Communication in Medieval Times: How Messages Were Sent

Prior to medieval times, there were several sophisticated methods of message dissemination, including the messenger systems of the Persian Empire, and the relay-runner system of the Inca state. When the Roman Empire dissolved, Western Europe began to rely less on state messengers and more on private arrangements made between groups and individuals.In medieval times, people needed access to information quickly. Rulers, papal envoys and diplomats were just some of those who needed to send messages.

In medieval times, travel could be difficult, dangerous, costly and time consuming. Important people such as rulers, bishops and nobles had little time or inclination to travel with news or messages and so, would employ trusted messengers to act on their behalf.

During the Middle Ages, towns, universities, monasteries and trading companies all had their own messengers, some of whom were protected by royal decree. The Papacy had its own courier system, in order to keep in touch with its clergy and churches across Europe. Bishops were required to send regular messages through to Rome, and in return, received papal messengers from Rome.

Only the wealthiest individuals and organizations could afford private courier systems, because of the need for horses, accommodation and travel expenses. This meant that messengers often worked on a ‘freelance’ basis, taking messages from several different sources and competing with other messengers to be the first to deliver important news.

Messengers in Medieval Times

The best messengers were men who were fit and healthy and ideally had a knowledge of more than one language. Religious messengers needed a basic knowledge of Latin, for dealing with the Pope, bishops and abbots. In many cases, messengers traveling overseas, particularly to a foreign court, were expected not only to deliver their message safely, but to obtain as much information about their surroundings as possible before leaving. This sometimes led to messengers being implicated as spies.

During particularly sensitive times, such as war, messages were often sent in coded form, or hidden about the person of a messenger who would adopt an innocent disguise, such as that of a pilgrim. Information could be hidden in clothing, a walking staff or even a person’s shoes. Envoys were often required to carry valuable gifts to present to the recipient of their message, and such items again had to be hidden during the journey. Gifts had to be selected carefully, to make sure that they were suitable for the recipient’s rank and status and the messenger would also be presented with gifts to take home on his return journey.

Whether traveling singly, or in a group, the medieval traveler often used pack animals either to carry luggage, or to ride upon. In the Middle Ages, the ass, mule and horse were used on journeys, and each of these animals had its own benefits and disadvantages.

The ass, a native of North Africa and Arabia was used as a form of transport from Biblical times and by the medieval times, was well-established as a means of transport and of travel. Since an ass can carry both a person and luggage, it was an ideal way to transport the medieval traveler, particularly across mountainous regions, where other animals would falter.

The ass was particularly used by members of religious orders, as riding an ass was seen as a form of humility, whilst horses were regarded as an animal for the upper classes. Because Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, many clerics were keen to follow his example.

The Horse as a Form of Transport

Man riding a horse, example
Man riding a horse, example

Because the horse is a stronger and generally faster animal than the ass, it tended to be the transport of choice for moneyed people and those who needed to travel quickly, perhaps with urgent news. From the eleventh century onwards, successful breeding had made sturdy and reliable horses, some of which were strong battle chargers, others which were more suitable for long journeys. One of the reasons that horses were favored by wealthier people was that a horse was less economical to keep than an ass. A horse could be fed on oats, which during medieval times, formed a significant portion of the human diet and so could be costly to feed to an animal.

The Mule as a Form of Transport

A mule, which is an offspring of a he-ass and a mare, was another sturdy animal which could prove its worth on medieval journeys. The mule was particularly noted for its endurance, and so was an ideal mount for a long or arduous journey, particularly since it was less expensive to feed than a horse. However, for all pack animals, the costs of stabling, hay, and food all had to be taken into consideration.

Other animals used in the Middle Ages for travel included the camel, the elephant, and oxen, which were also used as plough animals on the medieval farm. Goats and sheeps were often taken on crusade, as not only could they be used to carry goods, but could be killed and eaten during the journey.

Sources

Hopper, Sarah To be a Pilgrim [Sutton, 2002]

Hopper, Sarah Mothers, Mystics and Merrymakers [History Press, 2006]

Sobol, Donald The First Book of Medieval Man [Franklin, 1959]

Ohler, Norbert The Medieval Traveller [Boydell & Brewer, 2010]