19 August 2010

Felix Fabri on Mediterranean Sailing

Felix Fabri is the guest writer for this entry.  He went twice as a pilgrim to Palestine between 1480 and 1483.  He was a Franciscan monk from Ulm, in the center of the Holy Roman Empire, and went by land from Ulm to Venice where he and his groups chartered space on pilgrim galleys.  A pilgrim galley was considerably bulkier than the light galley pictured here.  Below is a link to his fascinating account of his travels. Next month will be two entries on the miseries of winter sailing in the Mediterranean, but for late August his accounts of the joys of summer sailing seem about right.
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Between these two countries [Morocco and Spain] the Mediterranean Sea flows in from the Ocean through the aforesaid strait, which is scarce a quarter of a mile in width. For washerwomen stand on either bank, pagan women in Morocco, Christian women in Spain, and abuse one another, and there Africa is divided from Europe. . .

These men [pilots] are all alike so learned in their art that by looking at the heavens they can foretell storms or calms, whereof they can also read signs in the colour of the sea,i n the flocking together and movement of the dolphins and flying fish, in the smoke of the fire, the smell of the bilge water, the glittering of the ropes and cables at night, and the flashing of the oars as they dip into the sea. At night they know all the hours by looking at the stars. Beside the mast they have one compass, and another in the uppermost chamber of the castle, and a lamp always burns beside it at night; nor do they ever turn their eyes away from it when sailing at night, but one always gazes at the compass, and chants a kind of sweet song, which shows that all is going well, and in the same tone he chants to him that holdeth the tiller of the rudder, to which quarter the rudder itself ought to be moved: nor does the steersman dare to move the tiller any whither save by the orders of him who looks after the compass, wherein he sees whether the ship be going straight or crookedly, or sideways. . .

. . . these [sailors] are the men who know how to run about the ropes like cats, who ascend the shrounds very swiftly up to the cap, run along the yard standing upright even in the fiercest storms, who weigh up the anchors, diving into deep water if they stick fast, and who do all the most dangerous work on board. They are in general very active young men, who are quite reckless of their lives, and are also bold and powerful in the galley like a baron's armed followers. Under these again there are others who are called mariners, who sing when work is gong on, because work at sea is very heavy, and is only carried on by a concert between one who sings out orders and the labourers who sing in response. So these men stand by those who are at work, and sing to them, encourage them, and threaten to spur them on with blows. Great weights are dragged about by their means. They are generally old and respectable men. . .

This fortunate wind and delightful run lasted all that day and the following night, during which we slept most peacefully, gliding swiftly and sweetly along, because the course of the galley was not sideways, but straight forward, which inclined us to slumber. For when the wind is quite fair, and not too strong, there is hardly any motion which those who are in the cabin can feel, because the ship runs along quietly, without faltering, and both the pilgrims below and the galley-slaves on deck sleep quietly, and all is still, save only he who watches the compass and he who holds the handle of the rudder, for these by way of returning thanks for our happy voyage and good luck continually greet the breeze, praise God, the Blessed Virgin and the saints, one answering the other, and are never silent as long as the wind is fair. Anyone on board who hears this chant of theirs would fall asleep, even though otherwise he could not sleep, just as restless crying children are lulled to rest by their mother's crooning song, when if all was still they would cry, and they go to sleep more because the song assures them of their mother's presence than because of its sweetness.

[At Modon] I took my lords and some other pilgrims to the church of the Preaching Friars, and there we heard high Mass. The prior of that place and the other brethren knew me well from my first pilgrimage. After Mass was over we went to the house of the bakers, where biscuits are baked for seafarers, wherein dwells an old German, and there we had our dinner cooked, and dined. The other pilgrims went over to the house of the Teutonic lords, and there provided a meal for themselves. After dinner we went up to the walls of the town and walked round upon them, and admired its impregnable fortifications. It is not an island, but part of the mainland, whereof the whole belongs to the Turks. On my return I shall tell you more about this . . . for the city of Modon is said to be midway between Venice and Jerusalem. About vespers both patrons blew their horns to call their pilgrims on board . . .

On the twenty-third, the eve of St. John the Baptist, we sailed before a very strong wind, and during the previous night sailed so fast that in the morning we saw no land, nothing but the . . . sea. When the sun set and it was growing dark, our sailors prepared to make St. John's fire on the galley, which they did as follows: They took many more than forty lanterns made of wood and transparent horn, and hung them one above the other on a long rope, and then, when the lamps were lighted, they hoisted them up aloft to the maintop, in such sort that the burning lanterns hung down from the maintop as far as the rowing-benches, and lighted up the whole galley. To see this sight all men came on deck from the cabin, the poop, and the innermost chambers of the galley, and stood round about it. Thereupon the trumpeters began to blow their trumpets, and the galley-slaves and other sailors sang, rejoiced, chanted, danced, and clapped their hands; whereat all who stood round about were wrought upon by the shouts of gladness and the clapping of hands to rejoice at the respect paid to the most blessed forerunner of our Lord. Before this show I never had beheld the practice of clapping the hands for joy, to which allusion is made in the forty-sixth Psalm, which saith: 'O clap your hands, all ye people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph.' Nor could I have believed at the same time, when done out of gladness, would have such great power to move the human mind to joy. So we rejoiced greatly on board of the galley until about midnight, sailing along all the while swiftly and quietly on our way. After this we laid ourselves down to sleep.

Excerpts are from The Book of the Wanderings of Felix Fabri (Circa 1480-1483 A.D.) trans. Aubrey Stewart. 2 vols. London: Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, 1896. 
 For a very different view of Mediterranean sailing, read what happened to John VIII Palaiologos in the winter of 1437. 

1 comment:

  1. It is wonderful to see Faber's trust in God and in the mixture of empeiric knowledge and superstition that constituted the medieval mariners' expertise; how he sees the beauty of the journey and brushes aside the downsides. It has to be said there were plenty of those even in summer sailing: The fear of the plague or attack, the anticipation of insult and danger in the lands of the infidels,the sudden summer storms, the lice, the stench of the well of the bilge, the choice between the merciless sun and the pitch black hold, the lack of space and privacy that led high born men, or men of the cloth, to exchange insults, throw chamber-pots at others and sometimes even lash at each other sword in hand.

    For those interested in the more technical aspects of pilgrim journeys Tullio Vidoni's dissertation is an excellent read and can be downloaded from
    It is mostly based on the journey of Roberto da Sanseverino of 1458. I am perhaps a little biassed as the patron of that galley was a young Antonio Loredan, later hero of Scutari and grandson of Piero Loredan who defeated the Turks at Gallipoli in 1416. I feel personally indebted to that man. It was thanks to his game of brinkmanship in September-October 1479 - and the spears of Petro Bua's stratiotes - that Zante was evacuated. Had it not, the Zakynthians would have faced what the people of Santa Maura, Cephalonia and Val di Compare (Ithaca) had faced that summer and I may have never been born. Ithaca remained uninhabited for a whole generation - and in the previous blog we saw what happened in Otranto the following summer. It was all by the same man: Gedik (the toothless) Ahmed Pasha.

    Best regards



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