The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Issue 8, June 2005, Issue Editor: Elizabeth Ragan

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

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Twelfth-Century Norman and Irish Literary Evidence for Ship-Building and Sea-Faring Techniques of Norse Origin

William SayersMailto: Icon
Cornell University

©2005 by William Sayers. All rights reserved. This edition copyright ©2005 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

Abstract: Sailing scenes in twelfth-century Irish and Norman literature deploy a nautical vocabulary derived from Old Norse, supporting iconographical and archaeological evidence of the extensive transfer of Scandinavian nautical technology. This lexicon advances our understanding of the square sail and standing and running rigging, otherwise sparsely represented in the archaeological record.

§1.  The construction site of Skuldelev Wreck No. 2, a nearly one hundred foot long Viking Age warship, has been relocated from southern Scandinavia to the Dublin area of Ireland and dated it to the year 1042. This reintroduces in strikingly concrete fashion a question raised earlier by the apparent general similarity of Norman ships depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry to Scandinavian archaeological finds and to the descriptions of ship-building and sea-faring that are found in Old Norse/Icelandic literature: just how thorough-going was the transfer of nautical technology in the ninth and tenth centuries to areas where the Norse established settlements (Normandy, the Danelaw, and northern and western Scotland) or trading ports (the Irish coast)?1 The linguistic evidence for such a transfer is quite extensive in the case of both Middle Irish and the Norman and Anglo-Norman dialects of Old French.2 Although lexicographers and maritime historians reviewed this evidence thoroughly at the turn of the century, several important refinements in our understanding of the corpus of lexical loans are now possible dueto recent advances in maritime archaeology.

§2.  An examination of the literary deployment of relatively extensive specialist vocabularies in descriptive passages aiming at density of technical detail—a feature of the inherited catalogue device of the epic tradition—is both rewarding and problematic. In the primarily twelfth-century texts to be considered below, relatively large numbers of terms are used in close proximity while retaining discrete semantic values. This permits a contextualizing or trigonometrical approach to analysis, in which meanings can be determined by exploring complementarity and opposition.

§3.  But the historical fictions that are our sources, written by men of letters who were invariably Church-educated and not professional mariners, warn us against taking the descriptions of embarkations and sailing in fair and foul weather at face value as realistically accurate. This can be illustrated by a passage from one of the legendary tales of Ireland, Cath Finntrágha (The Battle of Ventry), in which historical Viking raids on Ireland have been transformed into an assault by the King of the World and his southern Norwegian allies against a legendary Ireland defended by Finn mac Cumhail and his Fenian warriors. Wittily, the author inserts a description of a storm at sea that almost destroys the Norse fleet, even as he deploys an Irish lexicon of names for ship parts that is largely Norse in origin. This kind of virtuoso description is called a run in the native Irish story-telling tradition, and thoroughly exploits the catalogue or list.

Then they had no ship that was not shivered, nor frame not fractured to fragments, nor hull not hurtled, nor plank not plucked away, nor trenail not tried, nor strake not stricken, nor tent beam not torn away, nor oar-hole unbattened, nor bench not battered (or sprit-pole not split), nor decking not drubbed, nor yard not yanked, nor mast not mauled harshly, nor stay not strung out, nor strong strip of sail-cloth not strained asunder, nor warship not wrested from its swift course by the full tempest, unless its crew, close at hand, chanced to attend and allay it in relief. (Cath Finntrágha ll. 36-59)3

§4.  The stylistic device of the parallel listing of ships parts and the storms' effects on them is complemented by the use of alliteration between the names for the parts and the verbal nouns describing their destruction. This has been retained in the translation in a rather free rendering of the Irish verbal forms, while the more narrowly technical Irish terms are given their most accurate possible identification in English. In this dense catalogue of parts, no fewer than ten of fifteen are of Norse origin. Other sea-runs and descriptions of sea-faring in Middle Irish literature (some in translations of classical works such as accounts of wars against Thebes and Troy, Statius's Pharsalia and Virgil's Aeneid) yield another twenty-odd terms, giving a dominant Norse stamp to the nautical lexicon. The table below lists those most closely allied to the ship type, hull construction, and the sail and rigging that will be the focal point in the subsequent part of this study. English equivalents translate the Irish terms, since in some cases these reflect semantic shifts or extensions from Norse.

Table 1:  Irish, Old Norse/Icelandic, and English Terms Related to Ships
Irish Old Norse/Icelandic English
abur habora oar-hole
achtam aktaumr brace
allsad halsa clew up
bát bátr ship's boat
beirling, bir(r)ling berling ground beam for tent
bord borð strake, hull plank
carb karfi middle-sized cargo and troop ship
ciúil kjóll ship
cnairr knörr cargo ship
cnaturbarc, -long, cnaplong *knattarbarki (nail-)studded ship
eibil hefill clew line
es(s), as áss beam, timber; ship
folann fjöl? deck planking?
haistig- hástokkr? gunwale?
idús viðu-hús turret
laídeng leiðangr naval forces; ship
lipting lypting high decked part of stern
lunnta hlunnr and hlummr oar handle
rúm rúm hold or compartment in hold
rung röng frame of ship's hull
scib skip ship
scút(a) skúta boat, small ship
séol segl or OE segel sail
sess, seas sess rower's seat
stag stag stay
stiúir stýri rudder, helm
teas (for *tealdás?) tjaldáss? tentpole (debated)
tile þili/þilja deck planking, deck
tophta, tochta þopta rowing bench, thwart
ub húfr hull
undás vindáss windlass

§5.  Despite the undeniable interest of this twelfth-century Irish terminology, it cannot be said to advance our knowledge of the otherwise relatively well documented construction of Viking Age hulls, nor do the few terms for the standing and running rigging further our more problematic understanding of sail-handling. But in leaving the Irish evidence for the consideration of comparable descriptive passages in the Norman dialect of Old French, we can have little doubt that construction and repair projects such as those represented by Skuldelev Wreck 2 had a major impact on Irish vocabulary and, one must assume, if only for a limited period, on Irish nautical technology, an impact extending well beyond the port towns that were the seats of Norse power in Ireland.

§6.  About a century after the launching of the Dublin longship, the Jerseyman Wace, writing in the Norman dialect of French but for Anglo-Norman patrons, described the embarkation of King Arthur for Gaul in his adaptation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Brittaniae entitled Le Roman de Brut. In this passage, narrative context can play a greater role in efforts to identify the nautical lexicon than the simple oppositions of the Irish examples. Since the Old French texts will be more accessible than the Irish to many readers, both the original and a translation are offered.

Le Roman de Brut in Old French with Parallel English Translation
Puis vint passer a Suthamtune;
La furent les nefs amenees
E les maisnees assemblees.
Mult veïssiez nés aturner,
Nés atachier, nés aancrer,
Nés assechier e nés floter,
Nés cheviller e nés cloer,
Funains estendre, maz drecier,
Punz mettre fors e nés chargier,
Helmes, escuz, halbercs porter,
Lances drecier, chevals tirer,
Chevaliers e servanz entrer,
E lun ami laltre apeler.
Mult se vunt entresaluant
Li remanant e li errant.
Quant as nés furent tuit entré
Et tide orent et bon oré,
Dunc veïssiez ancres lever,
Estrens traire, hobens fermer,
Mariniers saillir par cez nés,
Deshenechier veilles e trés;
Li un sesforcent al windas,
Li altre al lof et al betas;
Detriés sunt li guverneür,
Li maistre esturman li meillur.
Chescuns de guverner se peinne
Al guvernal, ki la nef meine:
Avant le hel si curt senestre,
E sus le hel pur cure a destre.
Pur le vent es trés acuillir
Funt les lispruez avant tenir
Et bien fermer es raelinges.
Tels i ad traient les guidinges,
Et alquant abaissent le tref
Pur la nef curre plus süef.
Estuïns ferment et escotes
Et funt tendre les cordes tutes,
Uitages laschent, trés avalent,
Boëlines sachent et halent,
Al vent guardent et as esteilles,
Sulunc luré portent lur veilles;
Les braiols funt lacier al mast
Que li venz par desuz ne past;
A dous ris curent u a treis.
Mult fu hardiz, molt fu curteis
Cil qui fist nés premierement
Et en mer se mist aval vent,
Terre querant quil ne veeit,
Et rivage quil ne saveit
(Wace Le Roman de Brut, ll. 11,190-238).4
Then [Arthur] advanced to Southampton;
There the ships were gathered
And the troops assembled.
You would have seen many ships being outfitted,
Ships moored, ships anchored,
Ships beached and ships launched,
Ships being pegged and nailed together,
Cordage spread out, masts raised,
Gangplanks put over the side and ships loaded,
Helmets, shields, hauberks carried,
Lances raised, horses led,
Knights and servants boarding,
And one friend calling out to another
They exchange many greetings,
Those who are staying behind and those who are sailing.
When all had gone aboard the ships
And they had the tide and a fair wind,
Then you would have seen anchors raised,
Cables hauled, shrouds tied down,
Sailors clambering around on board,
Unfurling canvas and sails;
Some strain at the windlass,
Others with the sail pin and tacking spar;
Aft are the helmsmen,
The best of the master steersmen.
Each one is attentive to his navigation
At the rudder that steers the ship;
Tiller forward if running to port,
Tiller back to run to starboard.
In order to gather the wind into the sails
They brace the leech-spars to the fore
And fix them solidly into the leeches.
There are some who pull the buntlines,
And lower the yard slightly,
So that the ship may run more smoothly.
They secure the fore-braces and the sheets,
And make all the ropes fast,
They release the halyards, bring down the yards,
Tighten the bowlines and haul,
They check the wind and the stars,
And trim their sails according to the breeze;
They lash the brails to the mast
So that the wind does escape past it;
They run under two reefs or three.
Very bold, very gallant was he
Who first built a ship
And set sail down wind,
Seeking a country he didn't see
And a shore he didn't know

§7.  Before passing to a discussion of the more challenging and potentially rewarding of these terms, a tabular presentation, although only a snapshot of a single text, will illustrate the preeminent Norse presence in this technical vocabulary. The majority of the terms are readily related to attested Norse terminology and to our understanding of Norse rigging and sailing. The list has some variant readings from other manuscripts, some hypothetical Norse terms (marked *), and a few still tentative English identifications. Several of the terms have the potential to cast new light on Scandinavian sea-faring practices as these evolved on the European Atlantic seaboard. Some may even be projected farther back in time to enrich our understanding of sailing in northern waters.

Table 2:  Norman French Technical Terms Related to Ships in Le Roman de Brut, Compared to Norse Terms (with English Translation)
Norman French Old Norse/Icelandic English
betas beitiáss tacking spar
boeline bóglína bowline
desheneker hnekkja? (with Fr. prefix) let out sail
escote skaut sheet
estran strengr rope, cable
estuin, estuinc stoeðingr brace
esturman, estrumen stýrismaðr steersman
guidinge, gurdinge gyrðingr buntline
haler hala haul
hel hjölm tiller
hoban, hobent höfuðbenda shroud
lisprue *lík-sproti spar for bracing sail
lof úfr splint, sail pin (later luff)
raelingue *rá-lík vertical leech of sail
ris, ren rif reef
uitage, utage, itage, utange, estague *ak-taug halyard
vindas vindáss windlass5

§8.  Although Wace was a native of the island of Jersey and may well have had first-hand experience of sailing in the Channel, we cannot say how sure his grasp of the detail of actual sailing techniques was. Furthermore, the mass embarkation scene would have involved a whole fleet, quite possibly intended to represent various ship types and sizes. Finally, several different sailing moments and kinds of weather may have been telescoped in the account, thus creating, for the experienced sailor, the rather disconcerting effect of moving quickly between good and poor weather procedures. These caveats raised, we may note that most of the standing and running rigging of Viking Age vessels with a single square sail is accounted for: shrouds, braces, sheets, bowlines, and brails (braiols is a Gallo-Romance term, not of Norse origin, but see below; the stay, Old French estai, ON stag, is attested in another contemporary text).

§9.  But conspicuous by their absence are terms derived from Old Norse dragreip, halyard and aktaumr, brace. The function of the former, which on Norse ships also served as a backstay, is assumed in Wace's text by the uitages, a term that always appears in the plural. In Old Norse/Icelandic reip (in the first compound above) is used only of rope made of animal hide, preferentially walrus for nautical use. If walrus-hide ropes were not readily available in southern Europe as a consequence of scarcity and cost, a double line made of hemp may have replaced it. Under these circumstances a term derived from reip would not be appropriate. Uitages can be plausibly traced to a hypothetical Norse *aktaug, with the first part of the compound covering the basic function of hauling (cf. aktaumr, brace) while the second (taug) would have been suitable for a rope made of other than animal hide.6 As other texts make clear, the yard and sail were raised by a windlass working this double line from a position well to the stern. If a derivative from *aktaug had displaced—in phonological not functional terms—ON/Icel. aktaumr, then stœðingr, here represented in the Norman plural estuins, may have been employed to designate the braces. It has also been suggested that stœðingar differed from aktaumar in being fore-braces, running from the ends of the yard to the forward part of the ship, practical rigging when sea conditions were as much a threat as the wind to the stability of the mast and yard. Does Wace's text illustrate sailing techniques specific to the Channel, i.e., double halyards, also serving as backstays, and a pair of fore-braces?

§10.  Problematic in somewhat different ways are the terms lof and raelingue. Anglo-Norman lof and Middle English loof would go on to mean the "luff", the weather edge of the square sail (that is, the edge angled forward into the wind, which would vary from starboard to port according to wind conditions), but at this stage it seems to have referred to a "bumpkin" (small boom) or sail pin through the sheerstrake (gunwale) to extend and secure the outward-angled tack (the lower corner on the weather side of the sail). An origin in Norse úfr splint, with an agglutinated Gallo-Romance definite article, is proposed: úfr > of > lof > le lof.7 Raelingue is a plausible development from a compound with Norse yard and lík leech and here refers to the leeches (vertical edges) of the sail down from the yard, fitted with boltropes and cringles (ON/Icel. hanki) into which the lispruez were fitted.

§11.  Lispruez is also best explained as a compound on known Norse bases: lík leech and spróti rod, gaff. We may picture spars (simple bumpkins or extension booms) braced against the hull and fitted into the leeches in order to boom out the sail or hold it well forward. Compare the bólstjaki still in use on the boats of north-western Iceland. It will be noted that beitiáss tacking spar is found as betas. It crossed from a cleat on the interior of one side of the hull and was lashed to the tack and sheerstrake on the other side. It both boomed out the corner of the sail and transferred some of the dynamic energy from the sail to the hull. Its function appears to be distinct from that of the lispruez but is perhaps comparable to that of the lof.

§12.  The verb desheneker, found in other twelfth-century verse texts as deshenechier, deshaneker, desherneschier, combines a French separative prefix and the simplex haneker, attested in other texts. In this case the act of unfurling the sails is described. Although variants of the word with an intrusive -r- might be referred to Fr. harnais "harness," I propose a Norse origin in the verb hnekkja "check, drive back, prevent," although attested nautical usage is lacking (see further exemplification below).

§13.  A less immediately resolved problem is posed by the later verses: There are some who pull the guidinges, and lower the yard slightly, So that the ship may run more smoothly. A clue is provided by the reading from another manuscript: gurdingues. This is a direct reflection of ON gyrðingar girths, although this does not identify function. We may rule out the þvergyrðingar transversal girths, frapping lines that were occasionally used to reinforce hulls in heavy seas. The Icelandic Orkneyinga saga has the phrase at gyrða sviðvíss við rá miðja to gird up and stifle at mid-yard, a procedure called goose-winging by modern sailors, whereby the central portion of the sail is hauled up and tied to the yard, leaving triangular areas of sail on either side to catch the wind. But a work roughly contemporary with Wace's, The Life of St. Osith, has a passage which may contribute more to our understanding. German sailors wonder why other ships are able to leave an English port but not theirs:

The Life of St. Osith in Old French, with Parallel English Translation
Dunc navum nus le vent portant
Cum cil autre ki vunt devant,
Le governail bien ataché,
Degurdé ris, ancre saké
E drecié mast, sigle amunt trait,
Ke deit ke nostre nef ne vait? (Life of St. Osith, ll. 928-32)8
Yet we do not have a carrying wind
Like those others who sail on ahead.
With our rudder well attached,
Reefs let out, anchor hauled,
And mast raised, sail hoisted aloft,
Why does our ship not move?

§14.  Degurder represents a separative French prefix to ON verb gyrða with a literal meaning ungirth, i.e., untying and shaking out the reefs in the sail. In the passage in Wace's Roman de Brut the mariners may be imagined as lowering the yard and hauling on the buntlines and clewlines (the latter called hefill in ON/Icel.), ropes attached to the foot and corners of the sail, then using these same lines (as girths) in order to tie off the furled lower sections of the sail or otherwise reduce its area.9

§15.  Another interesting set of nautical terms is found in the twelfth-century Life of St. Gilles , written by Guillaume de Berneville. Berneville, from the genitive form Bjarnar of the name Björn plus villa, neatly captures the Viking settlement pattern in Normandy. From the shore of the Mediterranean the future saint has rescued a group of merchants by appealing to God to calm a storm at sea, during which the sailors had lowered the yard, and to provide an on-shore breeze: Loré remeint e vente bel. Mult furent lé li marinel; Vunt as windas, lévent le tref, Dreit vers la rive vent la nef (The fair wind continues and blows briskly; the sailors were very happy; they go to the windlass and raise the yard; straight to the shore comes the ship) (de Berneville Life of St. Gilles, ll. 801-04).10 Gilles is taken on board and given passage with the grateful mariners, who are revealed as merchants from Provence carrying rich goods from the East. The smooth sailing, in neither storm nor calm, is then described in a lengthy passage in which the author further deploys his technical expertise. Unlike the scenes described in Wace, only one ship and one set of weather conditions figure here:

Life of St. Gilles in Old French with Parallel English Translation
Le jur fud bel, le solail cler,
la mer fud paisible e le vent:
a la nef vunt ignelement;
lez sunt del bel tens ke il unt.
Traient lur ancres, si sen vunt.
A plein se astent deschiper,
kar mult coveitent le passer.
Bons fud li venz e la mer quieie:
ne lur estoet muver lur greie,
ne ni out la nuit lof cloé,
estuiïnc trait ne tref gardé,
ne ni out halé bagordinge,
ne escote ne scolaringe;
ne fud mester de boesline;
tute fud queie la marine:
ne lur estut pas estricher,
ne tendre tref ne helenger.
Fort ert lestai e li hobent
ki fermé furent devers lé vent,
e dautre part, devers le bort
sunt li nodraz e li bras fort;
bones utanges out el tref,
meillurs nestot a nule nef;
bons fud li tref e la nef fort,
e unt bon vent ki tost les port.
Tute noit current a la lune,
le tref windé treska la hune:
ne lur estut muver funain
trestute nuit ne lendemain.
Lur aire vunt od la mer pleine,
kar issi veit cil ke Deus meine. (ll. 876–906)
The day was fine, the sun bright,
The sea was peaceful and the winds
Came briskly to the ship;
[The mariners] are happy at the fine weather they have.
The haul up their anchors, and depart.
They are in a great hurry to set sail,
Because they are anxious to complete the passage.
The wind was fair and the sea calm;
They had no need to trim their gear,
Nor was there that night a sail pin set,
Brace tightened nor yard watched,
Nor were there brails hauled,
Nor sheet nor spilling line;
There was no need for a bowline;
The seascape was entirely calm:
They did not have to strike sail,
Nor tauten the sail nor adjust the tiller.
Strong were the stay and the shrouds
That were pulled tight in the face of the wind,
And elsewhere, deckside,
Are the strong replacement spars;
The ship had good halyards,
There were none better on any vessel;
The yard (or sail) was good and the ship strong,
And they have a fine wind that carries them quickly.
The whole night they ran under the moon,
The yard wound up to the masthead;
There was no need for them to trim their rigging
All that night or the next day.
They went their way with a full sea,
For thus goes he whom God leads.

§16.  Firstly, several new but straightforward derivations from attested Norse terminology may be noted: eschiper (to set sail)—ON skipa; greie (gear)—ON greiði; estai (stay)—ON stag; vinder (a variant of guinder, to hoist with a windlass)—ON vinda; hune masttop—ON húnn. A second group of terms appears used with similar specificity, but meanings are less transparent from our perspective. The author lists lines that require no adjustment in the fair wind with which God has favored Gilles. The phrasing and syntax of the French verse result in the names of lines and parts of the sail appearing in the singular, even if they might have been found in pairs or greater numbers on board. Among these is mentioned bagordinge. I propose to identify this term as derived from a Norse compound *buggyrðing, with the first element referring to the inner, concave face of the sail (ON bugr). This would be an appropriate name for horizontal or vertical brails that brought the sail in to the mast (cf. the Nynorsk Norwegian bugpriar and Danish bugprier of present-day replica-builders).

§17.  As with the brails and sheets, there is no need to trim the scolaringe. As most known Viking Age rigging has been accounted for, I believe that scolaringe refers to spilling lines, pulled to kill or cool down the aerodynamic forces around the sail momentarily in a sudden squall or in order to stop or reduce the ships progress.11 The word would likely have been escolaringe without the preceding negative adverb and its terminal -e. Only the ON/Icel. verb skolla hang, dangle seems a likely northern source. While this might yield an apt descriptor for the multiple lines seen descending from the foot of the sail on the Gotland picture stones, we do not know what such lines were called in the medieval North, or even whether separate lines were employed to spill the wind from the sail. If, on the other hand, the etymology is Gallo-Romance and the idea of spilling line continues to be entertained, a derivation from a word such as escolorgier to slip, slide, escape is plausible. But we must then speculate whether both the term and the procedure might have been adapted from Mediterranean ships carrying lateen sails.

§18.  Since the ON/Icel. verb strjúka/strýkja is not attested in the sense strike sail or smooth out, Guillaume's estricher is not assured of a Norse origin, although the word has phonological contours suggesting a Germanic original. The term may represent a metathesized variant of esterchir stretch or a variant on estrecier diminish. Without the names of the rigging or other gear which is involved in these sail-trimming actions, it is difficult to know exactly what procedures are envisaged. The verb helenger is otherwise unattested. I believe that the editor has erred here; hel enger makes good sense as a term meaning adjust the tiller. I have then translated as "They did not have to strike sail, Nor tauten the sail nor adjust the tiller," with the understanding that the sailors' course is true and the wind favorable, so that they needed neither to decrease or increase the sail surface, nor alter course. Finally, the nodras and bras or bras fort are suggestive of replacement spars, stored in the hull. A northern origin is only tentatively suggested. Nauð need, emergency could enter a compound e.g, *nauðar-áss emergency or replacement spar.

§19.  Toward the end of the description we read: Tute noit current a la lune Le tref windé trés ka la hune (The whole night they ran under the moon, The yard wound up to the masthead). The Norse húnn knob; mast-top was pierced with a hole (húnbora) through which various ropes, including the halyard, passed. By way of summary, the author states that the crew had no need to adjust their cordage (funain) during the night's sail and that Gires se dort, car mult fud las, Od lesterman lez le windas (Gilles fell asleep, for he was very tired, By the helmsman beside the windlass). This provides circumstantial evidence for the position of the windlass well to the aft on a decked area, so that halyards (utanges), here confirmed as the main hauling lines to the yard, could also function as backstays.

§20.  Later sections of this hagiographical account offers a number of other words of Norse origin: agreier (to prepare for sailing)—ON greiða;12 batel (ships boat)—ON biátr; estrande (shore)—ON strönd; teolder (to set up a ships tent, tilt or awning)—ON tjalda; tialz (awning, ship's tent)—ON tjald; wydas (as a variant spelling for vindas windlass)—ON vindáss (cf. the verb winder, elsewhere guinder vinda).

§21.  Further excerpts from Anglo-Norman historical verse, containing not previously met terminology of Norse origin, may now be briefly considered. La Vie seint Edmund le rei (The Life of Saint Edmund the King) recounts a voyage south from Saxony along the North Sea coast, then a crossing to East Anglia. Two separate sailing moments are described in the following passages, with other narrative material figuring in between.

La Vie seint Edmund le rei in Old French with Parallel English Translation
Li servant e li mariner
En vunt lur cordes adrescier.
Chescun mariner de lesneke
Forment le sigle deshaneke,
Lur hobens estreinent vers destre
Hors lancent lur lof vers senestre,
La veile treient jesqua la hune
E al vent la firent commune.
La boëline halent al vent,
Ki loré recoilt e supprent.

Un vent surst devers miedi,
Bien aspre, ki les acoilli,
Ki en la veile e en lur tref
Fiert, si enpeint avant la nief.
Les mariners en sunt mult lié;
lof unt enz mult tost lancié,
E alaschent lur boëlines
E estreinent lur holgurdines.
Aspre est le vent, li sigle legier,
Unc ne les covint haneker
(Piramus La Vie seint Edmund le rei, ll. 1373-82, 1449-58).
The servants and the sailors
Go to tend to their ropes,
Each sailor on the ship
Smartly lets out the sail,
They tighten their shrouds on the starboard side,
And thrust out their sail pin to port,
They hoist the sail up to the masthead,
And get it spread evenly in the wind.
They trim the bowline to the wind
To catch and hold the breeze.

. . . 
A wind rose up from the south,
Very brisk, that caught them up
And struck the sail and the yard,
And drove the ship forward.
The sailors are very happy for it;
They draw in their sail pin very quickly
And release the bowlines
And tighten the brails.
The wind is brisk and the sail buoyant,
They have no need to take it in.

§22.  Esneke is a direct reflex of ON/Icel. snekkja longship. The verb form estreinent similarly derives from strengja tighten a line. The repeated use of the verb lancer cast, throw with the sail pin or bumpkin seems idiomatic and is perhaps to be understood as an action similar to that of forcing forward and out the corner of the sail (tack) with the aid of the tacking spar. The holgurdines of the second excerpt recall the earlier met gurdinges and bagordinges. Since pulling on these lines is to complement the release of the bowlines, it would seem that the spread sail is being brought in closer to the mast with the aid of horizontal or vertical brails. The origin of the first element in this new compound is not immediately apparent, although a number of Norse words related to convex surfaces suggest themselves, e.g., hváll convex, knoll, hólf vault, hóll hill, and the curved inner surface of the sail seems referenced. Earlier noted in a compound, haneker refers to furling, reefing or another procedure to reduce the sail surface.

§23.  Yet another Channel crossing, this one reportedly historical and not legendary, may be noted in order to confirm earlier identifications. In his Roman de Rou, a history of the dukes of Normandy, Wace describes the departure of William Rufus, the son of William the Conqueror, from Southampton on a crossing to Normandy. His mariners oppose the plan because of the poor weather and headwind: Nos navon mie boen oré, nos navon pas vent dreiturier, encontre vent fait mal nagier (We don't have a fair wind at all, we don't have a wind for a straight course; running against the wind makes for hard sailing) (Wace 1970–73, ll. 9838–40). But the king's reply suggests that royalty was under divine protection: Onques ... noï parler de rei qui fust neié en mer; faites voz nes al parfont traire e essaiez que porreiz faire (I never heard of a king who was drowned at sea: have your ships towed out to deep water and then see what you can do). The ships are to be brought offshore to a point where they can begin tacking (moving in zig-zag fashion in the face of a head wind) for the crossing. The following passage describes the initial moments in orderly, now easily followed fashion:

Roman de Rou in Old French with Parallel English Translation
Por faire al rei sa volenté
li ont ço quil quist graanté;
en lesnege lont fait porter
e cil od lui quil volt mener,
batels e anchres ont enz traiz,
la gent firent seeir en paiz,
atornee ont al vent la nef,
hobens ferment, windent le tref;
cil qui al governail sassist
estreitement al vent se prist;
le lof avant e le lispreu
siglant vindrent a Barbefleu.
(ll. 9847–58)
To do the king's will
They granted him what he had requested;
They had him carried aboard the ship
And those with him that he wished to bring along,
They brought in the ships boats and anchors,
They seated the people securely,
They turned the ship to the wind;
They tie down the shrouds, hoist the yard;
He who sat by the tiller
Set a course close by the wind;
With the sail pin and the leech-spar to the fore
They came sailing to Barfleur.

§24.  This study began with a consideration of the virtuoso sea-runs of Irish narrative, in which specialized vocabulary is deployed in dense, catalogue-like, descriptive passages. A comparable instance from La Chronique de ducs de Normandie, written by Wace's rival in vernacular Anglo-Norman historiography, Benoit de Sainte-Maure, will remind us that even the nominally more realistic Norman and Anglo-Norman accounts are first and foremost literary creations, not objective depictions of conditions at sea. Benoit has described a storm at sea, which will be decisive in the conversion to Christianity of the first of the Norman dukes, Rollo (Rou), in all likelihood a Danish viking chieftain named Hrólfr, and goes on to offer a brief catalogue of ship parts, in which we meet drenc, drengr rope:

La Chronique de ducs de Normandie in Old French with Parallel English Translation
Parmi les nex pasmez sestendent,
Bruisent lor mas, lor governail;
Nus deus nendure le travail,
Ni a ne veile ne hobenc,
Utage nescote ne drenc
(de Sainte-Maure 1951–71, ll. 4242–46).
[The sailors] are stretched out unconscious across the ships,
Their masts and their tillers are breaking;
None of them can endure the strain;
There was neither sail nor shroud,
Halyard nor sheet nor hawser left.

A destruction as complete as that of the Norse fleet in The Battle of Ventry!

§25.  Our final excerpt is again from Wace's Roman de Rou, a scene just prior to William of Normandy's invasion of England in 1066. Its theme is that of some panels of the Bayeux Tapestry, William's construction of the invasion fleet, and at certain points the text and embroidery are in close accord.

Roman de Rou in Old French, with Parallel English Translation
Le dus se fist joios e lié
del gonfanon e del congié
que lapostoile li dona;
fevres e chanpenters manda.
Donc veïssiez a grant esforz,
par Normendie a toz les porz
mairrien atraire e fuz porter,
chevilles faire e borz doler,
nes e esqueis apareillier,
veiles estendre, mas drecier;
a grant entente et a grant cost,
tot un esté e un aost
mistrent al navie atorner
e as maisnies assenbler.
(ll. 6329–42)
The duke became joyful and happy
For the standard and the authorization
That the Pope had given him;
He summoned wrights and carpenters.
Then you would have seen, with great effort
Across Normandy toward all the ports,
Timber being collected and logs brought,
Pins carved and planks planed,
Larger and smaller ships outfitted,
Sails spread out, masts raised.
With great purpose and at great cost
All one summer and August
They spent in equipping the fleet
And in assembling the troops.

§26.  Loan words of Norse origin in this passage are limited to a single example, eskeis from skeið, a large warship. Like the earlier noted esneque (esnege) from snekkja and terms such as cyule warship (ON kjóll), eskaus small ships (ON skúta), kenard cargo and transport ship (ON knörr) from other texts such as Geffrei Gaimar's L'Estoire des Engleis (Gaimar; see also Sayers 1996 and 2003b), it brings home the fact that not only were individual ship-building techniques maintained among the descendants of the Norse settlers of Normandy, but complete ship types of Norse origin also appear to have been constructed on the European coast, evidence confirmed by the Tapesty and its Viking-style fleet.

§27.  One of the continuing challenges of early Scandinavian maritime history and archaeology is that the standing and running rigging, because of its organic constituents, should have left so little trace in the physical record—largely confined to attachment and bracing points on the sheerstrake—while at the same time being so prominent, along with the sail, on the Gotland picture stones and the Bayeux Tapestry. The graphic evidence is hard to reconcile with our meagre store of firm information from excavation sites.13 In 1979 Arne Emil Christensen wrote: "Summing up, we are left with very scanty knowledge based on tangible sources. A square sail, spread by a yard on a mast amidships. The mast had shrouds, and possibly a stay; the sail was hoisted by a simple haliard and controlled by sheets (?); and the luff was stretched by a tacking boom (?) or bowline (?) or both. That is about all." (Christensen 1979, 191).

§28.  In the last twenty-five years the recovery of additional wrecks and the construction and sailing of replicas have improved this situation considerably, although with the latter we remain in the sphere of the plausible, not the proven. Although the Irish tales, whose written form reflects twelfth-century linguistic use, certainly attest to the transfer of naval construction principles from the Norse to the Irish, they do not further illuminate the matters of mast, sail, and rigging. On the other hand, the versified chronicles from twelfth-century Normandy and England, while reticent in the matter of hull construction, do offer what we must judge a relatively full, discrete technical vocabulary in the sphere of mast, sail, and rigging, a vocabulary dynamically deployed in topically circumscribed passages dense with nautical detail. In an earlier study on these matters I stated: "While etymology is seldom a sure guide to meaning for words evolving over centuries, cross-cultural loans and calques [into French] are, for a limited time at least, not so far removed from their origins that the donor language, here Norse, cannot to be used to elucidate meaning" (Sayers 1997, n. 11). This perspective may also be reversed, and phonological, semantic, and referential contours of the Anglo-Norman nautical terminology may be matched with fair, if not absolute, certainty to likely Norse sources. This referral will necessarily be surer in the area of language than that of actual sea-faring gear and procedures, but it does cast additional light on some still murky matters.

§29.  Let us summarize the contribution of this Norman and Anglo-Norman lexical evidence to our better understanding of sea-faring on and between the British and French seacoasts in the tenth to twelfth centuries, and perhaps even to illuminating the functioning of the Scandinavian vessels that were to have such decisive influence there. In the effort to refer this later evidence to purported northern models, a cautionary note is sounded when we recognize the thorough-going references in Norman and Anglo-Norman to windlass-operated double halyards with a term that cannot unequivocally be derived from known Norse terminology. But if the plural form uitages reflects an accommodation in southern Europe to a scarcity of walrus-hide ropes as earlier suggested, or some other regional modification, the absence of a term descended from dragreip is more readily accepted. Like the Norse dragreip, the uitages would have served as backstays, secured to the windlass in the stern, most likely on the port side across from the tiller. Similarly, the derivative of stœðingar that is reflected in estuincs, in the absence of a reflex of aktaumar braces, does not seriously threaten the overall integrity of our conception of a Norse-rigged vessel, if these are understood as fore-braces. The terminology for the remainder of the basic standing and running rigging, and sail parts and accessories—shrouds, fore-stay, sheets, bowlines, tacking spar, leeches, sail pin or bumpkin, and reefs—plus a considerable additional vocabulary encourages the conclusion that a number of less transparent terms, viz., gurdinge, bagordinge, holgordinge, escolaringe, and lispruez, also accurately reflect northern sailing practices and nautical vocabulary, with perhaps Old Danish as the immediate precedent for the latter.

§30.  Many of the nautical scenes in the Irish, Norman and Anglo-Norman texts of the twelfth century may seem more stylized and less realistic than the Icelandic saga incidents of Þórarinn, son-in-law of Þorsteinn surtr inn spaki Hallsteinsson, struggling to navigate a small craft in a sudden squall with the (looped?) braces (and sheets?) around his shoulders (Laxdœla saga), Guðmundr Arason and his crewmates trying to cope with a broken masthead and free a collapsed sail in a cargo ship awash in heavy seas (Prestsaga Guðmundar góða), or Þormóðr and Gestr trimming and scarfing a broken sailyard in Fostbrœðra saga, 14 but their study must not be the exclusive province of historical linguists or otherwise undervalued, especially in light of the recent advances in the analysis and publication of the now fairly numerous medieval wrecks, and in the ongoing projects of reconstruction and experimental sailing.

§31.  Some of the linguistic exuberance and appreciation of the sea and its power expressed in the Irish sea-run in The Battle of Ventry seem reflected in the deployment of technical terminology in Norman and Anglo-Norman chronicles, saints lives, and romances of the twelfth century. But the motifs of sea voyage, fair sailing and foul, would appear to fall out of literary favor thereafter. This is evident in the various versions of the story of Tristran and Yseult, where later writers offer very little of the accurate ship-board detail we find in Thomas, a detail whose implications for the tragedy can now be more fully appreciated through enhanced understanding of the nautical lexicon (Thomas Tristan, ll. 2576–80, 2864–76, 2984–88, 3022–28, 3050–53).15 Perhaps, as in Scandinavia, this reflects a diminution in the prestige attached to ship ownership, a slippage from the mythic and heroic status of early vessels to that of a utilitarian but still very complex machine.16


Terms for square-rigged ships with a single sail; adapted from Dear and Kemp (1992).

boltrope:  rope which is sewn around the edges of a sail to keep the canvas from fraying.

boom:  spar used to extend the foot of a sail.

bowline:  rope attached to and leading forward from a bridle between cringles on the leeches of a sail to the stem, in order to keep the weather edge of a sail taut.

brace:  rope rove to the ends of the yard by which the yard is braced or swung at different angles to the fore-and-aft line of the ship in order to make the most of the wind.

brail:  rope leading from the centre of the sail to the mast, used to gather the sail in to the mast.

buntline:  rope attached to the footrope of the sail for spilling the wind out of the sail for reefing or for hauling it up to the yard for furling.

clew:  lower corner of the sail, with a sheet to trim the sail.

clewline:  rope from the clew by means of which the clews are hauled up to the yard and trussed when the sail needs to be furled.

cringle:  short piece of rope worked into a boltrope to create an eye.

frame:  timber or rib of a ship, running from the keel to the side rails to maintain the shape of the hull.

furl:  to take in the sail and secure it with gaskets by hauling on the clewlines and buntlines and rolling it up to the yard.

halyard:  rope used to hoist or lower the yard and sail.

hawser:  heavy rope used as an anchor warp.

leech:  outer edge of a square sail.

luff:  leading edge of a sail angled into the wind; originally a small boom or pin extending the clew on the weather side (the tack) and securing it to the side rail.

reef:  the amount of sail taken in by securing one set of reef-points in order to shorten the sail to the amount appropriate to an increase in the strength of the wind.

reeve (rove):  to pass the end of a rope through an eye, cringle, etc.

sail pin:  not a standard term but here referencing a length of wood thrust throw an opening in the gunwale, to which the tack was fastened in order to boom out the sail.

sheet:  rope attached to the clew, used for trimming the sail to the wind.

shroud:  standing rigging which gives the mast its lateral support, running from the masttop to the sides of the ship abreast the mast.

spar:  general term for any wooden support used in the rigging of a ship, e.g., mast, yard, boom.

spilling line:  rope rove round the sail to keep it from blowing away when the tack is eased off for the sail to be clewed up and to assist in reefing and furling.

stay:  part of the standing rigging which supports the mast in the fore-and-aft line.

strake:  line of planking which runs the length of the ships hull; the hull form consists of overlapping rows of strakes from the keel up to the top edge of the hull.

tack:  1) the rope used to hold in the weather the lower corner of the sail, 2) to bring a ship head to wind and across it so as to bring the wind on to the opposite side; by tacking or continuously crossing the wind in a series of legs, a net advance can be made to windward.

tacking spar:  or sail-yard, beam crossing from a cleat on the inside of the forward part of the hull to the opposite railing, used to boom out the weather edge of the sail and transfer some of the dynamic force of the wind to the hull.

trenail (treenail):  wooden pin used to secure planking, frames, etc.

windlass:  capstan-like fitting on a horizontal shaft, worked by bars and a pawl and ratchet gear, used to hoist the yard and sail.

yard:  large spar crossing the mast horizontally, from which the sail is set.


1. For the construction details of the Irish-built longship, see the definitive publication of the archaeological evidence from Roskilde Fjord by Crumlin-Pedersen and Olsen (2002).  [Back]

2. This article summarizes for a more general readership (and on points of detail supersedes) a number of studies (with ample bibliographies) that I have completed in recent years and offers the relevant Irish and Norman French texts in my translation, with particular attention to technical terminology. My general studies are Sayers 1997; 1998; 2001; and 2002d. Other studies on single elements of the nautical lexicon and the realia they designate are noted below where appropriate.  [Back]

3. For the Irish term beirling and its identification as a loan from a Norse term reflected in the attested berlings ss, the ground beam for a tilt or ship's tent, see Sayers (Forthcoming).  [Back]

4. Readers may now also consult Wace 1999. The translation of Arthur's embarkation (ll. 11,190-238) relies on notes to Arnold's edition and is then deficient as concerns technical vocabulary in several instances. Sayers (1997) is not cited.  [Back]

5. The Norman and Anglo-Norman texts make repeated reference to the windlass with a clearly Norse-derived term, adding circumstantial support to the claim that the windlass was widely used on twelfth-century Scandinavian vessels, however scant the archaeological evidence (Marcus 1981, 102).  [Back]

6. Fuller discussion in Sayers (2002d).  [Back]

7. For a detailed discussion, including a review of alternative explanations, see Sayers (2002c).  [Back]

8. Note the evidence for the rudder being hauled up in harbor.  [Back]

9. A reader suggests that the guidinges may have been downhauls to force the yard down a little and make the sail belly out instead of pressing the ship down into the water.  [Back]

10. Translation of the sailing scenes does not reflect the current state of scholarship, philological or archaeological, and gives an imprecise, often erroneous, impression of the (actual but fictional) events.  [Back]

11. See the discussion in Sayers (1999).  [Back]

12. See the complementary discussion in Sayers (2002a).  [Back]

13. The Bayeux Tapestry has not been judged a sure witness to actual rigging praxis in the Channel; see Wilson (1985, p. 226f.); other comparable contemporary iconographical evidence is reviewed in Villain-Gandossi (1969).  [Back]

14. For a fuller discussion of the third instance, see Sayers (2002b).  [Back]

15. Recent studies addressing some of the relevant passages are Sayers (2002d and 2004).  [Back]

16. See the exposition of this thesis by Varenius (1992), with further reflections on its implications for poetry and saga writing in the North in Sayers (1998). To return to the initial concerns of this review, the direct impact of Norse nautical vocabularly on Old English was considerably less than in the case of Irish and Norman French; see Thier (2002). Later and indirectly, however, the impact was substantial, since the greater part of the Anglo-Norman lexicon was loaned into Middle English; see Sandahl 1951-82).  [Back]


Baker, A. T. 1911. An Anglo-French Life of St. Osith. Modern Language Review 6:476-502.  [Back]

de Berneville, Guillaume. 2003. La Vie de saint Gilles. Trans. and ed. Françoise Laurent. Paris: Honoré Champion.  [Back]

Christensen, Arne Emil. 1979. Viking Age Rigging, a Survey of Sources and Theories. In The Archaeology of Medieval Ships and Harbours in Northern Europe, ed. Seán McGrail, 183-93. British Archaeological Reports International Series 66. Greenwich: National Maritime Museum.  [Back]

Crumlin-Pedersen, Ole, and Olof Olsen. 2002. The Skuldelev Ships I. Roskilde: The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde.  [Back]

Dear, Ian, and Peter Kemp. 1992. An A-Z of Sailing Terms. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gaimar, Geffrei. 1960. L'Estoire des Engleis. Ed. Alexander Bell. Anglo-Norman Text Society 14-16. Oxford: Blackwell.  [Back]

Jónsson, Guðni, ed. 1953. Guðmundar saga Arasonar. In Byskupa sögur, 3 vols. Reykjavík: Íslendingasagaútgáfan, Hauksdalsútgáfan.  [Back]

Marcus, J. G. 1981. The Conquest of the North Atlantic. New York: Oxford University Press.  [Back]

O'Rahilly, Cecile, ed. 1962. Cath Finntrágha. Mediaeval and Modern Irish Series 20. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.  [Back]

Piramus, Denis. 1935. La Vie seint Edmund le rei. Ed. Hilding Kjellman. Göteborg: Elanders boktryckeri.  [Back]

de Sainte-Maure, Benoît. 1951-71. La Chronique des ducs de Normandie, 4 vols. Ed. Carin Fahlin, Östen Södergård, and Sven Sandqvist. Uppsala: Almqvist och Wiksell.  [Back]

Sandahl, Bertil. 1951-82. Middle English Sea Terms, 3 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.  [Back]

Sayers, William. 1996. The Etymology and Semantics of Old Norse knörr cargo ship: The Irish and English Evidence. Scandinavian Studies 68:279-90.  [Back]

———. 1997. Norse Nautical Terminology in Twelfth-Century Anglo-Norman Verse. Romanische Forschungen 109:383-426.  [Back]

———. 1998. The Ship heiti in Snorris Skáldskaparmál. Scripta Islandica 49:45-86.  [Back]

———. 1999. Textual Evidence for Spilling Lines in the Rigging of Medieval Scandinavian Keels. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 28:343-54.  [Back]

———. 2001. Old Norse Nautical Terminology in the Sea-Runs of Middle Irish Narrative. Proceedings of the Fifth Symposium of Societas Celtologica Nordica, Studia Celtologica Upsaliensia 4:29-63.  [Back]

———. 2002a. OFr. atoivre nautical accoutrements, fittings. Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 103:103-08.  [Back]

———. 2002b. Scarfing the Yard with Words (Fostbrœðra saga): Shipbuilding Imagery in Old Norse Poetics. Scandinavian Studies 74:1-18.  [Back]

———. 2002c. A Norse Etymology for luff 'weather edge of the sail'. The American Neptune 61:25-38.  [Back]

———. 2002d. Some International Nautical Etymologies. The Mariners Mirror 88:405-22.  [Back]

———. 2003a. Some Problems of Technical Vocabulary in the Tristan Corpus: Archery (Béroul), Seafaring (Thomas). Tristania 22:1-21.

———. 2003b. Ships and Sailors in Gaimars Estoire des Engleis. Modern Language Review 9:299-310.  [Back]

———. 2004. Sea-changes in Thomas's Roman de Tristan and Dante's Inferno 5. Romance Quarterly 51:67-71.  [Back]

———. Forthcoming. Fourteenth-Century English Balingers: Whence the Name?  [Back]

Sveinsson, Einar Ólafur, ed. 1934. Laxdæla saga. Íslenzk fornrit 5. Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag.  [Back]

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Þórolfsson, Björn K., and Guðni Jónsson, eds. 1943. Fostbrœðra saga. In Vestfirðinga sögur. Íslenzk fornrit 6. Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag.  [Back]

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Wace. 1940. Le Roman de Brut. Ed. Ivor Arnold. Paris: Société des Anciens Textes Français.  [Back]

———. 1970-73. Le Roman de Rou, 3 vols. Ed. A. J. Holden. Paris: Société des Anciens Textes Français.

———. 1999. Wace's Roman de Brut: A History of the British: Text and Translation. Trans. and ed. Judith Weiss. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.

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