09.11.24, Ward, World of the Medieval Shipmaster

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Sebastian Sobecki

The Medieval Review 09.11.24

Ward, Robin. The World of the Medieval Shipmaster: Law, Business and the Sea, c.1350-c.1450. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2009. Pp. 270. ISBN: 9781843834557.

Reviewed by:
Sebastian Sobecki
McGill University

The study of medieval seafaring is an unthankful pursuit, scattered across a number of more or less adjacent academic disciplines. But to isolate the profession of the shipmaster and chart its course over a period of one hundred years comes close to groping for a needle across quite a few haystacks. Nothing short of a piecemeal scan of economic history, jurisprudence, archaeology, literature, the history of science, and geography for scraps of evidence will deliver an accurate picture of one of the most versatile premodern career paths. Yet Robin Ward's The World of the Medieval Shipmaster: Law, Business, and the Sea, c. 1350-1450 achieves all this in a handsome and resourceful study. This is all the more of an accomplishment if one considers that the shipmaster is notoriously absent from much of the extant source material, itself a frustrating deficiency as articulated in Ward's countless utterances of the word 'unfortunately', particularly in chapters that are heavily reliant on primary witnesses. The relative brevity of this book--a modest 179 pages of text if one discounts the hefty appendix--belies the patient effort required to marshal brittle snippets of information into a lucid reconstruction of a medieval profession that has left so little written trace of itself.

Following a somewhat hurried introduction, Ward offers a series of chapters that reveal the distinctive and often incongruous facets of a shipmaster's work. The book's individual sections consider the law and the fate of the admirals' courts, the shipmaster's contractual guises and his on- as well as off-shore responsibilities, navigation and meteorology, and, finally, seamanship. The monograph is rounded off by five appendices containing fresh annotated translations of texts helpful for the study of the medieval seafarer: in turn, these are the The Laws of Oleron, The Inquisition of Queenborough, Les Bons Usages et Les Bonnes Costumes et Les Bons Jugemenz de la Commune d'Oleron, a 1323 charter-party, as well as a chapter on travelling by sea from the Compendium medicinae of Gibertus Anglicus.

The two opening chapters, dedicated to the law and the admirals' courts, provide an updated and mostly accurate overview of the many grey areas into which maritime disputes fell. Between the common law's land-based and therefore limited legal instruments on one hand and the partly overlapping ambits of mercantile and admirals' jurisdictions on the other, the various stakeholders in maritime ventures had to negotiate a shifty terrain of limitations, options, and rapidly vanishing windows of opportunity. In fact, the book's legal section plots a compelling narrative of Admiralty jurisdiction as an equity practice, a form of law that offers conscience-based extemporised verdicts above and beyond existing remedies. This would explain why much maritime business was passed on to the Chancellor, the highest legal authority in equity matters. Ward also allows political history to inform his chapters on maritime law so that the significance of the island of Oleron in the context of England's fluctuating continental possessions receives long overdue attention (24 and 25).

The centrepiece of the book is Chapter 3, "The Shipmaster as Owner, Partner, and Employee." It opens the book's excellent middle section, which presents a welcome evaluation of the various contract options available for a shipmaster. Here, medieval charter-parties emerge as a central feature of shipping enterprises. A reader familiar with early modern economic history will recognise the parallels with the shareholder-oriented business model behind such capital-intensive ventures as the Dutch East India Company or sixteenth-century theatres in England. Indeed, it would be tempting to view the Laws of Oleron and the maritime commercial arrangements of Northern Europe as precursors to the shareholding models underlying the Elizabethan stage and chartered Dutch colonialism with its resulting modern political analogue, the Polder Model.

Ward is at his best in the more technical and nautical chapters, where the eye of an experienced practitioner permits him to temper the literalism of his source material. The book's third section combines plausible explanations with astute insights into such matters as navigation, seamanship, and meteorology. It is refreshing to see the use of literary passages in the service of an otherwise pragmatic historiography. Perhaps a handful of these passages are read too literally (as on p. 69), but to quibble over the interpretations of the various literary passages in this book would be to miss their functionality altogether. And Ward is not afraid of taxing linguistic work: some of the literary quotations stem from his unpublished MA dissertation on maritime passages in alliterative poetry.

At times, there is a need for deeper analysis, especially where claims demand qualification (12 and 13, for instance). Ward assumes it is "probable" that "the master/servant relationship at sea were similar to that ashore" (65) even though elsewhere (101-102) he notes that manumission was often required to free serfs for ship crews. In 1355, even a 50-year-old serf had to request manumission to go to sea. Similarly, it does not necessarily need to be the case that "shipping...was probably the most capital-intensive medieval enterprise." Clearly, warfare and ecclesiastical architecture ought to enjoy stronger claims to that title. Occasional slips in precision ("known in Saxon times," 51) generally do not impede the flow of the book. More problematic is the diminished presence of the shipmaster during the sophisticated legal section, which closes by hurrying through a paragraph (entitled "Aftermath") that attempts to relate the two chapters to the situation of the shipmaster. The result is a rather flat observation that understates the importance of the prior material: "To the hardy and practical shipmaster, the rise and fall of the admiralty courts together with the jealousies and intrigues of the practitioners of the several codes of law, must have been a source of considerable frustration and bemusement" (47). Although the sources enlisted by Ward have been prudently selected, more attention could have been paid to current research on cognitive seafaring techniques in a bid to adjust the skewed picture of an oral and traditional craft that emerges when it is represented through a written lens. Anthropology, in particular, has much to offer here, be it Charles Frake's 1985 article on cognitive navigation among medieval seafarers or more recent studies on Polynesian seafaring.[1] The later medieval period covered by Ward would benefit from a closer look at impressment, privateering, and the naval dimension of the shipmaster's world, perhaps deserving as much as a separate chapter. On a more technical note, there are frequent copyediting slips (18, 24, 39, 50, 51, 80, 98, and 114), slightly eccentric editorial practices in the otherwise helpful appendices ("Comment: none necessary," 193; "Comment: none required," 206), as well as important omissions from the footnote apparatus: a reader not familiar with Dante's poetry might not fully appreciate a reference to Ulysses' final voyage and the Aegean general's compagni (104).

Although Ward's book may not put forward an argument in the traditional sense, it delivers a series of rewarding insights that will provide new starting points for future studies. This is therefore not so much a study of law, business, and the sea between 1350 and 1450 as the monograph's subtitle promises but an introduction to commercial seafaring with a useful sourcebook portion (a subsequent edition could be enhanced by an annotated bibliography and a glossary of nautical terms). Students coming to the field of medieval maritime history and Chaucerians wishing to refine their readings of the Shipman will benefit tremendously from this book. For all other medievalists, The World of the Medieval Shipmaster will become the best guide to an arcane discipline.



1. Charles O. Frake, "Cognitive Maps of Time and Tide among Medieval Seafarers," Man (1985): 254-70, and, for example, Ben Finney, "Myth, Experiment, and the Reinvention of Polynesian Voyaging," American Anthropologist 93, no. 2 (1992): 383-404.

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Author Biography

Sebastian Sobecki

McGill University