Now that we know what horses cost to buy and keep in the fourteenth century, it’s worth thinking about how useful they were. How far could you go on horseback and how far could a horse pull a laden cart?
The distance a horse could travel in a day didn’t just depend on the weather and the state of the roads, although these were important. Roads quickly turned into mud in the rain, slowing both horses and carts. This meant that journeys made in the winter were generally slower than those made in the summer. Other elements that influenced speed were the length of the journey and the condition in which the horse would be at the end of the journey. The fourteenth century was a time of technological advances which also had an impact on how fast carts and horses could move.
Generally speaking, a man riding alone could cover 20-25 miles a day if he was on a long journey and wanted to look after the horse. If he didn’t care about the horse, he could double the distance. Rich men and officials would change horses each day and cover 30-40 miles. In exceptional cases, presumably involving changing horses more frequently, messengers could travel 100 miles in a day.
Groups of people travelling together would generally go more slowly in order to accommodate the slowest moving person or animal. They would probably be taking luggage, as well, which would slow them down. A packhorse could carry up to two hundredweight and they were capable of covering 30 miles a day in good weather and on the right kind of roads.
Carts went more slowly, covering about 12 miles a day, and only 5 to 8 miles in winter. There were developments during the fourteenth century, however, that made them faster, until they were capable of travelling up to 20 miles on a good day at the end of the century. Most carts had only two wheels. Improvements, including replacing the single shaft between two horses with two shafts between which the horses walked, meant that the cart was easier to pull and could be reversed. It also meant that the horses could be used as a brake when going downhill. The development of the spoked wheel meant that wheels were stronger and less likely to get stuck in mud.
Technological advances were also made with harness and shoes, which made horses more useful in agriculture, where they started to replace oxen.
Talking about oxen, which people were happy to eat, brings us to the eating of horseflesh. As it was associated with pagan rituals, it was banned by the pope in 732. The ban was widely ignored, but not in England. Even though most people don’t know why, it’s still something that’s regarded with distaste by the English.
The Medieval Horse and its Equipment by John Clark
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe by Peter Spufford
A Social History of England ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer