A Case of Goods Lost at Sea (1485)

ACR, 6, p. 904 (11 February 1485)

by Edda Frankot

vol 6 p. 904 (jettison 1485)The port of Aberdeen in the later fifteenth century was not nearly as busy as it is today. Exactly how many ships docked at the medieval quays in an average year is unknown, but in the first half of the fifteenth century less than ten ships sailed abroad in most years.1 How many more would have had other Scottish ports as their destination is impossible to say, as a thorough port administration is simply not available. Thankfully, the Aberdeen Council Registers do offer a lot of qualitative information on shipping to and from Aberdeen and on the administration of legal cases between the various parties involved in this business. Such cases could be dealt with by different courts: there are instances of legal matters being administered in bailie courts, guild courts and by admirals depute in an admiralty court.2

On 11 February 1485, in a court held by the bailies in the tolbooth, an assize (a jury) of twelve sworn men passed judgement in a case concerning the casting of goods from a buss (‘busch’, from the Dutch ‘buis’, originally a herring fishing vessel). The entry in the Aberdeen records is quite short, but offers a few interesting insights into the administration of law in the burgh and into maritime legal practice.

Many cases that were dealt with by the Aberdeen courts were decided by assizes. Sometimes the members are mentioned by name, but often also they are not. In this case twelve names are listed, but assizes in other examples range from between nine and fifteen, and usually an uneven number appears to have been preferred.3 In most cases there are no further indications as to who the members of the assize were and why they were chosen (though it will surely be possible to find out more about individuals when this project is finished and the corpus can be searched for names). An interesting exception is a case from 1449 in which seven members of the assize are identified as ‘mercatorum’, merchants, and the other eight as ‘nautarum’, skippers.4 In the case discussed here, too, three men are identified as members of the maritime community: Peter Andreis is the skipper of the buss in question, Copryng is his ‘stereman’, helmsman, and Michael is the helmsman of a ‘kervel’, a carvel that was most likely anchored in port at the time. As in many other examples, the ships are only identified as ‘the busch’ and ‘the kervel’, suggesting that only a small amount of vessels were docked at the quay at any one time. Sometimes names are mentioned, such as the James of Veere and the shipwreck of the Mary Grace, both with Dutch skippers, in an entry of 6 February 1482 and the Maryknight from Aberdeen in 1461.5

It is likely that the men elected onto the assize were in some way knowledgeable in sea law because they themselves were part of the maritime community. Normally one would only expect men of some authority and standing to be involved, as assizes were often specified to consist of ‘worthy men’ or ‘proborum virorum’, which in maritime cases would mean merchants, shipowners and skippers. But in this case two helmsmen were elected too. What is even more remarkable, though, is that two of the men specified were actually on the ship that was the subject of the lawsuit. What is more, Peter Andreis even passed judgement at his own expense (or rather that of the shipowners which he represented). One would think that this was highly unusual (and irregular), but in another case, between the earl of Orkney and merchants from Aberdeen, the matter was referred to the meeting of the commissioners of all the burghs in Edinburgh. The reason given was ‘… sen the mater langis thaim, thai arre lath to be jugis in their awne cause’.6 In that case too, it appears, the merchants involved would have been asked to judge their own case.

Picture1The assize decided that Walter, a merchant whose goods had been cast overboard, presumably in order to save the ship in an emergency situation, though this is not specifically stated, would be compensated for his losses. The other merchants would ‘lott’ with him. In addition, the skipper would ‘lott’ with the merchants whose goods had been cast with either his ship or his freight. To lot means to contribute a proportionate share to a common payment. This was the usual way in which the sacrifice made at sea to save the whole vessel, its goods and its passengers (in legal terminology: general average) was compensated in most of northern Europe in this period (with some variation). It is also in accordance with the Rôles d’Oléron. These medieval sea laws which originated in France appear to have been valid in Scotland, as several copies of a translation into Scots have survived as part of collections of the main Scottish laws.7

So, this short entry from volume 6 of the Aberdeen Council Registers already provides us with a wealth of information on maritime and legal life in the late medieval burgh: on types of ships frequenting its harbour, on who administered justice in its courts and on how its maritime practice fitted in with that elsewhere in northern Europe. There is so much more yet to explore, not only concerning Aberdeen’s harbour and its maritime community, but also with regard to many other aspects of medieval life, such as the market, the guild, and citizens breaking the law, but also concerning relations with other towns and with local lords such as the earls of Huntly and Mar. Stay tuned for more highlights from the collection!

  1. David Ditchburn, Scotland and Europe. The Medieval Kingdom and its Contacts with Christendom, c. 1214-1560 (East Linton 2000), p. 11, fig. 1.1; David Ditchburn and Marjory Harper, ‘Aberdeen and the outside world’, in: E. Patricia Dennison, David Ditchburn and Michael Lynch, eds, Aberdeen before 1800. A New History (East Linton 2002), p. 379. 
  2. Edda Frankot, ‘Of Laws of Ships and Shipmen’: Medieval Maritime Law and its Practice in Urban Northern Europe (Edinburgh 2012), pp. 56-7. 
  3. Frankot, Medieval Maritime Law, p. 155, notes 51 and 52. 
  4. ACR, 5/1, p. 68 (28 November 1449). 
  5. ACR, 6, p. 720 (6 February 1482); ACR, 5/1, p. 416 (11 April 1461). 
  6. For a more extensive discussion, see Frankot, Medieval Maritime Law, pp. 167-8; ACR, 5/2, p. 692 (16 December 1454). 
  7. Frankot, Medieval Maritime Law, pp. 110-120. The actual articles concerning jettison were, however, corrupted in the known versions of this translation: Ibid., p. 182. 

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