The iconographic evidence for maritime activities in the Middle Ages

The iconographic evidence for maritime activities in the Middle Ages

By Joe C. Flatman

Current Science, Vol.86:9 (2004)

Abstract: The analysis of maritime scenes in medieval illuminated manuscripts has a long established history dating back to the 19th century. Manuscript illuminations have been used in particular to analyse specific details such as shipping and sea life. But what of the broader picture of the maritime world? Depictions of the maritime environment survive in great number in illuminated manuscripts, and offer an insight into the contemporary perception of this distinctive locale. This broader perspective will be explored in this paper, highlighting common themes and notable absences of maritime imagery, exploring the origins of artists and their inspiration and clarifying the types of volume maritime imagery appears in, and changes over time. In particular, the paper will explore the vexed question of iconographic accuracy, particularly the accuracy of distances and perspective – the geographical sense of the world as depicted in illuminations and how these reflect on medieval cognition, the ‘mental maps’ of sea, land and sky used to guide a mariner to safe landfall.

Introduction: The value of analysing different sources for medieval watercraft has long been demonstrated: examples include Burwash1 and Rose2 for documentary data, Steffy and McGrail for archaeological and ethnographic data, and Moll, Ewe and Villain-Gandossi for iconographic data. These analyses have their root in research begun during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, work which was to initiate the whole study of medieval vessels – indeed the whole of what eventually became known as ‘maritime archaeology’. The basic approaches developed in this early period of research continued in use for a long time, until developed in a strictly theoretical sense by the archaeological pioneers of the 1960s onwards. Thereafter, an increasing number of vessel remains were found in archaeological contexts, revealing a range of data on shipbuilding that could be correlated with this accumulated iconographic and documentary record.

Manuscript illuminations have been used in particular to analyse specific details of the maritime past, in particular shipping, in the narrow sense of the different types/ traditions of shipbuilding. However, focused as these have been on trying to explicate the complex processes of technological change in medieval shipbuilding, such studies have tended to downplay the fact that iconographic sources also contain a wealth of wider ‘maritime’ imagery of use to archaeologists and historians far beyond simply technological data on vessel technology. Drawing on the author’s ongoing research into illuminated manuscripts from major British and French library collections, and focused around the particular genre of medieval (c. 1200–1550 AD) illuminated manuscripts from NW Europe, this paper demonstrates that beyond vesselspecific data, manuscript illuminations include evidence for related tools, equipment, activities and processes. Despite the problems and risks inherent to using such forms of iconography as a direct source of information, manuscript illuminations remain too large a resource to be sidelined:

. . . these artists obviously satisfied their audience. The ships they drew must have been recognized as representing . . . ships of the time. As with caricatures, many relative dimensions will be accurately represented even though the overall form is distorted.

Manuscript illuminations provide detailed and often relatively accurate depictions of crafts like shipbuilding, structures like wharves and revetments, and activities like rowing, sailing and steering. These aid an interrogative analysis of the maritime cultural landscapes within which vessels were created and used and their builders and crews lived and died. This is true not only for the medieval European focus of this paper, but also for other forms of iconography from other periods and geographical regions.

Click here to read/download this article (PDF file)

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine