shallow draft and steering oars gave little resistance to the wind. These ships made a tremendous amount of leeway (drifting with the wind) and could spend several days going nowhere, losing to leeway, what progress they made sailing. A record dated to 1183 by a ship sailing from Sicily reports passing Crete…three times. Needless to say this played havoc with navigation, and was downright dangerous in close waters. As a result the first Mediterranean lighthouse of the period was built in Genoa in 1161.

But the stage was now set. Many Crusaders familiar with the northern cog, would travel to the holy land in an Italian lateen rigged ship. In this cultural melting pot, all of the pieces were in place for the first truly full-rigged ocean capable sailing ship, the carrack.

To Be Continued…

Written by Ralph A. Mazza. Courtesy of Rob Ossian’s Pirate Cove.
Image: The Fra Mauro World Map c. 1420.


The History of the Ship, Richard Woodman Conway Maritime Press; London, 1997.

Dr. Maturin suggests further reading

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1 Comment on A Brief History of Ships and Sailing 2/3: The Dark and Middle Ages

  1. There’s a replica of a Viking clinker built ship here in Seattle they bring out for some of the Norwegian festivals. I was amazed how small they are and that the Vikings were able to cross the Atlantic in these ships.

    I think I read somewhere that most ships used as military ships were usually armed merchant trading ships until the 15th or 16th century and that they were generally manned by “gentleman” rather than naval officers.

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