The Macksey Journal


Recent studies of northern European ships and shipping in the Middle Ages have treated manuscript illuminations as reliable sources of technical information concerning vessel construction. On the strength of apparent correlation between the fragmentary archaeological record and the much fuller corpus of illustrations, Dr. Joe Flatman has argued that monastic artists of the tenth through thirteenth centuries interacted closely with ships and understood their form and function. However, the illuminations do not support this view: instead, there is strong evidence that manuscript painters derived their maritime compositions from imitation of earlier illustrations. Similarly, monastic literature exhibits no familiarity with either maritime technology or the practicalities of handling ships at sea. This paper analyzes maritime passages in a widely read hagiographical text, the Navigatio Sancti Brendani, which reveals that clerical authors lifted their maritime imagery from Classical Latin sources. Misreadings in manuscripts of the Navigatio also suggest that the scribes who copied the piece struggled to comprehend maritime terminology. My conclusions cast into doubt the value of any monastic artform, literary or pictorial, as a source of technical information.