The World of the Medieval Shipmaster

The World of the Medieval Shipmaster: Law, Business and the Sea, c.1350-c.1450

Robin Ward
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 270
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    The World of the Medieval Shipmaster
    Book Description:

    Despite a background of war, piracy, depopulation, bullion shortages, adverse political decisions, legal uncertainties and deteriorating weather conditions, between the mid-fourteenth and the mid-fifteenth centuries the English merchant shipping industry

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-778-3
    Subjects: History
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. v-v)
  3. Illustrations and Tables (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Acknowledgements (pp. vii-vii)
  5. Abbreviations (pp. viii-x)
  6. Introduction (pp. 1-8)

    Despite a reduced population, perennial war, endemic piracy, shortage of bullion, recurring plague, sporadic famine, deteriorating climatic conditions and little or no encouragement from the crown, the English shipping industry not only survived, but in certain sectors prospered, in the hundred years between c.1350 and c.1450. During that period there was a marked change in the pattern of goods imported and exported, an increasing sophistication in the management of shipping, and an awakening interest in ship-ownership for both mercantile expansion and for capital investment. At the centre of the shipping industry was the shipmaster on whose ship-handling and commercial skills...

  7. 1 The Shipmaster and the Law (pp. 9-26)

    From the thirteenth century the development of English overseas trade made necessary a body of laws to regulate commerce which, reflecting the practices of the markets, would be acceptable to denizen and alien merchants and shipmasters. Common law was peculiar to England and had grown out of customary usage; merchant law, on the other hand, had developed from the Roman corpus juris and was accepted, with local variations, throughout the rest of Europe. Merchant law followed the concept that the sea was outwith national jurisdiction, or nullius territorium, and was described by a fifteenth-century English chancellor as ‘secundum legem naturam...

  8. 2 The Shipmaster and the Rise and Fall of the Admirals’ Courts (pp. 27-47)

    Merchants, shipmasters and shipowners who were involved in overseas trade all wished for protection from piracy and spoilage, for rules for the conduct of maritime business and for assurance that action would be taken against those who did not operate within the law. As discussed in the previous chapter, there were available to them many local courts administering justice in commercial and maritime matters. In Bristol, for example, the city custumal specified that actions ‘between merchants and ships, or between merchants and merchants, or between ships and ships, on land or sea, whether between denizens or aliens … could be...

  9. 3 The Shipmaster as Owner, Partner and Employee (pp. 48-68)

    In the twelfth century, most shipmasters owned their own ships, either participating in joint commercial ventures with a group of merchants assembled for each voyage, or arranging at their own expense the purchase and sale of cargo, the fitting-out of the ship and the hiring of a crew. As a member of a cooperative, the owner /master commanded the ship, acting as primus inter pares with the participating merchants working as crew, and would have received a charter fee or an enhanced share of the profits of the voyage. When working alone, all the risks and any profit (or loss)...

  10. 4 The Shipmaster’s On-Shore Responsibilities (pp. 69-94)

    The borrowing and lending of money by participants in the fourteenth-and fifteenth-century maritime industry has to be viewed in the light of contemporary mercantile practices. There was widespread use of credit, in the form of extended repayment terms, in all branches of English home and overseas trade from the thirteenth century onwards. Chaucer’s remark, in ‘The Shipman’s Tale’, about the merchant ‘Ther wist no wight that he was in dette, / So estatly was he of his governaunce’ suggests a generally recognised lack of solvency amongst merchants around 1400. Further, as Sloth confesses in Piers Plowman, written about the same...

  11. 5 The Shipmaster’s Off-Shore Responsibilities (pp. 95-121)

    In addition to their mutual obligations set out in the charter-party, the shipmaster and the merchants who travelled on his ship with their goods, had further legal responsibilities to each other while at sea. Those are set out in Oleron and to a lesser extent in the Coutumier and follow practices developed by ‘long use and wont’.

    If a ship foundered between ports, the shipmaster had the option of repairing her or of transferring himself, with the cargo, to another vessel to continue the voyage. If the merchants did not accept his decision, the shipmaster was still able to claim...

  12. 6 The Shipmaster at Sea: Navigation and Meteorology (pp. 122-156)

    Having found sufficient cargo, negotiated freight rates, signed the charterparty with, if relevant, the shipowner’s authorisation, recruited a crew, fitted-out and victualled the ship, obtained up-to-date information about the risks of piracy and made his passage plan, the shipmaster was ready to put to sea. How he found his way to his destination is the subject of this chapter.

    ‘L’art & science tressubtillez & quasi divine du noble mestier de la mer’ has been described as the ‘haven-finding art’; it might also be described as the ‘land-avoiding art’ since any undesired contact with land could be fatal. Until navigational instruments...

  13. 7 The Shipmaster at Sea – Seamanship (pp. 157-178)

    At the end of the fourteenth or early in the fifteenth century, the design and construction of ships in northern waters benefited from technical ideas seen in ships from the Mediterranean. Carvel construction, in which the smooth hull is planked with edge-butted timbers, largely replaced traditional clinker construction in which the planking overlapped; the sail area was split over several masts and so could be increased in total area; and a fore-and-aft lateen sail was rigged on the new mizzen mast to improve the ship’s performance to windward. The late medieval ship, the most complex of contemporary machinery, has attracted...

  14. Conclusion (pp. 179-182)

    Little is known of the personal lives, background or training of English medieval shipmasters; it has to be assumed that they went to sea as ordinary seamen, possibly with familial connections, and learned the trade ‘on the job’. There was no system of apprenticeship and, in the fourteenth century, no guild to control their qualifications. Of their professional lives, once they had their own ship, rather more is known from records of their appearances in court, charter-parties and other surviving documents.

    Having gained sufficient experience at sea, an ambitious seaman looking to be a shipmaster, had four options: to persuade...

  15. APPENDIX 1 Transcription and translation of the MS Liber Horn copy of the Lex d’Oleron (pp. 183-205)
  16. APPENDIX 2 Transcription and translation of the Inquisition of Queenborough (pp. 206-218)
  17. APPENDIX 3 A partial transcription and translation of Les Bons Usages et Les Bonnes Costumes et Les Bons Jugemenz de la Commune d’Oleron (pp. 219-228)
  18. APPENDIX 4 Transcription and translation of a 1323 charter-party (pp. 229-234)
  19. APPENDIX 5 Transcription and translation of the chapter de regimen transfretantium from Gilbertus Anglicus’ Compendium Medicine (pp. 235-238)
  20. Select Bibliography (pp. 239-254)
  21. Index (pp. 255-260)
  22. Back Matter (pp. 261-261)


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