LIFE AT SEA PREFERABLE TO LIFE ON LAND: England’s medieval seafarers

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29 Mar 2016

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England’s seafarers were hit by big events throughout the fourteenth century, but overall they fared better than their land-based labourer counterparts. That is the central finding of research to be presented by Brenna Gibson at the Economic History Society’s 2016 annual conference in Cambridge.

These seafarers formed the backbone of the country. Without the complex trade networks that English seafarers created, England would have been completely cut off. This makes seafarers an important aspect of medieval English life, and yet apart from research by a small number of scholars, there has been very little work done on this occupational group.

When there are major events in today’s world, prices are affected whether we realise it at the time or not. In the same way, key moments in the fourteenth century (namely the Great Famine, the Black Death and the start of the Hundred Years War) affected seafarers’ purchasing power.

For example, shipmasters suffered the effects of the Black Death more strongly than builders and labourers. After the Black Death subsided, while shipmasters’ purchasing power recovered to where it was pre-Black Death, they did not see the same surge that was experienced by the builders and labourers.

On the whole, however, those of the seafaring community were better off than those of the building community throughout the century.

Wages were reconstructed for shipmasters and other mariners, showing what they were paid throughout the century. This record was used to analyse changes in inflation that occurred through this period, with the help of a basket of consumables.

The creators of this basket, Henry Phelps Brown and Sheila Hopkins, used it to examine builders and labourers, which allowed for a comparison of shipmasters and mariners to an already researched group. Using baskets of consumables allows us to negate inflation and track changes over time, a method that is used for the same purpose in modern society.

This project has been made possible due to funding from the Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute (SMMI), as well as the support of the University of Southampton’s Dr Craig Lambert and Dr Helen Paul.


It’s not all smooth sailing: Tracking the status of seafarers through the fourteenth century

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