Medieval Pirates

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the May 1997, A.S. XXXII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

Since the days when men first learned to sail the seas, there have been pirates. For most of history it has been a chronic problem, always there, but only having marginal effect on the course of events. Its most acute stage occurs outside the purview of the SCA. Yet the origins lie in the dynastic conflicts of the Renaissance. This article is a short examination of these origins.

What complicates the picture of piracy is the issue of privateering. The line separating the two is easily breached. Privateering is the act of attacking shipping with the sanction of some government to further the government's ends. Without that sanction, it becomes piracy. Privateering arose from the same needs that gave rise to the feudal levy on land. Medieval monarchs did not have the resources to support a standing army nor a standing navy.

The most famous pirates of the Middle Ages were, of course, the Vikings. But while, if given the opportunity, they attacked ships at sea, they could be more accurately described as seaborne brigands. They would sail their ships to a covenant beaching spot, disembark, and commence their raid, either on foot, or on whatever horses they could gather on the spot.

During the Middle Ages, sea battles consisted of grappling and boarding your opponent's ship. Thus fighting differ little from that on land. Once a ship was overcome, profit would depend on whether there was a rich passenger onboard. Outside the tradeway to the Levant, there were little luxury goods being shipped. And on the Levant trade routes, such luxury goods were usually shipped in convoys of well-armed galleys. For most, piracy was a hard luck occupation.

What changed was the introduction of gunpowder and cannon. With the use of cannon, a ship with a small crew could overcome a ship bristling with soldiers. The presence of cannon is insufficient for wide spread piracy. Acquiring cannon, and a ship capably of mounting them, is still an expansive proposition. The final piece was the expansion of the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires.

As these two empires expanded, neighboring nations naturally resisted. However, since they did not have the means to directly resist, they resorted to what we now would call guerrilla warfare. And on the high seas, this meant privateering. Ships would be outfitted and crewed openly or covertly from state treasuries. Some ventures would be financed privately after a captain received official blessing. All the great English seafarers of the Age of Exploration started their careers in this manner.

This does not mean that these efforts were well organized, well coordinated, or even well led. England's early colonizing efforts came to much grief because the sailors were more interested in plundering Spanish ships then supplying the settlers. The Spanish Armada failed more from Spanish ineptitude then from the incoherent efforts of the English navy.

Piracy was by no means confined to the Atlantic waters. The Mediterranean had its share. There were the North African pirates centered around Algiers who attacked anybody. There were the crusading pirates out of Malta and Rhodes who attacked ships out of the Ottoman Empire. And then there were the ships out of Pisa and Genoa, Venice's mercantile rivals, whose efforts against Venice amounted to piracy.

Yet the great wave of piracy did not began till after the imperial expansion efforts collapsed just after 1600. Like their mercenary cousins on land, veteran crews of these privateers did not find it easy to merge back into the general population at the end of these wars. But instead, continued in the profession for their own ends.

The Caribbean was a hotbed of piracy for two reasons. First, it presented numerous islands, which could be used as bases of operations that were difficult to patrol. Secondly, gold heading to Spain, not only from her American holdings, but also her Pacific holdings, funneled though a few choke points. Thus it was relatively easy to locate prizes.

The history of piracy from this point forward belongs to another age. With its own set of myths, legends, and romance. And so is a story for another publication.



Braudel, Fernand. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. Trans. Siân Reynolds. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1976.

Magnusson, Magnus. Vikings!. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1980.

Thubron, Colin. The Venetians. Alexandria: Time-Life Books, 1980.

Youings, Joyce, ed. Raleigh in Exeter: Privateering and Colonization in the Reign of Elizabeth I. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1985.


Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

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