Living Conditions in the 1500s: Travel

It may help one to appreciate modern times by spending some time studying the way things really were in the past. Toward that approach, the Historical Perspective section of the Positive Press will occasionally analyze the real, as opposed to romanticized, living conditions of the past.

The source material for this Historical Perspective is William Manchester’s best-selling book, “A World Lit Only By Fire.”

Most of us take modern transportation for granted. We complain when our flight is delayed by a half-hour; it will now take five hours to cross the country as compared to the four and a half we were expecting. But modern transportation is a very recent development. There are many alive today who were born in an era when human flight was considered a miracle.

It was not so long ago that travel was a much more harrowing experience than it is today. One can read the novels of Dickens, set in mid-19th century England, or biographies of Abraham Lincoln, to understand the minimal level of comfort that even a first-class traveler of those times could expect. Lincoln, in his travels as a lawyer, spent the nights sharing a bed with his colleagues. They would share a single wash basin in the morning, and a single towel to wash themselves.

And this is the way everyone traveled; the concept of a luxury hotel was unfathomable. Travelers in 19th century Europe would be sent to their rooms to sleep in the same bed as total strangers. These travelers’ inns would typically be filthy places, with beds crammed together, the rooms infested with roaches, rats and fleas.

In the Middle Ages travel was slow, expensive, very uncomfortable and dangerous. Bridges over rivers were often shaky; priests sometimes advised travelers to commend their souls to God before crossing over. Rain and snow made travel impossible due to the fact that the unpaved roads became impassable muddy ruts.

There was virtually no security on the roads of Medieval Europe; travelers had to fend for themselves. Often, the thieves were former soldiers or knights returned from the Crusades, the equivalent of Japanese ronin in the time of the Shoguns. The highwaymen traveled in gangs, or posed as beggars or even as pilgrims. The local nobility did not protect travelers from these thieves. In fact, sometimes thieves bribed the nobililty for the privilege of robbing travelers on their lands.

While there are many myths about gallant highwaymen in the style of Robin Hood, the truth is probably quite different. Robin Hood was probably another nobly born thief who killed helpless travelers; there is no evidence that he robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.

Yes, it is true that in modern times there are occasional travel delays and definitely not enough leg room in coach class. Sometimes, though rarely, there is even an element of danger. But anyone who compares the experience of traveling today versus times past can only be amazed by how much safer, more comfortable and faster traveling is today.

Source: “A World Lit Only By Fire,” by William Manchester.

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