Medieval Itinerary

In the six years that I’ve been writing this blog, one post has been far and away the most popular. It’s about travelling in the Middle Ages and it’s viewed several times a day. In this post I’d like to concentrate on one particular aspect of medieval travel that I mentioned in that post, but didn’t cover in much detail: the itinerary.

In the fourteenth century, most people knew how to get to their nearest town without too much bother They probably went to markets and fairs there fairly often and didn’t need help to find their way. Some of them might even have known the way to the nearest cathedral or shrine. What would have been difficult was going much further, as it would be for us. I don’t need a map or a satnav to find my way to my diocesan cathedral, but if I wanted to go to a cathedral a bit further afield, or to another town, I would find either useful.

Satnavs weren’t available in the Middle Ages and neither were maps, really. They were few and far between and not much use for helping a traveller get from A to B. They were not to scale and were inconsistent. The artists who drew them weren’t always sure where one town was in relation to another and rivers took up rather more space on the page than they did in the landscape.

What could you do then, if you were called to join an army 200 miles from where you lived, or if you set off on a pilgrimage or if you wanted to transport your goods from one side of Europe to the other. If you could read, you used an itinerary. If you couldn’t read, you still used one, but you’d have to memorise it before you set off, or borrow it and hope you could find someone who could read at each place you passed through.

An itinerary was essentially a list of places between A and B that showed the distance between each one. Usually they were very long and narrow and were rolled up when not in use. Suppose I received a message to visit the king at Windsor. It’s a journey of about 60 miles from my home. I’m not going to be able to do it in a day and all I know is that it’s somewhere in the north, but everywhere is in the north from the south coast. My itinerary might look a little like this:
Winchester 12
Popham 11
Basing 10
Witney Priory 8
Easthamptstead 10
Windsor 10
I can get to Winchester easily, because I’ve been there many times, and I know how long the journey takes, but once I’m there I have to find someone who can show me the road to take for Popham. When I get to Popham, I have to aske the way to Basing and so on until I arrive, somewhat travelworn, in Windsor to await the king’s pleasure.

This example is entirely made up and a medieval itinerary might not have been as direct as my route, although modern roads tend to follow old routes fairly closely. It might have shown places that were further apart or closer together. Some itineraries included diversions. The Itineraire de Bruges, for example, showed the route from Paris to Dijon and you could either go through Provins, or avoid it. This might have something to do with where you preferred to cross the Seine.

You can see from this that I don’t need a map at all. All I need is a list of places and a good idea of how long it will take me to walk or ride 10 miles, or whatever the distance is. If I should wander off the road, I’m bound to encounter someone, unless it’s in the depths of winter, who can set me on the right path.

Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe by Peter Spufford

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Medieval Life, Medieval Travel

27 responses to “Medieval Itinerary

  1. Reminds me of my early days out on the road as a dispenser, didn’t have satnav and couldn’t drive and map read simultaneously so used googles route planner, printed off and stuck to the dashboard. I’d have to stop now and then and memorise the next bit when on long journeys.

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  2. Pingback: A Medieval Resource – Damn Elf Press

  3. So sensible! I suppose public houses, churches or monestaries would be stops to reckon progress, refresh, and get directions.

    Guides might be hired, or groups joined, for company and security.

    You help us use our imaginations to visit the past! Thank you! ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Itinerary: a small detail that makes all the difference for RPGs and writers, alike!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. And that system still holds true on the back roads of Britain. You may want to get to Exeter, but on the smallest back roads you’ll need to know what towns and villages are between you and it. (Yes, even after 15 years, it still drives me ever so slightly nuts, because I’m never sure which villages and towns I need to know about and I can’t memorize them all.)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I love the way you bring the ordinary stuff of medieval life alive. I used to use an itinerary on longer car journeys – and still take a similar approach when on a new walk, finding each landmark along a route.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is fascinating!I love maps but i am also curious at how the intorduction of them ‘outsourced’ our abiility to find our way about…love the idea of the itinerary.


    • In this country, I don’t think it was until the Napoleonic Wars that even remotely accurate maps were available and they weren’t available to the public (I suspect) until the end of the nineteenth century. Itineraries are probably still what most people use when they travel on long journeys, even if they use a map to work them out.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Weary Wanderer

    I wonder what would have been the source(s) of these itineraries? Would churches/monasteries have books containing itineraries for important routes? Or perhaps inns would have common itineraries for connecting areas available for travelers?

    Liked by 1 person

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