Seafarers, Merchants and Pirates in the Middle Ages

Dirk Meier

translated from the German by Angus McGeoch
Boydell Press 2006
A book review by Danny Yee © 2007
Seafarers, Merchants and Pirates in the Middle Ages offers a nautical overview of the Baltic, the North Sea and adjacent regions in the medieval period. It has an emphasis on marine archaeology, on the material culture of ships and settlements, but Meier also draws on historical sources and uses quotations from contemporary writers to good effect. The result offers a lively feel for a region which has, at least in English, been neglected in comparison with the Atlantic and Mediterranean.

Shipbuilding progressed from long-ships and other early forms to cogs and carracks. At the end of the period carvel-planking started to replace clinker-planking, allowing bigger and more watertight ships such as the caravel. Navigation also improved. Early sailors followed the shore, using landmarks, primitive instruments and sailing directions. Ventures across open sea were assisted by the introduction of the compass, the use of the lead-line, and better charts.

Two chapters survey early ports, exploring the archaeological record from a few in greater detail. The first covers the North Sea, from the English ports of Southampton, London, Ipswich and York, eastwards along the coast of Europe through Dorestad and Emden and Ribe, to Kaupang in Norway. The second covers the Baltic, looking at settlements such as Hedeby, Birka, Old Lübeck, and Wolin-Vineta.

The Vikings also roamed further afield. They established a "far-flung transport and trading network [which] extended across the Baltic and up the Russian rivers". They crossed the North Atlantic and settled the Orkneys, the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland and Vinland. And they raided, and in some cases conquered, areas of Britain and France.

The later period saw the rise of the Hanseatic League, a loosely-linked alliance of cities that in many ways remained "an association of merchants". Key cities included Lübeck, Bremen and Hamburg, and there were substantial Hansa presences in cities such as Bruges and London. Here Meier also attempts to give a feel for the kind of life a Hansa merchant might have led. Towards the end of the 14th century, the Vitalienbrüder privateers were let loose and supported by the Duchy of Mecklenburg to harm the kingdoms of Denmark and Norway; proving a broader menace, they were eventually forced into the North Sea and then eliminated.

Seafarers, Merchants and Pirates in the Middle Ages is beautifully illustrated, with many glossy full page colour illustrations. These are mostly of manuscripts and archaeological finds, with some "reconstruction" depictions of settlements. Some slightly amateurish maps are the only let-down here.

Seafarers is an accessible popular account. It offers no references or notes, only five pages of further reading suggestions, but it never descends to dramatisation and could be read by students or scholars without embarrassment.

October 2007

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%T Seafarers, Merchants and Pirates in the Middle Ages
%A Meier, Dirk
%M German
%F McGeoch, Angus
%I Boydell Press
%D 2006
%O hardcover, index
%G ISBN 1843832372
%P 184pp