By Cait Stevenson
The Middle Ages was a world on the move. Sometimes this could mean actually picking up your whole life and moving it to another place—a “sometimes” much more frequent than traditional accounts of serfdom and feudalism would have it.
For example, teenagers from the countryside sought work in cities to make themselves more worthy marriage partners. Indeed, because the increased mortality rate of pre-modern towns made them “population sinks,” city growth *necessarily* mean high levels of immigration. Meanwhile, miners in the Schwarzwald had the freedom to decamp to new mines for economic or political or any other reason, and mill workers in England were in steady demand at new locations. Peripatetic (traveling) courts were standard fare throughout most of the Middle Ages. Even when kings or their administration started to settle down, nobles would shift between their homes and the royal court, and princes were often raised at castles they would never see again once crowned.
Supporting and driving this increasingly dense, mobile, connected world was a blizzard of travel: messengers, embassies, pilgrims, merchants, vagabonds, preachers, missionaries, scholars, soldiers, explorers. It would be a wonderfully romantic picture, almost—with tales of pastoral care for mercenaries in foreign religious territory, Muslim noblewomen funding food and shelter for poor people determined to complete their hajj, and physicians trained at different universities collaborating to solve particularly challenging royal ailments. It would be romantic, that is, except for one key thing: road travel in the Middle Ages was basically awful.
Water travel was sometimes an option, and a particularly desirable one when transporting large amounts of goods. But it had its own risks and expenses, and more to the point, was limited to routes with navigable waters. Most medieval road trips were just that: road trips.
Are We There Yet?
Traveling parties in medieval Europe were not exactly rolling in the options for transportation means: horses, carts, and human feet. That last was by far the most common. It is just incredible to think about people walking from Italian cities to the French coast, from Toledo to Salerno, from Paris to Constantinople. According to Marjorie Nice Boyer, who combed through records from fourteenth-century France, travellers on foot could expect to walk around 30 miles per day. That could mean somewhere between eight to ten hours of just walking, one step after another, and all of them without hiking boots, memory foam insoles, or Darn Tough socks.
Trundling along with carts, particularly ones laden with trade goods, might slow down the travelling party. For example, when Margaret, newly minted Duchess of Brabant, decided to move her entire clothing collection to her marital home in 1297, it took the cart eighteen days to travel the first 85 or so miles, from London to Ipswich. (And it took five horses to move the cart even that “speed.”)
Mounted travellers, on the other hand, could make much better speed. Here, Boyer calculated distances in the 30 to 40 miles a day range for the most part. Sometimes people pushed harder on shorter journeys, but a speed upwards of forty does not seem to have been very sustainable. Except in one very special circumstance: when matters were extremely pressing and money sufficient, a rider could periodically switch to a fresh horse.
Two of Boyer’s cases involving a professional messenger on a time-pressing errand saw their riders covering 52 and 56 miles per day. But the worst part of all? More often than not, mounted riders seem to have travelled with a valet or two—who walked while they rode.
If someone were bringing enough goods to require a separate packhorse? Yup, there was also someone walking alongside. And just to rub it in, these mixed mounted/ walker parties seem to have travelled farther and faster than pedestrians alone.
Caution: Road Construction
My mental picture of rural medieval roads has always been…well, roads. The leftover via romana, say, in various stages of disrepair and decay and overgrowth. Or at least wide, flat, maintained pathways. Especially around towns and on key trade routes, this may well have been the case.
Just as cities like Nuremberg paved their own streets from an early date, roads in the vicinity of cities might very well be paved to prevent them from turning into muck under high traffic on wet days. Tolls from bridges and passes helped pay for labor to maintain dirt and stone roads. Farther away from towns, roads might be nothing but a semi-trampled natural path, with boundaries of owned land marked by (literal) landmarks.
But most of the time we hear about medieval roads, of course, is when medieval roads were having problems. A key French legal text from the late 13th century, the Coutumes de Beauvaisis, lays out the different widths of road necessary for different modes of transportation in large part to complain about lawless people who steal stones from paved roads or wood planks covering bad parts of dirt roads, rendering them narrower than prescribed.
During the winter of 1395-96, the route between Menin and Lille was such a slushy mud bath that it was completely impassable. Sometimes extra wood planks could be brought in (if they weren’t stolen), or gravel strewn about to attempt to create traction, or a surface for horses’ hooves. For the most part, though, impassable roads meant trundling yourself and any cargo through the nearest passable stretch of land—even if it destroyed someone’s crops.
Cait Stevenson earned her PhD in medieval history from the University of Notre Dame. Click here to read more from Cait.
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
Top Image: 15th century depiction of pilgrims going to Canterbury. British Library MS Royal 18 D II fol. 148