Newman, Travel and Trade in the Middle Ages (McFarland, 2011) — Hassanali

Paul B Newman

Travel and Trade in the Middle Ages

Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011, 249 pp. ISBN 978-0786445356, $39.95


This work almost reads like part two of Newman’s “Daily Life in the Middle Ages.”  This one takes a closer look at specifically the economic and political, as well as the technological innovations that aided and necessitated trade and subsequently travel in Western Europe during the Middle Ages.  Some recent books on Medieval history assume that contemporary readers view those that lived in that era as “primitive.”  These books set out to provide a more nuanced view of Medieval life, and demonstrate the state of technology and innovation at that time.  In a sense, this book is not that much different in showing the technology achievement of the era.

After the introduction, the book has five chapters followed by an extensive bibliography and an index.  The first chapter addresses the reasons people traveled in the Middle Ages, and can be though of as an introduction to travel in the Middle Ages.  The next chapter focuses on land travel, followed by a chapter devoted to traveling by water.  These two chapters take up approximately 75% of the entire book.  Chapter four explores trade in the Middle Ages, and the last chapter focuses on goods that were traded and transported.  One can think of Chapters 4 and 5 as one unit concerned primarily with trade and treating travel as a required activity to the more important aspect of trading.  Each chapter is divided into sub-sections that are further divided into smaller sub-sections.  There are five levels of sub-sections in this book, making it well-suited as a reference source.

Chapter 1 introduces the reasons why people in Medieval Europe traveled.  Early in the chapter the text notes that “at least 80 percent of the population had little reason to travel far as part of their jobs [3]” and “that most people spent the majority of their lives within approximately 20 miles from their homes, with some spending their entire lives within this limit [3].”  The main reasons for travel are divided into categories for business travel (which include commerce, construction, medicine, entertainment, and couriers), travel for nobility (which include diplomacy, war, and tournaments), and religious travel (which include not only pilgrims, and wandering clergy, but also university students).  The last main sub-section in this chapter addresses the “homeless” (namely beggars, vagabonds, and lepers).  The chapter is intended to introduce the topic and hence is brief.  As an introductory chapter it serves its function well, but it over-emphasizes trade and under-represents travel that was undertaken for leisure (such as attending a hunting or falconry expedition).  The section on war focuses on the soldiers, but does not mention non-combatants displaced by war.  Travel caused by migration (due to natural or political events) is also not addressed.

Chapter 2 looks at land travel and starts with walking.  It starts with what would be required for walking (shoes, hat, food, water, and paths), then discuses options available for carrying goods while walking (sacks, poles, etc).  Riding and hauling are discussed next with a focus on the animals used for transportation.  First, the horse is considered, then the mule, donkey, and ox.  Both pack and draft animals are discussed as are transportation needs for military and non-military uses presented with respect to each of these animals.  Vehicles are explored next, and the text differentiates between those vehicles with two wheels and those with four wheels.  The discussion dwells on wheel and chassis construction and innovation.  This section ends with an overview of other vehicles where military vehicles are also outlined.  The section titled “Infrastructure and Logistics” covers not only “traditional” infrastructure elements of land travel (such as roads, bridges, food, lodging, and the such like), but also other aspects related to travel (such as language barriers, travel documents, guides, etc).

Chapter 3 starts with inland water transportation and discusses types of vessels, what they carried, innovations in propulsion and steering, and what it took to build and maintain inland waterways, and the need to sometimes transport water going vessels across land.  The section on sea going vessels covers the types of vessels, construction techniques, and steering innovations.  A section is devoted to outlining the main responsibilities of the different crew members, their boarding and lodging (as well as those of the passengers in the case of passenger transport), other hygiene considerations, and illnesses.  The discussion on navigation includes not only navigation tools, but also the techniques used.  The section on hazards of sea travel covers both natural and human hazards.  There is a small section that discusses armed conflict.  The last major section in this chapter discusses harbors and ports.

Chapter 4 looks at barriers and aids to trade.  It starts by introducing the mechanisms used to get goods to market – these could be from a few miles away to thousands of miles away.  It then provides a sketch of the players involved in trading goods from producer to final consumer.  This section pays special attention to the Hanse.  Financing and risk are discussed next, followed by marketplaces where these goods are traded.  The chapter ends with discussions on government regulations, international trade (including economic barriers to trade), and trade imbalances.  Maps showing the trade routes and areas referred to in this chapter are not provided, but would be helpful.

Chapter 5 looks at the goods that were frequently traded.  The list includes foods (primarily commodity goods, but there is a small section on “luxury” spices), cloth (wool, linen, cotton and silk), dyes, oils, soaps, furs, raw materials (wood, metal and stone), and luxury goods.

The book has twenty illustrations, but in some instances a few more would have been helpful.  For instance, illustration 7 shows a detail of a litter.  An accompanying illustration showing more of the painting to include not just the litter but also the accompanying horses would have been useful.  The text uses its illustrations in more than one example (this is true for especially the earlier ones).  Unfortunately, these illustrations are incorporated with the text, and referred to by illustration number (rather than page number), making it difficult to go back to the illustrations.  For instance, a discussion on page 222 refers the reader to illustration 3, which is on page 16.  Without an index of illustrations, the reader needs to expend greater effort to match illustrations to the relevant text.  The illustrations are also in grey scale rather than in color, hence diluting their visual impact.  In some instances, the illustrations are too small for readers with less-than-perfect eyesight.

The text is not footnoted, the chapters do not have a chapter specific bibliography, and the bibliography at the end is arranged by author’s last name.  This forces readers interested in additional work to sift through the entire bibliography.  Footnotes or a subject-specific bibliography would be a helpful addition.  In some cases, the text does contain awkward sentence structures and minor grammatical errors.  These tend to be clustered in the later chapters and may annoy some readers.

The book’s main focus is trade with travel as a subsidiary occupation.  Hence, travel as related to situations of armed conflict is mentioned only in passing.  As a result, transporting siege equipment and other logistical challenges confronted specifically by military units are not considered.  The book’s primary focus is Western Europe and other places are mentioned only when relevant.  For instance, in the discussion of blades from Toledo, there is no mention of Damascus steel, and when discussing soaps, there is no mention of soap from the Levant.

This book’s focus is not about the results of trade, but rather it is about the process of trade and travel as necessitated by trade.  It is intended for the general audience and is organized to serve as a reference.  As such, it does lend itself to repetition.  Overall, it is a valuable book for the undergraduate introductory course, and for serious non-specialists.  On a personal note, my twelve-year-old used this book as a reference to work on a project dealing with seafaring and navigation.  He leveraged the book’s bibliography to find a couple more references – these became his primary references.  While he believes he did well, at the time of this writing, we are awaiting his grade.


Muhammed Hassanali <Hassanali@juno.com>

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