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On-the-Road-art – 7/12/09


"On the Road – Medieval Style" by Master Sir Connor MacAufflie FitzJames and Mistress Siobhan ni Seaghdha.


NOTE: See also the files: travel-msg, carts-msg, p-tourism-art, SCA-transport-msg, travel-foods-msg, med-ships-art, p-travl-guides-msg, ships-bib, sedan-chairs-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


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Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



On the Road - Medieval Style

by Master Sir Connor MacAufflie FitzJames

and Mistress Siobhan ni Seaghdha


     During much of the Middle Ages, curiosity was not a motive for travel but an encouragement for sin.  Thus many went traveling under the guise of piety and made a pilgrimage or rode out on crusade.  As a result of this traveling, many guidebooks were written (such as The Guide for Pilgrims to Santiago de Compostella) and itineraries composed which subsequent travelers used as guides.  In addition to traveling monks and pilgrims, we also have records from merchants and officials who either submitted expense reports or kept bills of lading.  Out of the records left behind from these various sources, we can obtain a great deal of information regarding how people traveled, where they stayed, and what they ate.


How We Get There


     The choices are to walk (boring – let's not discuss it), go by ship (we'll talk about shipboard food later) or ride.  If one rides you can use a horse, a camel or a mule.  References to mules date back to the Roman Empire and are mentioned in Chaucer.  While England never breed mules with great enthusiasm (using the smaller roman donkey, their mules tended to be smaller), the rest of Europe did.  The advantage of a mule is that it is stronger than a horse, can carry more weight, survive on a more varied diet, and is more sure-footed. However, it is more likely to bolt in dangerous situations.  Horses are more likely to stay with their rider or troop mates and to do what they were trained to do and tend to be less stubborn than a mule.  Camels are not known for their even tempers but can travel at a rate of 30 miles per day


     As to speed, well, we aren't getting anywhere quickly.  Armies with baggage  trains and foot soldiers averaged 8 miles per day.  In level country, pack animals could make 15-25 miles per day while carrying 300-400 pounds.  King Harold of England traveled 200 miles in 4 days to get from London to Northumbria with 5000-7000 men.  However, this was in late summer in friendly country – food and re-mounts would have been more readily available.  


     In February, 1246AD, 2 friars with escorts and attendants on the Mongol steppes rode at a trot and changed horses 3-4 times per day.  They traveled 650 miles in 5 weeks (18 miles per day if they traveled 7 days per week).  From April to July 1246 AD, they traveled 25 miles per day (assuming 7 days/week again) changing horses frequently and staying at staging posts.  Their notes indicate they traveled well into the evening on most days. Modern endurance horses (well-trained athletes) average 4-5 mph on races that can be 50 to well over 100 miles in length.  A horse's walk averages 3-5 mph, a trot 7-10 mph, a gallop 12-20 mph, and an all out run 25-35 mph.


     In 207BC, Nero covered over 300 miles in a 7-day forced march from Canusium to Livius. Upon his arrival, his 6000 foot and 1000 cavalry were still able to fight.  He then made the return trip in 6 days.  


     In the Roman Empire, a donkey load was assessed at 225lbs, mules and camels at 450lbs. A wagon, pulled by 4 animals, was assessed at 900lbs.  Keep in mind that Romans did not have the modern horse collars which allow animals to pull more weight.  Due to this, rest stops were placed every 8-12 miles. A trip of 240 miles was expected to take 10 days (24 miles per day).  Couriers, changing horses frequently, were expected to make the trip in one day!


What Should We Take?


     If one is on a well-traveled route for pilgrims, inns are more readily available.  However, they were not, as we will discuss, very reliable.  While we were not able to find a detailed non-food supply list for our period, we can tell you what pioneers in the 18th and 19th century in the New World carried - blankets, tent, knife, whetstone, axe, hammer, hatchet, spade, saw, scissors, needle/thread, leather tools, rope, beeswax, tallow, soap, candles, medicines, and lanterns.  Many of these items make sense for our period also.  In the 15th century, William Wey's careful listing of provisions required by the pilgrim included the admonition to purchase confections, cordials, laxatives and restoratives as well as the luxuries of spices and dried fruit.  His list also included ginger, flour, figs, pepper, saffron, cloves, and chickens.  Dried peas and beans are a staple but must be soaked prior to being cooked.  This is possible while traveling if one puts them in water in a sack and hangs it from your baggage.  The use of dried and salted meats, the lack of fresh vegetables (especially on a ship), strange (and possibly polluted) water can all cause not only constipation but also intestinal illnesses.  Frequent mention is made in the guides and itineraries of the poor quality of the food at the various inns and monasteries.


Hey – What's for Dinner?


     So, what do we feed the animals? A normal diet in the 14th century included oats, hay, beans, peas, and straw.  Feral horses graze 20-22 hours per day if grass is good.  If you are riding all day you must provide feed to make up for the lack of grazing time.  A horse should be fed 10lbs of hay per day. Oats are a standard high-energy feed and peas are also high in protein.  Grain can replace some hay but horses need the roughage.  Salt is also vital. Without it, a horse will quickly lose the ability to process nutrition and will become greatly exhausted after minimal work.  If you ride a horse or mule, part of your baggage will include feed for those times when you cannot buy it.


     Now that the critters are fed, what about us?  On board ship (see- we told you we'd mention it), drinking water was a constant problem as was the presence of weevils in the hardtack, flour and dried peas.  Most accounts of shipboard life indicate that travelers would resort to eating at night so as to not have to see the condition of their food.  Food which was recommended to supplement the ship's supplies was: Lombard cheese, sausages, dried & salted meat and fish, dried peas, white biscuits, sugar loaves and sweetmeats.


     Both on land and on sea travelers ate hardtack (a flour and water biscuit which might keep for 50 years!).  There are stories of sailors carving hardtack into boxes and other shapes rather than eat it.


     Some specific traveler's foods are:


Tsampa from Tibet. Toasted barley flour dropped into a cup of black tea with yak butter.  Stir until you have a dumpling and eat. Clean hands are a beneficial side effect of the process.  This is still eaten today!

Hais from Arabia. Bread crumbs, dates, almonds, pistachios, and sesame oil shaped into balls.

Charqui  (jerky) from South America.  Strips of meat dipped in brine and dried.  Generally pounded into shreds and boiled before eating.

Pocket soup from Europe.  An ancestor of the bullion cube, it is a highly concentrated stock of meat trimmings and pigs' feet which set to the consistency of glue and which kept for years.  To eat, slice some off and drop into boiling water.

Dates and figs from the Mediterranean area.  A high-energy food that transports easily


     At the inn, food and drink were separate expenses from the bed and usually consisted of bread, meat and beer.  Records of travelers constantly repeat complaints regarding excessive prices.  One expense account consistently shows the same items from inn to inn: bread, beer, wine, meat, potage, candles, fuel, beds and horses fodder.  In many pilgrims' hospices (run by religious orders) no food was served at all, pilgrims were expected to meet their own needs.  In others, pilgrims received 2 loaves of bread per day.  Occasionally there might be some meat or wine.


      Traveler's diaries are united in their condemnation of the food to be found in inns and taverns.  The quality and quantity was generally considered to be exceedingly poor.  Many travelers' guides recommended that you bring your own food.  Nobles often brought not only their own food but also their own cooks and even their own pots and pans.  Following is a list of some of the types of food available over the ages through public venders:


Athens – venders with portable ovens sold sausage, omelets wrapped in fig leaves, fruit pudding, and honey cakes.

Greece – oysters, fish, pork, cheese, goat, liver, game, cabbage, beans, raw vegetables in vinegar were all available at inns and taverns.

In Rome, according to Pliny the Elder, snow was used to keep drinks cool, to cool hot drinks and were also used to keep fish fresh.

Bill of Fare (from an English medieval tavern): beef, mutton, chicken, bacon, bread, beer, pigeon, rabbit, wine, oranges, and strawberries.


Where Do We Stay?


       During the time of the Punic wars inns were frequently nothing more than a shed built on the side of the road as a source of income for the landowner.  Some landowners built one for their own use as they traveled to their different properties so they would not have to stay at a public inn.  Wealthy travelers took food and wine with them to avoid eating what was available at the inn.   Inns had different names depending on size and function:


Deversorium – might or might not have a place for animals. You might have to sleep in the stall with your animals

Caupona – an alehouse with rooms

Taberna deversoria – provided rooms, food, and drink

Taberna meritoria – rooming house and tavern combined.  Had semi-permanent residents

Pandokos xenostasis – only people were lodged – no stables

Phatne and stathmos – room for men and animals.


     5th century inns were dark, smoky hovels with poor food and bad beer.  In later periods, inns for pilgrims had stables on the ground floor above which was the eating hall.  The upper floors would have bedrooms with several beds apiece in them.  Each bed was 7 ft. wide and 6 ft. long – designed to hold 2-3 at a time. Large parties might have to spread out among several inns in order to have enough bed space.  Roman beds were stuffed with rushes.  Later period beds might be mattresses stuffed with straw or feathers.


     During the Middle Ages, the nobility would stay at monasteries if lodging in a private house could not be found.  Laws were written which forbade staying in a monastery without express invitation unless you had provided an endowment for the place and even then one should eat modestly and keep the stay short.  However, this law was not usually honored. Nobles were admitted to the monastery proper. The common mass of travelers was kept in the freestanding guesthouse (frequently located outside the monastery proper) for free. The guesthouse was a large eating/sleeping hall with some sleeping rooms off of it.  Pilgrims were supposedly entitled to a roof, fire, clean water and fresh bread.  Rarely were they given that much.  Usually pilgrims slept on a straw-covered floor and were expected to provide their own food.  Occasionally the poorest travelers were given wine and meat 3 days a week.


      By 1345 a guest could obtain a single room.  By 1380, the innkeeper was responsible by statute for the goods left by a guest who should receive a key to a single room.  Inns frequently were found clustered near gates and bridges to accommodate travelers who had not arrived in time to get inside the town gates. In 1384, London had 197 inns.  Early period inns included meals in the cost of a bed but in later periods meals were priced separately.  


     Medieval taverns were drinking houses where wine was available.  In addition to having sleeping rooms, they were popular meeting places for guilds, lawyers, parish councils, etc.  In 1309, 354 taverns were listed in London.  A small tavern might resemble a private house (in fact, many were converted homes) and one large one in London had 21 rooms.  Generally they did not provide much in the way of stables


     Inns and taverns were not necessarily safe places, despite laws designed to protect patrons.  Pliny records an account of an innkeeper convicted of killing a patron with a sword, which belonged to another patron.  The innocent patron awoke, thought his bedmate was asleep and left the inn.  The innkeeper raised the alarm and the innocent traveler was caught with a bloody sword. Fortunately, the truth came out during the hearing.  During the time of Emperor Theodosius, an account was recorded of taverns being built over mills.  These taverns had trap doors in the floor – visitors dropped down to become slaves in the mill never to be found by friends or family. The system was discovered when this happened to a soldier who escaped by drawing his dagger.  Another account during the 11th century describes an innkeeper who was convicted of murder after 88 bodies were found buried under his hut.  In 1390, a burglary in a London inn was accomplished by breaking through the flimsy wall between rooms.


     Innkeepers were so often a part of the robberies occurring on their premises that in the 14th century, an English ordinance was passed which prohibited any innkeeper from retaining the effects of anyone dying on his premises.  If convicted of doing so, he had to pay a fine equal to triple the value of the property.


     Counterfeiters and forgerers often headquartered at inns and taverns.  In 1360AD, an English ordinance was passed requiring every tavernkeeper to take an oath stating he faithfully observed all laws dealing with the medium of exchange.


     Travel in the middle ages was not something to be undertaken lightly.  It involved planning, time and money to do it well, in any sense of the word.  Poor pilgrims must have had a very rough time of it.  This does not seem to have prevented many thousands of them from taking to the road.  Religion became a socially acceptable method of satisfying curiosity in those whose motives were less than pure.




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Chambers, Joseph, The Devil's Horsemen, Athenium, 1979

Cunha, TJ, Horse Feeding and Nutrition, Academic Press. 1980

Davis, FW, Horse packing in Pictures, Scribner, 1975

Davis, RHC, The Medieval Warhorse, Thames & Hudson, Inc., 1989

Firebaugh, W.C., The Inns of Greece & Rome, Frank M. Morris, 1923

Firebaugh, W.C., The Inns of the Middle Ages, Pascal Covici, 1924

Gies, Joseph & Frances, Life in a Medieval City, Crowell, 1969

Howard, Clare, English Travelers of the Renaissance, Benjamin Franklin Press, 1968

Howarth, David, 1066, The Year of the Conquest, Viking Press, 1977

Hyland, Ann, Equis: The Horse in the Roman World, Yale University Press, 1990

Johnson, VW & Johnson, T, Distance Riding from Start to Finish, Houghton Mifflin, 1976

Jusserand, J.J., English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages, Methuen, 1961

Newton, Arthur P., Travel &Travelers of the Middle Ages, Routledge & Keegan Paul LTD, 1926

Schofield, John, Medieval London Houses, Yale University Press, 1994

Sumption, Jonathan, Pilgrimage:an image of mediaeval religion, Rowman & Littlefield, 1975

Tannahill, Reay, Food in History, Crown Publishing, 1988

Tuchman, BW, A Distant Mirror, Knopf, 1978

Wade-Labrage, Margaret, Medieval Travelers, W.W Norton & Co.  1982

Mules in Britain, http://www.britishmulesociety.org.uk/



Feel free to use and copy this information to any SCA group as long as you credit us and send me notice of how you used it..


Dianne Karp and Mark Murphy     copyright 2001 diannekarp at rtci.net


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org