Ships and navigation during the Middle Ages

The medieval period brought on the maritime scene the emergence of new construction and navigation techniques coming mainly from the North, but also from the East (Arabs, and indirectly Chinese). A centuries-long dialogue between the Mediterranean and these diverse influences followed. 

On the one hand, we can observe the technical excellence of the Scandinavians, who brought to ship design a real empirical talent for hydrodynamics and a more solid clinker construction. On the other hand, in the Mediterranean, the work of the Byzantines, who took care of the large galley fleets and took this type of ship into the Renaissance.

Genoese and Venetians became specialists in this field, employing them for unexpected roles such as trade, siege or troop transport. As for the Arabs, they imported Chinese inventions (compass, gunpowder, axial rudder...) and in turn revolutionised European navigation.

The galleys then began a slow decline, which did not occur until the 18th century. Curiously enough, the last galley battles were not fought in the Mar Antiqua, but in the Baltic Sea, between Swedes and Russians. Galleys only made sense in closed seas. When ocean navigation reached the ultimate degree of perfection, the galleys disappeared for good, their advantages no longer compensating for their heavy disadvantages.

The Middle Ages also saw the heavy Corbitas, the ancient cargo ships, having a sort of offspring in the form of a marriage between this type of heavily laden ship and the excellent marine qualities of the Drakkars, which would lead to the Cog and the Nave, then the Hulk, a large reinforced nave, ancestor of the caraque. The Naves, like those depicted on countless coins or as a symbol, were undoubtedly the emblematic ships of the Europeans of that time.

Naves, Cogges and Hulks will dominate the Mar Antiqua and Caboter throughout Europe from the year 800, taking us to the 15th century with the reign of the Caraques and Caravelles of the great European explorers.

Translated and adapted by TN from Illustration from the same source showing a crusader Nave.

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