In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ships and Seafaring

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Maritime Etymology
  • Maritime Iconography
  • Propulsion, Performance, Equipment, and Techniques
  • Navigation and Voyages
  • Conflict at Sea and Navies
  • Warships and Naval Weaponry
  • Merchant Shipping, Ports, and Trade
  • Fishing
  • Maritime Communities

Medieval Studies Ships and Seafaring
Ian Friel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0050


This bibliography is intended as an introduction to the study of medieval European ships in the period between the 5th and 15th centuries CE. It lists works that discuss why and how these vessels were designed and built, how they were rigged and equipped, and the ways in which they were used by seafarers and shipowners. Also, because research into medieval ships and seafaring requires the evaluation of often disparate, incomplete, and fragmentary evidence by scholars from different disciplines, this bibliography includes works that explore and evaluate the nature of that evidence. Like many aspects of medieval history, the study of medieval shipping grew over the course of the 20th century from being the preserve of a minority of professional and amateur scholars (often regarded as rather eccentric by their peers) into an international field of academic enquiry. Interest in medieval ships has undoubtedly received an enormous stimulus from the discoveries made by maritime archaeologists in the last half-century or so. Time and again, these discoveries have produced examples of the real thing, and have helped to show how ships were put together and used. This bibliography gives some idea of the great range of work already undertaken in this field, and how interdisciplinary work among historians, archaeologists, and other scholars and scientists has been essential to its development. Most importantly, it is hoped that this introduction will encourage people to want to learn more and to make their own contributions to an exciting area of international research. Despite its international scope, the number of people studying medieval shipping is not large, nor is ever likely to be. That said, the field has the potential to encourage the wider public understanding of medieval history in general. The subject matter can be very dramatic, and it is not difficult to show how the ships and seafaring of the Middle Ages helped to shape the world in which we live now.

General Overviews

The maritime history of medieval northern Europe and western Iberia was very different from that of the Mediterranean. After the end of an intermittent tin trade between the British Isles and the Mediterranean between the 5th and 7th centuries, there do not appear to have been any significant seaborne contacts (apart from occasional crusading voyages) between these regions until Italian galleys started trading to the north in the late 13th century. The construction and rig of northern and southern European ships developed in very different ways, until transfers of technology began in the late 13th or early 14th century. This geographical division is still reflected, to a degree, in the literature. Even now, language barriers and other issues mean that relatively few scholars are able to cover both regions in depth. The list of works below includes some that are regional or national studies, such as Crumlin-Pedersen 2010, Pryor 1988, Rodger 1998, and Friel 2003, while others, such as Mollat du Jourdin 1993, Rose 2007, Scammell 1981, and Unger 1980, bridge the divide. In a world of scholarship where, as has often been said, we tend to know more and more about less and less, there is an even greater need for books that take a step back and look at the big picture.

  • Crumlin-Pedersen, Ole. Archaeology and the Sea in Scandinavia and Britain: A Personal Account. Roskilde, Denmark: Viking Ship Museum, 2010.

    Based around a series of six lectures, this personal account by one of Europe’s leading maritime archaeologists also offers a clear and well-illustrated overview of the archaeological evidence for maritime activity in Britain and Scandinavia from prehistory and the Middle Ages.

  • Friel, Ian. The British Museum Maritime History of Britain and Ireland, c. 400–2001. London: British Museum Press, 2003.

    This book presents a comprehensive overview of the maritime history of the British Isles, covering themes such as trade, shipbuilding and technology, naval developments and warfare, ports and harbors, fishing, and other areas. Each chapter includes a summary of the major developments in maritime technology in the relevant period.

  • Mollat du Jourdin, Michel. Europe and the Sea. Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993.

    A wide-ranging study of the social, economic, and political aspects of Europe’s relationship with the sea, from prehistory to modern times, by one of France’s leading maritime historians. Although the book should not be read uncritically, there is much to be learned from its pan-European, multiperiod perspective.

  • Pryor, John H. Geography, Technology and War: Studies in the Maritime History of the Mediterranean, 649–1571. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511562501

    This work looks at the geographical, hydrographical, and meteorological context of Mediterranean maritime history in the Middle Ages, as well as politics, trade, warfare, and technology. However, note that Gluzman 2010 (cited under Navigation and Voyages) challenges Pryor’s propositions regarding sailing routes.

  • Rodger, N. A. M. The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, 660f–1649. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.

    A massive work that is essential reading for anyone studying British medieval and early modern maritime history. It combines sophisticated modern research with narrative history, covering a vast range of themes and subjects, from the nature of ships and seafaring to the strategy and politics of naval wars.

  • Rose, Susan. The Medieval Sea. London and New York: Hambledon Continuum, 2007.

    This scholarly but accessible work provides a good introduction to its subject. It covers the period 1000–1500, and a wide range of themes, including shipbuilding, navigation, life at sea, shipowning, ports, trade, warfare, and many other topics.

  • Scammell, Geoffrey V. The World Encompassed: The First European Maritime Empires c. 800–1650. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

    Each chapter in this very wide-ranging book focuses on a different maritime culture or empire: the Vikings, the Hanse, Venice, Genoa, Portugal, Spain, Holland, France, and England. The material covered includes everything from maritime technology and trade to ideology and literature.

  • Unger, Richard W. The Ship in the Medieval Economy, 600–1600. London: Croom Helm, 1980.

    Unger’s work takes a pan-European and multiperiod perspective. Although this work has been criticized in some aspects, it firmly relates changes in ship technology to social, economic, and political changes, and draws the sometimes rather cloistered world of medieval and 16th-century ship scholarship into the mainstream of historical debate.

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