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Medieval Pirates (There's no gunpowder yet!)

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Thoras, Sep 4, 2017.

  1. Thoras

    Thoras Minstrel

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    Hello fellow writers!

    I'm currently working on a medieval fantasy world, I've got a huge map with a lot of ideas on how to make them all relevant in a big book series which is my ultimate goal. The thing is though that I've been listening to a lot of tips from some of the biggest and established fantasy writers out there today, and suggest that you should aim for a stand-alone book as the first book if you are to get a chance and selling your book - then once you have established yourself as a professional and people know your name - then you may go ahead and do a book series. Sounds fair enough, so I thought to myself that I wanted to do a stand-alone book that plays out before the bigger series that I am outlining and building up the world for, so that later on there will be room for some easter eggs as well as expanding in the same universe seems far more fun than creating another for this book.

    So I came up with a story that could play out (and around) a notorious pirate island far from the lands the series would revolve around. Anyway, as I started to write I realized I had a problem. The pirate story I was thinking of included ships battling in the ocean - and of course in my mind there were cannons firing (even flintlock-pistols, although those I could work around).

    So my issue is then, as I want to include this in my medieval world, guns and cannons are not invented, there's no gunpowder. So I'm thinking how would you create these kinds of battles on the sea without cannons? The best I've got is that the ships may be equipped with catapults which can sling balls of fire to destroy the other ships, but do you see this working out or should I just scrap the idea of doing this in the medieval world and just go along with the gunpowder era? Or do you have any better ideas of how I would make these battles more exciting within the medieval technologies?


    If you read through all of this, I am truly grateful - thank you!

    //Thoras
     
  2. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Ballistae were used. Also, this: Springald - Wikipedia

    You might be able to use catapults if they're small enough, but for larger ones I'd do some research into the forces this would exert against a ship at sea.
     
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  3. Thoras

    Thoras Minstrel

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    Thanks for replying!

    Yeah I was considering ballistas as well, although I'm not sure that would to much damage to a ship? Sure you could pierce the hull I suppose but it's not that exciting. I was thinking slightly small catapults though.

    I just remembered a scene from Game of Thrones (the TV-series), without trying to spoil anything there is a scene where a ship is shooting at another in one scene, as in catapult shooting fire at it. Their technology are on the same level as I'm thinking so that seems plausible. I'm just considering if this would be good enough for a more boat-focused novella, or if people will be like "hey, where are the cannons?" :confused:
     
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  4. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    If you look at the link in my post above, it says that device was used to throw Greek fire at other ships. That might be something closer to a cannon.

    I don't think people will wonder where the cannons are if it is clear that level of technology doesn't exist. And you could make the naval battle just as exciting with the catapults or other weapons.
     
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  5. Thoras

    Thoras Minstrel

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    Yeah Greek fire looks cool too, never heard of that before today haha. Gotta look more into that, but catapults and greek fire may actually work quite well!

    But about "if it is clear that level och technology doesn't exist", I'm not sure how I would tell the reader cannons doesn't exist, I mean I can't talk about it as it doesn't exist and I'm not sure about saying "Oh these are the best naval weaponry there is in the realm" etc. either haha - so how would you suggest I'd establish that level of technology to the reader? Thanks again!
     
  6. elemtilas

    elemtilas Sage

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    As for how to tell the reader gunpowder and cannons don't exist without actually telling us they don't exist:

    Just tell us what dóes exist. In stead of going on about fuses and cannonballs and so forth, I'm sure that somewhere in the narrative you can work in orders to "ready the forecastle ballistas!" or a bit of description like "great care had to be exercised when the order came to ready the cans of Yawanian fire. If mishandled, the weapon could be as destructive to the pirates' own ship as to their victims'." Indirect hints are perfectly fine.
     
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  7. Orc Knight

    Orc Knight Maester

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    This may or may not be too relevant to this, but you could look into The Knights of Malta and Barbossa's navies for this sort of thing. Both were medieval navy obviously and The Knights of Malta, though one of the holy knightly orders like Hospitilar, Tuetonic and Templar orders, they did a some pirating of their own I believe. And Barbossa, he was a pirate that got a sultanate and then later ruled his area of the Mediterranean if I remember correctly.
     
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  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Naval tactics varied according to the type of ship, which in turn varied according to the type of water. Galleys were common in the Mediterranean, for example, but were essentially unknown in the North Sea and the Baltic.

    One tactic I love from the Mediterranean comes from ancient Rome. They used something called a corvus (crow). This was a long plank with a big old spike at one end. They would row up next to another ship and drop it down onto the enemy, driving the spike into their deck. With the two ships thus locked together, Roman soldiers could board and do what they did best.

    A tactic like that could never work in the Atlantic.
     
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  9. Thoras

    Thoras Minstrel

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    Yeah I know, I could work that in no doubt. The thing is the naval warfare will not be in the first chapters and I'm just concerned someone who picks it up and expect traditional pirates and naval war from that era might be disappointed and feel mislead once they've invested their time in reading that far. But maybe I'm just overthinking it, it might not bother readers at all if I make the catapults/greek fire/ballistas and other various weapons work well with the story. :)


    Hmm, I might look into that, thanks :)


    Ah yeah I've heard about that plank but as a form of "claw" it was called when I read it.
    But why wouldn't it work in the Atlantic? Because they wouldn't row a galley out on the great oceans? Because of the ocean waves?


    Thank you all for replying! :)
     
  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >But why wouldn't it work in the Atlantic? Because they wouldn't row a galley out on the great oceans? Because of the ocean waves?

    Pretty much. Galleys were taken into the ocean (there were some in the Spanish Armada in 1588), but they were not as effective. The roll of the deck is stronger (though storms can be fierce in the Med, too). I honestly do not know what were naval tactics in the north prior to cannonry. They must have boarded, for there were pirates in the North Sea and in the Baltic Sea at least back to the 12th century. But I am unsure how exactly the tactics worked.

    While on the subject of pirates, a historical comment, in case it sparks anything useful for you. We are accustomed to think of pirating as a full-time job, influenced as we are by the Caribbean pirates. And there were such people clear back to ancient times. But more common was a ship owner who cheerfully blurred the distinction between merchant and pirate. He might be just as likely to plunder a foundered ship as to hawk trade goods in a port market. There was a Sicilian pirate in the 13th century called Henry the Fisherman. It was a joke. He pretended to be a fisherman when convenient, like a gangster claiming he's in the import/export business.
     
  11. SMAndy85

    SMAndy85 Minstrel

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    What about ramming? There's nothing to stop someone from reinforcing the front of their ship with steel to allow it to be used for intentional ramming. Although then you've got the potential for taking damage to your own ship at the same time. You'd need to have some serious reinforcements both internally and externally to stop from sinking yourself.

    I wonder if someone could come up with the technology specifics to allow a big spike to be at the front of a pirate ship, and once it pierces the hull of a target, it opens up and allows them to flood into the lower decks while all the enemy are waiting for them up on deck.

    Also, archers would potentially have a big place in naval warfare before cannons. Heated shot could be used to set fire to sails on a dry day, which would severely limit the speed and maneuverability of their enemy.
     
  12. Thoras

    Thoras Minstrel

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    I see, sounds reasonable enough.

    About it being a full-time job, that's actually something I've already planned for - many of them are somewhat wrongly called pirates in the story. Thanks for the tips and ideas!



    Ramming is also an idea I'm keen on using :) The spike idea is neat!
    Archers will absolutely be a big part as well, and flaming arrows for sure. But I was thinking about more destructive weapons earlier, but I'll absolutely use both of your ideas. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
     
  13. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Also, this being fantasy, don't forget magic!
     
  14. Thoras

    Thoras Minstrel

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    That's true, but I like to keep my world somewhat restrained on the magic department. I want it to be rare and something that many does not even believe in as they've never seen it. So I'm not going to be using a fire-ball tossing wizard at the bow of the ship or anything like that. But perhaps alchemist bombs of sorts (like a grenade), which may or may not be magical - I haven't done my research on how that would plan out yet. :)
     
  15. Bruce McKnight

    Bruce McKnight Troubadour

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    I think attacking the sails, either with fire arrows or just enough regular arrows to splice up the fabric, would make a ship easy to get close enough to to board. Boarding could be done with ropes with hooks at the end or ladders - anything that gunpowder-age pirates would use to board a ship (by the way, Back Sails is tragically underrated and full of good inspiration). Pirates would probably want to take the ship, so breaking the sail would be a good way to keep it intact.

    For war or other more aggressive measure, I think it would be cool to work on getting a covert crew with drills, axes, and wedges to do enough hull damage to get it to take on water. Also, anything with fire (tar, oil, arrows, etc) would probably be used quite a bit.
     
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  16. Thoras

    Thoras Minstrel

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    Thanks for the reply Bruce! I assume you mean Black Sails, if so - I can happily tell you that it is a favorite show of mine so I do have that in the back of my mind often even though most aspects are hard to use as they live in the gun-powder area, but yes I do visualize boardings and clothing etc. when I write :)

    About using drills and axes to damage the hull that seems like a neat idea if the boat would be anchored, but hardly something you could use in battle.
     
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