William Sayers

title.none: Friel, The Good Ship (Sayers)

identifier.other: baj9928.9802.004 98.02.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: William Sayers, Willard, NY,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Friel, Ian. The Good Ship: Ships, Shipbuilding and Technology in England 1200-1520. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. Pp.. $35.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-801-85202-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.02.04

Friel, Ian. The Good Ship: Ships, Shipbuilding and Technology in England 1200-1520. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. Pp.. $35.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-801-85202-1.

Reviewed by:

William Sayers
Willard, NY

The intellectual environment from which Ian Friel's fine book springs is the Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and its material antecedents are the some 45 wrecks, always only partially preserved, of boats and ships from the often former banks and shores of medieval Britain. Given that these are only a fraction of the vessels in use during these centuries and almost invariably represent English ships, rather than the countless merchant craft of other countries that called on British ports and stimulated British nautical technology, the maritime archaeologist's search for relevant evidence must extend in many directions. The town seals of English ports, for example, take on primary importance as testimony to ship construction, fitting, and not least rigging, otherwise so scant in the physical record. But these bas-relief engravings are a stylized medium, and the town emblem is by its nature often a historically conservative statement. A principal merit of Friel's book, which joins a number of recent publications in a rapidly expanding discipline, is its exploitation of written documentation. It is then to "Evidence" that the author turns in his initial chapter, after an Introduction that sets out his temporal parameters: the early thirteenth century and "the sundering of the Anglo-Norman 'cross channel' state" (11), and the early sixteenth, by which time most English vessels were skeleton-built and multi-masted. He also sets out his thesis that the maritime industries were more subject to international trends than many other areas of medieval English life.

Inventories and financial accounts are claimed as the best written sources for this history of nautical technology, although these relate primarily to the relatively small fleets that English kings were able to maintain on a semi-permanent basis. While such records often give a good sense of the chronology of construction -- the week-by-week arrivals of building supplies from a variety of sources and locations in both small and large amounts -- we cannot judge their completeness. Latin, Norman French and English are successively used in these documents, and even on the level of lexicology pose substantial problems. Keeping pace with new developments in construction, words may be loaned or calqued from one language into another, but then retain their new phonological contours while meaning evolves along with technological change. Old Norse-Icelandic "rong" (with a hooked "o"), Middle English "wronge", meaning "floor-timber" illustrates this point, although Friel naturally addresses this dimension of his evidence far less fully than would a historical linguist. As for inventories, these became systematized over time, allowing for more meaningful comparisons. Friel's review of the better known pictorial evidence is more summary. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of the overall problematics of the archaeological evidence: a limited number of sites and wrecks, always subject to the effects of time, silting, erosion and decay.

Chapter 2 is entitled "Ships and Shipmen." Friel reviews examples of shared ownership, small merchant fleets owned by a single trader, even identifying women ship-owners. The king, however, was the single most important ship-owner, ordering the construction of the few but large and expensive vessels that were built primarily for warfare but were also engaged in long- distance trade, the transport of important personages, etc. Crew wage records provide insight into time ashore and at sea. Friel contends that "the single ship- or fleet-owner . . . emerges as the main source for technological change" (30f.), which generally went in the direction of larger, more complex vessels. The numbers, sizes and types of ships (initially the native northern European keel, hulk, and cog) are succinctly described and generously illustrated.

"Building a Ship," is followed by in-depth studies of evolving hull and castle construction and of motive power (Chapters 3 to 5). One of the many strong points of Friel's book is its efforts to get behind the ships to identify owners and, here, shipwrights -- as a group of craftsmen if not individuals. Surprisingly, they seem to have been relatively few in number and poorly organized, although the records do establish the various wage- and skill-levels at a medieval shipyard. On the subject of materials, Friel does not subscribe to the current view of serious timber shortages during the period under consideration, although the situation was characterized by multiple sources and small amounts. The logistics of supply appear to have been the problem. Friel's documentary evidence also permits insight into site organization, the carriage of materials, and tools and gear. Much that is absent from conventional maritime histories is here expertly reviewed, e.g., docking facilities, launching techniques, construction schedules. A 26-oar barge was built at Newcastle in five weeks in 1304, but may have employed a pre-existing hull (62). With the move from shell construction to skeleton construction, that is, from a hull shell of overlapping strakes subsequently fitted with floor timbers, to a framework to which edge-joined planking was later attached, relative expenses shifted greatly over these three and a half centuries. Boards and timber dropped in cost, iron and wages rose, although other factors than mere naval architecture were also in play. Despite the small numbers of master-builders and work crews, the variety of ship types produced, and the casual, ad hoc impression given by site records, Friel concludes that English shipbuilding was not inferior to that of other northern European countries, and that these very same factors may have facilitated rapid technological change.

Friel's detailed discussion of hull and castle construction brings the reader down to the specifics of the fitting of individual planks, although there is no lack of other books that lovingly detail the ins and outs of clinker, reverse clinker, and edge-joined construction, with their trenails, plugs, nails, rivets, and roves. The value of this study, however, is, for example, that the relative amounts of fasteners required in various joining techniques and their rising costs are put into meaningful relation with overall technological change. The introduction of fore- and aftercastles, common from the thirteenth century onwards, had important implications for passenger transport and, above all, warfare, in which height meant advantage, especially before the introduction of guns. An overview of steering gear and a consideration of the relative merits of side and stern rudders, the first typical of keels, the latter of cogs and hulks without the dominant sternpost, concludes this section.

A quite substantial chapter is devoted to motive power, with subheadings of speed, masts (in the later period often of composite construction) and spars, rope and sails, oars and oar-power. As in many books, the tacking-spar, one of the first devices to make it possible to sail close to the wind, attracts the historian's attention. I am not convinced by Friel's explanation (94) that the tacking spar and "loof" were identical (until the latter was extended in meaning to designate the weather edge of the sail). In the Anglo-Norman writer Wace (mid-twelfth century), the two are distinct, although associated. The "loof" then seems more likely to have been a bumpkin, a device to boom out the sail on the weather side, but unlike the tacking spar not crossing to the deck to a socket in the lee side of the hull. As the perishable material of sail and cordage resulted in their loss to the archaeological record, often leaving fastening points on sheerstrakes and gunwales as sole testimony, and thwarts and presumed rowers' benches do not provide the specifics of oar- length, spacing, etc., this is otherwise a particularly valuable discussion, in spite of the greater degree of speculation. Here, Friel helpfully goes ashore to consider the rope-making industry and to scrutinize royal and merchant documents for the organic constituents and costs of sails and lines. Yet here, too, Friel's discussion could have been assisted by the philologist. He writes that "swyftes" were "probably reefs," but Old Norse-Icelandic literature make quite clear that "sviftingar" were indeed the rows of reef-points that could be tied together in order to take in sail. Other means of shortening the sail, in folds brought together and raised with a venetian-blind system of lines, are also somewhat better documented in the Norse record, which can profitably be brought to bear on the English evidence. Similarly, Norse "stoedingar" (with "d" standing for "eth"), "braces," in particular forebraces, allow us to approach Middle English "steting" (Friel: "probably braces," 104) with a bit more assurance. As a final example, the term "head-ropes" for the shrouds, which were fastened to the gunwales to stabilize the mast, seems a direct calque on Norse "hofudbendur" (hooked "o," first "d" standing for "eth"), rather than a native English term or one imported with Norman French, where the Norse compound was phonologically reduced to "hobans." But scrutiny on this level of linguistic detail seems to make the overall picture of technological transfer, adaption and invention more, not less, complex. Still in the problematic area of standing and running rigging, I am not familiar with the basis for Friel's claim that tacks, lines running "forward" from the clews (lower corners of the square sail), "seem to have been used from Viking times" (104) for positioning and controlling the sail.

Chapter 6 considers life, work and equipment on board. To previously known facts about anchors, capstans and windlasses, Friel adds a glance into a ship's kitchen and the mariners' diet. Even bilge pumps are given brief, accurate discussion. Chapters 7 and 8 turn to trade and warfare, respectively. The general outlines of export trade are relatively well known, thanks to the enrolled customs accounts for the main exports of wool and cloth. The predominance of wine (along with salt and coal) as bulk import goods also invites estimates of the numbers of ships and total tonnage at sea in a given era. English convoys and total English tonnage are unlikely, however, to have matched those of the Hanse. Friel calls attention to the sophistication of cargo storage and, on another tack, observes that the pilgrim trade reached its peak in the fifteenth century, with Santiago de Compostella the principal overseas goal. Surprisingly perhaps, little of the detail of medieval English naval warfare is known. The iconographical evidence for the general practices of a fusillade of arrows and bolts followed by boarding may be judged quite accurate, aside from the question of scale. Various missiles thrown from the topcastle (crow's nest) were also effective. It should also be recalled that oared ships once offered considerable advantages over sailing ships in terms of manoeuvrability when the vessels were engaged, although this edge was lost when ship size and height increased. Toward the end of the period under consideration, the first guns with replaceable preloaded chambers were introduced, initially as anti-personnel weapons.

Wisely, Friel has saved for his penultimate chapter his most speculative remarks, under the heading "Inventions or Accidents," so that the book has a firm factual foundation before the author broaches the more demanding subject of the causality and process of technological change. His first consideration is the multi-masted ship, and here northern imitation of Mediterranean models, through observation when abroad and even capture, appears to have been decisive in progressing beyond the single mast and square sail. A major gain was not simple motive power but manoeuvrability, not least when sailing close to the wind. Chiefly from written sources, Friel details the introduction of supplementary masts and sails, although again iconographical evidence is the more compelling. By the late fifteenth century, most of the earlier, specifically national characteristics had been resolved into a common European type, the three-master. Hull construction, under the subheading "From Clinker to Carvel," is the second principal area of thoroughgoing change. Skeleton construction, originally a Mediterranean technique, was everywhere adapted in northern Europe by the early sixteenth century. The carvel in its early Portuguese guise seems the most likely medium for transfer, and the rise of the carvel also heralded an era of generally smaller ships. Nonetheless, Friel advances the somewhat paradoxical thesis that "[t]he technical transfers resulting from sea traffic between northern and southern Europe seem mostly to have gone from north to south, rather than the other way" (172).

Chapter 10, "At the Edge of the Ocean," concludes the book. England's role in discovery, colonization and oceanic trade was not great until the seventeenth century, so that England's failure to keep pace on this front, even though it had the requisite shipbuilding technology, makes the early sixteenth century an appropriate point at which to end the study. Still, there were ocean voyages, to the Newfoundland and Iceland fisheries, and south to the Mediterranean, as the preserved purser's account of the construction and routes of the Bristol ship, The Trinity, graphically details. The volume closes with an all too brief glossary of nautical terms, a bibliography, an appendix with tables drawn from medieval documentation, and an index.

Friel's book creates the environment of a good, modern museum exhibit, overwhelmingly concrete and factual, seldom speculative, and (apparently) divorced from ideology. Shipping is viewed principally in its utilitarian function. Although Friel calls the medieval ship "the most complex machine of the pre-industrial age" (107), this is almost an aside, as his real topic here is pulleys. Less than a page (76) is devoted to "embellishment," yet, for a scholar from another discipline, a royal warship or a merchant fleet would be a wonderful "text" through which to explore conceptions of the manifest rulership, civic pride in the port towns, or individual family fortunes. Despite his attention to the micro-economics of shipbuilding and seafaring, and his ground-breaking examination of written documentary evidence for them, Friel's focus is on material evidence and not on more comprehensive theories of ideological, economic, and social evolution in the Middle Ages. Thus, his efforts to account for technological change at sea and on shore lack a wider supporting context, and his most readily available explanations -- the exposure of masters, crews, and builders to foreign craftsmanship and praxis; the profit motive driving increasing ship size, speed and manoeuvrability; the relatively unstructured and decentralized shipbuilding industry and trading patterns -- are in the end unsatisfying, although none may be discounted. A final reservation concerning what, on balance, is a book highly to be recommended: given the relatively advanced construction principles of Scandinavian vessels in the Viking and post-Viking periods (however basic the configuration of mast, sail and rigging may have been) and their known, if difficult to assess, impact on native English ship-building, a more explicit statement on the immediate antecedents of English naval architecture on the eve of the thirteenth century, where Friels's book begins, would have been helpful.