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Ships and Shipping in Medieval Manuscripts

The word “manuscript” can be literally translated as written by hand.  Books which were written or transcribed by hand were produced between the 5th and 15th centuries, dates determined by the limits of bibliographic technology.  The earliest manuscripts developed with the transition from the scroll to the rectangular book form, around the 5th century CE.  The decline of handwritten books occurred with the development of printing, around the 1440s, which coincided historically with the end of the medieval period.

Maritime subjects and images existed throughout the span of manuscript production, though the specific topics were dependent upon the nature of the illuminated work in which the images were found.   During the first centuries of manuscript production, books were created by and for religious groups: monasteries, churches, etc.   Scriptoria produced large numbers of books between 650 and 900 CE.   These manuscripts often related biblical or religious topics in the context of daily life, and as water was a key source for transportation and for food, early manuscripts were replete with maritime symbols and imagery.   Noah’s ark, Jonah and whale, the disciples as fishermen were popular topics which included images of ships or small craft.

Until the 13th century, manuscripts were often produced by religious houses.  After that time, books began to also be produced by professionals, who were hired to keep up with the growing demand for books.  With the advent of universities in the 1200s, subjects expanded exponentially, as many of the classical texts were revisited or revised to be included in the new scholarly settings.  There was also an increase in books produced strictly for trade, including books of poetry and personal prayer books such as the Book of Hours.  Images of ships and sailing, as well as maritime history, were often included…..

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