Tag Archives: 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.

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:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

Amazon

33 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life, Medieval Travel

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

 

25 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Travel

How to go to market in the fourteenth century

Walking

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.

7 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century