Assuming your world will feature a variety of fascinating places, your characters will probably spend a lot of time travelling between them. Today we’ll look at all the factors affecting transportation in the premodern world.
The usual conditions apply. Magic changes a lot, so we’ll address that in a different article. You could argue that many fantasy settings are early modern, but we’ll focus on the premodern world today. Lastly, if my Mediterranean- and European-heavy bias of historic knowledge shows through, let me know. As much as possible, I’ll be focusing on elements that should remain common across all premodern societies.
We’ll look at travelers, transportation, roads, waterways, and banditry.
- While travel was fairly common, it was a relatively small portion of the population that traveled regularly. Commoners (as defined in the first article of the series) generally lacked the resources to travel, and usually felt no need to do so. Travel for leisure is a fairly recent phenomenon—premodern peoples traveled because they had to. They might enjoy the experience, but they rarely traveled for its own sake.
- There were five varieties of premodern traveler. The first is governmental travel. Officials frequently needed to go from place to place as part of their duties. Nobles may want to travel between their estates, attend official events, or visit their superiors. There are plenty of non-nobles who act on the government’s behalf as well. Several ancient empires developed postal services with couriers who served official needs.
- Another category is military travel. We know from the second article of this series that an underappreciated domain of military action is operations, or getting the army from place to place. Traveling armies are unique in several ways. As discussed in the Operations section, they need to keep moving and keep taking resources from locals or risk running out of supplies. Military travel can significantly stress transportation infrastructure. This was the fundamental reason why the famous Roman road system was constructed: to make military movement easier. Any benefits to trade or other travel was secondary.
- Perhaps the largest category of travelers was merchants. Again, this was mentioned in the third article on economics. There was a constant hum of small-scale, local merchant traffic. Larger trains were also common, and the Silk Road saw massive convoys called caravans. Similar trends could be seen in water transport.
- The last regular type of traveler is migrants. There are many reasons why people would want to look for a new place to live, usually boiling down to economic hardships or opportunities. Economic migrants often head for cities, though the pull is less strong before the Industrial Revolution. A less common, but far more impactful, force for migration is war. Conflict can create massive amounts of refugees looking for a safer place to call home. Some cultures of war allowed citizens a relative amount of peace, but collateral damage is inescapable.
- Some religions encouraged an additional variety of traveler: pilgrims. Many religions ascribe special importance to particular places. This encourages worshippers to make pilgrimages to visit these holy sites. Specific festivals could make these pilgrimages more regular. Some developed religious institutions provided infrastructure to encourage these treks, as we’ll discuss in the Roads section. We can also include the journeys clergy go on in their duties here. Religions with central authorities often require their priests to travel to assignments.
- While poor migrants, pilgrims, and other impoverished travelers usually traveled on foot, anyone who could afford it looked for other options. Animals and vehicles could be hired for specific trips, though wealthier travelers usually preferred to own and maintain their own.
- Animals pulling carts preceded mounted travel by several thousand years. Several innovations made carts more effective. Harnesses that place more weight on the shoulders instead of the neck as well as spoke-and-rim wheels (which are more expensive than solid wood wheels, but lighter and way easier to maintain; people will always go for spoke-and-rim wheels whenever possible) were both helpful.
- Another set of discoveries that made carts better were the successful domestications of various draft animals. Horses are useful, but the breeds that were available for most of history were relatively weak and couldn’t pull large loads. Donkeys were a bit sturdier relative to the amount of food they needed to eat, but they were famously stubborn and pain-resistant, making them hard to motivate (like it or not, whipping and other physical punishments were key motivators for much of history).
- When people realized horses and donkeys could be bred together, the world of mules opened many doors. Mules share the best of both worlds (though they can still be stubborn at times). They became the animal of choice for many traveler types, especially merchants. Mules’ sterility meant that people couldn’t keep personal farms of just mules—they needed to either have horses and donkeys, have one and arrange with someone else for breeding, or purchase mules from a seller.
- Another option was to go with oxen. Once proper yokes were designed, oxen could pull truly massive loads. The downside was that they were both slow and hungry. Because of this, were really only used by merchants who would use the oxen to carry lots of goods to sell, paying for their exorbitant cost.
- I should briefly mention that people could pull carts themselves. This was very difficult, and was often restricted to very short trips within cities or between a city and its hinterland. In extreme cases, very impoverished people might need to use handcarts to travel very long distances. The classic example is the Mormon pioneer experience, though the 1800s could hardly be called “premodern.”
- You might notice that I’ve made lots of references to things being in carts, but not people. That’s because for a lot of history, actually riding in carts was tremendously uncomfortable. It took until the very end of the European Middle Ages for any kind of suspension to be discovered, and that was just straps of leather. If you wanted to sit in a vehicle, it usually had to be for short trips within a settlement (which usually had slightly gentler roads) or actually carried by horses or people, no wheels involved. Chariots are an exception, but people stood in those—only for brief periods—and they were never built for comfort in the first place.
- In addition to using animals for draft (pulling things) there were three other purposes: pack (carrying goods in bags), mount, and as the goods themselves. Pack animals don’t require too much explanation. Mules were favored when available; oxen’s backs are so broad and awkward that panniers (bags slung over the back of a pack animal) don’t fit well. Livestock was often cargo in its own right, transported in large groups between pastures or to marketplaces. Some areas had menageries, a kind of traveling zoo.
- This brings us to the final use of animals: mounts. My horse-loving wife has a long list of pet peeves she has about how riding is often portrayed in fiction, so I had a lot of help with my research here. (And yes, it is easiest to just talk about horses here. You could ride mules and donkeys, as well, but you can figure out what those are like by learning more about horses.)
- The biggest thing is that horses will not be galloping the whole way. Races are short for a reason. In the best conditions, a horse could gallop for about two miles at once, but then it will need to stop and rest a while. Shadowfax doesn’t count. He was very, very magic, and was extremely tired after galloping for a day and a half. My wife specifically wrote in italics: “Your horse will die if you gallop too long, and that’s assuming it doesn’t yank you out of the saddle with its teeth first.”
- Instead, your horse will be walking most of the time. Horse walking is still faster than human walking, so you will still get to your destination faster and less tired, but you won’t be running the whole way. You can go faster than a walk if you want, but that means you’ll have to stop and rest every once in a while—especially if you’re trying to save your horse(s) up for a battle.
- We should expand on that and point out that if your horse is going to be doing something important at the end of a journey—a battle, race, or hunt—then you don’t want to be riding it during the actual trip. You’ll probably need a different horse to ride along the way, along with another pack animal (probably). This is another reason why cavalry and recreational horse events are reserved for the wealthy.
- In the end, riders make about 25-30 miles each day. On foot, people can make about 20-25. It doesn’t seem like much, but that adds up when most journeys worth hiring animals for are multi-day affairs.
- The last thing to consider about animals for transport is food and water. These will be some of the largest expenses and one of the key determinants of the route you take. You will want to stay close to bodies of water whenever possible, and ideally you will want to travel where there’s enough grass or other food for your animals to forage. You can carry grain with you, though it’s very bulky. Long story short: using animals is invaluable, but it doesn’t solve everything.
- There isn’t a better place to put this, but readers should be aware that almost every mode of transport was very seasonally dependent. Even a heavy rain could make a route useless for days at a time (one benefit or Roman roads was that they were designed so rain flowed off of them, making this less of a concern). Roads and waterways both could be completely impassible in Winter (in a European climate). This meant that most settlements had to be self-sufficient for those seasons, since trade at any distance would be cut off. Local governments would need to be able to function without reliable communication with higher-ups. Wars were fought during non-Winter seasons, since Winter made both travel and foraging much harder.
- This section describes all land travel, even though it’s called just “roads.” Despite the image of people roughing it through the rugged countryside, roads were there for a reason. They were next to water and other resources, they were easy to traverse, and they would have settlements for resupplies and other amenities. Even armies stayed on roads for the most part, since they had to forage supplies off of the locals.
- Investment in roads was a key part of many developed civilizations. The most classic example was the Roman Empire, though their roads weren’t primarily intended for citizens. Roads were built behind marching legions, making military mobility extremely efficient. Any benefits for traders and other travelers were a happy side-effect. Indeed, there are a couple reports that the pavement was awful to carts (no suspension, remember) and uncomfortable for some animals, which is why the roads often had unpaved areas to either side. They were designed for marching soldiers accompanied by baggage trains.
- Romans were also known for their milestones, small roadside monuments that recorded the distance from nearby settlements (and Rome itself). These were so regular that historians started using milestones to record locations.
- One thing that many worldbuilders ignore is navigation. It’s generally assumed that most people didn’t have access to maps. If maps were available, they were usually low-quality, inaccurate, and very local. How did people know where they were going? Aside from memorizing common routes (and we have some records of songs used to remember roads and landmarks), one important tool was the “itinerary.” Instead of a map, you would have a list of directions, distances, and landmarks or settlements. “Five miles south to A, then six miles southeast to B, etc.” Itinerary hawkers could make a decent living selling directions. In Rome there was a master itinerary on the Pantheon that listed distances and directions to far-off settlements, allowing travelers to copy down their own itineraries from its lists.
- It’s worth spending some time on inns, since they’re such a staple of fantasy. I’ve heard some people say that inns are almost completely fictional, and that most people slept in their own tents. This is definitely not true. Inns were almost everywhere except for smaller villages (where travelers could often pay to sleep with local families). Most of these were about a day apart, allowing travelers to almost always spend the night under a roof.
- Inns were regarded differently in different cultures, though. Inns in Roman times were very seedy; many ones archaeologists have uncovered have plenty of graffiti and references to prostitution. Traveling officials would instead stay in a “mansio,” which was a villa set aside for them. More reputable inns called “tabernae” would show up eventually.
- The mansio was an example of something several societies did: provide formal inns for traveling government agents. They would require passports for use and were, naturally, far more luxurious and convenient than regular inns.
- Occasionally, religious orders would support pilgrims by offering their properties as inns. Monasteries served this purpose in Middle Ages Europe.
- I found something very interesting in my research for this article. I looked at inn layouts in Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and elsewhere, and was very surprised to find that the design was very similar in all of them. We usually imagine something similar to modern hotels, where travelers would come into a common area and rent rooms upstairs, all accessible via hallways. Real inns were usually structured around a courtyard, with rooms opening directly into the courtyard itself. Larger inns would have multiple galleries of rooms (still facing the courtyard and accessible via balconies), and fancier ones would have a fountain in the courtyard as well. Stables and storage were offered either behind the bedrooms or at the ends of the wall. Less like a hotel, more like a motel. I guess this layout was best for convenience, allowing residents to come and go without bothering others.
- Another inn variant that was culture-specific—but very influential—was the “caravansary.” We’ve mentioned that traders traveling the Silk Road moved in large convoys called caravans. These caravans would stop in places called caravansaries, which were effectively small forts. They were structured just like regular inns, but they featured watchtowers and reinforced gates that closed at sunset. Caravansaries were outside town rather than within them, too. These precautions were necessary to protect the caravan’s riches from bandits.
- One last thing that I was interested to learn about inns was that they often didn’t provide food. Residents had to eat whatever they’d brought. When food was available, there wasn’t a menu; everyone had to eat the same thing. Some civilizations did have restaurants—Rome had something similar to fast-food places for the poor people who didn’t have personal kitchens—but inns didn’t serve that purpose.
- Waterways—any body of water that a boat can use—were of immense importance in the premodern world. We’ve mentioned this in other articles, but the cost and time efficiency of water travel is immense. In Roman times, river travel was five times cheaper and sea travel twenty times cheaper. To put this in perspective: say you’re a farmer on the coast. You need to travel 21 miles to a town, also on the coast. It would be easier to walk almost 19 miles in the other direction, then take a boat to your destination. (I think I did the algebra right there…)
- Because of this, you are much more likely to see settlements next to waterways. Those that aren’t near one probably won’t be able to grow very large, and will have to be more self-sufficient. If there are important inland resources, like ore deposits, roads and other land infrastructure will be a top priority to get the resources to where they could be processed and/or sold. Lumber is especially easy to transport by river; it can just be tied up into rafts and floated down, a practice called “timber rafting.” (This is where the North American sport of logrolling comes from.)
- Canals, or man-made waterways, showed up earlier than you might expect. The first canals were for irrigation, and it was a happy coincidence if a canal was large enough for riverboats. Once technology advanced enough for more reliable canal construction, they could be built to connect important waterways or provide access to important inland areas.
- River barges had to be very flat-bottomed in order to get them past shallower portions. They were often smaller, since they might have to be pulled on land a short ways in the event of low bridges or very shallow fords. When technology made it possible, seagoing vessels could have much deeper bottoms to make room for more cargo.
- For almost all premodern cultures, seafaring boats had to stay pretty close to shore (the portion of ocean known as the “littorals”). The tools to navigate open waters were a while off, the weather could be harsher, and the vessels often needed to resupply frequently. The exception was the region of the Pacific Islands, whose peoples developed incredibly sophisticated methods and technology for dealing with these challenges. For the rest of the world, everything stayed coastal for a long time.
- If a traveler couldn’t afford to own a boat or rent one—which was the majority of travelers—traveling by water was essentially the premodern equivalent to hitchhiking (though you’d need to catch a ride at settlements rather instead of any place en route). You needed to find a vessel that was going in your direction, then buy or barter for a seat. There weren’t regular passenger lines that consistently traveled between key settlements—there might be merchants that made regular rounds like that, but nothing geared specifically for travelers.
- Travelers had to constantly watch out for robbers. People usually only call these people bandits if they operate on land, pirates on waterways. Both bandits and pirates almost always worked in groups, which distinguished them from “footpads”—lone muggers that usually stuck to settlements. For simplicity, I’ll use “bandits” to describe anyone who robs travelers, land or water. Obviously many factors change when you move from land to water, but less than you would expect—and what changes there are are intuitive to understand.
- The most common motivation for banditry was personal need rather than desire for riches. Consequently, specific items like grain, livestock, or household tools were more likely to be stolen than trade goods like gems or silks. Another consequence of this was that if someone didn’t have something the bandits specifically wanted, they would usually be left alone. Juvenal, Roman writer, wrote that travelers with empty pockets were safe on the roads.
- In general, bandits were disorganized, with every group operating independently. Corrupt nobles could run bandit operations in their territory to extract extra revenue or terrorize opposition. Merchants and clergy could do this, too, though it was less common. Sometimes, governments would even hire bandits to harass enemy territory.
- Sometimes in history, a bandit organization would become folk heroes. Robin Hood’s Merry Men are the archetypal example of “social banditry,” but they’re not the only one. Like Robin, social bandits often restricted their victims to wealthier travelers, earning popular support. Most weren’t organized groups like the Merry Men, but were more like a common occupation. In extreme cases, these social bandits could grow in power and become the vehicle of a peasant revolt against the ruling class, though this usually didn’t end well.
- One of the most common sources of bandits was out-of-work mercenaries. If your only skillset was hurting people, what else would you do between jobs? Refugees and forced migrants often turned to banditry to survive, meaning that war and economic distress contributed significantly to bandit activity. Surprisingly, shepherds also frequently became bandits. They were separated from the economic structures that would meet their basic needs, so they sometimes needed to steal to survive.
- The most common banditry tactic was the toll road. Bandits would station themselves on a thoroughfare—road or waterway—and demand payment from passers-by. Whenever possible, they would hide, revealing themselves only at the last moment so victims would have less time to escape. One way that authorities could combat this was by regularly removing trees and undergrowth that got too close to the road in common ambush spots.
- Banditry was often legally defined by lethal violence. The penalty for banditry was severe, so bandits were incentivized to get rid of witnesses. Travelers would travel far out of their way to avoid “badlands”—areas where bandits were known to operate.
- Banditry could be a serious limiting factor for long-distance travel. Fighting bandits and making travel safer was often a key goal for governments. Powerful authorities like the Roman or Han Empires could create a golden era of relative peace for travelers—the Romans established police checkpoints and watchtowers. More fragmented governments like those of Middle Ages Europe usually lacked the resources and coordination to effectively deal with the problem.
- Inversely, rising banditry could be an early-warning sign that a government was losing its power. During one period, the Roman province of Syria were so plagued by pirates that it couldn’t afford to pay its taxes to Rome. This was another reason why bandits were considered a top priority and banditry was so highly punished.
And there we go! Let me know if you have any comments regarding this article or suggestions for future ones.