Thursday, November 5, 2009
A Tinker's Lot is not a Happy One
Or: travel and trade in medieval times
Continuing my erratic tour of the middle ages for writers, I'm moving on to the question of travel and trade. For those whose attention spans don't survive their jobs, I'm doing this because the default setting for fantasy is something that looks sort of medieval with castles and sometimes knights and usually lords, and always a whole lot of oppressed peasants (Of course they're oppressed. It's kind of de riguer in modern fantasy. A kingdom that isn't oppressing its peasants isn't trying).
The actual era - mostly from around 1100-ish through the early renaissance, say 1500, 1600 or thereabouts - was rather more complex. While most people would never travel more than a few miles from their village, that didn't mean they were completely isolated. What happened was rather more like the current-day New Guinea uplands, where there are different dialects, cultures and languages within a relatively short distance. (As an aside, this is why England has so many dialects and accents. The same happens elsewhere in Europe, too - and a regional dialect can identify someone's home to within a few miles)
Every community saw a number of travelers each year. Those nearer the cities saw more, while the more remote communities might only see a few travelers. Some of the 'traveling classes' were the tinkers, who made minor repairs to pots and pans and sold small goods, various pedlars usually selling whatever they could carry, various flavors of gypsy (largely distrusted since even the best tended to regard the belongings of non-gypsies as theirs for the taking - yes those reputations tend to be based on a certain amount of fact), and entertainers, including jongleurs, troubadours and so forth (usually conflated as 'minstrels', and generally the carriers of news about the rest of the world). Often when a number of the travelers were in the area at the one time, there would be a fair where people could relax and forget their normal concerns for an afternoon or so, sell the "crafts" (weaving, wood carving, anything they could do that would sell) to the travelers, and stock up on the goods that weren't locally available.
Nearer the large cities and on the major trade routes, wagons and large groups of traders would travel equally well-defined circuits, sometimes covering hundreds of miles in Europe. The Silk Road stretched from Italy to China, with variants that ran through Constantinople, went by sea to avoid the never-ending wars for possession of the Balkan areas, sometimes via the Arabian Peninsula and sometimes north through Mongolia. It wasn't just silk that was carried. Trade empires were built on exotic spices - which are now commonplace for us. Salt was such a valuable commodity it was kept in a container on the high table - hence 'below the salt' meaning of lesser value. Pepper and other more exotic spices were weight for weight more valuable than gold at times (depending on how dangerous it was to get them from where they were grown).
Dyes were another lucrative trade item. A dye that would hold (was 'fast') and give a rich, strong color was immensely valuable. Sumptuary laws limited the access of many people to the best fabrics and dyes, although ingenious people always found ways around them. Slipping out of period a little, one reason why 'russet' is such a common color for clothing in Elizabethan times is that the black dye in use at the time faded to that color. Someone wearing russet was basically wearing old, faded clothing he or she couldn't afford to re-dye.
Another interesting feature of medieval times that generated a fair amount of travel - one that grew less important as the feudal system broke down - was the 'free city'. These were cities which weren't owned by anyone in particular but were jointly governed by a council of some sort, usually under royal charter. One of the reasons London became such a major center is that it was a free city.
Free cities attracted runaways who would apprentice themselves or find some other legal means of remaining in the city for the allowed length of time (Usually a year and a day, if I remember right). For youngsters who showed talent in a particular field, the nearest free city was a beacon of potential freedom - although if they became apprentices, they were the lowest ranked apprentices and could anticipate seven years or more of hard labor before they emerged as fully fledged guildsmen. In an era with strict limits on moving between classes, the free cities were the loophole.
Of course, rebellious youngsters joined the travelers as well, becoming entertainers or pedlers or tinkers or whatever (rarely gypies, as the gypsy clans tended to be rather insular). And even the travelers were bound by class - those who did the village circuits were lower status than the merchants who carried wagonloads of goods from city to city. But, when you consider the difficulties of travel in a world that was just starting to pull itself out of the gulf that was left by the collapse of the Roman Empire (yes, it did take close to a thousand years to recover, and we still haven't worked out some of the Roman technologies), there was a surprising amount of it.