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life on a Venetian galley

history hunter's report

Sea of Shadows, Book 2 in my Sea and Stone Chronicles series, features lots of Renaissance-era swashbuckling aboard medieval galleys. While writing a dramatic scene for the novel today, I dove down an irresistible research rabbit hole, hunting for examples of real people who voyaged on such ships—ideally, first-hand accounts of their journeys. And what I found was pure gold.

The Loredan Clan

Some of the characters in Sea of Shadows are related to Venice’s powerful Loredan family. I found a wonderful 15th-century painting (the featured image above) by Vittore Carpaccio, Departure of the Pilgrims, in which an illustrious member of that family is depicted front and center. The seated blond man wearing the black velvet cap and gazing directly at the viewer is Antonio Loredan, a celebrated military leader during the height of Venice’s naval power. In the harbor behind him, you can see some lovely examples of ships from that era (although on closer inspection, one of them appears to be sinking). Here’s an image of a 15th-century Venetian galley at sea, this one by medieval German traveller Konrad von Grünenberg:

Anatomy of a Venetian galley

In the 15th century, these merchant galleys were typically three-masted vessels powered by both sails and oars, heavily armed with crossbows and guns. Oarsmen and common sailors, plus most of the paying passengers, bunked in uncomfortably close quarters on the lower deck. The stern ‘castle’ (the covered area in back, above) was where the officers and any wealthy passengers lodged. The kitchen was located in the stern, as was the assortment of live animals accompanying the vessel (more on that in a bit).

I already possess several books and articles that describe the appearance and construction of these ships, as well as the Venetian system of military warships accompanying merchant vessels on state-sanctioned voyages called ‘mude‘. But I was still on the hunt for personal accounts of life on such vessels. Only a few minutes into my search today, I found a wonderful research article by Benjamin Arbel about life aboard these wooden galleys during pilgrims’ voyages from Venice across the Mediterranean Sea to the Holy Land and back.

The real dirt on life aboard these vessels

Arbel’s findings are a goldmine of juicy details and a novelist’s dream come true. Hold onto your hats, because I’m about to share the most eye-popping revelations from his article with you. Beware, though—since this all took place six hundred years ago, you might be shocked by some of the practices of the day.

Accomodations

Passengers on Venetian galleys had to bring their own mattresses, sheets, pillows, blankets, kitchen utensils, and a lockable tin box for valuables. They slept in dormitories on the lower deck, packed like sardines into cramped berths, their names inscribed on their berths with chalk. Accounts of passengers describe the torment of trying to sleep while crawling with fleas, lice, gnats, and worms. Plus they could not avoid the noxious bodily odors of their sleeping companions, not to mention snoring. Tempers flared regularly, especially because the passengers came from various backgrounds with different social customs and religions.

If they could afford it, passengers lodged in the ‘castle’, the structure at the stern of the ship where the commanding officers orchestrated the ship’s movements. The kitchen was situated in front of the castle, and it fed the hundreds of people on board with an astonishing array of foods. Because these ships stopped at various ports of call on the way to Jaffa or Alexandria, they could restock fresh food regularly. Fresh meat was consumed often. Also sardines, salted cheese, eels, peas, beans, nuts and spices, bread, eggs, fresh vegetables . . . The more you paid, the better you ate. Passengers also bought their own food at stops along the way, such as grapes, peaches, watermelon, lentils, and cheese. How to wash it down? Lots of wine or vinegar-laced water.

Live animals

Now for the unsettling part. Live animals traveled on Venetian galleys, both as working animals traveling to new homes (such as horses and oxen), but more often as food sources for the crew and passengers. Sheep, goats, calves, cows, pigs, and chickens were commonly stabled near the kitchens, and butchered along the way. Some passengers complained of the noises of hooves pounding on the deck above their heads when they tried to sleep, and others noted the plaintive cries of animals terrorized by rough seas. It was common to feed these animals very little during the voyage. Many died during the journey and were thrown overboard.

In addition to these domesticated animals, the Venetian ships also carried falcons and hawks captured on Greek islands and destined for marketplaces all over Europe. One traveler complained that the 150 raptors aboard the ship he travelled on consumed more meat than the human passengers themselves. Many pilgrims attempted to bring home parrots and the occasional monkey as souvenirs of their trip to the Holy Land, but few survived the journey.

With all of this food and the plethora of live animals, rodent infestations were a huge problem aboard these ships. That’s why the ship’s cats were of critical importance. One account recalled a cat falling off a ship into the sea. A group of crewmen was immediately dispatched on a rescue mission to retrieve it.

Sounds and sights

It seemed nothing of note happened on these ships without the blare of trumpets to accompany it. Trumpets sounded at dawn and sunset; on departure or arrival to a port; when announcing meals, when ending meals—you get the idea. Encounters with friendly ships at sea were celebrated with trumpets and fifes (pipes), and even the occasional cannon shot. But wait—there’s more. When important people boarded a vessel, the crew’s musicians whipped out their trumpets and fifes for a proper welcome. Not to be outdone by the musicians, the crew used a silver whistle day and night to signal orders. And one mariner always kept an eye on the compass, chanting a song that conveyed all was well.

The passengers did not just endure their voyage in silence while the crew was making all of this racket. They sang amongst themselves, played various instruments (lutes, flutes, bagpipes, clavichords, harps, violins, and zithers among them), and, when the occasion warranted it, danced, jumped, and performed acrobatic displays. No internet = lots of free time to fill. Also, since they were in various states of inebriation most of the time, this carousing often led to disputes and even physical altercations, which the crew would be forced to manage.

When they were all getting along, though, the passengers joined the crew in celebrating feast days such as Easter, the feast of St. John, and the feast of St. Martin. These days usually meant special meals, fireworks, extra trumpeting, dancing, singing, and illumination of the masts with lanterns.

I could go on, because I still haven’t covered the topics of disease and death and storms and shipwrecks. But I want to end on a high note. So I leave you with the image of medieval folk watching fireworks illuminate the sky over the Mediterranean Sea, eating a celebratory feast together in a gently rocking wooden ship, their voices raised in song, smiling at one another in the starlight.

Much of the fabulous detail in this post came from Benjamin Arbel’s 2017 article “Daily Life On Board Venetian Ships: The Evidence of Renaissance Travelogues and Diaries,” which I accessed via Academia.edu

Find Island of Gold, Book 1 in the Sea and Stone Chronicles, here. Book 2, Sea of Shadows, will launch in spring 2022.

 

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