Shut seas and shipwrecks

August 12, 2009

Marchamont Nedham’s 1652 translation of John Selden’s Mare Clausum began with a defense of the book’s title.

Some readers, the text explains, have objected to the title of Mare Clausum being applied to a treatise on the dominion of the seas, because clausum and apertum were labels used by the Ancients to signify the seasonal navigability of the waters:

Every man know’s, that from the third of the Ides of November until the sixt of the Ides of March, or betwixt som other beginning and ending of such a kinde of winter-season, the Sea was, and was so called, heretofore Clausum Shut; as the rest of the time, or in the Summer-season, it was called Apertum Open, that is to say, more apt and convenient for shipping. According to which sens it was said by Cicero, while hee was in exspectation of Letters from his brother Quinctus; Adhuc Clausum Mare scio fuisse, I know the Sea hath been shut until now.

Acknowledging this meaning, the text continues to carve out an alternative:

But truly there is another and far clearer meaning of the Title. The simple sens of its terms doth denote, that the Sea is so shut up or separated and secluded for private Dominion, no otherwise than the Land or a Port, by bounds, limits, and other Notes and circumstances of private Dominion, and that by all kinde of Law, that without the consent of the Owner and those special restrictions & qualifications of Law, which variously intervene, vanish, and return, all others are excluded from a use of the same. For, most certain it is, that Claudere, to shut doth not only denote the mere simple Act of shutting, as wee say de Januis oculisve clausis of gates or one’s eies beeing shut, clauso agmine, or as it is in that of Lucan,·

Brachia nec licuit vasto jactare Profundo;
Sed Clauso periere Mari.—

(which is spoken of the Seamen’s beeing cover’d with the keel of their ship turned upward) but also it very often signifie’s that which is consequent either to a denial of the free use of the thing shut, as also the proprietie and Dominion of him that shut’s it;

The text refers to Book 3 of Lucan’s Civil War, and the section that describes a particularly horrible death among breaking boats and sinking corpses (as translated by Susan H. Braund):

While one vessel’s throng, too aggressive,
leans over the tilting side and leaves unmanned the section
free from enemy, by their massed weight the ship
was overturned and covered sea and sailors with its hollow keel:
they could not strike the vast deep with their arms
but perished in their ocean prison.

That this image (along with several others) is employed at the start of this treatise reminds me that though ‘free seas’ and ‘closed seas’ have now become standard terms in international law, seventeenth century readers would have understood them as texturised by a deep stock of literary, historical and judicial images of closed and openness – including this striking example of shutness as the fatal inability to find enough purchase to swim, and death in the ocean prison of a capsized ship.


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