Tag Archives: Medieval Travel

Two Offerings

I have two offerings for you today, neither of which is mine. The first comes as the result of a conversation in a car returning from a pub quiz (which we won despite there being no questions about the Middle Ages). I realised that it has been a while since I shared a Bardcore video. So here is the latest from Hildegard von Blingin’.

She has been doing some wonderful things since I shared her version of Jolene a couple of years ago, so please have a look at everything else.

The second offering is a video of a handcart being trundled across fields and through a wood, with no commentary. It’s worth watching just to see the glory of an English bluebell wood in spring.

Jason Kingsley has made some amazing videos about the Middle Ages. He jousts and there are some videos about how he trains his horses to be used in jousts. There are lots of videos about life in the Middle Ages and there’s also another video about how the handcart was made and how it might be used.

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 Music

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.

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.

Available now:




Filed under Medieval Commerce, Medieval Life, Medieval Travel

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

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.

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:


Available now:




Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life, Medieval Travel

Travelling In The Middle Ages



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.



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

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



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Travel

How to go to market in the fourteenth century


A friend and I were discussing the fourteenth century last weekend.  She said that she had read that life was fairly easy for people then and that they had more free time than we do today. I took the contrary view. When you have to do everything more or less from scratch every day, you don’t have a lot of free time. If you wanted water in the fourteenth century, you had to go to the well and draw it up in a bucket. If you wanted hot water, you had to collect the wood, or other combustible material, first, then make it burn (not always as easy as it sounds), then wait while the water heated, although you would probably have plenty to do while it was heating.  If you wanted to eat something you had to grow it, catch it or exchange something of value for it.

The most telling thing for her, I think, was travel. She said, “Oh, they could buy that in a town” and I said, “How would they get there?”. We were in the Quantocks at the time. On my way home it took half an hour to drive to the nearest town, Taunton. The distance is not quite 12 miles.  12 miles would take at least four hours for the average person to walk and would take only a little less on horseback.

If you lived 12 miles away from your nearest town and market, going there and returning was not something to be accomplished in one day.  It is, of course, possible to walk 24 miles in one day, but most people are unable to do anything the following day. You would only be able to do it in the summer when there are enough hours of daylight.  I have walked 24 miles in one day more than once and it’s hard work. However well-shod your feet are, you’re very likely to end up with blisters. Carrying anything heavy over that distance would make it even harder. In reality very few people in the fourteenth century travelled more than 15 miles in one day.

One of the reasons why it took so long to get anywhere was the state of the roads. They were little more than dirt tracks which turned into mud in the rain, which meant that travelling at any time other than the summer would be very slow. The roads would be rutted, providing opportunities for the wheels of carts to get stuck and for people or horses to stumble.

The weather caused other problems.  Rain could make roads impassable as streams turned into rivers and roads could be washed away altogether. Frosts would break up the road surface even more and snow might make the road itself impossible to find.

Poor weather and darkness weren’t the only hazards people would face.  Thieves and vagabonds preyed on the unwary traveller. This meant it was often safer to travel in groups and to be armed.

There were three methods of transport for the medieval traveller: feet, horses and carts. I’m discounting ships and boats for the moment, as it would not have been possible to make the journey I was discussing with my friend by boat.

Strictly speaking there were also carriages, but these were prohibitively expensive and not terribly comfortable. There was no suspension, but if you were wealthy enough to be able to afford a carriage, you could probably stretch to a cushion or two. Carriages were mainly used to carry female members of the royal family. When the Black Prince, who by this point was so ill he could barely leave his bed, went to besiege Limoges in a 1370, he was carried on a litter, not a carriage. By most people’s standards he was fabulously wealthy, but he did not own a carriage. A litter was a chair on two poles suspended between two horses, one in front and one behind. It probably had a canopy to keep the sun or rain off the occupant. This, too, would not have been a comfortable way to travel long distances.

A horse was very useful if you had to go to town, although the state of the roads meant that it could not go very fast. Its greatest use was carrying home anything that had been purchased.  Horses were also expensive, however, so many people would have to carry their purchases themselves.

The third option was a cart.  Carts were also expensive and were not made to carry passengers. Someone riding on a cart would feel every jolt, for, like carriages, they had no suspension.

Since towns were so far away, a visit to market was rare for most people. It was often better just to stay at home and wait for the pedlar to visit.


Filed under Fourteenth Century