A Fool of Ships

 ship 1

Hiding on Lord Bryant’s fief, Shamus considered fighting for the crown, or at least for the people of Cynegil. While the king entreated his sycophant nobles, the countryside weltered in drought. Riordan blamed his brother for all discord. Even Shamus’ attempts to save food had incited a riot within the peasantry. Now with a price on his head, the fugitive prince considered fighting for a people that did not want him. He also considered moving forward. When he had arrived at Bryant’s estate, he found farmers and craftsmen who had also grown weary of Riordan’s wasteful opulence, men who acknowledged where the true problem lay. They all wanted to move forward.

Riordan and most of the southern nobles had always considered Shamus’ work with the northern clans to be foolery. Years of work with the wildmen taught Shamus whom he could trust. When Liam arrived at the fief, hidden deep in the belly of the players’ wagon, Shamus shared his plan: take those farmers and craftsmen, and try to convince the Daoine Ban clans to let them settle.

Shamus had several hundred discontent yet able-bodied people to transport to a better land. He needed a ship. Not just any ship. He needed a chronologically accurate ship.

Somewhere between the Roman galleys and the Santa Maria, something happened. Well, actually, not much happened. Not much at all. As with artwork and architecture, not a lot of progression occurred in the medieval maritime world. When fantasy books and films depict ships, they tend to lean toward roomy and streamlined models like the Spanish galleons. Those were just more effective, more beautiful, more… impressive.


A medieval cog was not.

cog drawing medieval

If I’m going to write about ringmail instead of chainmail or plate armor, about costumes called houppelandes and cotehardies, I cannot use a galleon as a ship. I needed a cog.

For anyone who isn’t so familiar with medieval terminology, I’m writing a milieu with the equivalent of 13th Century Europe. Yes, it’s fantasy. Yes, I have artistic license to stretch things a bit. But only a moderate amount of stretching can occur before a story becomes contrived. If I’m going to use a galleon, why don’t I just have my soldiers fighting in riveted ringmail, pulling their flintlock pistols from their holsters? If I want to adhere to the right milieu and avoid anachronism, I have to use the right wardrobe, the right armor and weapons… the right ships.


Before galleons of the 16th and 17th centuries, Europe had carracks and caravels. Columbus’ Santa Maria has been described as either a carrack or a caravel. That takes us from the 1700s, down to 1492. I still needed to go back a few centuries.


What about a viking knarr? This fits the right time period, but not the right purpose. First of all, Shamus fled from a civilization comparable to medieval Italy or Spain. He fled to a civilization comparable to that of northern Britain or Scandinavia. Second, a fugitive prince, with only a modest agricultural landowner as his benefactor, had nowhere to find a warship. The king had warships. Nobles with vineyards had cargo ships. In addition to transporting people, Shamus also had to transport livestock, seed, and enough food to support his settlers during the pending winter. He knew what land he traveled to; he knew he needed ample supplies.

A descendant of the Norse knarr, the medieval cog was a very unimpressive craft. Slow, heavy, and flat-bottomed, it was functional. And it was small. I had hoped to write about Shamus’ settlers, several hundred people who could start a promising settlement in the northern lands. Some would die in the harsh winter, some of illness or accidents. Several hundred people could travel on a galleon.

Several dozen people could travel on a cog.

Hoping to allow a few more settlers than two or three dozen, I researched further. I found this link:


Again and again, the author of this site trounces writers’ hopes of transporting large loads of people and cargo over long distances. It was not done. They could transport people via a galley-type warship with no deck. Or they could transport goods over short distances with a cog. Up to about four dozen passengers could fit on a cog, but they likely slept on deck because of crowded conditions and a horrendous smell in the hold. They slept under the stars, in the weather. According to the author of this site, they were used to it.


This picture from Wikipedia shows a recreation of a cog. A single-masted ship propelled by a rudder, it had little room for anything. Judging from the size of this ship, Shamus could transport a few sheep and some chickens. He had to leave the cattle behind.

excavated cog

This picture, an actual cog from ca. 1380, reinforces the lack of space. The precise dimensions of the Bremen cog were 24m long, 8m in the beam, and just over 4m on the sides… a cargo space of about 130 tons.

In addition to small hold space and little deck space, most of these ships had no enclosed captain’s cabins. They had no kitchens. For the most part, those happened later. Some of the warships had “castles,” raised areas from which the sailors could shoot arrows.

plantagenet ship

This picture of a medieval warship with the heraldic symbol of the Plantagenets depicts fore and aft castles so high they would have destabilized the ship.

A comfortable cabin to hold meetings, as seen in the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, did not happen this early. This was a bit of a problem during Shamus’ journey. He nearly had mutiny from overcrowded settlers, all seasick, with some small children and two pregnant women. They survived it. However, during the last journey in Minstrel, Liam had to bring back about the same number of people. He also needed a place to secure Maira, who suffered massive internal injuries and could not recline in a hammock or on deck in the storm. A bit of deus ex machina might allow a nicer, more evolved ship to appear in Kylemore’s harbor right when they needed it. After working so hard to research the correct ship, though, I’m not going to give in to a sudden, convenient solution. Maira had to travel in the shelter of a forecastle, or perhaps a hollow built from casks and barrels. Nothing would be comfortable.

The inconvenience of such a small and primitive ship did provide additional conflict where I needed it though. During the last chapter, I had some fabulous elements: Maira battled aggressive injuries from her punishment for defying the king. A royal warship followed them north to Shamus’ new settlement. Liam and Tristan battled wills against each other while they both grappled to keep the captain from turning the ship around and surrendering them to the crown. A violent storm nearly capsized them.

And… a putrid, overcrowded ship made things even rosier for everyone.

ship final

2 thoughts on “A Fool of Ships

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