A friend and I were discussing the fourteenth century last weekend. She said that she had read that life was fairly easy for people then and that they had more free time than we do today. I took the contrary view. When you have to do everything more or less from scratch every day, you don’t have a lot of free time. If you wanted water in the fourteenth century, you had to go to the well and draw it up in a bucket. If you wanted hot water, you had to collect the wood, or other combustible material, first, then make it burn (not always as easy as it sounds), then wait while the water heated, although you would probably have plenty to do while it was heating. If you wanted to eat something you had to grow it, catch it or exchange something of value for it.
The most telling thing for her, I think, was travel. She said, “Oh, they could buy that in a town” and I said, “How would they get there?”. We were in the Quantocks at the time. On my way home it took half an hour to drive to the nearest town, Taunton. The distance is not quite 12 miles. 12 miles would take at least four hours for the average person to walk and would take only a little less on horseback.
If you lived 12 miles away from your nearest town and market, going there and returning was not something to be accomplished in one day. It is, of course, possible to walk 24 miles in one day, but most people are unable to do anything the following day. You would only be able to do it in the summer when there are enough hours of daylight. I have walked 24 miles in one day more than once and it’s hard work. However well-shod your feet are, you’re very likely to end up with blisters. Carrying anything heavy over that distance would make it even harder. In reality very few people in the fourteenth century travelled more than 15 miles in one day.
One of the reasons why it took so long to get anywhere was the state of the roads. They were little more than dirt tracks which turned into mud in the rain, which meant that travelling at any time other than the summer would be very slow. The roads would be rutted, providing opportunities for the wheels of carts to get stuck and for people or horses to stumble.
The weather caused other problems. Rain could make roads impassable as streams turned into rivers and roads could be washed away altogether. Frosts would break up the road surface even more and snow might make the road itself impossible to find.
Poor weather and darkness weren’t the only hazards people would face. Thieves and vagabonds preyed on the unwary traveller. This meant it was often safer to travel in groups and to be armed.
There were three methods of transport for the medieval traveller: feet, horses and carts. I’m discounting ships and boats for the moment, as it would not have been possible to make the journey I was discussing with my friend by boat.
Strictly speaking there were also carriages, but these were prohibitively expensive and not terribly comfortable. There was no suspension, but if you were wealthy enough to be able to afford a carriage, you could probably stretch to a cushion or two. Carriages were mainly used to carry female members of the royal family. When the Black Prince, who by this point was so ill he could barely leave his bed, went to besiege Limoges in a 1370, he was carried on a litter, not a carriage. By most people’s standards he was fabulously wealthy, but he did not own a carriage. A litter was a chair on two poles suspended between two horses, one in front and one behind. It probably had a canopy to keep the sun or rain off the occupant. This, too, would not have been a comfortable way to travel long distances.
A horse was very useful if you had to go to town, although the state of the roads meant that it could not go very fast. Its greatest use was carrying home anything that had been purchased. Horses were also expensive, however, so many people would have to carry their purchases themselves.
The third option was a cart. Carts were also expensive and were not made to carry passengers. Someone riding on a cart would feel every jolt, for, like carriages, they had no suspension.
Since towns were so far away, a visit to market was rare for most people. It was often better just to stay at home and wait for the pedlar to visit.