By Danièle Cybulskie
Despite what’s often repeated, most people in the Middle Ages didn’t tend to spend their whole lives within a few acres, but travelled for business, pleasure, and religious reasons. Travelling for business, then as now, meant keeping careful track of your expenses, from what you ate, to who you schmoozed (and how), to what you did when your transportation broke down.
In 1976, G.H. Martin wrote an article for The Journal of Transport History called “Road Travel in the Middle Ages: Some Journeys by the Warden and Fellows of Merton College, Oxford, 1315-1470” to illustrate that the roads of medieval England were not so impassable as people have sometimes assumed. In it, he traced the business trips of a few men conducting business on behalf of Merton College, but it’s not just the paths they took which give us a closer look into the medieval world: it’s the small, human details and priorities of the travellers.
Travel in the medieval world was significantly slower than today, so travelling any long distance meant staying overnight. Martin’s survey of these business trips shows the expected expenses of staying at inns, such as “the sign of the Rose in Holborn”, which the wardens did most of the time, especially when they visited London. But they also stayed with vicars associated with the college (presumably for cheaper or for free), and even with family. One bursar, John de Vilers, stayed with his father on the way to his ultimate destination and on the way back, saving money by not having to pay for his lodging. Also, the thrifty visitor notably “paid nothing for his supper”. On another trip, the conscientious de Vilers visited family again, this time going out for a meal: “he breakfasted at Nottingham with his brother, and after some reflection cancelled the payment that he had noted for his brother’s meal.” De Vilers is evidently too honest to expense his personal business to the college, which may very well be part of the reason he was given the position of bursar.
A much later trip by Richard de Scardeburgh in the late fifteenth century shows solicitousness for other people’s relatives, too. Martin writes that de Scardeburgh “found time to call upon the mother of a colleague, Master Nicholas Wryght, who was then bursar of Merton … On his return to Canterbury, Scardeburgh took wine with the parents of Master John Wode, his predecessor as sub-warden”. As Martin notes, “His performance of these politenesses is a reminder of an important social function of travelers in the absence of other means of communication by kinsmen.” That is, de Scardeburgh is exchanging news with Wryght’s and Wode’s families while he is out and about, as they are unable to just pay visits when they like and will want to hear how things are with their sons. De Scarborough could also bring any messages they may have had for their children back with him.
Of course, beyond lodging, food is another predictable expense on a business trip, and there are some pedestrian notes in Martin’s work about food, such as “bread, ale, and herrings”, but some details are more revealing as to medieval dining habits. For example, some of the travellers observed the season of Lent during their journey, “with a varied diet of fish from Ash Wednesday (5 February) onward, in which stockfish and herring were supplemented by haddock, gurnard, pike, oysters, whelks, and shrimps.” This doesn’t mean that the food was bland, however. At the inn they stayed at in London, “the company sent food and spices to the kitchen”. A later journey, possibly one of de Vilers’, “was rounded off with an elaborate supper at Nottingham with eels and flounders, with garlic and onions, and an afterthought of one pennyworth of fruit when the horses had been fed.”
Speaking of horses, although travel was much faster and less grueling with them, like modern cars taken for long journeys, they require maintenance, and occasionally break down. Many of the expense reports Martin has collected note “fodder for the horses”, shoeing (for de Vilers, possibly at his father’s local smithy), and tack. Once account notes “repairs to a saddle for which cloth and cord were bought, and the making of spurs.” De Vilers’ detailed accounts show many horse-related expenses:
include[ing] repairs to a saddle, curing a horse “de la maudelanghe” at Brackley, and buying a pack saddle at Newcastle and a saddle covered with red leather at Leicester. There was also a misadventure with a black horse, bought for 43s. 4d. It paid tolls at Doncaster, Boroughbridge, and Blyth, and was then taken ill with “le strangulone”, a shortness of breath, and had to be treated by a farrier at Nottingham, and kept at Hucknall for a week, after which a boy was paid to lead it to Brooksby to recuperate, and it was later shod there.
Like a modern car, a broken-down horse is both expensive and requires towing, as it were. A horse proved expensive again on another journey for Merton, as “John the clerk … had to pay for cloths for his horse in Maidenhead when he was caught in heavy rain”.
Indeed, when you’re travelling by horse – especially in places you’re not all that familiar with – the weather is a factor that can make a journey either short or long. De Scardeburgh was forced to press on during one trip, “urgente pluvia, driven on by rain”, while being forced to wait later in the trip “for a whole day by heavy rain”. Cautious de Scardeburgh was delayed again by another whole day “because of a ‘distemper’ of the air”, something that Martin suggests was “probably fog or low cloud”.
Like the little details about the weather, supplies bought before the journeys begin give us a glimpse into what the representatives of Merton found important. These often seem to have included food and drink, candles, and food for the horses. They also included spices, which (as we’ve seen) were used to make the travellers’ own meals tasty, but also to impress the people they were meant to visit. One journey included the expense of spices given as gifts to judges and lawyers in London, for instance. Spices were also something that was bought while out and about, along with other imported foods. In Durham, one party bought “almonds, rice, sugar, and ginger”, showing that while these items were not rare in medieval England, they were likely not to have been found in great quantities everywhere.
Finally, there are the expenses that, unlike food, lodgings, and transportation, were commonplace in the medieval world but not the modern. Frequently, the travelers note that they have paid alms in various places, and offerings to local churches, and it’s interesting to note that these were expensed. That is, they were done on behalf of (and for the benefit of) Merton College, and so not to be covered by the men’s personal funds. There is also the note that one man took care of his grooming and his health while in London, perhaps expensed because it was done to impress the people he was visiting as a representative of the college: “the warden had his shoes greased, and was shaved and bled by a barber”. Another journey provides a tantalizing detail that hints at the danger of medieval travel (or perhaps, less thrillingly, clumsiness): “repairs to the warden’s sword”. Again, if the sword was damaged in the service of Merton College, it was to be expensed.
All of these tiny details add up to a picture of medieval travel that is sometimes hard to glimpse: what people found important to pack, what they needed to buy, how they saved money, and what made a successful – or troublesome – journey. Although travel expenses might not seem like the most romantic sources, they provide a wealth of information as to what it was like to be on the go in the Middle Ages.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist
Top Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Français 12559 fol. 3v