Travel in the Middle Ages was slow, uncomfortable, and usually dangerous. Today we can travel around 55 miles in one hour. In the Middle Ages, it would have taken a very fast horse over two days to travel the same distance. A few main roads in Europe had been paved by the Romans and remained paved with cobblestones during the Middle Ages. However, most roads were made of dirt that turned into a river of mud when it rained. The paved roads were full of pot holes where peasants had “borrowed” a stone from the road to patch up their homes. The potholes and mud restricted travel to walking, horses, and light two-wheeled carts. Most people walked because horses were very expensive and only the rich could afford them. Any heavy loads were transported on the ocean or by river. Robbers abounded on both sea and land and robbed and killed the unwary. Only very desperate people traveled by night, when the robbers were the most active. Most people didn’t travel at all. Common people sometimes lived their whole lives never traveling more than 10 miles from the place where they were born. The nobility were more mobile, usually moving from castle to castle throughout the course of the year to check on each of their properties. Both peasants and nobles made pilgrimages to various holy places in search of healing, forgiveness, and miracles.

Merchants also traveled a great deal in order to find new commodities to sell. These men usually traveled by sea or by established land routes. No one explored very far away from land, because everyone believed the world was flat and that if they went too far into the ocean they might fall off the edge of the world. No one in Europe knew that America or Australia existed. People did travel around Europe, Africa, and Asia though. Merchants brought back many luxuries from far off places. From Africa, merchants brought slaves, sugar, gold, ivory, and precious stones. From Asia came silk, furs, carpets, and the valuable spices such as pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Crusaders returning from the Holy Land brought exotic goods such as rice, cotton, perfume, mirrors, lemons, and melons. Towards the end of the Middle Ages many regions were making goods such as wine, salt, wool, copper, fish, and timber for sale in other parts of Europe.

Merchants and the sailors that took them to distant lands took great risks in search of things to sell. Bad weather and pirates were constant threats. If a crew was shipwrecked, they had little hope of being rescued as many countries had laws that said all loot recovered from a shipwrecked vessel was the property of the finders, unless there were survivors. Despite these dangers, trade gained popularity during the Middle Ages and trade routes were very busy during the height of the summer.

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