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Post-Haste by Post Horse?

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Mark Brayshay draws on his recent archival research to present this upbeat view of how news travelled in Early Modern Europe.

Access to news and reliable information has always been crucial to those who exercise political or economic power. In the past, communication by letter between a king and his officials, as well as with other rulers, was the cornerstone of effective authority and diplomacy, and contact by letter between merchants was the key to successful business and trade. But the process of exchanging correspondence in medieval Europe was often inordinately slow. The rate at which letters might be conveyed from sender to recipient depended upon the physical endurance of a rider and his horse, travelling as far as they could during daylight hours. A horse is capable of achieving remarkable speeds over relatively short distances, but on prolonged journeys it cannot match the stamina of a man. Delays incurred by the frequent need to rest a horse when undertaking a protracted errand therefore meant that even the royal couriers of medieval Europe undertook many of their official journeys on foot.

The alternative was to establish a relay of fresh horses at regular stages A along key routes where they were ready to be taken up by messengers travelling to particular destinations. Such arrangements were widespread in classical times when the Roman cursus publicus linked all parts of the Empire in a network of regularly spaced horse-relay stages facilitating travel at speeds of more than 170 km per day. Vestiges of the Roman system survived in parts of western Europe until the decline of the Carolingian dynasty in the tenth century, but thereafter its decay was rapid and virtually nothing remained by 1200. Permanent standing relays of horses were, after all, extremely costly to maintain and required a high degree of organisation. In consequence they were established in medieval Europe only for brief periods to meet extraordinary circumstances. Thus, although in common with the King of Aragon, the papal curia, the great monastic houses of Europe and the University of Paris, England's medieval kings kept a staff of paid household messengers ready to carry royal correspondence at a moment's notice, this does not imply the existence of a comprehensive system of express communication by messengers riding post-horses. Indeed, at the beginning of the fifteenth century, an ordinary exchange of letters, carried from start to finish by a single courier, between the King of England and the Pope in Rome, was likely to take at least two months. At the same time, messages sent from the court at Westminster to Berwick on the Scottish border rarely arrived in less than a fortnight.

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