I'm writing a book that involves a sailing vessel. It's 1244. Cornwall. Smuggling's afoot. Of course, there must be boats and also, a ship. So I turned to my "Illustrated Encyclopedia of Ships and Boats" by Graham Blackburn looking for the appropriate type of sailing ship for the smugglers.
And here's what I find: a balinger, "used in the middle ages for coastal trade." No idea what it looks like. I check my Encyclopedia Britannica dictionary. According to it, this ship was used from the 15th - 17th century, and apparently derives from a reference to whales. So...no good.
barge: "probably comes from the Latin word 'barca,' which makes it the equivalent of barque or bark." Derived from Latin? We're talking old, then. The entry in the ship encyclopedia says it's the next size up from the balinger. The Encyclopeida Britannica dictionary's first entry for barge is simply "sailing vessel." It also lists "bark" in the same entry, and refers to the balinger for a size comparison. According to Webster's, the first recorded English usage of barge is 14 C., and means "any of various boats."
So then I go to "barque" or "bark." According to my ship encyclopedia, "barque" originally meant any kind of small sailing ship "of any rig." However, "by the middle ages the term had become somwhat more closely defined and referred to small Mediterranean craft..." Considering the "middle ages" goes from the fall of the Romance Empire to about 1500, I'm not sure when this transition took place. The first recorded English usage, according to Webster's, is 15th C. and means a small sailing ship.
Next I go to brigantine, but I'm fairly certain that's too late, timewise, for my story. I discover a fascinating fact: the name was originally given to vessels used by "brigands" -- ie pirates. In the Mediterranean. Oh. The first recorded English usage is 1525. Although I tend to assign a lot of "wiggle room" when it comes to dates in Webster's, because folks in medieval times weren't generally doing a whole lot of writing, this is, as far as I'm concerned, not usuable.
So it comes down to "barge" or "barque" (and I would use the "que" spelling, because there are other kinds of barks that have nothing to do with ships). Barge might be more technically correct, but what do people think of when they hear the word "barge?' Not a swift sailing ship. What do they think of if they see the word "barque"? In context, it would obviously be some sort of boat or ship. They probably wouldn't be able to picture it until I describe it, which also means they have no preconceptions.
Therefore, I'm going with "barque." It's not definitely wrong (as brigantine would be), it comes with fewer (or no) preconceptions and it just plain sounds like an older sort of ship.
And that's all the research I'm going to do on that particular point. I'm not writing a historical novel. The ship comes into play as a setting only at the end of the book, and what's far more important is that the smugglers have the heroine on board and intend to sell her. Her emotional state, her frantic attempts to escape and the hero's desperate attempt to rescue her (made more desperate by his fear of open water) are the focus here, not whether the ship is a barge, barque, balinger or brigantine.