# Realistic travel times for a horse drawn cart in a medieval empire?

So I have a rather large late medieval feudalistic empire that is roughly about the size of South America top to bottom in terms of its radius. Road networks are typically well-maintained between major cities due to their strategic importance.

Legally, the vast majority of the human population are considered subjects of whatever noble rules where they were born and can only leave said noble’s lands with permission. While many do, they are legally required to return to the land of their birth if there is ever a change in leadership (normally due to death).

Assuming news of such important events are spread by messengers on horseback on a well-established relay system rather quickly, how long will it take a slow moving merchant on a horse drawn cart full of heavy goods who needs to stop for market day every weekend to return to their noble's realm in the most extreme cases?

• News would not spread only by horse-and-cart, but by whatever the fastest method is. Horse alone is faster. I don't know much about homing pigeons and such, but I suspect those could be faster in selected situations. In situations where mountains have convenient shapes for it, signals of various kinds could work over tens-of-km type distances. And, of course, sailboats would be the tech for lakes, large rivers, and oceans. Jul 20 at 19:37
• Questions on medieval travel speed have been answered before, e.g. worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/67455/… or reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/205btp/… Jul 20 at 19:50
• A horse-drawn cart would travel at horse walking speed, which is just about the same as human walking speed. Jul 20 at 20:06
• This may be a useful resource for you: orbis.stanford.edu. The Romans were actually faster at getting around, on the whole, than people in the Medieval period, but it's a good approximation for a well-maintained road network. Additionally, the size of your proposed empire is ludicrous, but that's not the question under consideration. Jul 20 at 23:33
• An additional complication is that the merchant will soon run out of goods to trade, if he can't plan his trip along profitable routes, which will typically not be the most direct ones.
– ths
Jul 21 at 12:43

# Years

Using the same assumptions that @Tom did in their answer, but using this example of medieval travel, we have this nugget for a fully loaded wagon:

Trundling along with carts, particularly ones laden with trade goods, might slow down the travelling party. For example, when Margaret, newly minted Duchess of Brabant, decided to move her entire clothing collection to her marital home in 1297, it took the cart eighteen days to travel the first 85 or so miles, from London to Ipswich. (And it took five horses to move the cart even that “speed.”)

That approximates 8km a day. Assuming an as-the-crow-flies 5000km trip, without stopping for market days, that's 625 days' travel. If we assume market days, that becomes 715 days' travel.

And all of this assumes that the roads are fine in all seasons. A winter storm might stop the merchant for weeks, unless he can change his wheels for skids. A summer storm might wash out a road, making it completely impassible and requiring the merchant to backtrack and find another route.

All of this also assumes that the merchant wants to/is impelled to make the trip with as much haste as he can manage while still bringing his wares along. A roundabout route (which will be required anyway, as I doubt there's a straight-as-an-arrow road the length of the empire) with regular stops beyond market day could result in the merchant arriving half a decade or more after receiving notice.

Edit: Additional potential complications

• Sickness (merchant or horse)
• Bandits (he's travelling with goods, and presumably without escort)
• Wagon breakdowns (common on a long journey)
• local conflict
• ... and so on.

If we're assuming the "most extreme case", as indicated in the question, it might be the merchant's kids who arrive, rather than the merchant who initially set out.

My estimate when all goes well: 110-140 weeks, that is roundabout 2.5 years

Opening: "a slow moving merchant on a horse drawn cart full of heavy goods who needs to stop for market day every weekend"

I'll base my calculations on the fact our merchant will do a weekly stop. This makes it convenient, to calculate the time span in weeks, using week travel distance as a starting point.

Going straight and 24/7 with one weekday off: 61 weeks Given our merchant will visit a market to buy and sell goods every week, ideal distance between the villages encountered would be one week travel. According to the other topic a week's travel in medieval times would be about 90-100km max, on foot. Our merchant owns a horse, but his cart is heavy loaded, so it will not allow for much more than that. Assuming one day of market pause per week, let's take 82km/week, travel 61 weeks, that is just over 14 months over 5000km with no unfriendly encounters, no mountains or other obstacles, sunshine 24/7, over perfect roads, all villages aligned straight toward the target, 82km distance between them. A non-existent world.

Travelling salesman over randomly spread villages 90-120 weekly stops Medieval villages will not be on a square grid, let alone be evenly spread. The weekly travel distance (82km) sets the max step travel distance in a travelling salesman map. A travelling salesman simulation will never go straight in one direction, or travel a perfect 82km between villages. In order to avoid direction issues at certain points reached, I used an average distance of about 40km between villages, which is roundabout realistic for European villages having their own market. I found searching for 40-82km week travel distance and setting a target of travel 5000 km away will yield 90-120 market stops, depending on the random map initially generated. One province to travel north-south could look like this,

Note here: using any algorithm to predict human behaviour is risky. Our merchant does not even have a map, he can look at the sun and stars, to determine direction. A medieval merchant will definitely not understand the concept of optimal paths. So this 90-120 weeks assumes the merchant will have a map with my directions !

Winter seasons will cost 20 weeks In a time period of 90-120 weeks, our merchant would have to stay put during winter season, you can't travel a heavly loaded cart through snow on a medieval road. Say each winter season would require a stop of 10 weeks, travel time will become 110-140 weeks.

BUT..

One pitfall exists, with the above question.. you ask for "in the most extreme case". That would make a calculation useless - the merchant could die of illnes, or in a robbery - or at least indeterminate, because we don't know anything about the landscape, or the circumstances of travel. Encountering deserts, lakes, rivers and mountain ranges could involve detours, to reach a passage. Also, bad weather could occur outside winter season. A flood would be devastating for the merchandise ! Having lost all, the merchant would be required to work on farmlands during harvest period, in exchange for food and new goods the farmer provides. The merchant's cart can be broken and require repairs.. In medieval times, a traveler could get stuck in a nearby village for weeks, to replace a wheel. Road blocks like fallen trees could be unsurpassable, resulting in having to travel back to the previous market village and start over, in some sub-optimal direction, on shorter distance.

A nice reference on the topic: https://mythicscribes.com/history/wagons-carts-trucks/

# ~73 days

First, some basic inputs:

• How far is the merchant traveling?

roughly about the size of South America top to bottom in terms of its radius

I came up with a figure of about 5000 km in diameter, judging by google maps.

in the most extreme cases

The most extreme case would be: from one end to the other. So, the full 5000 km.

• How fast does a merchant wagon travel?

A stagecoach traveled at an average speed of about 5 miles per hour (8.0 km/h), with the average daily mileage covered being around 60 to 70 miles (97 to 113 km). source

Furthermore, you said "a slow moving merchant on a horse drawn cart full of heavy goods," so let's take the low end and say the wagon covers 80 km per day of travel.

• How many travel days are there?

You also said, "who needs to stop for market day every weekend."

So, 6 days per week are spent traveling. I'm going to assume the seventh day is spent hawking wares and also taking on supplies (e.g. feed for horses).

## Now let's crunch some numbers

How many travel days does it take to cover 5000 km at 80 km per day?

5000 / 80 = 62.5

(Let's round up to 63 days.)

How many market days are there in a 63-day period?

63 / 7 = 9

So, that's 9 extra days that must be spent traveling (which adds another market day, since 9 > 7).

63 + 10 = 73

None of this takes into account difficult terrain or bad weather. If the merchant is making the trip in the winter, or during a rainy season, it will be slower (possibly very much slower). If there are big mountains to go around or over, it will also be slower. If there are big mountains that must be climbed over in the winter, the merchant may be forced to wait weeks or months for the season to change.

# The news

It may be worth noting that the news of the lord's death would not be spread primarily by slow-moving merchant wagons. It would likely be spread by swift messenger, or by messenger creatures, or even by remote signalling.

So, it's likely that the merchant would not arrive back in the lord's domain until the lord had been dead for at least three months. (I'm spitballing, based on the assumption that the messenger will move faster, and won't stop one day per week.)

• I think 8km/h is wildly optimistic - as has been commented, the movement speed of a laden wagon was generally human walking speed, or ~5km/h. This would suggest a value much closer to 120 days. Stagecoaches generally had fresh horses and supplies ready, and were not the norm in a medieval setting. Jul 21 at 1:04
• Supporting resource: "it took the cart eighteen days to travel the first 85 or so miles, from London to Ipswich. (And it took five horses to move the cart even that “speed.”)" If that's the norm, that's about eight km a day, rather than per hour. Jul 21 at 1:09
• @jdunlop That was a limiting case. A merchant's cart would probably not be as loaded as that spoiled noble's cart. Jul 21 at 14:45
• @NomadMaker - true, but a) the OP suggested the most extreme case, which this is, b) a merchant wouldn't have a five-horse team, and it suitably illustrates the rose-coloured glasses that resulted in the original low estimate. Jul 21 at 17:35
• Stagecoaches were typically designed for carrying relatively light loads as fast as possible across an existing support network, not so much for transporting heavy freight to arbitrary destinations. The better historical comparator might be the Conestoga wagon, which was designed to transport heavy loads over long distances in a more self-sufficient manner, albeit much more slowly. Jul 21 at 18:33

We have some comparable historic data to use: the US westward migrations in the middle of the 19th century. For instance, a bit of searching shows that the Oregon Trail had a length of ~2170 miles/3492 km* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oregon_Trail It took 4-6 months for pioneers carrying their goods in wagons to travel that distance.

Those wagons were often drawn by oxen rather than horses, and the trail was in no sense an improved road, so this should be taken as reasonable estimate of the upper bound for travel time with horses on better roads.

*Approximate because there was no single start or end point.

A medieval empire the size of South America would be vast.

The area of South America is about 17,840,000 km2 (6,890,000 sq mi). According to Wikipedia, the only empires in history larger than that would be the British Empire, the Mongol Empire, and the Russian Empire.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_empires[1]

It would probably also contain large bodies of water which would have different rates to sail across than to travel the same distance on land.

And your ideas about the organization of such a vast medieval empire seem rather simplistic.

Legally, the vast majority of the human population are considered subjects of whatever noble rules where they were born and can only leave said noble’s lands with permission.

Legally, the entire population of the Empire will be subjects of the emperor. And if the empire has feudal lordships, the natives of a fuedal lordship will be subjects of their feudal lord, as well as subjects of the emperor.

But remember, in feudal Europe, most feudal lords of manors were vassals of the local count, and most counts were the vassals of their local dukes and all Dukes were vassals of the king - if they weren't vassals of the king, they were outside his kingdom.

So in a feudal empire, you might suppose that the average peasant was the subject of:

1. his local lord.

2. his count.

3. his duke.

4. his king.

And:

1. The Emperor.

But that is an oversimplified hierarchy considering the vast size of the empire in your story.

According to the Wikipedia list, the Mughal empire around 1700 had only about 4,000,000 square kiometers of land area, only about 0.224 of the aea of South America.

And most of the empire consisted of provinces administered by appointed governors. So you wouldn't think there was much room for vassal kings, and vassals higher than kings. But there were a number of vassal state within the Mughal Empire, just as there were within the British Raj of India.

The Mughal Padishahs grant a number of titles to their Hindu subjects and vassals, including many which were more or less noble ranks. The lowest royal title granted by the Mughals was raja, king, and the ranks of royalty went up from there.

Raja - king.

Raja Bahadur - illustrious king.

Maharaja - great king.

Maharaja Bahadur - illustrious great king.

Sawal Maharaja Bahadur - elevated illustrious great king.

Rajadhiraja - king of kings.

Rajadhiraja Bahadur - illustrious king of kings.

Maharajadhiraja - great king of kings or king of great kings.

Maharajadhiraja Bahadur - illustrious great king of kings or illustrious king of great kings.

also includes examples of Kings of KIngs who were vassals of Roman Emperors. It also mentions that the High King of Medieval Ireland could be considered to be a king of kings of kings of kings.

Your empire is so vast that the various vassal kings should not be subject only to kings of kings. The kings of kings need to be subject to Kings of kings of kings and so on up to the Emperor.

And presumably the Emepror would also be the lord of many lordships, the count of many counties, the duke of many duchies, the king of many kingdoms, and king of kings and king of kings of kings, and so on, in order to have enough areas under his direct rule to maintain his authority over the other kings, kings of kings, kings of kings of kings, etc. in the empire.

Or perhaps the imperial domain at the center of the empire would consist of a region the size of the Roman Empire, for example, directly administered by appointed officials at various levels, with tax collection to support a well trained and well equpped army of hundreds of thosuands of men, more powerfull that all the feudal levies of the vassal kings, kings of kings, kings of kings of kings, etc. combined.

So an ordinary peasant in your empire might be the subject of many different levels of lords and kings up to the Emperor. And with that many levels of persons the peasant is a subject of, one of them would die and be succeeded about every other year. So you need to restrict the number of levels of lords that a person would be obligated to return home every time a new lord inherited. Otherwise your traveler would have to return to the headquarters place of some lord above him about every other year.

And medieval European peasants had several different legal and social classes.

Some peasants were slaves, the personal property of the lord of their manor, and could be bought and sold. Some peasants were serfs, who were legally tied to the manor, and whose relationship with their lard was a matter of the feudal customs, sometimes open to negotiation. Other peasants were free persons who rented lands owned by the lord of the manor and had more freedom to negotiate terms with him.

And it was perfectly possible for peasants to be free persons owning their land, which would not be part of any manor, and so they were only subordinate to whoever had political and legal jurisdiction in their region. Many peasants did own their land.

And medieval empires varied in how urbanized they were, but most had a number of towns and cities with populations who were not subject to any feudal lord.

So what social class of person would be most likely to become a travelling merchant?

A free resident of a town would be the most likely, And a younger son of a free land-owning peasant who wouldn't inherit his father's farm would be the next most likely, and so on down to least likely, a slave. Any sort of serf with many legal obligations to his lord would be the second least likely class of person to become a merchant.

So you need to create a special (and very small if your society is like Medieval Europe) class of persons for your story, who are sort of slaves or serfs of a feudal lord, and have many obligations to that lord, but for some reason have permission to travel extensively, with an obligation to return periodically to account for their doings on their travels, and to return when the lord dies and swear allegiance to his heir, the new lord, and renew their permission to travel.

And they should face legal penalities for failure to return within a specified time. Those might be civil penalties or criminal penalities for their relatives remaining at the manor. And your particular character may have family members at home who would face exceptionally harsh and severe punishment if your character failed to return in time, due to some very special circumstances such as a crime, punishable by death by torture, which a relative has been convicted of, with the punishment deferred as long as the traveller fulfills all his obligations including returning in time when required.

Perhaps the character's role of a merchant is just a cover for some secret mission(s) he carries out for his lord, though he is free to make a profit from it if he can.

• Thanks for the rather detailed comment! Yes considering the size of the empire and the inevitable layers of vassalage I think it be a complete nightmare to have person to have to return every time there a change in the structure above them. I think for the sake of legal sanity I think I have it as a strictly one layer above set up, through you can bet those higher in the chain of authority might have a say in the renewal process now and again. Jul 21 at 21:13
• This is really detailed, but doesn't answer the question. Is this a frame challenge? Jul 22 at 22:23
• @jdunlop It is sort of a cross between an anwer and a frame challange. It is an answer in so far as it gives advice, and a frame challenge in so far as it points out that the question assumes an oversimpliefied administration of such a vast empire, as well as oversimplified social classes. Jul 24 at 16:23

Someone asked a similar question years ago, I suspect you might find the answers useful. For efficient information dissemination, I assume a fast courier would bring the news to some sort of carrier pigeon aviary, where it would be copied, and then sent out on each carrier pigeon, where the news would then be sent out via couriers or town criers.