Medieval Couriers

In the fourteenth century you couldn’t post your letters into the nearest postbox and expect them to be delivered within a few days. Postboxes and the postal service that went with them were nineteenth century inventions. If you wanted to send a letter, you had to pay someone to carry it. For most people, that didn’t really matter, since they lived near everyone they knew or might need to communicate with and could either visit them or send a servant. There were, however, some people for whom being able to get a letter to the other side of the country, or even the other side of Europe, was very important and some of them developed reliable means of doing so.

Probably the best medieval postal service was developed by Italian merchants. European trade was dominated by merchants from Florence, Venice and Genoa. This meant that their goods were transported all over Europe. Initially, they travelled with their wares, but around the middle of the thirteenth century the businesses of the great merchant houses got to be so large that that was no longer possible. As soon as they had to trust their goods to other people, the merchants needed to have some kind of courier service in place to carry messages back and forth about the progress of their goods, the cost of tolls on the route, and the prices the goods could be expected to fetch when they reached their destination. They also needed to be able to send messages to the people carrying their goods should their original plans change and to their customers.

The solution was to set up courier services made up of men and horses who could travel quickly up and down a single route. For about a hundred years each of the great merchant houses had their own messengers, but it was a very expensive undertaking. In 1357 seventeen Florentine companies joined together to provide a single service. Their goods were all following the same routes, more or less, so it made sense to co-operate in this one area. They set up the scasella dei mercanti fiorentini and it wasn’t long before merchants in other places followed suit.

This postal service was expensive because it required many couriers and even more horses. Each route had several couriers with changes of horses available to them along the way. There were thousands of letters to be carried each year, so the men were kept busy. The main routes from Florence went to Barcelona and Bruges. The latter could be by way of Cologne or Paris. From Barcelona the couriers could cross the Mediterranean by ship or cross Spain and go into Portugal. From Bruges they could cross the Channel to London.

Obviously, the length of time that it took for a letter to get from its sender to its recipient varied according to the time of year, the weather and the condition of the horses and riders. The merchants in Florence, however, expected to be able to get a message from Florence to Paris (700 miles) in twenty to twenty-two days, to Bruges (800 miles) in less than twenty-five days and to London (1,000 miles) in less than thirty days. This last didn’t really take into account the unpredictability of crossing the Channel at the best of times and these speeds were probably more wished for than achieved.

It wasn’t just merchants who needed a courier service for their letters. The church had one too. Letters were constantly going between clerics in England (and other countries) and the papal court in Avignon (later Rome). Letters also went between the papal court and the secular rulers of Europe. These also used couriers to carry letters between themselves and those of their subjects they wished to communicate with.

Possibly the most famous courier of the fourteenth century (although not for being a courier) was Geoffrey Chaucer. In October 1360 he was paid nine shillings by Lionel of Antwerp, in whose retinue he was serving, to carry letters from France to England, presumably announcing Lionel’s imminent return. Doubtless he carried other letters while he was still a lowly member of Lionel’s household.

Power and Profit by Peter Spufford
The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer
The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall

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 Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life, Medieval Travel

27 responses to “Medieval Couriers

  1. I’m wondering if enterprising couriers made a little money on the side by carrying letters for people other than their masters.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Losing the Plot

    That really appealed to my imagination April. You’d need to have your wits about you, I’m sure it was dangerous work, but really interesting, such a different life to most folk who would travel so little.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I may be romantically naive but that sounds a cool job to have. All the places you’d see on the way. Medieval road trips.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. With communication so difficult and expensive, letters must have been pored over by both the sender and the recipient. We’re careless with our own words in comparison.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Great article, and interesting subject! At the beginning of the 16th century, a formal European post service was started by the Thurn and Taxis family, which served only some major cities. I’m currently working on a project in which many letters are sent between the abbey of Ename in Flanders and Amsterdam in the Netherlands (260 km), in the period 1658-1680, where it seems to take only a couple of days on a regular basis. Any information on how this worked? Did personal couriers take the letters to/from the Thurn and Taxis service points (for example Ghent), from where they travelled the long distance through daily services on these main routes (Ghent is a service point on the Paris-Amsterdam route)? I couldn’t find yet any research or publication on this. Do you know more about the subject or do you know somebody who could know more about this? Many thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow! I, too, am enamored by this letter carrying system!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Fascinating. I am glad you have teased out this little, but significant detail, April 😊

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Do you know how the Paston letters were sent? Was there any kind of courier service for English merchants?

    Major nobles had personal servants for couriers. But wonder how minor nobility and gentry sent messages.

    I presume local leadership engaged servants for delivering information to overlords far removed.

    Wonder if most couriers could read? That might be dangerous to the security of the missives. There must have been various methods of securing the contents.

    Again, thank you for sharing this with us! ❤️

    Surely couriers had to be men of exemplary character and loyalty!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know how the Paston letters were sent. I’ve got a book about them, but I haven’t read it yet.

      Minor gentry and nobility would also have used their own servants to carry letters.

      I think the couriers must have been able to read, as they probably received written instructions from their employers.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. From what I know about the 17th-century letters, they didn’t have an envelope, but the paper was folded in a clever way and sealed (with a lacquer seal for example). Opening a letter was destructive, tearing parts of the paper, so I think it was very difficult to “repair” an opened letter.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Fascinating, April – as usual!!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Love this. One of my favourite historical novelists Dorothy Dunnett, has her protagonist Nicholas (The House of Niccolo) begin his rise to success running a courier service from Bruges. There was more to it than delivering letters…incl. cracking cyphers, selling information to spies…so I guess a courier could demand very high prices…thanks once again for a concise post on…post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Which novel was that? I think it’s probably time I read some of her stuff.


      • Niccolo Rising is the first of 8 (I think the series is two books too long) I think the courier service starts in that one towards the end. I think you’ll really like it as she makes the era come alive…though shes an acquired taste in that sometimes with the dialogue youre not sure whats going on as she liked to leave a lot to the reader. But I love her writing…very descriptive…she was a painter and you can tell. I just keep reading and assume everything will fall into place.

        Liked by 1 person

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