Medieval Professions: The Sailor

Being a sailor in the middle ages meant living a lonely and difficult life, as they would often be on the sea for months or even a year at a time. Sailors worked from sunrise to sunset.

A sailor’s pay depended on his rank; while a common sailor earned very little, a First Mate or Boatswain could take home much more substantial wages. 

Sailors were trained in handling the vessel, their duties at sea, and even ocean combat. The ultimate goal of a sailor was to reach Officer and receive command of their own vessel eventually.

History of Sailors

Throughout history, sailing has been instrumental in the development of civilization. The first boats are presumed to have been dugout canoes, developed independently by different Stone Age populations. Although humans had been navigating the waters for thousands of years, large sailing vessels capable of ocean travel were a medieval invention.

European medieval ships were powered by sail or oar, or both. While ships in the north were influenced by Viking vessels, those in the south were inspired by classical or Roman vessels. The term ‘ships,’ in the medieval sense, applied specifically to large, deep-hulled sailing vessels, such as cogs and hulks.

During the medieval period, ships were raised for military service on an ad hoc basis according to the English Crown’s policies and needs (there wasn’t a navy in the modern sense). The majority of fighting manpower for naval expeditions was made up of soldiers and supported by ships’ crews.

Early seafarers had a lot to endure, and they didn’t always voluntarily sign up for the job. Throughout history, the law allowed gangs to seize men and force them to join a ship. 

Because ocean travel was a dangerous undertaking, shipbuilders frequently included symbols and decorations meant to ward off evil spirits and bring luck to the sailors, such as carved wooden busts or figureheads mounted on the bow of the ship. 

The first delineation of a ship on the Bayeux tapestry: Harold’s ship is poled off from the English coast
The first delineation of a ship on the Bayeux tapestry: Harold’s ship is poled off from the English coast.

Life of a sailor

Sailors had to accept cramped conditions, disease, poor food and pay, and bad weather.

Among the jobs sailors would do onboard, we can find keeping watch, handling sails, cleaning decks, cooking, or being a master gunner. To prevent a mutiny, the ship’s officers kept strict discipline on board. Punishments included being ‘tarred and feathered,’ tied to a rope, swung overboard and ducked or ‘keel-hauled,’ dragged around the underneath of the ship, or flogged (a rope’s end was used, or the infamous ‘cat o’ nine tails’).

Sailors would eat food that suffered from deteriorating quality due to storage problems, lack of ventilation, an abundance of vermin, and more. Rations could include salt beef or pork, cheese, fish, ale, and some form of ship’s biscuit.

Sickness wasn’t uncommon at sea. Apart from being usually cold, wet, and malnourished, sailors were surrounded by rats that carried the disease. Shipboard accidents were also frequent, and ships’ surgeons worked in cramped and filthy conditions without anesthetic. Infection and gangrene were commonplace.

Seamen made the best of their cramped living quarters by enjoying games of dice and cards, telling tales, carving or drawing, playing musical instruments, and singing ‘sea shanties’ – rhythmic work songs that helped repetitive tasks.

A miniature of the battle from Jean Froissart's Chronicles, 15th century.
A miniature of the battle from Jean Froissart's Chronicles, 15th century. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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