Living by the Sea

Maryanne Kowaleski. Photo by Daniela StallingerMaryanne Kowaleski. Photo by Daniela Stallinger
By Corydon Ireland

Maryanne Kowaleski, a medieval studies scholar at Fordham University, in the Bronx, is a 2015–2016 Joy Foundation Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute. Her office in Byerly Hall is about two miles from the Atlantic Ocean, as the crow flies. But it is also many centuries removed from the part of the Atlantic that interests Kowaleski the most: coastal England in the heart of the Middle Ages.

It was along that jagged coastline in the 14th and 15th centuries, she says, that the riches of the sea created a unique English maritime subculture that flourished in villages, towns, and manors. It extended from the sea, with fishing and coastal carriage in rude boats, to the shore, where seaweed and shellfish and salt and fish-curing operations thrived. Its products made their way to inland towns where—forensic studies of human bones show—protein from the sea was widespread in the English diet by the 12th century.

Kowaleski’s challenge as a historian is to bring this medieval coastal England into focus so that it can be seen as brightly as the well-documented maritime 17th century and beyond. Little studied today is the Middle Ages subculture of the sea: the farmers who fished, the wives and daughters empowered by a common family enterprise, the boat crews who lived unusually egalitarian lives, and the ever-widening sea voyages that foreshadowed English world trade and naval dominance.

This relative neglect in the scholarly world comes despite “a real explosion of interest in the sea” in the past two decades, Kowaleski told a Radcliffe audience in November. Today’s global interest in oceans is prompted in part by ecological concern for the marine environment in an era of climate change, rising seas, and depletion of fish stocks.

But Kowaleski understands why maritime aspects of the thousand-year Middle Ages (circa 500 to 1500) have often been left out of histories so far: “the paucity of documentary sources,” she explained. “Medievalists simply lack the personal correspondence, government commissions, captains’ logs, and oral histories upon which maritime and environmental historians usually rely.” It was illiterate peasants who fished and who carried goods from shore to shore, she said, and who were pressed into naval service before England had a navy. The lords who oversaw their lives may have been able to read, but they wrote little.

Bamburgh Castle, Bamburgh, Northumberland, England. SOPA RF/SOPA/CorbisBamburgh Castle, Bamburgh, Northumberland, England. SOPA RF/SOPA/Corbis

To overcome the hurdle of documentation, Kowaleski employs the clever interdisciplinary tools used by scholars of medieval studies everywhere: streams of suggestive information from art, archaeology, anthropology, environmental studies, geography, literature, and marine biology. Kowaleski has even studied didactic medieval sermons and the lives of saints, along with medieval shoreline rituals, prayers, and sea chanties, in search of clues about sea and coastal life. Meanwhile, the Radcliffe experience enriches her interdisciplinary approach, she said one afternoon in her office, and provides a ready audience for testing her ideas on non-specialists.

Of course, beyond the contributions of those eclectic disciplines lies the chief quotidian effort of a scholar of medieval England: hours and days and weeks sequestered in out-of-the-way English archives, poring over medieval custumals (records of local laws), court records, and other documents. To understand these written sources, Kowaleski mastered—very early in her many years in the field—the necessary languages: Latin, Middle English, and Anglo-Norman, a French dialect developed in medieval England. Not least, she also had to learn how to decipher the crabbed, difficult handwriting in those source documents. (She spent two years studying paleography.)

With all her archival work now out of the way, she is using her time at Radcliffe to write, touch up, and test (on audiences) research from a monograph titled Living by the Sea: An Ethnography of Maritime Communities in Medieval England. It will be, said Kowaleski—unlike any other book out there—a re-creation of coastal societies unseen for more than 600 years. She is eager to prove that this distinctive “ecotype” illuminates a hitherto unexamined feature of the medieval peasant economy; that it links medieval England to the England of the early modern period; and that it still has echoes today, in coastal fishing cultures across the world.

The word “ethnography” is the heart of her title, said Kowaleski, who admires the focus on human culture that marks this branch of anthropology—a thorough analysis of the rituals, language, customs, and social dynamics of a people and a place. “It’s an intense perspective,” she said, “that often requires in-person fieldwork by anthropologists. You drill down for months at a time. I like that.” Studying medieval England precludes fieldwork of that kind, since time machines are not on store shelves yet. But Kowaleski uses a combination of proxy sources as a substitute for actually being among the villeins (serfs) as they fish from small wooden boats; or among the kinfolk plundering the sites of rich sea wrecks; or among the wives and daughters repairing nets, baiting lines, gutting the catch, and curing fish.

In the absence of parish registers, diaries, and other direct testimonial sources, “the challenge,” Kowaleski told her Radcliffe audience, “is to find measures.” In part, that involves a technique called prosopography—a “collective biography of a sparsely documented historical group for whom individual biographies are impossible.” This technique is her medievalist version of ethnography.

Old Keiss Castle, Caithness, between John O'Groats and Wick, Scotland. Guy Edwardes/CorbisOld Keiss Castle, Caithness, between John O'Groats and Wick, Scotland. Guy Edwardes/CorbisThat means using quantitative analysis in some measure. In pursuit of the role of women within maritime communities, for example, Kowaleski uses early 15th-century data from the fishing port of Hythe, on the south coast of Kent: town accounts, court rolls, deeds, hearth taxes, wills, and documents related to port customs and naval impressments.

In the 15th century, Hythe was home to about 650 people, nearly a quarter of whom lived lives directly tied to fishing, according to tax rolls. Kowaleski looked at 205 wills; 28 percent contained “maritime bequests of high-value items such as ships, boat shares, and fishing cabins,” she said at Radcliffe, “as well as fishing gear, nets, hooks, ropes, and other items associated with seafaring and fishing.”

This collective biography of Hythe fishers and mariners sheds light on gender relations in the community: 41 percent of the bequests went to women, “an extraordinarily large percentage,” said Kowaleski. She devotes a chapter of her monograph to the women of coastal communities from the 12th through the 15th centuries. Until now, women have been largely left out of medieval maritime histories. (One recent book on the medieval sea, said Kowaleski, gives women less than two paragraphs; another does not even list women, wives, or widows in the index.)

Women in this coastal niche may have had more agency, she said, but not necessarily more authority. They did more on shore and inherited more upon the death of their husbands, “but that doesn’t make them happier or more powerful” than the wives and daughters in farming or small artisan families, whose work was also essential to the survival of the family. Nor were there female sailors in that era; although ships were given feminine names, women at sea were regarded with suspicion. The few who braved the waves did so as passengers, pilgrims, and—occasionally—prostitutes. “Mythological females of the deep, such as sirens and mermaids, were even perceived as threatening,” Kowaleski added.

Nor should the egalitarian nature of medieval boat crews, where a “shares” system divided risk as well as profits and maintained a spirit of cooperation, be misperceived. These crews did not foreshadow labor movements, she said, and any democratic impulse began to decline by the end of the Middle Ages, when capital-intensive long-distance voyaging became more prevalent, and wages began displacing shares. Maritime laws reflected this economic change by shifting power away from all those onboard to shipmasters and captains.

Despite these caveats, the sea in England, at least, is still “romanticized as essential to the country’s identity,” said Kowaleski. She remarked on the lingering resonance of the coastal communities of the Middle Ages re-created in her book—“a book that offers a medieval distant mirror in which we can also glimpse our modern seas and modern selves.”


A Long-Ago World’s Forgotten Words

The eclectic interdisciplinary scholarship of Radcliffe fellow Maryanne Kowaleski re-creates life in the long-ago and largely forgotten coastal communities of England during the Middle Ages. Her work also brings back to light 14th- and 15th-century words and phrases from the manorial, maritime, and legal spheres. A sampling:

CHRIST’S DOLE: In some coastal localities, the obligation to give a share of a peasant’s catch to the local church.

CUSTUMAL: A handwritten inventory like document, revised over time, listing the local laws and traditions of a medieval English manor or town.

DEODANDS: Objects washed ashore from medieval shipwrecks and regarded as the property of the Crown or a lord. For coastal peasants, shipwrecks provided a windfall of kegged wine, tin, cloth, and other goods.

EXEMPLA: Moralizing and didactic stories often inserted in medieval sermons. They sometimes contain clues about the details of everyday life, even in the maritime sphere.

EYRE ROLLS: First appearing in the 12th century, these documents, rich in social detail, recorded the business of itinerant medieval courts known as general eyres.

FISH RENTS: In-kind payments to local manors by tenants, variously made with cod, eels, and herring.

FISH TITHES: A portion of profits from fishing paid in money (or fish) to the local parish rector.

OAKUM: Tarred hemp fibers used to pack joints in wooden ships; also called “towe.”

REEVE: A respected and experienced serf chosen to oversee the other serfs on his manor.

ROYAL FISH: Stranded whales and porpoises, considered the property of the Crown or the local lord—though often a covert source of bone, oil, and meat for local peasants.

SCAFF: A low, deckless sailing boat used for fishing. Medieval watercraft represent a jewel box of long-forgotten names, including caravel, crayer, cog, hoy, galley, hulk, knarr, and picard.

STEWS: A district of whorehouses, sometimes in coastal areas where mariners would debark and debauch.

VILLEIN: An unfree peasant or serf who owed labor services (including fishing along the coast) to his manorial lord and rent (in cash or in kind) for the right to farm a plot of land.


Corydon Ireland is a freelance writer.

Search Year: 
2016