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.


Dave Freer said...

travel = travail ;-). "dem blasted tinks, tey steal onyting".

Of course there was the sociopolitical aspect - in a fuedal system the serfs were the overlord's kine, de facto. So news of a better place or opportunity to run off were not popular, methinks. Of course said overlord wanted news and goods. I've often wondered if using peasantry as cannon fodder or pack-trains (common in fuedal-era war) did not act as the catalyst to social change - much as returning Aricans and indians from WW1 did. Of course I am biased in this view, because until I got out of SA - I thought it was quite normal.

Anonymous said...

My Dad watched Westerns on TV. I grew up watching stagecoaches being robbed, and covered wagons being attacked by Indians. Vast exaggeration, I recall reading that the number of settlers passing through killed by Indians was in the vicinity of ninety.

Depending on your fictional setting and time of fictional year, you've got to consider availability of water, food, forage for livestock, and availability of replacements for animals injured or dying.

Quite apart from Bad Guys, taxes, tolls, tariffs, and Lords who don't seem to realize that traders will stop coming if he takes everything.

Kate said...


I'm quite sure thoughts about running off to a better place were heavily discouraged. Of course, with reprobates like us to deal with, it's quite possible some of the overlords arranged for their more troublesome serfs to hear about the better opportunities just so they didn't have to deal with the inventive, troublemaking sods.

And yes, the cannon - or whatever - fodder and pack trains thing along with the even less pleasant things that happened in feudal war - certainly had quite a bit to do with things changing. So did a very large labor shortage after the Black Plague had gone through.

Things varied. A lot. Places where people still have favorable legends about Lord Such'n'such and his family probably belonged to one of the nobles who regarded nobility as a duty rather than a privilege - which was surprisingly common (and shouldn't be, but we've had the 'nobility = inbred parasites' meme floating around for long enough to become the basis of a lot of assumptions).

Kate said...


Hollywood and TV views of any time period are... strange. They aren't even consistent about what they exaggerate and what they downplay. Plus, being Hollywood and TV, the stuff they get wrong is just... (You do not ever want to sit through any historical movie with my Dad. He reads widely, and he will start dissecting at the first sign of incorrect facts. He and I have pissed off my sisters over blockbusters so many times...

All those things are important. Trade could and often did run year-round in the Mediterranean, but northern Europe tended to shut down for winter because of the difficulty of keeping animals alive for a long journey without much, if any, edible anything along the way.

Bad Guys were pretty common. There was a lot more forest, meaning plenty of places for deserters or former soldiers with no interest in going back to farming to hide themselves and prey on anything in the vicinity. In the times when there wasn't a strong king, the freestyle marauding could be pretty bad - the bandit issues during the Stephen vs Matilda struggle, for instance. A local lord could look the other way in return for a share of the loot, or even be an active participant, because there weren't really any effective higher authorities to stop him.

Idiots who don't realize that the traders stop trading when you tax them too much seem to be endemic. Strange, that. I wonder why that idea just won't go away? ::puts away the sarcasm shovel::

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Kate, in Elizabethan England they had "counterfeit gypsies". I.e. while run away kids couldn't join the real gypsies they would make their own community and call themselves gipsies. They were expelled with the real gypsies, in the periodic "cleansing."

Years ago, I'd have told you that suspecting travelers (any travelers) of stealing was just wrong, discriminatory and an example of the closed mind of the villages. While the villages did have close minds, so did the travelers. Most of them travelled as a clan and therefore were well... clannish. There was an us-against-them mentality that I bet meant that the travelers did still. OTOH I bet the villagers also stole from the travelers if they could.

Kate said...


I'd never heard about that, but it certainly makes sense. Eventually people would have made no distinction between the "fake" gypsies and the real ones - they were all troublemakers anyway, right?

I have no doubt that the travelers and the villagers all did their best to cheat and steal from the "others" - to the travelers, the villagers were "outsiders" and therefore fair game, and vice versa.

Chris McMahon said...

You forgot the Wizards! I'm sure each medieval village and town supported a Wizard in a little cottage, which was filled with stacks of books, crystal balls and skull paperweights.

Anonymous said...

And anyhow, I'm sure lots of Tinkers were quite happy. Didn't they dance around the campfire at least every other night?

And their horses are magnificent.

Everyone knows that!

Kate said...

Chris, Matapam,

"Everyone knows" all sorts of stuff. Some of it is even accurate. Me, I tend to be a tad on the nit-pickery side, but I also think all sorts of little details like fake gypsies and the phenomenal number of ways human excreta was used are pretty cool.

Funnily enough, I scare people. Never could figure that out.

Anonymous said...

History is like the rules of writing. You need to know them, and break them only for a purpose.

Pure ignorance tends to shine through. And unfortunately those "everyone knows" tend to be things that you "know" and a lot of potential readers actually know.

Alt history will never be my (writing) genre, no matter that I like reading it.

Fantasy, on the other hand, often doesn't stick to the Real World, both for reasons of things like magic, but also so you create a world the readers enjoy, and want to be real.

Kate said...


Exactly. If you're going to write fantasy that looks like a particular historical era, it helps to have something more than a Hollywood-esque idea of what the era was actually like. That way you know you're starting from a functional base.

Know when to break the rules does require knowing the rules and understanding them in the first place, something that seems oddly quaint to some.

Anonymous said...

I wonder, though, if it's more important to follow the rules, or just throw in a mention of why you aren't?

My "Medieval" fantasy is actually a degenerated modern society. So it can have stuck up asses calling themselves lords, but the so-called peasants aren't tied to the land and the lords have to produce value for the taxes paid. Which they generally do by keeping the bandits away and the roads patched, and the remnant of actual sewers working and so forth.

Hmm. I'll have to have one getting above himself, and see what the free landowners do to him. That would be fun, since the MC has turned into sort of a cop . . .

Kate said...


If you're not following the rules, I think there does need to be something in there that indicates why you aren't.

In your case, a few old legends that would cue in a reader that this is a degenerate modern society is all you'd need so long as what you've got works well enough it doesn't tweak the "oh come ON" meter :)

Anonymous said...

Hopefully it will be tested in the court of public opinion. If not, if t never sells to a publisher, then I've definitely got it wrong.

Kate said...


If it never sells to a publisher, it could just as easily be because right now there isn't much buying, and there's absolutely zero risk taking (for publisher values of risk taking - I think we've established by now that the interface between large publishing companies and everything else filters in ways that leave the rest of us wondering who's on what drugs - given what they see, their decisions make perfect sense to them. Unfortunately what they see is a tad... skewed.)