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Saturday, 7 May 2016

Mystery shrouds

Find the shrouds!
A shroud is a winding sheet for a corpse to most of us, but the shrouds on a ship are part of the standing rigging, heavy, tarred ropes that hold the mast firmly down, and stop it rocking from side to side.

When jolly Jack Tars went aloft in the days of sail, they did so by clambering up light lines strung between the shrouds. Fore and aft, the masts were steadied by other items, the more sensibly-named forestays and backstays, but to port and starboard, there were just shrouds.

All of the standing rigging on a ship was made of rope, and new sailors had to learn the ropes, but in truth, there was just one rope on a ship, the bell rope. All of the other pieces of rope were called by other names: lines, halyards, cables and the sheets used to trim the sails — so there we have another word meaning a flat piece of material, given to one of the pieces of specialised rope on board. There was the rope's end, used by bosuns as a 'starter' on some ships, either because it got the sailors started, or gave them a start, or maybe because it was applied to the start, or tail area.

The word shroud comes from an old Teutonic root meaning to cut, and related to the modern word 'shred', which came from scrud in Old English. Around 1580, there was a term 'shred-pie' used for a mince pie, giving a feel for how the word was used then. It seems that the shroud was cut cloth, and so a garment, but the meaning of a winding sheet or cover for a corpse seemed to take over. By the 17th century, a shroud was a place of shelter or shade, and to shroud was to hide.

In the 18th century, a shroud came to mean other things, like the annular plates on a water wheel that formed the sides of the buckets, but these were just covers to the wheel. Today, we may know the word, but shrouds are rarer — if it doesn't come from Turin, the only shroud you are likely to see will be the casing over an aircraft engine.

In Hamlet, Ophelia sings of a shroud, as white as mountain snow, while in Henry VI, Part 3, the First Keeper suggests to his companion that they shroud themselves under a thick-grown brake, though later in the same play, Queen Margaret speaks of "shrouds and tacklings", clearly referring to standing and running rigging, and in Henry VIII, there is a reference to the noise of wind in the shrouds of a ship at sea. Juliet mentions shrouds several times as she prepares to take Friar Laurence's potion, but in The Tempest, when Trinculo comes ashore after a shipwreck, he declares "I will here shroud till the dregs of the storm be past."

This gets us no closer to the shrouds on board ship, though one doubtful suggestion is that the shrouds were shrouded in leather to stop them rubbing. In fact, the leather was more commonly on the timber yards, and Antonio Pigafetta, one of the survivors of Magellan's world trip, reveals in his account of their discomfort:

We ate biscuit which was no longer biscuit, but powder of biscuits swarming with worms, for they had eaten the good. It stank strongly of the urine of rats. We drank yellow water which had been putrid for many days. We also ate some oxhides which covered the top of the mainyard to prevent the yard from chafing the shrouds, and which had become exceedingly hard because of the sun, rain and wind. We left them in the sea for four or five days, and then placed them for a few moments on top of the embers, and so ate them . . . the gums of both the lower and upper teeth of some of our men swelled, so that they could not eat under any circumstances and therefore died.
The only shroud a sailor got was his hammock, the piece of canvas he had slept in, He was sewn into this, and slipped gently over the side, feet first, with a couple of roundshot at his feet to plummet him down past the sharks — or out of sight fast enough so that the sharks would not be seen feeding on the body.

The hammock, by the way, was a name garnered from the Spaniards, who called it a hamaca, after they adapted the Carib name for the same thing, which was hamac. But why the side stays on a ship are shrouds must remain a mystery, like the purpose of the futtock shrouds. They are the white rods sloping down and in, towards the mast, in the picture above: the rest is left as an exercise for the reader.

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