There are some lucky students currently on a cruise hoping they’ve got their preferred university place where they can study for their English degree.
Their sea trip will probably have been sponsored by a moneybags relative, who has decided to give their favourite sprog, niece or nephew a taste of the high life at sea, before the scholastic scion settles down to their land-based studies and decades of debt.
These young scholars will usually be found basking near the ship’s swimming pool, occasionally flicking through Chaucer’s unexpurgated Canterbury Tales and mugging up on the life and times of medieval England.
Sooner or later a salty brain wave will suddenly hit them – splat! – like the droppings of a passing seagull. ‘I wonder,’ ponders the lounging scholar, ‘what it would have been like to take a cruise in the Middle Ages…?’
The Rich Man’s Tale
The short answer is: it all depended on how wealthy you were.
For poor passengers or crew in those far-off days, a sea journey was no fun.
But if you were a wealthy Duke, Earl, Baron, or merchant, you probably had your own panelled cabin built on a decent sized ship such as a carrack, preferably one carrying more than one mast.
You’d avoid sailing on a tiny medieval cog, which wouldn’t have enough room or shelter on board for more than a handful of passengers. It would also be extremely uncomfortable for even a short trip.
The large hulk you’ve chosen to carry you to your destination would of course be filled with all the things you consider necessary to keep body and soul together, such as a hanging bed, and hooks for what lesser medieval souls would consider a luxury, lamps.
You’d even have your own personal portable altar, for those moments when you pray to God during a storm.
And you’d want a perch for your favourite falcon who, on calm days, you’d send off to hunt for sea birds.
The Companion’s Tale
Below decks would be your stable of favourite horses. And cooks crushing sack loads of almonds which they turned into milk for sauces. There’d probably be a cow and crate-loads of chickens, for you were fond of your fresh milk and eggs.
And you’d need casks and barrels of ale and wine to wash down all those heavy meals full of herbs and spices.
In between the courses, you’d play dice with your companions – for you wouldn’t be travelling alone in those perilous times.
The Servant’s Tale
Your servants – and crew – would have to lump it below decks in the dark, where they’d huddle in foul weather.
Or sleep in their hammocks to avoid getting splashed in the night by the vomit and other horrible bodily evacuations that have fallen out of overturned pisspots.
Anyone desperate to ‘go’ in the night would have to crawl over the other occupants of their quarters in total darkness and try not to fall overboard while they’re relieving themselves over the sides of the ship.
This probably led to the expression, ‘dying for the loo’, which, in those dark and dismal times, would have been the literal truth.
It was something to think about when you first boarded your vessel and the captain doffed his cap and greeted you with, ‘Sire, God give you good cruise.’
To which your responded, hopefully, ‘Sire, gramercy for your courteous welcome and of your good will. Now shift yourself.’
Unfortunately, in the 14th century or thereabouts if you were injured or fell ill – at sea or on land – there were no trained doctors, surgeons or dentists to call on.
It didn’t really matter if you were rich or poor. What you really needed on a medieval sea cruise was good luck. And plenty of it.
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