Renaissance and Reformation Ships/Shipbuilding
Phillip Reid
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0531


For most of the 15th century, the maritime power of Europeans was confined to the smaller seas whose coasts they inhabited. Spurred by shifting power dynamics, they developed ships capable of crossing the world’s major oceans in the late 15th century, with enough personnel, cargo, and arms to make such voyaging worthwhile. They used such vessels first to explore and exploit Macaronesia, then rounding the southern tip of Africa, entering the Indian Ocean World. The same types of vessels crossed the North Atlantic, bringing colonizers to the Americas. By the early 16th century, these European ships had crossed the world’s largest ocean, the Pacific. They were, however, latecomers to transoceanic voyaging under sail; contemporaries from Asia, the Indian Ocean World, and the Pacific islands were already engaged in transoceanic movement and commerce, and had been for centuries. The singular innovation of Europeans in early modern shipping was their establishment and maintenance of transatlantic routes to the Americas, as an extension of what they had done in Macaronesia, colonizing the Caribbean islands, and then South, Central, and North America. The ships they used were, like those in use all over the world, built of wooden frames and planks, and powered by sailing rigs with multiple masts and multiple sails, allowing for flexibility in sail plan to best match the wind and sea conditions in which the vessel was operating; those conditions changed frequently and often drastically, so that a vessel whose crew could quickly adapt a sail plan to changing conditions had a much better chance of successfully navigating the vessel on a long ocean voyage requiring self-sufficiency for weeks or months at a time. The study of the ships themselves—their design, construction, and techniques of operation—is necessarily interdisciplinary. It requires reading in the history of science, the history of technology, economic history, labor history, military and naval history, material culture, and maritime archaeology; the physical remains of period vessels are essential primary sources. A perennial challenge to writing maritime history with a focus on ships is achieving adequate technical mastery of the subject, which also requires reading technical histories written by museum curators and experts outside the academy, such as serious modelers, replica designers, and naval architects who understand sailing craft. Here, I restrict inclusion of academic history works to those centrally and specifically concerned with the technology of the ship itself. The discipline of archaeology has, over time, produced far more of such works. Some historians have considered ship technology seriously; it is to be hoped that more useful work on the subject will come from the field of the history of technology.

General Overviews

Understanding early modern European ships and shipbuilding requires reading in both history and archaeology. On the history side, the most useful introductory overviews for the period are Gardiner and Unger 1994 and Gardiner and Bosscher 1992. As important as any technological transition in this period was that from clinker-built construction in northern Europe—in which planks overlap and are fastened to each other, with frames being notched and placed in the hull afterward, to skeleton-first carvel construction, imported from southern Europe northward, in which planks are fastened edge-to-edge to a skeleton of frames attached to a longitudinal keel, the “backbone” of the ship; see Hocker 2004. In the 15th and early 16th centuries, the divergence between warships and cargo ships was an old one: primarily oared versus primarily sail-powered—see Unger 1981. Naval and merchant sailing vessels diverged, to a significant but limited extent, in the 17th century; on warships, see Gardiner and Lavery 1992. The essays in Unger 2011 address both design and use for the period 1350 to 1850. Steffy 1994 provides both a survey of European wooden shipbuilding from the ancient world to the early modern, and a primer in the archaeological techniques of interpreting shipwrecks. Hocker and Ward 2004 further develops the conceptual approach to the archaeology of wooden shipwrecks, an effort continued by Adams and Rönnby 2013. Adams 2013 integrates technological and social history through the archaeology of the medieval and early modern ship.

  • Adams, Jonathan. A Maritime Archaeology of Ships: Innovation and Social Change in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Oxford: Oxbow, 2013.

    Based on fifty years of maritime archaeology, Adams places technological changes in ships in their wider historical context. He argues that shipbuilding is one of the most important enterprises by which medieval Europe became modern, and that its practice provides an important entrée into the study of medieval and early modern European social change.

  • Adams, Jonathan, and Johan Rönnby, eds. Interpreting Shipwrecks: Maritime Archaeological Approaches. Southampton, UK: Highfield, 2013.

    This collection of essays by prominent maritime archaeologists explores various ways shipwreck sites can be interpreted as material culture representative of the societies that built the ships. The authors consider ideology, symbolism, and other important aspects of culture beyond utilitarian technology.

  • Gardiner, Robert, and Philip Bosscher, eds. The Heyday of Sail: The Merchant Sailing Ship, 1650–1830. London: Conway, 1992.

    The Conway’s History of the Ship series is the best scholarly overview in English. As with other volumes, this one is organized both chronologically and by country of origin. Contributors are leading academic and curatorial experts. On the merchant ship up to 1650, see Gardiner and Unger 1994.

  • Gardiner, Robert, and Brian Lavery, eds. The Line of Battle: The Sailing Warship 1650–1840. London: Conway, 1992.

    Technological divergence between merchant sailing ships and warships in European fleets occurred concomitantly with the employment of the “line of battle” tactic for ship fighting, relying on the destructive power of broadside cannon fire. This volume offers an overview of developments for all European naval powers of the period.

  • Gardiner, Robert, and Richard W. Unger, eds. Cogs, Caravels and Galleons: The Sailing Ship 1000–1650. London: Conway, 1994.

    This volume analyzes the important medieval ship types and their uses before moving to the early modern vessels used for Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Ocean voyages; then to the galleons of the early 17th century, which were more general-purpose than later vessels, combining aspects of the warship and long-distance merchantman before the divergence of those technologies around the mid-1600s.

  • Hocker, Frederick M. “Bottom-Based Shipbuilding in Northwestern Europe.” In The Philosophy of Shipbuilding: Conceptual Approaches to the Study of Wooden Ships. Edited by Frederick M. Hocker and Cheryl A. Ward, 65–94. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004.

    Hocker describes the dominant form of vessel construction in northern Europe from ancient times to the later 15th century. This is important for the subsequent rise to dominance of Dutch shipping, as Dutch builders in the 17th century did not adopt the better-known carvel-planked, skeleton-first technique of southern Europe, yet they were the undisputed masters of economical European merchant ship construction for at least a century; see Hoving 2012 under The Netherlands.

  • Hocker, Frederick M., and Cheryl A. Ward, eds. The Philosophy of Shipbuilding: Conceptual Approaches to the Study of Wooden Ships. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004.

    Contributors offer analyses of shipbuilding traditions from the ancient Mediterranean to medieval northern Europe to 19th-century America. The editorial emphasis is on the theory and methodology employed by ship archaeologists, but the specific case studies and illustrations make the volume accessible to a non-specialist.

  • Steffy, J. Richard. Wooden Shipbuilding and the Interpretation of Shipwrecks. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1994.

    Steffy was one of the principal pioneers of shipwreck archaeology. He developed and taught the techniques of careful reconstruction modeling, based on surviving evidence. This is his seminal work.

  • Unger, Richard W. “Warships and Cargo Ships in Medieval Europe.” Technology and Culture 22.2 (April 1981): 233–252.

    DOI: 10.2307/3104899

    Unger corrects some misapprehensions about the divergence between cargo and naval vessels, distinguishing between areas of operation, external circumstances, and specific time period. He points out that, in the early period, oared vessels (galleys) were primarily used for fighting, while sailing vessels were used for trade; though the cog and the carrack, both sailing vessels, were used for both.

  • Unger, Richard W., ed. Shipping and Economic Growth 1350–1850. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011.

    Essays focus on productivity in the shipping business for all the major European maritime powers. Naval history is not excluded; it is inextricably linked to maritime mercantile history, especially after 1600. With Unger as editor and contributor, there is a strong focus on the intersection of technology and economic history that is frequently missing from the latter.

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