Encounters with the Querina

Dr Matthew Coneys sheds new light on the textual evolution of a 15th-century tale of shipwreck, near starvation, and miraculous rescue among the remote islands of Lofoten in the Arctic Circle….

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My first encounter with the Querina was entirely serendipitous. At the time, I was completing a research project on the Italian translation of the Book of John Mandeville, the account of the infamous fourteenth-century ‘English knight’ who claimed to have travelled to Jerusalem and throughout the exotic East. Working in a small, regional Italian library, I called up an early fifteenth-century manuscript of the Book. When the volume arrived, I was surprised to find that it also contained another text, written in the same neat hand.

It told the incredible story of the Querina, a Venetian merchant ship which was sailing from Crete to Flanders in 1431 when it was blown far off course by a fierce storm. With the rudder destroyed and masts broken, the crew of 68 found themselves adrift in the North Sea with supplies of food and water running critically low. After weeks of deliberation, they eventually decided to abandon the ship and boarded two small lifeboats. The following pages made for grim reading. One of the boats was soon lost to the waves; on the other, many of the sailors soon succumbed to exposure. It drifted onwards at the mercy of the currents.

Querina 1
The departure of the Querina, from a series by Franco Fortunato

On 6 January 1432, the remaining sailors spotted land through the fog and rowed with what little strength they had until they reached a snow-covered beach. Staggering ashore, they drank from the snow and huddled together under the upturned boat. Several weeks passed and the Venetians were close to starvation, but their fortunes finally changed when a farmer and his son came across their camp. They had drifted to Lofoten, a Norwegian archipelago some 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where they had made landfall miraculously close to the village of Røst. Over the course of several months the survivors were nursed back to health and experienced life in this isolated fishing community. They would eventually depart for Venice, with many of the sailors understandably opting to take the lengthy overland journey, rather than search for a ship that would take them home.

The account I stumbled upon is one of two reports of the voyage of the Querina composed by her survivors. These are extraordinary historical sources, not least because eyewitness accounts of medieval shipwrecks are by their nature extremely rare. Written by professional merchant sailors, they also contain a wealth of technical detail of interest to the maritime historian, and offer a valuable insight into the complex trade networks that crisscrossed fifteenth-century Europe. What keeps drawing me back to these works, however, is their remarkable human story: one of bravery, despair and survival, of unlikely cross-cultural encounter, generosity and friendship. Struck by the kindness and religious devotion of the villagers and their simplicity of life, the Venetians describe Røst as ‘the first circle of paradise’ – a hyperbolic claim, perhaps, but one that reflects their profound admiration for their saviours.

The two accounts are reasonably familiar to scholars of Italian travel, having been included in Giovanni Battista Ramusio’s monumental printed compendium of travel accounts, the Navigazioni e viaggi (1550-59). More recently, they have inspired a series of prints by the Italian artist Franco Fortunato, and even a Norwegian-language opera by the composer Henning Sommero. However, relatively little is known about the circulation and textual evolution of these works in the century following the dramatic events they describe. I am particularly fascinated by the question of how the accounts were read and copied in the immediate aftermath of the voyage, and the differences between Ramusio’s scholarly edition and the original versions penned by the Venetian sailors.

Querina 2
A scene from the opera ‘Querini’, written by Henning Sommero and performed by professional musicians and a chorus of islanders from Røst.

The support of a Hakluyt Society Research Grant has given me the opportunity to continue my research by reading and transcribing two early manuscript copies preserved in Venice. As well as allowing me to investigate the accounts’ textual development and early reception, spending time with these books has given me a remarkable sense of connection to the past. This was also the case with that very first manuscript that I encountered: an autograph copy, made by sailors who had lived through a terrible ordeal and kept as a treasured possession. Thanks to the Society’s support, I am continuing working towards a critical edition and English translation which I hope will bring this incredible story to new readers.

Dr Matthew Coneys is currently Research Associate in the School of English at Newcastle University, working on the Manuscripts after Print project led by Dr Aditi Nafde. He completed a PhD in Italian Studies at the University of Warwick in 2017, having previously studied for a BA at the University of Cambridge and MA at UCL. He held postdoctoral positions at the School of Advanced Study (London) and University of St Andrews before being awarded an MHRA Research Scholarship in 2018.