In the 1300s an increase in economic activity not only saw a rapid increase in the numbers of ships trading up and down the Atlantic seaboard but also in the numbers of ships from northern waters entering the Mediterranean. This led to fascinating processes of technological exchange in which Italian shipwrights in places such as Pisa and Genoa began to build ships that combined the best features of north and south. Using their frame-based construction they adapted the hull form to carry a centreline, stern rudder. They also set a northern style square sail on a central main mast but retained a lateen sail on a smaller mast towards the stern – the mesan or mizzen mast. Before long a third mast – the foremast – was added and this provided an even better balanced rig, greater manoeuvrability and in some situations more speed. It was this rig that we still call the classic ‘ship rig’.In their turn, these ships traded north where their qualities were quickly appreciated by merchants and navies alike. The larger ships built in this manner were called ‘carrack’ by the northerners and the smaller ones were ‘carvels’ a term probably derived from the Portuguese ship type ‘caravella’. The word carvel or its equivalent quickly spread throughout 15th century northern Europe and came to refer to any ship built in this frame-led manner irrespective of size. The reason for its appearance in every northern European language at this time is because it was quickly recognised that these ships answered many needs of an increasingly maritime and global world.Carvel construction was robust and could incorporate timber of lesser quality than the traditional clinker. It was not only better suited to the building of large ships but carvels were also more suitable for the ways in which ships were now to be used: Long-distance voyaging for transatlantic fishing and whaling, ocean-going trade in ships that were fast, manoeuvrable and defensible and of course for naval warfare.In this last role we see the carvel ship quickly developed into a platform for guns of increasing size as the early nation states vied for power and control. This in essence is what we see in Henry VIII’s Mary Rose, The Scottish Great Michael, the Swedish Mars, and a host of other great ships of the period, capable of exerting terrifying power through the muzzles of their guns but also of projecting the dynastic power, status and prestige of their renaissance rulers.Jon Adams
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