Medieval Sailing - Ships in Medieval Europe
Welcome to Study Guides!

Medieval Sailing

Caravels, about 1500 AD
(Livro das Fortalezas de Duarte Damas)

December 2016 - The Early Middle Ages - about 500 AD - brought a major change in Mediterranean ship-building. Instead of putting the planks together to build the outside shell of the ship first, Mediterranean ship-builders began to build the ship's frame first, and then fasten the shell planks to the frame. This "frame-first" construction was faster and cheaper, and made it easier to experiment with different shapes for the ships.

Then ship-builders started experimenting with using more than one mast for the sails. During the early Middle Ages, sailing ships on the Mediterranean sea continued to use the triangular sail developed during the Roman Empire. But by 1000 AD, Italian merchants from Venice and Genoa and Pisa were sailing in ships with three masts, each with a triangular, or lateen, sail. Using three masts let sailors adjust even better to changes in the wind.

Still, Mediterranean sailors in the Middle Ages had an important unsolved problem. They wanted to sail south along the Atlantic coast of Africa, to trade with West Africa by ship instead of across the Sahara. It would be much cheaper to bring African gold and slaves north by ship than by camel or by forcing them to walk. European ships could sail south to West Africa just fine, but then they couldn't sail back, because the winds along the coast almost always blew south and not north. In addition, medieval sailors couldn't sail any further south, to explore South Africa, because after West Africa the water current ran north along the coast. In order to sail here, you would need to be able to tack: a method of moving the sail back and forth that lets you sail into the wind. Portuguese ship-builders figured out how to combine square sails and the lateen sail to sail north even when the wind is blowing south.

Caravela redonda
Vasco da Gama and Columbus used ships like these

Once Portuguese ship-builders had figured out how to sail along the coast of Africa, they became interested in sailing right across the Atlantic Ocean itself, towards China (well, really towards North America, but they thought they would get to China). Portuguese sailors had recently gotten hold of a Chinese invention - the compass. The compass, combined with the astrolabe, made it possible to tell how far north or south you were, even when you were out of sight of land.

But to prepare for crossing the Atlantic, ship-builders also redesigned their sails: Both Vasco da Gama and Columbus used three masts, the two front ones with square sails, and the back mast with a lateen sail.

Learn by doing: build a compass
Europeans in North America
Europeans in India

Bibliography and further reading about medieval sailing:

I.C. Campbell, "The Lateen Sail in World History", Journal of World History 1995

Medieval Science
Medieval Europe home

LIMITED TIME OFFER FOR TEACHERS: Using this article with your class? Show us your class page where you're using this article, and we'll send you a free subscription so all your students can use Study Guides with no distractions! (Not a teacher? Paid subscriptions are also available for just $16/year!)
Please help other teachers and students find us: link to this page from your class page.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Cite this page
  • Author: K.E. Carr
  • Title:
  • Site Name: Study Guides
  • Publisher:
  • Date Published:
Did you find what you needed? Ask your teacher to link to this page so other people can use it too! Send it in and win a "Great Page!" award!
Sign up for more free articles and special offers in' weekly newsletter:
We will never share your e-mail address unless you allow us to do so. View our privacy policy. Easy unsubscribe links are provided in every email.
Comment on This Article

Does your class page honor diversity, celebrate feminism, and support people of color, LBGTQ people, and people with disabilities? Let us know, and we'll send you a Diversity Banner you can proudly display!
Looking for more? is loading comments...
(Comments will appear after moderation, if they are kind and helpful. Feel free to ask questions, and we'll try to answer them.)
Cite this page
  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 30 March, 2017