Medieval Monday: Merchant Ships

medieval-cog2While many crops and other goods were able to be moved by hand, or by using animal-drawn carts, boats were also an important mode of transportation in the Middle Ages. They could bear larger and heavier loads, and allowed merchants to trade over long distances. They brought goods into the medieval world from exotic places, sparking a desire for shorter, less difficult passages, which eventually led to world exploration. There were a variety of ships built and used in the Middle Ages, and there isn’t enough space in this post to explore them all. For today, I’m going to focus on those used by merchants, since they had the most impact on daily life.

medieval-cogFor Northern Europe, the Cog was a standard merchant ship—though more accurately, it was a general term used for a variety of ships that had similar attributes. Cogs were built small at first, but with need and advances in ship building techniques, its size grew over time. The cog’s hull had high sides, and its bow and stern castles were all fortified. Though it did have oars for rowing, a single square sail was its primary means of propulsion. Cogs were difficult to sail as they were slow and not especially maneuverable. But their most distinguishing, and useful feature, were their wide, flat bottoms, which made them spacious vessels that could hold bulky loads. These ships could carry 200 tons of cargo, which was about ten times the amount that a Viking ship could hold. Cogs were able to travel along rivers, through the tidal coasts of Northern Europe, and in the shallow waters around the Low Countries. Built to be sturdy, they could be beached, and even run aground, without sinking.

medieval-cog-coinOne odd feature about the cog was that the horizontal deck planks were intentionally built with gaps between them, which allowed water to drain from the deck into the cargo hold below. There the water was pumped out with simple bilge pumps. This required some innovation when it came to packing and storing the cargo so that it wouldn’t get wet and be ruined before arriving at its destination. Therefore, most cargo was enclosed in very large (252 gallon) barrels, called “tuns” (from where we get the term tonnage).

It took some time before the cog style ship came into use in Southern Europe, where maneuverability was considered more important than having a reinforced hull. There Roman style galley ships continued to be used until later on in the Middle Ages.

I’ve included two short videos today. One is a fascinating look at an actual medieval vessel that was found and is in the process of being restored, and the other shows some of the tools and methods used to build medieval ships.

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Medieval Monday: Money!

medieval-faireIt’s hard to imagine a world where paper money and coinage isn’t the most common way to pay for things. But that was the reality for most people in the Middle Ages.  The majority of your daily needs would have been met using either your own skills and labor, or acquired through the barter system. It wasn’t even gold and coinage that made the nobility wealthy, but the amount of land they held. Land that produced important resources, including crops, timber, quarries, mines, livestock, or game for hunting. It might also include vital waterways, towns, or cities.

In the feudal system that governed medieval life, the poorest classes were basically bought and sold with the land they lived and worked on—their labor was part of what made the land profitable. Everything on, or within, a noble’s lands could be taxed. For the most part, taxes weren’t paid in currency either, but in goods and services. Kings and queens bestowed land upon their lords, and the lords in turn owed back a portion of the wealth they collected, along with the promise to provide trained knights and soldiers as needed.

money-did-use-medieval-times_ff7f9557f57bcf4bAll that taken into account, currency wasn’t a complete unknown either. Sometimes the barter system was simply too impractical or difficult, and didn’t always work well for merchants who were trying to buy goods from distant places. Kings paid their armies with coinage and used it to buy imported goods. When a king traveled to other kingdoms, he would take money that would be of value in the place where he was going so that he could buy goods and services while he was there. There was an additional need for coinage, and that was the Church, which also collected taxes. The practice of indulgences (something later challenged by the Reformation movement) meant that people could purchase forgiveness of their sins with money. Typically coinage was only useful in the city, or at large trade fairs—it would not have been commonly carried around otherwise.

The Florin--one of the few standard currencies in Europe by 1300.

The Florin–one of the few standard currencies in Europe by 1300.

So what did medieval money look like? In Europe there wasn’t a single standard. Coins came in different qualities, weights, and shapes. For the most part they were lightweight, and the edges weren’t rounded. Gold, silver, and copper were the standard metals used for coin

Early French medieval coins

Early French medieval coins

production, with gold having the highest value. At first the small silver penny (pfennig or denarius) was the most common. In the 13th century, the groat was introduced. This was a larger silver penny (worth 4 of the smaller ones). Eventually silver was phased out in favor of copper, which was cheaper to use. Medieval coins had a variety of designs stamped on them depending on where they came from. Under feudalism, each region produced its own to honor whichever authority it happened to be under. With time, these designs became more standardized to make trade easier from region to region.

This very short video honors William the Conquerer by making a reproduction of his coin. It demonstrates how coins were made then, and continued to be made, through the Middle Ages.

(Did you miss last week’s post on merchant ships? It’s not too late–just click to read.)

Medieval Monday: Merchant Ships

medieval-cog2While many crops and other goods were able to be moved by hand, or by using animal-drawn carts, boats were also an important mode of transportation in the Middle Ages. They could bear larger and heavier loads, and allowed merchants to trade over long distances. They brought goods into the medieval world from exotic places, sparking a desire for shorter, less difficult passages, which eventually led to world exploration. There were a variety of ships built and used in the Middle Ages, and there isn’t enough space in this post to explore them all. For today, I’m going to focus on those used by merchants, since they had the most impact on daily life.

medieval-cogFor Northern Europe, the Cog was a standard merchant ship—though more accurately, it was a general term used for a variety of ships that had similar attributes. Cogs were built small at first, but with need and advances in ship building techniques, its size grew over time. The cog’s hull had high sides, and its bow and stern castles were all fortified. Though it did have oars for rowing, a single square sail was its primary means of propulsion. Cogs were difficult to sail as they were slow and not especially maneuverable. But their most distinguishing, and useful feature, were their wide, flat bottoms, which made them spacious vessels that could hold bulky loads. These ships could carry 200 tons of cargo, which was about ten times the amount that a Viking ship could hold. Cogs were able to travel along rivers, through the tidal coasts of Northern Europe, and in the shallow waters around the Low Countries. Built to be sturdy, they could be beached, and even run aground, without sinking.

medieval-cog-coinOne odd feature about the cog was that the horizontal deck planks were intentionally built with gaps between them, which allowed water to drain from the deck into the cargo hold below. There the water was pumped out with simple bilge pumps. This required some innovation when it came to packing and storing the cargo so that it wouldn’t get wet and be ruined before arriving at its destination. Therefore, most cargo was enclosed in very large (252 gallon) barrels, called “tuns” (from where we get the term tonnage).

It took some time before the cog style ship came into use in Southern Europe, where maneuverability was considered more important than having a reinforced hull. There Roman style galley ships continued to be used until later on in the Middle Ages.

I’ve included two short videos today. One is a fascinating look at an actual medieval vessel that was found and is in the process of being restored, and the other shows some of the tools and methods used to build medieval ships.