'Of Laws of Ships and Shipmen': Medieval Maritime Law and Its Practice in Urban Northern Europe

By Edda Frankot | Go to book overview

1
A History of Maritime Law in Northern
Europe

In early sea shipping the roles of skippers, shipowners and merchants usually overlapped. As a consequence, maritime law was simple, required only to regulate situations in which two ships collided.1 Gradually, however, more and more people became involved in the freighting of a single ship, and a differentiation eventually emerged between the roles of skippers, merchants, shipowners and crew members. Maritime law became correspondingly more complicated since remedies were required to reconcile points of conflict between the expanding cast of maritime society. Following regional developments in shipping technology, these regulations evolved differently in the various regions of Europe and, more particularly for the present purpose, of northern Europe.2 The oldest surviving regulations in northern Europe are from Scandinavia and date to the late twelfth century.

Ships that were built specifically for the transportation of bulk cargo probably first appeared in the tenth century.3 Before that time, the early Viking Age ships were built to carry both warriors and small amounts of cargo. These ships were ideal for raiding the coastal areas of northern Europe, but when the Vikings consolidated their political position in the area and shifted their emphasis to trading instead of raiding, changes occurred in Scandinavian shipbuilding.4 On the one hand, longships were built to carry personnel swiftly across the waters for military and defensive purposes. On the other hand, broad ships appeared which were specialised in carrying cargo.5

The Scandinavian ships were clinker-built. They possessed a strong outside shell of overlapping cleft boards, which were riveted together, and were reinforced by a light interior frame. A different type of ship emerged

1 Landwehr, ‘Seerecht’, col. 1, 596. The skipper was served by his personal servants and the relation between them was regulated by other laws. The risks of the sea voyage would be borne by the shipowner alone.

2 Landwehr, ‘Seerecht’, col. 1, 596.

3 Crumlin-Pedersen, ‘Ships as indicators of trade’, 15.

4 A similar development seems to have taken place in Slav shipbuilding. Crumlin-Pedersen, ‘Ships as indicators of trade’, 17.

5 Ibid. 16–17 The sizes of such ships varied in accordance with their function: small coastal vessels could carry an average of five tons whereas the deep-sea cargo carriers were built to be freighted with fifty to sixty tons of goods.

-6-

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