If you search "medieval crate" on google you get 2 things: 3D crates that look suspiciously modern or you get real, chest-like boxes. I'm wondering if the latter is the norm for the time period?


closed as off-topic by Mołot, Rekesoft, Separatrix, Alexander von Wernherr, Anketam Oct 22 '18 at 12:23

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    $\begingroup$ Was there even a norm? I don't think they'd developd the idea of standardization, much less containerized shipping :-) But see the Roman/Mediterranean use of amphorae as shipping containers: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amphora $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Oct 22 '18 at 5:54
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    $\begingroup$ This question may be more appropriate on History. $\endgroup$ – James Oct 22 '18 at 6:54
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    $\begingroup$ For what purpose? Fish (one of the most important trading goods)? Wine? Clothes? Also please note that the middle ages span more than a thousand years with dramatic developments in many areas relevant here. Also, the European middle ages happened from way up north and east to modern day Turkey, Spain and Italy. You might benefit from learning a bit if history if you build such a world. A more precise question would've been, for example, how would a typical hanseatic trader store fish? $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Oct 22 '18 at 9:05
  • $\begingroup$ i don't have the printed source near by to check and write an answer, but apparantly at Haitabu (Viking site in Denmark, used to be a trading hub) they excavated open wooden boxes of a fairly standartized size that they would put into their Knarrs. $\endgroup$ – mart Oct 22 '18 at 12:45
  • $\begingroup$ If you posted this on history.stackexchange.com you would get more answers! If you do please leave a comment with the link to the question because I would be interested in the answers they might have there. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Oct 23 '18 at 15:29

No Standard

As Jamesqf suggests in the comments that while there was no standards for shipping. so each and every company had different sized contains depending on what they were making. and i mean making, in all likelihood it was the goods manufacturer that dictated the container not the shipping company.

What has survived

There have been many wrecks that have been investigated over the last century and these range drastically in their size and range as well as their period and country of origin.

Clay jars, or Amphorae have been found throughout the ancient times, but this was mostly for storing small loose matter such as grains and liquids. in the medieval times Barrel making had advanced past the use of clay pots for this purpose so its likely that this was indeed the equivalent of a standard for the time as it was reasonably cheap for how long their lasted, and weren't fragile compared to amphorae.

What hasn't survived

The most likely method of transporting non fragile goods would have been in sacks or woven baskets. these wouldn't survive the test of sea water and time, but allowed for large amounts of goods to be stored in a small amount of space, which meant people and shipping companies could carry more and therefore make more money.

Anything really fragile would probably have been placed in some form of handmade wooden create if absolutely necessary, perhaps lined with some form of protective cloth based or wood chipping material to act as packing.


Handmade wooden crates very rarely, more often Baskets, Sacks and Barrels are the most likely storage vessels in medieval shipping.

  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, crates don't make as much sense as you would think at first glance $\endgroup$ – Kilisi Oct 22 '18 at 7:10
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    $\begingroup$ Also, invention of standard shipping container was what made today's ocean shipping possible. In the medieval times, loading and unloading ship took months to complete. Now it takes fraction of that time, while cargo ships are much bigger $\endgroup$ – Pavel Janicek Oct 22 '18 at 7:38
  • $\begingroup$ The crates could've also been lined with straws, as they'd be available cheaply. $\endgroup$ – user10328 Oct 22 '18 at 9:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Rogem, This is very true, i drew a blank for a bit while i could remember the types of storage for some reason i couldn't remember the packing material. $\endgroup$ – Blade Wraith Oct 22 '18 at 9:51

Depends on the goods you wished to transport. I've generalized here, a very dangerous thing to do for an era that spanned from the 5th Century to the 14th or 15th, with massive variation from country to country. So, I've given an overview, but use that as a jumping off point to get specific. Pick a country and a century and go from there.

  • Barrels. Pretty much came into vogue in the Medieval period in a BIG way. Used for all kinds of things, not always liquid goods like alcohol. Fish were sometimes stored this way, and sometimes even kept alive with water in. Herring were always packed, pickled and salted in barrels. Barrel hoops were mostly made of wood, flexible willow, ash, hazel, and chestnut. Though metal hoops were used, they weren't very common for most of the medieval era. (If they were metal, it was a high quality barrel, mostly in use for alcohol, starting in the high Middle ages after about 1000). But the barrels themselves could be anything--pine, oak, whatever it might be. Later barrels for alcohol got to be exclusively oak. Metal hoops weren't used commonly until well after the Medieval period. If it was a wet good, it would be made waterproof, but for dry goods, like nails, fruit, gunpowder, sugar, flour salted meats and so forth, it was not. Take a look at the wiki for coopers who made the barrels and there was a seperate one I believe for hoopers, who made the hoops to go round the barrels. Barrel sizes were NOT uniform, so whatever picture you have in your mind as far as how big they would be on average, dismiss that right now. During this time they were often longer (or taller) and thinner than a modern barrel. There were tiny casks, and giant ones and everything in between, with no standard. (Except within industries in certain countries--some places would get serious about some food good like herring or wine and establish a standard--but JUST for that particular good in that country).
  • Sacks. Barrels were more secure and there was less chance of rats getting to the goods, so not as common in long-term shipping.
  • Woven baskets. Stackable and made with handy handles.
  • Chests. Used for moving mainly and doubled as furniture. You already know about these.
  • Rope handle chests. Here's a picture: enter image description here Yes, it's a modern construction, but it's not that hard to build. Not nearly so common as barrels. On a long-term voyage this could keep rats out. For short term trips, sacks and woven baskets would be more common. Ease of carrying is a big factor. Although they did have windlasses and pulleys, those were likely not guaranteed at every port. These smaller boxes with built in handles meant that boxes could be loaded on and off with a minimum of fuss.
  • The standard nailed crate. This is a modern image taken from a game but, it's accurate as far as what they could build and what was used for a long time. Though these could be built, again, not as common as barrels because you could not roll these like you could barrels. But they were used. Came into use more in the late Medieval, but you could find these anytime during the period. enter image description here
  • Cages. For live goods such as chickens. Made of wood.
  • Gourds or Ceramics.

You might not realize how advanced woodworking was. Making nice, uniform planks was something that they had to do for shipbuilding and they had LOTS of practice. All my images are modern, but that's because preserving these was not considered important. It's like the equivalent of saving cardboard Amazon shipping boxes.

Many were stamped with what goods they were, sometimes for tax purposes. What was used most often were barrels. Yes, you had the other containers, but barrels were easier to roll to their destination. Everything else was less in use. Basically, if you COULD put it in a barrel, they did. This includes fabric. I know, insane. They would put them in rolls and into a barrel they could go. Fabric was also just stored in boxes, or as loose bolts. I'd say, that your best bet to start is just to become a barrel expert. Here's a start with this link! That will tell you a lot about the standard sizings for shipping specific goods (mostly alcohol).

Medieval times were the AGE OF the Barrel! Cause you could roll 'em.

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    $\begingroup$ What could be most foreign to us is that all of these barrels, creates etc. where unique - e.g. their dimensions varied. Annoying as hell to store, but standaridzation ist very much a 19th or 20th century thing. $\endgroup$ – Christian Sauer Oct 22 '18 at 9:03
  • $\begingroup$ Living near a brewery and having seen the cooper talk, this is the correct answer. But I didn't know about the metal hoops being new. $\endgroup$ – WendyG Oct 22 '18 at 10:28
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    $\begingroup$ @WendyG Medieval times ended about 1400, maybe a half century before (depends on who you ask) by the 1600s, the metal hoops were the thing--just in time for the age of sail to really pick up. Most reenactors make barrel hoops metal, because that's what they were doing in the 1600, 1700, 1800 on to the modern age. "New" is a relative term because we've been doing it with metal for a hot minute. But I do know that in Medieval times, especially early, metal hoops were rare to non-existent. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Oct 22 '18 at 15:07
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    $\begingroup$ @ChristianSauer I clarified a bit. Within certain industries from certain countries there were sometimes standards imposed for a particular good. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Oct 22 '18 at 15:23

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