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Hulk (medieval ship type)

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Hulk (medieval ship type)

A caravel, a ship type derived from the hulk

A hulk (or "holk") was a type of medieval sea craft, a technological predecessor of the carrack and caravel. The hulk appears to have remained a relatively minor type of ship apparently peculiar to the low countries of Europe where it was probably used primarily as a river or canal boat, with limited potential for coastal cruising.


The name hulk may come from the Greek word holkas, meaning a towed boat, which would be consistent with the use of the hulk as a river barge. The word hulk also has a medieval meaning of "hollowed-out" or "husk-like" which is also apposite for the shape of the basic hulk. In the fourteenth century the hulk began to develop until it was able to rival the cog as a major load carrier in the medieval economy. Whether this was a consequence of a perception of the cog's shortcomings or a result of a shift in the economic geography of Northern Europe towards the Dutch low countries is not easy to discern. By the 15th century, the hulk was replaced by the caravel.

The weakest part of an enlarged hulk would be its stem and stern. Since it has no proper keel or substantial stem or stern posts those parts of the boat would have to be reinforced by the introduction of substantial aprons and breasthooks, perhaps augmented by sacrificial stem and stern posts between which the unsupported hull planking could be sandwiched. Early hulks, like all of the other northern boat types, were initially shell-built using lapstrake or clinker planking which was subsequently reinforced by the insertion of grown crooks of timber as frames. Using these techniques, perhaps better understood as a result of technological transfers from architectural woodworking, shipwrights were able to extend the hulk in size until it rivaled and surpassed the cog.


  • Greenhill, Basil (2000). The Mysterious Hulc. The Mariner's Mirror 86, page 3-18.
  • Rodger, N.A.M. (1997). The safeguard of the sea: a naval history of Britain, Vol.1, 660-1649, London, HarperCollins in association with the National Maritime Museum, ISBN 0-00-255128-4, page 63.

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