The Evolution of Ships

For over a year and a half now I’ve been devoting my Monday blog posts to medieval history. It’s been great! But now that I’ve finished my medieval Noble Hearts series (for now) and am planning to move on to other things, I thought I’d open Mondays up to some other areas of history as well. So welcome to my segue post….

The series I am about to start could, I think, best be described as a series of Regency nautical adventures. I cut my romance reading teeth on pirate-based novels, and now I feel like I want to tread those waters again, no pun intended. But as much as I love the high seas (have you seen my blog post about Master and Commander?) there are things I don’t know. The technicalities of ships, for example. So as I transition from 12th century Derbyshire to the very early 19th century high seas, I thought we could trace the development of the ship from the Middle Ages to the age of Nelson. Here goes….

courtesy of Peter Lelliott

courtesy of Peter Lelliott

What’s the first thing you think of when you think “ships” and “Middle Ages” in the same sentence? Well, if you’re like me at all the answer is Viking longboats. Prior to 1000, these longboats would have been a familiar and terrifying sight along the coasts of England. They were the primary means of transporting Viking marauders from their Scandinavian homelands to England and the continent.

Viking longboats were single mast, open boats with high stem (front) and stern (back). They were somewhat simpler than the ancient Greek trireme. Like a trireme, a Viking Longboat was primarily oar-driven. Oarsmen would sit in two long rows on either side of the boat to propel it. The much older trireme was a bit more advanced in that it had more than one layer (they were too small to be called “decks”) of rowers. Triremes also had two masts and a slightly different keel. Keep that in mind for later developments.

The advantage of the longboat was that it was small and light enough to be picked up and carried over sandbars. But they weren’t as effective for distance. That’s where the cog came into play.

courtesy of Heinz-Josef Lücking

courtesy of Heinz-Josef Lücking

The cog was the great innovation shipping in the Middle Ages. Developed around the 12th century, these flat-bottomed ships had hulls that curved up with overlapping strakes. They were built of oak and also had a single mast with square sails. These ships were a little bigger, could hold a few more people, and could travel over longer distances. They had to travel longer distances because they were too big to carry over sandbars. Necessity was, as always, the mother of invention.

Another important development in cogs was their decks. These decks, called “castles” were added to the front and the back, the forecastle and the aftcastle or sterncastle. And if you know anything about much later ships you should start to recognize some terms here. Cogs were generally in use in northern waters, but there were Mediterranean variants, cochas, which owe part of their development to the evolution of the trireme.

The next great innovation, which was actually simultaneous to the cog, was a vessel called a hulk. Hulks were generally in use in the Baltic Sea and along rivers and coasts. They were not sea-going vessels, but they were key to Dutch trade. These boats were also flat-bottomed and curved upward at the stem and stern. Their use was important because it meant an expansion of trade. And once the people of Europe got a taste for trade with distant lands, the development of ships took on a new urgency.

courtesy of Wikicommons

courtesy of Wikicommons

It was the Portuguese who first developed the caravel in the 15th century. Caravels looked a lot more like the ships we think of when we think of the Age of Sail. They had one to three masts and could be rigged with either square sails or lateen (triangular) sails or both. The shallow keel design was developed in part by Henry the Navigator. Henry was interested in exploring the Atlantic and the shores of the North African coast. He needed a vessel that was faster, more agile, and easier to navigate to do it.

Guess what? You’ve heard of some famous caravels without even knowing it. Two famous ships, the Nina and the Pinta, were caravels. They may have been fast and maneuverable, but they didn’t have much room for men or cargo. The famous ship that completes the set, the Santa Maria, provided the next step forward in ship construction.

replica of the Santa Maria, courtesy of Wikicommons

replica of the Santa Maria, courtesy of Wikicommons

The Santa Maria was a vessel known as a carrack. The carrack was the single most important ship design that influenced the great ships of the Age of Sail. While keeping many of the same features of caravels, carracks were larger and capable of holding more men and cargo. They had three to four masts that carried square and lateen sails. They also had a rounded stern and more decks. These were ocean-going vessels. They could withstand heavy seas and long distances. Carracks made circumnavigation and trade with the orient possible.

They were also mighty handy as ships of war. Another example of a famous carrack was Henry VIII’s ship Mary Rose, which sank in battle but was raised and reconstructed in 1982 and has taught us a lot about the design. One all-important feature is that the hull was constructed with clinker planking, which means that the planks overlapped and fitted smoothly, making it possible to cut gun ports in the sides. Gun ports meant more than one deck of cannons was possible, which changed a ship from being a floating storage unit to being a fortress on the high seas.

The Mary Rose and other carracks had most of the elements of much later ships: multiple decks, forecastle and sterncastle, cabins for important crew members, and a galley. They were a far cry from the Viking longboats or the oar-driven triremes of the Greeks. In fact, the Age of Sail is said to begin with the Battle of Lepanto, when a coalition of Southern European Catholic countries known as the Holy League fought the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean. That was the last time oar power was used in battle. After that it was all sail all the time.

Next week we’ll take a look at where ships went from here. I’ll answer such pressing questions as “what’s a frigate?” (always loved that name) and “is it good or bad to be a third-rate ship-of-the-line?”

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3 thoughts on “The Evolution of Ships

  1. I love the post. I like how you integrated “non sea fairing” terms with the more accurate nautical terms for us less nautically knowledge persons.

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