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I'd like to have a realistic idea of how, and how accurately, ordinary people in a rural low-tech (medieval-equivalent) setting should expect to hear news from outside their own communities. If you don't personally travel (which, I believe, most did not in our own medieval period), by what means does the news come to you? How quickly does the regional rumor mill operate, and how accurate does it tend to be? How (or does) it vary by the type of news, e.g. news from the distant royal court versus news about widespread illness three towns away?

Please assume a social structure and population distribution comparable to that of historical Earth. If you can base an answer on our own history, great. Otherwise, please explain your reasoning.

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  • $\begingroup$ I believe, but don't have references handy to support it which is why I'm making this a comment, that most news were delivered through the church. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Sep 16 '14 at 19:04
  • $\begingroup$ Also, are you concerned with news reporting accuracy (similarity with actual events that took place and are being reported about) or precision in transfer (degree of change between first told and as delivered to individual citizens)? Or both? $\endgroup$ – a CVn Sep 16 '14 at 19:06
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling oh, thanks -- I was thinking of precision in transfer, but really, both are relevant since fact-checking would be hard. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Sep 16 '14 at 19:36
  • $\begingroup$ Semi-relevant: How long did it take for a letter to arrive in England in the 1830s? on History. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Nov 30 '15 at 12:23
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It depends on the type of the information.

  • The maximum speed of official documents was the speed an envoy could travel at on horseback. If the news were deemed important to the general population (new laws, a new king, etc.) they would be announced by town criers or priests.

  • Carrier pigeons were used in the Crusades, but it's not something the common villagers would have access to.

  • General knowledge (how other countries look like, what other cultures exist, what interesting events like a battle, a plague, an earthquake etc. happened) traveled much slower, as it was spread by traveling merchants, armies, or peasants returning home to their village from a military service.

  • While you can send full textual information via semaphore signals, it wasn't widespread until the late 18th century. It was pretty fast, the message delay was about 6 minutes for the Paris-Strasbourg distance (approx. 360 km air distance), but it took one minute for each letter. I included this because even though it wasn't used in the middle ages, the technology for it existed, so a fictional world with the same level of technology can make use of it. Simpler versions of this were probably used even in antiquity, to raise an alarm, etc.

  • Similar to the semaphore line, there was a system of communication which was used in medieval Europe: lone trees on hilltops set on fire to warn of an enemy invasion. This might interest you as you asked for news between common people. The limitation of this is that a communication about the meaning of the fire must be agreed with beforehand, so no specific messages can be sent. Just something like "We already know there are bandits roaming the countryside, so if the shepherds in the mountains see them, they can make a big fire so people in the village see it and can hide their valuables in the forest." I faintly remember it being used in at least one peasant revolt, to synchronize all the revolts across the country. If they don't revolt at the same time, the nobles can easily defeat them one at a time. The method is simple: if you see a large fire on the top of a distant hill, you go and light a fire on the top of the nearest hill.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for semaphore. A fictional example is the clacks system in the Discworld novels. There's no reason why a well-organised ancient or medieval empire like the Romans couldn't build one, if it occurred to them and they really wanted to send messages that quickly. $\endgroup$ – Royal Canadian Bandit Nov 3 '14 at 9:52
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    $\begingroup$ Indeed, although semaphore isn't great for long messages, and prior to decent optics (telesopes etc) it didn't have that great a range, nor was it useful in bad weather or at night. It would still likely be faster than a horse in good conditions, but not necessarily. $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Dec 12 '14 at 11:06
  • $\begingroup$ Expanding on your "fires on hilltops": the Byzantine empire (800 AD) had an advanced version, where they had agreed on 12 different signals between Thessalonica and Cilica (~1200 km). If the fires were lit at 1 am, the message was "war", at 2 am the message was "arson", etc. See here: mgh-bibliothek.de/dokumente/a/a062296.pdf $\endgroup$ – semi-extrinsic Dec 12 '14 at 18:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Wingman4l7 The Persians used waterclocks with high accuracy already in 500 BC. Sundials were also popular and quite accurate, and they were used as early as 1500 BC . Wikipedia has a good article: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_timekeeping_devices $\endgroup$ – semi-extrinsic Dec 16 '15 at 12:24
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    $\begingroup$ Concerning your last point: There is the tradition of "Höhenfeuer" in Switzerland. It is said to have its root in the use of such fires to signal the beginning of the revolution in 1291. A German source (dating it only to 1529 yet it is known from Roman times already) is found here: luzernerzeitung.ch/nachrichten/schweiz/… $\endgroup$ – Patric Hartmann Apr 10 '17 at 19:03
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I'm pretty sure, that no matter which form of "news transmission" you pick, you'll always be tied to speed of typical horseback riding, if we're speaking about medieval Europe or a virtual, fantasy world with the same level and stage of development.

Whether it will be a diplomatic letters exchange, gossips traveling with traders or news brought by wandering mercenaries, it will always be able to travel no faster than riding a horse. Much often, slower. Simply, because people hadn't found a faster way of transportation at that times.

I think, we may assume, that a typical messenger, soldier, mercenary or trader can ride a horse for approximately ten consecutive hours (twelve hours or more or from dawn till dusk, but including few hours for horse and rider rest). This is the first factor (time), you can use in estimation for an answer to your question.

There are many sources (like this, this or this), that are trying to estimate how far can a typical horse travel. This, of course, highly depends on type of horse ride, whether you can change horses during one-day travel, what kind of horse do you have (how old it is) and what kind of terrain you're traveling etc., etc. A loose estimates from above mentioned answers seems to suggest, that you can expect from 20-30 miles per day for a leisure type of traveling or fast-moving travel in hilly terrain to 40-50+ miles per day in extreme fast travels, with changing horses, pushing them to limits and making very little or no rests.

Basing on these calculations, you may widely assume, that if city A is in distance of 100 miles from city B, news will need 3-5 days to reach.

These are very wide assumptions, that does not include other factors (how urgent message is -- from critical to gossip, if there will be immediate message spread or just by accident news spread etc. etc.). So, I think, you can use my answer just as a base for further research.

Ancient Persians

Edit (Nov 3 '14): As per Bobson's comment about Persian Royal Road: "Mounted couriers could travel 1677 miles (2699 km) in seven days". This gives us an hardly to belive (yet verified) value of 385 kilometers (239 miles) per one day of message travel in ancient Persia, 5 centuries before Christ and around 10-15 centuries before so called Middle Ages (depending on what point of Middle Ages history one thinks).

Ancient Egyptians

Edit (Sep 27 '15): Basing on information provided in "Pharaoh" book, by the Polish writer Bolesław Prus, message travelling from Wadi El Natrun (Google Maps, Wikipedia) to ancient Thebes (Google Maps, Wikipedia), that is on distance of 755 km / 470 miles, there and back (so 1510 km / 940 miles in total), would take 24 hours. Excluding just one hour for writing message and answer and exchanging messengers, that gives a hard to believe (in terms of ancient Egypt, around 1000 B.C.) speed of 65 km/h or 40 mph. There is absolutely no information on what kind of animal or other meaning of transportation ancient Egypt's messengers were using (I assume, they were using horses after all).

The same source few pages laters claims, that distance from mentioned Wadi El Natrun (Google Maps, Wikipedia) to ancient Memphis (Google Maps, Wikipedia), that is 151 km or 94 miles can be travelled on horse, by working trot within five hours.

Original question is about medieval Europe, about 1500-2000 years later than mentioned example. But since development of ancient Egypt was more or less equal to development of medieval Europe, I think we can skip that years difference.

And...

Edit (Dec 15 '15): ...there also are magical horses, since we're discussing the matter on Worldbuilding.se.

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    $\begingroup$ Some news could travel much much faster than that - like at very close to light speed; signal fires at night are very fast to transmit very basic information like an attack. $\endgroup$ – Nick Wilde Sep 16 '14 at 21:46
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    $\begingroup$ For what it's worth, ocean travel is much faster than horseback, when there is a viable water route. Also, the Persians did, in fact, have a relay system on the Royal Road, an idea which the later Roman Empire borrowed. Not relevant to the question, but they did exist and were (at one time) known in Europe. $\endgroup$ – Bobson Sep 17 '14 at 3:06
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    $\begingroup$ Don't forget messenger pigeons. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Sep 17 '14 at 8:18
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    $\begingroup$ @trejder the signal itself between points moves at light speed (adjusted for atmosphere etc.) prepping/receiving it takes time; just like the time it takes for a horseman to dismount walk up the castle steps and tell the lord. But yes that was somewhat of a exaggeration. $\endgroup$ – Nick Wilde Sep 17 '14 at 21:50
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    $\begingroup$ @trejder maybe I misunderstood you. I've been assuming that a wandering mercenary or traveling trader isn't only focused on traveling -- he might make stops along the way, or take a circuitous route. That's different from messengers whose goal is to get to the destination. I have an unverified suspicion that most news traveled by side-effect, not by direct route, so could take rather longer. But I might be way off, hence my question. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Sep 17 '14 at 21:53
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I've found the ORBIS site to be useful in estimating travel times. While this site focuses on the Roman era, The travel times are probably fairly equivalent in the medieval period as well.

For example, the fastest travel form Roma (present day Rome) to Londinium (present day London) was 9.2 days covering 2018 km.

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I did not read the whole comment section of Trejder´s answer, but i want to point on the

GREAT CHINESE WALL

As one of the fastest ways to communicate when not the fastest way in the times before the telegraph.

If a Mongol or some other rival Tribe was in sight, the nearer Tower lights it Signal fire. all Tower that sees that fire en light their own until the fire reaches a castle or fortification. There the troops are stationed and will eminently go where the Fire line started.

In Fantasy - the beacon of Rohan in the Lord of the Rings are the same.

So its not quite Europe but this would totally be possible in the woods of Germania or on the Limes of the Romes.

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    $\begingroup$ The problem with this is that it's limited to very simple messages; in this case, "the enemy is in sight". For some purposes that is perfectly sufficient, but I'm not sure it really counts as an answer to the question of how quickly and accurately news travels in a rural medieval setting. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Sep 25 '14 at 8:14
  • $\begingroup$ @ Michael Kjörling: Replace the Fire with Banners of different kind and you have more than the Massage "here is a attack". $\endgroup$ – Fulli Sep 25 '14 at 8:15
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    $\begingroup$ While true in a sense, that still rather severely restricts the type of messages that can be conveyed. I get the distinct feeling that the OP is looking for general news transfer. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Sep 25 '14 at 9:11
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the input. As Michael noted, this is more of an "alert" system, and is what the Chinese wall used it for. I'm interested in news more generally, as noted in the question where I ask about different types. Can you edit this to cover the broader topic? $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Oct 1 '14 at 15:27
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As I’ve heared in the past the millers in windmills have had implemented some basic semaphore system. As there were many wind driven mills in former days and the millers could see some mills around from the tops of their own mill, they used it in times when no wind was blowing to exchange some news. There were flag signals in how to position the sails, such as to say “the king died” or “pest broke out”. There should have been a communication network all over northern europe. Maybe this is one reason that millers were outlaws and seen as to be in contact with the devil…

Well, I only heard this story once and have no proof for it by now—though I would be interested in some—neither I know if this already existed in the middleages or came up later, nor if it is true at all, nor how many flag signals ever existed.

The main limiting aspect of this communication channel is that there must be time without wind (or without work to do) for the millers to misuse their mill for communications. However, all along the time of daylight, there are often time slots where there is not enaugh wind for a windmill to operate. One more aspect, millers are part of the rural world, not the governing, so they may be better to communicate without political censorship. People came to a mill probably every three (or at least six) weeks, since floor isn’t that well storable.

Even if it is only a tale, it may inspire anyone for fictional literature.

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