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Building Ships in the Late 17th-Century France: Agency, Traditional Knowledge, and Technology in Shipyards
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If modern shipbuilding calls for engineers, computer software for 3D models and calculations, it represents a recent take on what is needed for ship construction. Until the 19th-century, ship construction in Europe was mostly driven by empirical knowledge and experience. But the change between this empirical approach to an approach based on modern scientific theories and understanding of physic laws is not abrupt. It was rather a slow transition throughout the Age of Sail where traditional knowledge slowly left place to early modern engineering practices. The understanding of this transition would not be complete without taking into consideration the role played by shipwrights in either maintaining or welcoming changes in their practices. Sometimes subtle, sometimes confrontational, these changes left traces in wooden shipwrecks, which archaeologists can record and interpret. Sunk in 1692, the five shipwrecks of La Hougue encapsulate history of shipbuilding in the late 17th century in France, a period also regularly characterized as the Scientific Revolution. Through the analysis of their wooden remains based on an operational sequence, mostly their frames, it is possible to identify regional patterns with unique shipyards and shipwrights construction signatures while also sharing common architectural traits. It provides the opportunity places to understand how shipwright’s knowledge, expressed through their capacity for agency, played an important role in construction technique despite the pressure of the French navy to standardize ship features in the late 17th century.
Gauthier-Berube, Marijo (2022). Building Ships in the Late 17th-Century France: Agency, Traditional Knowledge, and Technology in Shipyards. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A&M University. Available electronically from