How were letters sent

By Danièle Cybulskie

This week, many of us are saying fond farewells to our friends and colleagues who have headed to Kalamazoo, MI for the International Congress on Medieval Studies, but we know that they’re always a text or email away. Even E.T. managed a phone call. Let’s imagine, for five minutes, what it must have been like to try and communicate across long distance in the Middle Ages.

Most people in medieval Europe were illiterate, which meant that writing a letter by themselves was next to impossible, and also that, even if they managed it, the letter’s recipient would likely have been unable to read it on his or her own. Messages, then, would have often been oral communications, carefully memorized by the messenger. Anyone who’s played a childhood game of Telephone knows how easily information can be misheard or misremembered, although we should give our forbears credit: people in oral cultures are better at listening and remembering than people in written cultures (for the simple reason that we train ourselves to write things down in order to aid our memories). Still, sending an oral message meant that there was at least one other person who was privy to the communication, so the sender would have to consider the ramifications of sharing secrets with a third party. When you consider small messages (like reminders to buy a certain length of cloth), this may not seem so bad; however, messages of greater import would require greater discretion.

If a regular person felt the need for a message to be written down and sent, he would have had to rely on a scribe to write for him, again necessarily requiring a third party to be involved, or possibly a fourth, if the recipient needed it read for him. This may have created its own problems, as the writer may have had to consider the language in which to write, and possibly also a dialect. Most people would likely have played it safe and written in Latin (the universal language of the learned at the time), but even Latin was not wholly safe from the quirky and sometimes problematic spellings that characterize medieval writing. Also, if the sender was illiterate, there would have been no way to double-check that the written word actually said what it was meant to say; likewise, a reader at the other end was capable of deceiving the illiterate listener. An illiterate person was at the mercy of the literate when it came to written communication.

Beyond the problems associated with actually getting a message down and having it understood, sending written communications would have been very expensive. Then, as now, the services of professional writers came at a price, and the materials they used would have been expensive, as well. In Europe, parchment would have been used initially, followed by linen paper, and the process of making both is long and arduous (a fantastic book on this is Christopher DeHamel’s Medieval Craftsmen: Scribes and Illuminators). Paper-making and printing progressed west across nations slowly, hand-in-hand, so paper as we know it would not have been prevalent in England until the 15th Century. The message written, then, would have had to justify the expense of the materials used.

Once a message was written down, it would often have been sealed with wax, using a custom seal that was associated with the sender. Some seals were small and humble, while royal and papal seals were large and elaborate. (You can find an interesting article on the use of seals here.) Seals were carefully chosen and crafted, so a quick Google image search of your favourite medieval person can tell you a lot about how they saw themselves, and what was important to them.

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Finally, the finished message would have had to be sent. If the message was not urgent, it could be sent along by a travelling merchant, or possibly pilgrim passing from one town to another. If the message was urgent, a rider could be dispatched. The fastest message would have required fresh horses at regular intervals, tireless messengers, and cooperative weather to allow for passable roads and fair seas. It would also have required some luck, or possibly an escort, to get a rider past outlaws or interceptors, or (much less excitingly) to assist in the case of an accident or injury. Even the luckiest messenger could take weeks to get from sender to receiver, so many decisions were made and events occurred before a message ever got to its recipient. Since many royals travelled from palace to palace, or place to place on campaign, I imagine a tired messenger could often arrive at his destination, only to find he had further to go.

There is some evidence that, then as now, the fastest way to get a short message across was twitter: that is, birds. The idea of using pigeons as messengers, seems to be one of the many innovations that Western Europe learned from the Arabic East, particularly from their exposure to this while on crusade. (You can learn more about the use of pigeons here.) This would have been an undeniably fast way to get a message in or out of a siege, although trained hawks and archers made this a tricky business.

If nothing else, medieval people had to consider their words and messages very carefully before sending them, which may be another thing modern society can learn from them. If you’d like to read actual letters from the Middle Ages, look for editions of the letters of Abelard and Heloise (medieval lovers), or the Paston family.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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