Thursday, November 4, 2010

Travel in the Middle Ages

I have a special interest in horses because my Master’s project centers around travel and pilgrimage in medieval England and horseback was the main form of this travel. Horses in medieval Europe were sort of like cars in the modern world: almost everyone had one, you could buy them, you could rent them, you could get along without them and walk everywhere, you used them for work, for pleasure, for long travels, for moving goods.[1] Really, the list is endless. We talked a lot about types of horses and their sizes and their presence in documents and such but we didn’t actually get into the logistics of horse travel. So I did a little research on speeds and distances for our edification. (The lower numbers are winter numbers, the higher numbers are summer numbers and these are all just estimates and should be taken with a grain of salt)
  • · Oxen/Horse & Cart: 2 miles per hour[2]
  • · Walking person: 2-3 miles per hour[3]
  • · Walking Horse: 3-4 miles per hour. [4]
  • · Medieval Boat Travel: 4.6-9.2 miles per hour (4-8 knots per hour; 1 knot = 1.15 mph)[5]
  • · Trotting Horse: 8-10 mile per hour[6]
  • · Cantering Horse: 10-17 miles per hour[7]
  • · Post rider: 100 or 120 miles in a day (with pre-arranged changes of horses[8]
Obviously, from these numbers, you can see that travel by horseback would have been the preferred way to travel if you wanted to get somewhere and did not have a lot of baggage. Regardless of whether they were walking or riding, unless absolutely necessary travelers would have travelled only during daylight hours. It was far too dangerous to travel at night and since they were dependent on living creatures for travel, they had to feed and rest the animals at set frequencies. Roadways were extremely questionable and in some areas non-existent; the only really decent roads in medieval England were the surviving remnants of the Roman roads and these were the preferred ways to travel. When they were not available, dirt tracks were created by the constant travel of horses and walkers along the same routes. Bad weather would make these roads much worse and the in some cases completely un-travelable.[9] Travel during summer was easier and quicker than travel during winter.
(FYI: According to an text on Pilgrimmage by “CrossCurrents: A Journal of St Andrews Episcopal Church” “in early days people thought we might have gotten saunter from people sauntering to the Sainte Terre, the Holy Land, and roam from people roaming to Rome. English did derive canter from pilgrims cantering to Canterbury.”) [10]

[1] Singman and MacLean, Daily Life in Chaucer's England
[3] Webb, Diana. Pilgrimage in Medieval England. Pg 222
[8] Singman and MacLean, Daily Life in Chaucer's England
[9] Singman and MacLean, Daily Life in Chaucer's England


  1. Interesting! Thanks for the "hard number" (I have difficulty imagining things without them)!

  2. If you want yet more hard numbers on medieval horses, Ann Hyland gives lots of them in her The Horse in the Middle Ages (1999). Norbert Ohler, The Medieval Traveler, trans. Caroline Hiller (1989) also discusses travel times. For workhorses (which we didn't talk about as much), see John Langdon, Horses, Oxen and Technological Innovation: The Use of Draught Animals in English Farming from 1066-1500 (2002).


  3. Now quite frankly, some of our discussions have baffled me. I have never been very good at interpreting all the possible meanings behind a particular word or phrase in a text or image. But give me some hard data or numbers and things suddenly become much more alive: the amount of effort and danger that was required to travel a distance that we are willing to travel for a decent meal, the reasons why most of the peasantry never travelled any further than maybe the next small town over, the reason why medieval people treated other countries and people as almost alien-like even though the distances are relatively minor. I can suddenly picture things much more clearly - I guess that’s why I went into archaeology rather than history!


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  5. bruh dis gives mhe no damn info on they dangers through traveling at night time in medieval times ahaaaaaaaaaaaa noooo

  6. bitches saying im backn out ovf fights nd its dem knt even fight bitxh plant cha ass where i stand