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This article was originally published on my WordPress blogJuly 2014.


Not the ship called Barry, but a small fishing boat near Nerja, Spain, 1984:  it carries the sort of apotropaic eyes on the bow that could be seen on ships in the ancient Mediterranean

Emotional. Cultural. Spiritual. Political. Legal, even. Names can come with a lot of baggage, one way or another.   With people, names can tell you who a person is related to, who they were named after in the family, or sometimes even roughly when they were born.

Likewise, the names given to ships have always carried a lot of freight, so to speak. In medieval Europe, it was common to name ships after saints and other aspects of divinity. The principal aim here was doubtless apotropaic, to secure divine protection from harm on a voyage. The sea was a dangerous place in the Middle Ages – storms or accidents could wreck the biggest ships (and still can), and there was always the danger of attack by pirates or privateers.   This made ship-naming a matter of real significance, beyond the mere vanity of the owner.   In a similar spirit, eyes were often painted on ships in the ancient Mediterranean, to ward off evil (see the photo for a relatively recent example of this).

The regular re-use of a fairly limited number of names can lead to some confusion when it comes to studying medieval ships. For example, I’m currently finishing off a paper for The World of the Newport Ship conference at Bristol University (1).  As part of this, I’ve compiled a listing of English and Welsh ships from the years 1439-1451. This includes vessels trading to Bordeaux for wine (a big employer of English shipping at the time) and ships that were arrested for royal expeditions. As a fair number of vessels get mentioned more than once, I’ve tried to whittle the list down to what a minimum of 321 actual ships by eliminating repeat references – not an easy job.  To take just one instance, in 1443 the Devon port of Ottermouth had four vessels that were of the same type (picards) and were of the same size (30 tons). Each one was called Trinity!  What separates them out is that they were listed at the same time, and each had a different master.

When it comes to the kinds of names that these 321 vessels had, the results are predictable in one way (most were religious), but still interesting. Just over one in five of the ships (71) were named Marie or Mary, after the Virgin, the commonest name by a long way. This was followed by Trinity (35 ships), names related to Christ (ChristJesusSaviour, 22 ships), George (for St George of England, 21 ships) and St Margaret (20 ships, a very popular medieval saint).   The fate of St Nicholas, better known to us as Santa Claus, is strange: despite being also well-known as a patron-saint of sailors, only 14 of these vessels were named for him. He was just ahead of St Christopher, the patron of travellers, with 12 ships, but both were ‘beaten’ by St Katherine (17 ships).  Even direct invocations of God, such as Grace DieuGoddesgrace and Godbefore, only occur in nine instances.

Of course, it’s possible that some of the ships with saints’  names denoted family members, but given that people were often named for saints, the religious connection would not have been lost on contemporaries.  Only a small number of ships had overtly non-religious names.  These included the name of the Moton of Fowey, named for a piece of armour, or perhaps just a sheep (‘mutton’).

Sometimes the religious names had a surname attached to them, identifying the owner.  An example of this was the 260-ton Margaret Talbot of Bristol in 1451, which belonged to John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury.  This sort of practise became much more common in the 16th century.

What is particularly interesting is that in the overwhelmingly male world of late medieval seafaring, over one-third (121, 38%) of the ships invoked feminine aspects of the divine.   Lest this seem too much like a kind of heavenly hit-parade, it has to be remembered that most of these names will have been intended to act as real defences against the very real terrors of the deep.

And the ship called Barry of Fowey?   Probably not a reference to the shipowner’s best mate Bazza, but a dedication to St Barry, an early-medieval saint reputedly buried at Fowey.

Blog © Ian Friel 2014, photo © Ian Friel 1984

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Ian Friel

Author Ian Friel

Ian Friel is a historian, researcher and author with over 40 years experience and an international reputation in the field of maritime history.

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