Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of 24 historical fiction and non-fiction works and the winner of more than 53 literary accolades. More than 34,000 copies of her books have been sold. For a complete list of her books and awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Physical Factors in Historical Fiction: Distance by Land

 When writing historical fiction, one of the challenges is recognizing (and remembering) that even objective and measurable physical factors such as distance, heat or light, impacted people differently in different historical periods. Today I start a five part series looking at such factors.

Today I look at distance, specifically distance over land.

Since the introduction of telecommunications, the internet and social media, people have obtained the means to communicate directly and instantly with complete strangers located almost anywhere on the globe. Indeed, we can communicate with people who do not even share a common language by means of translation programs. This is an incredible and marvelous development ― and a very recent one.

For all books which carry the rubric “historical fiction” ― i.e. books set in ages beyond the range of living memory ― interaction between humans was limited and defined by the physical distance between them. For books set before the invention of the telephone and telegraph, this meant that all communication was either direct ― within the range of the human voice and eye ― or dependent on means of transport by which letters or oral messages could be delivered to someone not within hearing/sight.

Because direct communication by voice and sign language is still part of our repertoire (at least for now, although some would argue the art of direct conversation is dying out in favor of everyone typing on their iPhones), it poses little challenge. Indirect communication, on the other hand, is often a challenge for a historical novelist.

How does a character living in, say, the 12th century get a message to his brother (lover, lord, servant, business partner etc.) who happens to be in a different city, country, or continent? No telephone, no telegraph, no email, no Facebook. Back to written letters ― assuming the sender and recipient are both literate, which in the 12th century might, or might not, be probable depending on class and location.

Assuming the characters can write, then a letter could be sent, but not by mail. It would have to be entrusted to someone. Depending on how private, sensitive or urgent the message is, the sender would have to select a messenger. Handing a routine letter to a passing peddler might work for some kinds of messages, but hardly a missive to an illicit lover or a warning of a possible arrest to a co-conspirator in treason. Depending on the importance and intimacy of the message then, a messenger might need to be paid and trusted highly, with all the complications this entails.

Assuming the characters cannot write, the situation is even more complicated because they would have to share their message ― no matter how delicate, private or potentially incriminating ― with someone else: either a scribe who could write the letter or a person, who would deliver it verbally for them.

In short, something very simple today (make a call, send an email) can become very complicated in a different time period ― and that even without considering the distance involved. Sending a message to the next village is one thing, from London to York another, or sending it from England to France something else again, while sending it from Norway to Constantinople or from Sicily to Alexandria etc. etc. etc. entails difficulties on a totally different scale altogether.

Messages at least were light weight (or weightless if oral), but travel entailed moving a body and usually some amount of luggage over distances. We all know what a hassle travel is: packing suitcases, manhandling them in and out of cars, or worse lugging them to check-in counters for buses, trains and planes, and then being packed in like sardines…. But nowadays we can travel to the other side of the world in 48 hours, even allowing for changing planes and transit stops. We can travel across continents even by ground transportation in four or five days. But any book set in a period more than 200 years ago entails returning to an age where the speed of ground transportation was limited by the speed one could travel by foot or horse.

Furthermore, this is not a simple matter of multiplying the pace a man can walk in an hour by the number of miles the character wishes to travel because roads were not consistently good and terrain impacts the average speed of both man or horse. We are too used to simply pressing harder on the accelerator when going uphill to fully appreciate the impact of terrain. Hiking cross-country in rugged countryside is extremely educational for a historical novelist!

Given the fact that horses were the principle form of transportation for those who could afford them even back in the age of Greece and Rome, understanding about horses, their needs, weaknesses and limitations is also useful for a novelist whose books are set before the age of the internal combustion engine. (Horses remained the primarily means of transport long after the invention of the steam engine.) Horses, contrary to the descriptions of many writers of historical fiction, vary greatly in terms of temperament, capability and character. They are not like cars. They do not just start and go at the turn of a key. They can be ornery, dangerous, lazy, loyal, vicious, nervy, etc. etc. I wish I had a dollar for every reference to horses in fiction that is utterly implausible.

Equally important: not everyone can get on a horse and ride it. There are some horses that anyone can ride ― but they are rarely fast, willing or intelligent. There are also skilled riders who can ride any horse. But the vast majority of people require some training and practice before they can do more than sit on a quiet, biddable horse at a walk. If a character is going to be riding even at a trot, much less a canter or gallop, or be fighting on horseback, then the character needs to have had corresponding amounts of time to learn how to control a horse during those various activities. 

Please note: the 13th century historian and legal counsellor Philip de Novare claimed that “... he will never ride well who did not learn it when young.”[i] Again, a dollar for all the implausible scenes involving horses and riders would make me a wealthy woman!

And then there are vehicles drawn by draught animals. In ancient times there were chariots with two, three or four horses side-by-side but only a platform balanced between two wheels for humans ― not a form of transport for long distances, women and children. By the 19th century there were, of course, a whole range of vehicles from carts to carriages (and all the variations in between that readers of Jane Austin will know.) These included two and four wheel vehicles drawn by anything from one to eight horses.

The problem is that countless authors of historical fiction don’t bother to do even cursory research about these vehicles and blithely assume that “carriages” existed forever. No. Carriages didn’t evolve from more primitive carts and wagons until the 16th century ― and then only in an early form. It was not until the 17th century that covered vehicles for passengers pulled by teams of horses came into use. Furthermore, the development of wagon brakes, swivel axles, and harness for the drought horses was likewise slow and incremental, meaning that depending upon what period one is writing about the level of development in wheeled transport could have been very different ― with dramatic impact on the speed at which these vehicles could travel, the type of cargoes they could carry, the level of comfort for passengers, and the kind of terrain they could cover. A novelist should not assume that a 12th century cart, for example, could cross a swamp or go through snow or navigate in narrow medieval streets.

Join me next week when I look at travel by sea.  

Meanwhile, for readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and characters based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

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[i] Prawer, Joshua. “Social Classes in the Latin Kingdom: the Franks,” Zacour, Norman P. and Harry Hazard, A History of the Crusades Volume Five: The Impact of the Crusades on the Near East. University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, pp. 124-125


  1. Dr. Schrader,
    very interesting post!
    when you write - Carriages didn’t evolve from more primitive carts and wagons until the 16th century ― and then only in an early form. It was not until the 17th century that covered vehicles for passengers pulled by teams of horses came into use - you mean the vehicles for hire offering individual passenger a seat or space - like a coach?
    Or general covered vehicles for travel?
    In the context of East-Central Europe late 14th century Jagiellonian kings and queens had at their disposal covered (with glass windows), suspended vehicles pulled by teams of horses. By then Italian kingdoms and papal states already had its carriage called 'caretta,' while in the Holy Roman empire it was a Kobelwagen, in France Dameret, in Polish realm a kolebka (colebca), while the steppe people already had their vehicles for thousands of years. And other carriage wagons came into play during this time. They were all driven from horseback, one of the team's horse was saddled with a driver who sat astride the animal and drove the wagon etc.

    1. There were indeed a variety of covered vehicles available in earlier centuries, but my sources said that while the carriage proper evolved out of these earlier vehicles that they did not meet the criteria of a "carriage." I believe a number of factors determine what is a carriage, including suspension (as you mentioned) swivel axles, brakes, purpose (for passengers only), enclosure, the harness used etc. Without knowing the exact characteristics of the vehicles you refer to, I'm not able to even suggest a reason why experts do not consider them "carriages."

  2. Noooo! Say it ain't so! LOL

    I covered something similar in one of my blog posts, quoting from "1066, The Year of Conquest." A completely different world from the one we live in.

    Another great article I intend to quote and reference, Professor. thanks!

  3. Thank you for this very interesting post. Can I just point out that you mean 'draught' animals.

  4. I always like your writing, and find it useful and informative. This time, however, i am afraid that i will have to partially disagree with you regarding carriages, and suggest you do some more research on the topic. It is true that the grand vehicles of the 17th century and later did not exist in the medieval past, but there were still grand vehicles with gold, carvings, bright paint, brocade fabric etc. etc. They followed the basic forms of wagons, but their decoration and equipment was far more sumptuous. You can begin by looking at an extremely elaborate carriage designed by Albrecht Duerer at the turn of the 16th century. Then consider the remains of a carriage belonging to (i believe) Emperor Maximilian of the 15th century. (Just going from memory here on things i have seen, cant remember what museum it is, or the exact date, but i think mid century) You could then look at a couple of paintings by Gioto which show carriages with carved paneled sides. (and keep in mind that anything in painted art from the 14th century is more simple than that which it was meant to convey. That is the end of the illustrated examples, but there are also written records. Theopholis mentions "8 man carrying chairs" which are carved, gilded and painted. I do not think it would be a stretch to assume that if a sedan chair was carved, painted and gilt that anyone would ride in a clumsy unadorned wagon. Lastly, look back to pre-medieval Celtic times and have a look at the Dejbjerg Wagon, or the early Viking age wagon of the Osberg burial and one can see that elaborate carriages have always existed, even if not slung from leather or metal springs, or having had glass enclosed velour upholstered compartments.