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Date

4-30-2020

Description

My research examines monastic engagement with ships and the sea in the middle ages. I challenge two long-standing assumptions in the field of medieval maritime history, first that the regular clergy interacted closely with ocean-going vessels, and thus that maritime scenes in manuscript illuminations provide glimpses of genuine medieval ships. I begin with an art-historical investigation which proves that manuscript illuminators could obtain information about watercraft without observing them first-hand. It is by no means certain that any medieval artist ever set foot aboard a ship, although some recent commentators are convinced otherwise, and I describe an alternative scenario that would still allow the production of accurate maritime illustrations. I then use medieval Latin chronicles, crusade histories, epic poems, and encyclopedias (all of which were composed in a monastic context) as gauges of the clerical élite's familiarity with seafaring. Focusing my inquiry especially on descriptions of shipbuilding and shipwreck, I have found that medieval authors style their accounts after Roman models, especially Vergil, Pliny, Caesar, and Cicero. Wherever they do diverge from the classical sources, their writing veers into the genre of science-fiction, suggesting that medieval writers viewed the sea as a hostile and otherworldly place, the realm of barbaric peoples, satanic monsters, and impossible anthropomorphic vessels. Such aversion to the maritime environment reaffirms my claim that the clergy were wholly inexperienced in sailing, and it is impossible to reconcile their manifest ignorance with the alleged realism of the manuscript illuminations they produced.

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Apr 30th, 12:00 AM

"Does the Painter Know the Bridle and Bit?": Evidence of Clerical Engagement with the Sea in Monastic Art and Literature, 750-1250

My research examines monastic engagement with ships and the sea in the middle ages. I challenge two long-standing assumptions in the field of medieval maritime history, first that the regular clergy interacted closely with ocean-going vessels, and thus that maritime scenes in manuscript illuminations provide glimpses of genuine medieval ships. I begin with an art-historical investigation which proves that manuscript illuminators could obtain information about watercraft without observing them first-hand. It is by no means certain that any medieval artist ever set foot aboard a ship, although some recent commentators are convinced otherwise, and I describe an alternative scenario that would still allow the production of accurate maritime illustrations. I then use medieval Latin chronicles, crusade histories, epic poems, and encyclopedias (all of which were composed in a monastic context) as gauges of the clerical élite's familiarity with seafaring. Focusing my inquiry especially on descriptions of shipbuilding and shipwreck, I have found that medieval authors style their accounts after Roman models, especially Vergil, Pliny, Caesar, and Cicero. Wherever they do diverge from the classical sources, their writing veers into the genre of science-fiction, suggesting that medieval writers viewed the sea as a hostile and otherworldly place, the realm of barbaric peoples, satanic monsters, and impossible anthropomorphic vessels. Such aversion to the maritime environment reaffirms my claim that the clergy were wholly inexperienced in sailing, and it is impossible to reconcile their manifest ignorance with the alleged realism of the manuscript illuminations they produced.