Category Archives: Medieval Travel

Medieval Rivers

The River Test at Romsey

In the comments section of last week’s post, I had a brief discussion with Doctor Christopher Monk about the use of waterways for transport in the Middle Ages. I wanted to know more, so I did some reading. By the way, if you’re even remotely interested in medieval food, and why wouldn’t you be since you’re reading this blog, you should visit his blog and his YouTube channel.

Rivers were used extensively to transport goods in the Middle Ages. Road transport was dependable and fairly predictable, although slower in winter, but it was expensive.  It cost 1 ½d per mile at the beginning of the fourteenth century to transport a ton of grain. By water it was ½d. It cost more to transport wine 50 miles on land than to send it nearly 1,000 miles from Bordeaux to London. Rivers didn’t go everywhere, though, and often it was easer to transport goods around the coast on ships. Roads were useful if you were transporting people, but if you were moving heavy or bulky goods, like wine, rivers were better.

Many goods didn’t have to travel far from where they were produced to where they were sold. Generally things like vegetables and eggs travelled between 7 and 12 miles, although the shorter distance was the norm. This was as far as the person who had grown it could travel to a market, sell the goods and return home in a day. These people would have travelled on foot, sometimes with and sometimes without a pack horse.

If you wanted your goods to travel further, other people and methods of transport had to be involved. Costs for transporting goods over roads included feeding hungry animals. Most items were carried by pack animals, which needed men to lead them. The animals had to be relieved of their loads each evening and reloaded in the morning, which took time. The same thing applied to carts, which were even more expensive to use, since they were a large capital investment on the part of the owner. Fewer men were needed on boats and no animals. Boats didn’t have to be unloaded and reloaded every few miles. They were another expensive capital investment, but they were cheaper to run than a cart.

Rivers were very useful for bulkier and cheaper goods which would have been prohibitively expensive to transport by road.  London needed to bring in hay to feed its horses and other animals in the winter. The hay was grown in the Lea Valley and transported to London along the River Lea. Had it been transported by road, the cost would probably have been more than the value of the hay.

Most foodstuffs for London travelled by river. Towns upriver from Oxford down and particularly Henley sent grain on the Thames. Vegetables travelled mostly by road, usually from Hertfordshire. Barley came round the coast from Kent and East Anglia.

Medieval boats had more or less flat bottoms and could sail up and down rivers that aren’t navigable for modern boats, although it must be said that some rivers have changed substantially in the last 700 years and some are much more silted up and overgrown than they were. Many rivers were navigable for long distances even for ships and work was often carried out to make rivers as navigable as possible. Channels were sometimes cut where the river was impassable.

Using rivers was not without its hazards. On some rivers there were fish weirs in the deeper water. These were wooden or stone structures built across the width of the river which directed fish into traps from which they could not escape. Not only were they a danger to boats, but they also threatened to reduce drastically the number of fish in a river. This possibility was recognised even in the early twelfth century and there were edicts and statutes against fish weirs over the centuries. That they had to be repeated shows how ineffective they were.  

Low bridges were another danger to boats. Since these were much cheaper to build and maintain than bridges with arches allowing boats to pass beneath them, it must have been a real problem. Eventually lifting bridges were devised. These were bridges with a drawbridge in the middle, which could be lifted for a fee.

Many goods travelled by both road and water, depending on where they were destined. The two methods of transport were complementary rather than in competition with one another.

Sources:
Making a Living in the Middle Ages by Christopher Dyer 
A Social History of England, 1200 to 1500 by Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
Power and Profit 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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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.

Sources:
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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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.

Sources:
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.

Available now:

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Medieval Horses Part Three

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.

Sources:
The Medieval Horse and its Equipment by John Clark
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

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.

Available now:

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Available now:

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Medieval Horses Part Two

Last week we looked at the different types of horses that were used in the fourteenth century; this week we’re going to look at what they cost, both to buy and to keep. Before I started looking into it, I assumed that more or less everyone had a horse, but that seems not to have been the case. Owning a horse then, as now, was an expensive business and you only had a horse if you needed one. If you lived in a town and rarely left it, you probably didn’t own a horse. Even if you had land to plough, you might not have a horse, as oxen were used for agricultural work for most of the century.

As a way of understanding the cost of buying and keeping a horse, I’m going to relate it to the daily wage of a skilled labourer, which was about 4d (four pennies). When we do some sums later, we must remember that a labourer would not work every day. Sunday was a rest day and there were frequent religious festivals on which no one worked.

We’ll start at the bottom and work our way up. A sumpter was a pack horse and cost anywhere between 5 and 10 shillings to buy. There were 12 pennies in a shilling, so a basic pack horse would cost our labourer 15 days’ wages. A top of the range one would cost 30 days. So, if our skilled labourer’s trade meant that he needed to transport heavy tools or goods, he could probably afford to buy a horse to carry them for him. Whether or not he could afford to keep it once he had it is another matter and we’ll come on to that later.

An ordinary riding horse (a hackney or a rouncey) cost from £3 to £10. There were 20 shillings in a pound, so a £3 horse would cost 180 days’ wages, which would take more than six months to earn. Our skilled labourer was unlikely to be able afford a horse of this kind and would have had to make do with riding his sumpter. He would equally have been unable to afford a palfrey for his wife to ride, as they cost £4 or £5.

Coursers were used for hunting and they cost about £10. Only the wealthy and people who worked for them hunted on horseback, so this was well beyond the reach of the skilled labourer. For the sake of comparison, though, it would cost him 600 days’ wages.

Destriers, the highly-trained warhorses, cost around £40, but there are records of some being bought for £80 and more. In 1331 Edward III paid £120 for one. In 1377 his grandson, Richard II, rode a charger worth £200 to his coronation. We’re beyond the realm of our skilled labourer, here, but a horse of £40 would have cost him 2,400 days’ work. That’s six and a half years if he worked every day including holidays. Interestingly, £40 was a year’s income for many knights, so a horse was a big investment even for them. They needed more than one, though. When they went on campaign, it was normal to take four warhorses and a knight would also need an ordinary riding horse and pack horses. Buying a horse was just the start, though.

Horses were expensive to keep as well as to buy. They ate the unattractively-named horse bread, which was made just from beans and peas. It cost ½d a loaf. Hay for one day cost another 2d. Oats cost up to 5½d a bushel. At the beginning of the fourteenth century feeding and stabling a good horse would cost its owner between 6¼d and 7½d per day. Even allowing that our skilled labourer wouldn’t have had a good horse, feeding it would take up a fair amount of his income. His costs wouldn’t end there, though.

In order to ride a horse, you need a saddle. That would be about 5 shillings. A halter would be from 6d to 12d and spurs cost about 2 shillings.

On top of that, horses require a lot of care. A set of shoes cost from 6d to 8d. Their feet have to be looked after by removing the shoes and cutting the hooves. Then the shoes have to be put on again. All of this cost 2d. I don’t know how often it was done in the fourteenth century, but it’s done about once every six weeks these days.

Horses also got sick and needed specialist care and medicine. Given their cost, owners were going to go to a lot of effort and expense to keep them alive.

There was an alternative to owning a horse if you didn’t need one very often. They could be hired. If you wanted to hire a horse to go from London to Canterbury, if you were a pilgrim, for example, it would cost 2 shillings. If you wanted to go from London to Dover, probably with the intention of going on to Calais, it would cost 2 shillings and 6d. It’s 55 miles from Southwark, where they would have started from, to Canterbury and 70 to Dover. It’s still a week’s wages, more or less, for our skilled labourer, but it’s a lot cheaper than owning a horse.

Sources:
The Medieval Horse and its Equipment by John Clark
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 1200 to 1500 ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

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.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

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Travelling In The Middle Ages

knights1

 

In most of my novels there’s a journey. It might be a short one from the coast to the north of Hampshire, or it might be a long one, from Bordeaux to Southampton. It’s a common misconception about the Middle Ages that people were stuck in their villages or towns and were unaware of what was going on elsewhere, but that was not the case.

It’s true that some people never travelled further than the local market and others didn’t have the opportunity to travel. Villeins, for example, were tied to their lord’s manor and could not leave it without his permission, but freemen could go, more or less, wherever they wanted. For various reasons, many people in the fourteenth century travelled far and wide.

For ordinary people, the most common reasons for travelling were to visit a shrine or to fight. Many were satisfied with visiting a fairly local shrine, but others ventured further afield to Walsingham and Canterbury. Those who could afford it could go abroad to Compostela, Rome or Jerusalem. Going on a pilgrimage was popular and there was a widely-held belief that more than a few pilgrims were merely tourists, wanting to see more of the world than their small part of it.

Armies travelled. Recruits gathered at a local mustering place then moved off to join the rest of the army to go north to fight the Scots, or south to fight the French.

It was said after Edward III’s military victories in Normandy in 1346 that every house in England received something from the treasures taken during the campaign. Whilst this is obviously an exaggeration to show how successful the campaign had been, many ships were needed to carry back what had been taken and most of the 15,000 or so men who had gone to France would have returned with some physical item and stories about what France was like.

Travellers brought back tales of the places they had visited. With few forms of entertainment, men and women who could bring new stories from different places were popular.

Travel was far more common among people higher up the social scale. The king and his court were almost constantly on the move. This was a practical necessity, as the size of the court meant that local resources would be consumed quickly. The king had many properties of his own, but he could also visit his nobles. Such a visit was not always welcome, however, as it would always be costly to the host. It was unusual for the king to stay more than three weeks in any one place.

Nobles usually had estates spread out around the country which they might visit from time to time. Like the king, they would not travel light.

When the parliament met it was attended by members of the nobility, senior clerics, knights and burgesses, about four hundred men, plus their retinues and servants, all of them travelling across the country. Accommodating them was a large strain on some of the smaller towns and it became increasingly common for the parliament to meet in Westminster where it was easier to find places for them to lodge.  Many nobles and bishops had their own accommodation in London.

Others with religious business travelled around England. Archbishops and bishops went to and from Avignon, where the pope was, and visited places within their dioceses. Clerics travelled widely about their masters’ business. There were also many itinerant preachers teaching things people would not hear in their own parish church.

Travelling was not something to be undertaken lightly. A long-distance journey needed preparation – and companions. It was not safe to travel alone. The roads were beset by bandits. Often these were soldiers who had no trade to return to during the lulls in fighting against the Scots and the French.

There were no maps, or rather the purpose of a map was not to assist a traveller. People used itineraries instead. An itinerary listed the places between your starting point and your destination. If you were lucky, you could travel with someone who had some experience of at least the initial part of the route.  If you were not, you would have to ask the inhabitants of the town you were in how to get to the next place. Rivers were often helpful. If you followed a major river you were bound to come to a market town.

The main roads mostly followed the Roman roads. When these had deteriorated to the point of being unusable, the ‘new’ roads ran next to them. These connected towns which had been important in Roman times, but many towns which had become important by the fourteenth century had not existed then. The main roads were mainly kept in good repair by order of the king, who needed them to get himself and his armies around the kingdom. Other roads were often very poor and could be blocked unexpectedly.

Someone on foot and in a hurry could travel fifteen to twenty miles a day in good conditions. If the weather was bad or the roads were poor, that might become six to eight miles. A cart might manage twelve miles a day, less in winter. A man on horseback might travel twenty to twenty-five miles a day, if he had to use the same horse for the whole journey. Rich men and officials could change horses and managed thirty to forty miles a day.

The distance covered in a day would depend on the number of hours of daylight, the time of the year, the weather and where the next inn was. If the next inn was five miles away and it was mid-afternoon in winter, there was little point trying to get to it. Travellers and animals had to eat and rest, and that took time.

The king’s highways were supposed to be cleared either side for 200 feet. This was to deny cover to the brigands who preyed on travellers.

Sometimes there were waymarks to show routes through woods, but these could easily be moved to lead travellers into the hands of waiting bandits.

Roads were not the only routes across the country. The major rivers were used extensively. Most goods were transported by boat. It was far cheaper to send goods by water than by road. It cost more to send wine fifty miles in a cart than it did to send it nearly one thousand miles from Bordeaux to London by sea. Boats had flat bottoms which meant that more stretches of river were navigable than they are today.

No matter where you were going, travelling beyond the bounds of your town or village was always an adventure.

 

Sources

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer

A Social History of England 1200 – 1500 – ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod

 

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