Travel in the Arthurian Age

I’m sitting in an airport irritated by last minute cancellations that have thrown a wrench in our travel plans. But considering what we have available to us today, I really have nothing to complain about.

In the course of less than 8 hours, assuming no further mishaps, I will have traveled over 1,500 miles. That would have been about the same as going from London to the tip of the boot of Italy.

There is a great website called Orbis which shows travel times and routes during the height of the Roman Empire. To make that trip in that era, under the relative safety and reliability of Roman roads and shipping lanes, the fastest a person could reasonably hope to make the same trip would have been 33 days.

This is with travel by boat and overland through southern France. If by ship, the trip would take 39 days, sailing around Spain. But this would not have been anyone’s first choice.

In the 5th Century, when the Roman Empire was in decline and no longer had the ability to protect or upkeep the roads, the quickest mode of travel would have been by ship, but this would have been fraught with danger. Storms, pirates, fragile ships, contrary winds, becoming lost. If at all possible, people preferred to take their chances on land, despite a much longer trip. Travel by horse, averaging 35 miles a day (which is considered fast), the fastest time for this trip would be 47 days.

And you would not be able to push a horse at that pace for 47 days. You would need to have multiple changes along the way. Not to mention the risk of bandits, injury, blocked passes and foul weather.

What if you were a poor pilgrim making the trip on foot? At about 18-20 miles per day, expect to spend the next 87 days trying to get to your destination.

Moving an army is even slower. The Roman army was famously organized and made great use of their advanced road system. A single legion of about 5,000 men would stretch out over a half mile of road. The logistics of moving the legions, their food and support systems meant that they only moved about 12 miles per day. And at each stop they were required to build a defensible camp with ditches and ramparts, get firewood, water, etc. In the Early Medieval Period, large armies were rare. Smaller forces were quicker and easier to move, not to mention less costly.

But, despite the expense and hazards, people in the Arthurian Age did travel, and quite long distances. Often these were merchants or pilgrims. Sightseeing for religious reasons was not uncommon. Most of what we know of travel at the time is from the records of the clergy, who were often the only literate people at the time. They tell of organizing long trips for religious conferences, or “synods”. Books, letters, gifts all were transported even in the era often called “The Dark Ages” today.

All things considered, it’s amazing to comprehend how much different technology today has made our lives. Now to catch that plane…

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