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.