12.11.11, Fury ed., The Social History of English Seamen

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Susan Rose

The Medieval Review 12.11.11

Fury, Cheryl A.. The Social History of English Seamen, 1485-1649. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2012. Pp. x, 350. ISBN: 978-1-8438-3689-6.

Reviewed by:
Susan Rose
Highgate, London

In many ways this is a somewhat unusual essay collection. It does not have its genesis in a conference or seminar or a Festschrift but is the initiative of the editor who was concerned to put together (as stated on the back cover) "an overview of our knowledge of English seamen in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the tumultuous world in which they lived." This aim is elaborated in the introduction. Fury explains that each chapter is a summary of what the various authors consider to be "their major findings in the field" (2). She had earlier made clear that the challenge was "to find opportunities to meet Jack Tar and, if possible, let him speak in his own voice." These are very worthwhile aims but ones not easy to achieve. The first half of the book, however, does largely serve as an overview of the field. None is based on new research and four in fact directly derive from works already published. The remaining five present the conclusions of more recent research presenting new approaches or topics that have been somewhat overlooked by earlier writers. They contribute to building a composite but detailed and arresting picture of the lives of English seamen in Elizabethan and Jacobean times.

The first chapter, by David Loades, "The English Maritime Community 1500-1650," provides a clear and authoritative account of those who, as members of certain trades and professions, made their living from the sea and the ships which sailed its waters. He provides a wide-ranging and inclusive view of mariners, their education and training, their relations with the authorities and the different life styles that resulted. Some existed on the edge of society as pirates or smugglers; others as fishermen never strayed very far from their village. All, however, appreciated the vagaries and dangers of the sea and the uncertainties it brought into their lives. The chapter successfully sets the maritime world of the period before the reader, providing the context for what follows.

The chapter by the editor herself, entitled "The Work of G.V. Scamell," seems, however, somewhat out of place. It is not a review of Scamell's highly-regarded work on English seamen but a summary of many of his conclusions. The articles on which the essay is based are easily available largely in two collected volumes published by Ashgate. It is surely better to read these essays in their entirety than to look at summaries by another hand.

The three following essays are all based on recent published work by the same authors. The essay by Ann Stirland on "The Men of the Mary Rose" has its origins in her book of the same title published in 2005. Opportunities to examine a large sample of the remains of known seamen are rare. This study--while somewhat specialised, being based on an analysis of the long bones on what were labelled "fairly complete skeletons" by the archaeologists working on the wreck--does provide some useful information about the crew. They were predominantly young men in generally good health. The fact that as much as 25% of the crew may have come from outside England is highly suggestive and may lead to more research in muster and pay rolls.

Another aspect of the life and death of seamen in this period is provided by the chapter by J. D. Alsop drawn from the research he did in conjunction with the late P. E. H. Hair on the wills of seamen who died on voyages to West Africa in 1553-65. Ninety-three wills were submitted for probate on the return of the vessels concerned. A detailed analysis of their content and the circumstances in which they were written has allowed a lively and interesting picture of the men, their families and their life on shipboard to emerge. The major study from which this chapter is drawn was published in 1992 so that the conclusions reached can hardly be described as new, but it is useful to have this summary here since it provides valuable context and some different interpretations from those provided in later chapters of the book, particularly that on the religious beliefs and culture of English seamen.

The final chapter in the first half of the book is again by the editor and on this occasion is drawn from her own book published in 2002, Tides in the Affairs of Men: The Social History of Elizabethan Seamen, 1580-1603. This very well-received book is a seminal study of the topic and, while Fury's own summary of her conclusions is both well-written and stimulating, it would still be preferable for a student or other reader with a serious interest in the subject to look at what Fury herself calls justifiably, "a more comprehensive discussion of the material in this chapter" (117).

The five remaining chapters of the book concentrate on specialised topics on which little has been published previously. Of particular interest are two concerned with the personal well-being of seamen both while at sea and while on shore. They are revealing not only for the light they cast on the lives of mariners but for that also cast on early modern English society and the prevailing attitudes to those in need of help. These are "Health and Health Care at Sea" by the editor and "The Relief of English Disabled Ex-Sailors c.1590-1680" by Geoffrey L. Hudson. The bulk of Fury's essay is concerned with the diet of seafarers, something which became more problematic when "blue water" voyages were prolonged far beyond the relatively short spans of time before making land common to medieval seamen. Moreover voyages to the Caribbean and other more distant shores might involve the difficulties of obtaining new supplies in enemy territory. She touches on such problems as corruption among naval suppliers as well as the dangers of deficiency diseases, principally of course scurvy, the cause of a miserable death to many on long voyages. Her conclusions raise some interesting points about the ways not just individuals but also government as a whole reacted to these problems. In her view many of those pressed for naval service were in very poor health before a voyage commenced. Those in authority, for example both Richard and John Hawkins, were very concerned about death rates among seamen and attempted to find solutions to the problem. Experiments with some anti-scorbutics had some success but were not taken up for general use in the navy. The pressure on the government from fighting a prolonged naval war with inadequate resources was perhaps one reason why seamen were offered the stick more often than a carrot. On the other hand, a gradual realisation that a pragmatic evidence-based approach to problems often offered a solution can be seen emerging as individual ship captains grappled with the situation in which they found themselves.

Hudson's chapter follows up this growing understanding of social problems with a clear and thorough investigation of the relief system for disabled seamen based on the Chatham Chest (in effect a prototype Friendly Society) and the county pension scheme of 1593. He refutes the idea that both these schemes were relatively ineffective compared with the establishment of Savoy and Ely House as hospitals under the regime of Parliament in the 1640s and 50s and that of Greenwich Hospital after the Restoration. The county pension scheme as operated in Devon in 1642-1690 is studied in some detail in this chapter. It shows how effective local administration could be in the capable hands of a determined individual like Henry Fitzwilliams, in charge of the scheme and its finances from c. 1650 to his death in 1689. It is certainly the case that in Devon, the bench of magistrates "provided stable relief for its ex-sailors as well as demonstrating a fierce local political will and effective administrative acumen" (251). This finding has wider resonance than just for the maritime community.

It might be thought that the examination of the religion of seamen in "The Religious Shipboard Culture of Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century English Sailors" by Vincent V. Patarino Jr. would confirm the belief that seamen formed a distinctive community with their own culture and beliefs distinct from that of landsmen. It has also been widely asserted that seamen were a dissolute bunch much given to licentious and profane behaviour. Looking closely at the evidence has allowed Patarino to conclude that in many ways--in a tumultuous period for religious belief--seamen were not divorced from the concerns of those on shore but reacted in very similar ways. Thus an insistence on religious observances on shipboard can be found in official documents; for example, the general orders for the Constant Reformation dating from c. 1627 laid down that "Divine Service according to the liturgy of the Church of England be read every day," at a time when attendance at a parish church was also a legal obligation. In the confined and often dangerous world of the mariner, beliefs originating in folklore also held sway; the power of witches to raise storms was accepted without question, leading on several documented occasions to the deaths of unfortunate women. Seamen, in Patarino's view, were not divorced from the life of their shore-based fellows but at times the special circumstances of their existence shaped their culture and their beliefs.

In some ways, rather similar considerations shaped the lives of seamen's wives and widows as discussed in a chapter also by Cheryl Fury, the last of the four she has contributed to this volume. As with women from many other walks of life at this period, it is hard to find sources referring specifically to women's experiences. What does emerge is that seamen's wives at this time, as in other periods, were more independent and less reliant on their male relatives than other women. They had little choice but to do this since their husbands were often absent for long periods with a dearth of news as to their health or whereabouts. If disaster struck their only recourse for help or support was probably in the kinship and friendship networks which existed in the maritime world as in other similar occupational groups. Fury feels that it is not appropriate to characterise them as the "weaker vessel" in view of the way they were often able to cope in difficult circumstances (275). Was their experience so different, however, from that of women coping with the burden of raising a family and helping with the never-ending work of a farm? Women may have been weaker in terms of their physical strength but not in their contribution to their families and ultimately society.

The final chapter in this wide-ranging volume, John C. Appleby's "Jacobean Piracy: English Maritime Depredation in Transition, 1603- 1625," tackles the nature and prevalence of piracy. This subject has given rise to a great deal of romantic nonsense about what was at best a form of reprisal against enemy shipping and trade and at worst a violent and unpleasant form of robbery. Appleby looks at the careers of some notorious individuals, particularly John Ward. He also points out the way in which the end of the war with Spain led to an escalation of piracy, with many now-unemployed former naval seamen involved. The sudden surge in the involvement of English seamen in piracy in the Mediterranean is also noted. The skill with which James I dealt with the problem by negotiating with English pirates for pardons on acceptable terms is in some ways surprising. It did not ultimately make the seas safer for legitimate trade. The problem was clearly beyond the resources of any one state to resolve in this period.

The title of this book and its stated aim of providing "an overview of our knowledge of English seamen" in this period perhaps create expectations that the volume cannot fulfill. The various chapters each contribute to the social history of English seamen--providing a piece of the jigsaw, it might be said--but the picture is not yet complete. Students of the period, however, will find much to stimulate debate or to fill gaps in our knowledge. One can certainly agree with the editor that all the contributors show their "dedication to--and dare I even say affection for--our long dead seafaring subjects."

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Author Biography

Susan Rose

Highgate, London