Transportation in the Middle Ages

Transportation in the Middle Ages was very much based on the methods and innovations that came before.  While the Romans showed innovation in building a network of roads across their Empire, the Middle Ages saw a decline in ease and access of transportation.The once prevalent interconnected roads and bridges system collapsed with the fall of Rome and even those roads that remained from the dynasty of the Roman Empire had long fallen into poor conditions. 

The roads reverted to uneven and furrowed dirt paths, which was disadvantageous in inclement weather.  With the rising popularity of wheeled-carts, smooth roads were very much needed again, as wheels could not roll over shaky or unstable ground.

Ships were also renovated both in building techniques and design in order to fit larger quantities of cargo and transport said cargo (or people) over longer distances.

The rise in transportation in the Middle Ages allowed for an increase in trade and travel throughout Europe.  Merchants of all types of goods were able to gain access to foreign markets and take more products with them, which highly benefited the economy. 

The most famous benefit of the strides made in improving transportation in the Middle Ages was the discovery of the Americas or the “New World,” which brought new types of goods (e.g., spices) to Europe and promoted communication and travel.  Transportation was essential to not only the economic benefit and development of Europe but also the social improvement.

Transportation by both land and sea during this time was integral to the booming economy and major innovations that resulted in the eras after the Middle Ages. 

Transportation on Land

Those in the upper socioeconomic echelons in the Middle Ages occasionally traveled in covered wagons.  Another transportation option for the elite was in a carriage-like box balanced on two poles, the front and back ends of which were attached to two horses that were trained to walk at the same speed.

The most common method of transportation, however, was on horseback, which was not limited to the upper classes.  Any individual who could afford to buy or rent a horse would use the animal for transportation.  Long lines of packhorses were used across Britain to transport goods like wool for trade. 

These trains contained as many as 50 horses in a single file line that was led by a horse wearing a bell. Horses in the Middle Ages, however, were different in size and breed from today’s horses.  They were also generally smaller than the modern horse.  Mules were also often used.

In the Middle Ages, it was not unusual for people of all classes and backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses to travel and they often traveled long distances. 

The speed of transportation by land varied greatly depending on the purpose.  Large containers or carts of cargo could potentially slow horses down, thus rendering a day’s journey into a week’s.  Also, trains of horses were often accompanied by servants traveling by foot, who could definitely impede the pace of the cavalry.

Transportation at Sea

While transportation on land showed a decline from the prior era, transportation at sea flourished in the Middle Ages.  Many inventions helped render transportation at sea much more doable.

While technically invented by the Chinese centuries before, the compass was first used by Europeans in the Middle Ages, thus helping navigation.  The Middle Ages also saw the European discovery of the rudder (which was, again, developed by the Chinese hundreds of years before), which made ships much easier to maneuver.  Europeans also made advances in shipbuilding: by the 15th century, ships were built with three masts.

In the Middle Ages, boats were powered by sails or oars.

Sailing Ships

In the Early Middle Ages, the sailing ship used the most was a Knarr, which was a kind of vessel used for cargo.  In order to propel, it used a sole square-rigged sail.

In the High Middle Ages, two types of ships were used: the Trade-Cog and the Hulk.  The Trade-Cog had only one mast, steep sides, and a flat bottom, which allowed them to settle flatly in harbor, facilitating loading and unloading of cargo.  They were also frequently used for military transportation and as warships because the steep sides made it difficult for pirates and other intruders to board. 

The Hulk was also flat-bottomed like the Trade-Cog but had neither a stern nor sternposts.  It was chiefly used as a river or canal boat as it had limited ability for oceanic transportation. 

In the Late Middle Ages, the Caravel and Carrack ships were utilized.  The Portuguese developed the Caravel ship for exploration voyages.  These ships were either square and lateen rigged or only lateen rigged.  Caravel ships had lateen sails, which gave the ships speed and the ability to sail towards the wind.  Two famous Caravel ships are the Niña and the Pinta, both of which Christopher Columbus used in his first voyage to the Indies in 1492.

The Carrack ship, developed in southern Europe (particularly Portugal) in the 15th century, was larger than the Caravel and used four masts.  The Santa Maria, another of Christopher Columbus’ ships on his 1492 voyage is the most famous example of a Carrack ship.  They were big enough to be stable in unsteady waters and large enough to carry provisions for long voyages.

Oared Ships

Galley ships were invented in the 8th century and remained in use for transportation throughout the Early Middle Ages.  Chiefly used for trade and warfare (as well as piracy), galleys were propelled mainly through rowing, which was actually helpful for the erratic wind conditions of the Mediterranean Sea. 

The Vikings most famously used longships, clinker-built ships with overlapping wooden slates and fitted with oars along practically the entire length of the vessel.  They were used not only for transportation but also for trade, commerce, and warfare. 

Longships were refined, long, narrow, and light and therefore intended on being extremely speedy.  These ships were also double-ended, which allowed the ship to reverse its direction quickly without turning around, a facet especially useful when navigating seas with icebergs.

12 thoughts on “Transportation in the Middle Ages”

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