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I'm writing a story set in the medieval era, and it wouldn't be a real medieval story without dealing with the nightmare of the logistics of medieval travel, nor would it be a medieval story without plenty of that said medieval travel. I know that traveling in medieval times was slow, and I've done my fair share of research about it. In every place I've looked for that research, sources always talk about speed in good conditions. But I'm writing a story where characters travel in bad conditions. How much would these conditions slow them down?

The specific example of this is that I'm writing a scene that takes place in the middle of October. Two characters are riding down to a nearby city that is about 45 miles (70 km) away. They each only have one horse, so from my research, the journey would take in good conditions about a day and a half if they stop to sleep through the night. However, this is the day after a rainstorm. While it is no longer raining, the characters are traveling on dirt road that became very muddy after the rain.

I also have some travel scenes in winter. With a large group of people, I'm not sure if my characters would stop for the winter or continue moving. They're walking on foot, and I don't know how the snow would slow them down if they kept moving.

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    $\begingroup$ This study may be helpful. It examines how different terrain types affect walking speed and metabolic expenditure. $\endgroup$
    – Atog
    Jul 25, 2023 at 22:16
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    $\begingroup$ October, October . . . where? Is it Italy, or is it England? Local conditions matter very much, because in medieval and early modern times travel was basically what we would call today cross country; there were no functional roads, except in the first part of the middle ages when some old Roman roads were still somewhat practicable. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 25, 2023 at 23:47
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    $\begingroup$ I'm under the impression that any days-long travel would never be done in the winter unless there was some external urgency. Cold is man's first enemy, and you can see this in art and literature. Military casualties were more from cold and disease than enemy swords, for example. For a story, characters must obey the Gandalf rule: they arrive precisely when they mean to. I think readers are willing to believe a muddy road slowed them down. Good writing makes that a plot point, or an opportunity for character development. If it's just there, that's when it feels weird. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Jul 26, 2023 at 14:04
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP is spot on. In October, it would take me about two days to hike the 78 km from Athens to Corinth in Greece (it’s mostly flat, and even the worst weather there is not bad that time of year). In comparison, the 77 km from Bern to Lucerne in Switzerland would probably take me three days (mountainous terrain, but still mostly reasonable weather), while the 70 km from Kyiv to Fastiv in Ukraine would take at least three days, but more likely four (because in the spring and fall, the ground in the Eastern European Plain is mostly made of very deep mud). $\endgroup$ Jul 26, 2023 at 17:44
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    $\begingroup$ Your question really boils down to "When conditions aren't ideal, precisely how bad are they then?" which is an obviously unanswerable question - whatever circumstance you pick is inherently answering your own question. There is no accurate calculation model for precisely which amount of weather leads to a precise change in local conditions in a specific location based on a specific horse and rider's ability to overcome the difficulties based on a specific sense of urgency to not be slowed down. Pick any specifics that you like and consider if they make reasonable sense for your story. $\endgroup$
    – Flater
    Jul 27, 2023 at 2:03

2 Answers 2

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The reason all your research is based on good conditions is because you can always invoke enough bad conditions to bring travel to a complete stop. If you're looking for hard-and-fast numbers you're going to be disappointed. What kind of horse? Or are you walking in armor? Is it raining? Are we talkin' a light shower or a complete downpour? Is the road made of stone? Grass? Mud? Is the river you need to cross even crossable?

There are thousands of variables — far too many to give you predictable numbers about how much travel will be slowed down. But you don't need them.

Now that you have the best-case numbers, all that's left is to choose based on the needs of your story how much an individual or group must slow down — and then determine what weather conditions you need to rationalize that speed.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 Agree with this - some years back I had a misadventure where I walked into an area, covering about 28 km after a lunchtime start. Two days later I was unable to walk out, even with snowshoes - in my attempt I was able to cover about 6 km in 4 hours before being unable to make any headway over a snowed-in pass and being forced to return to shelter. Worse conditions can make travel varying degrees of slower and more tiring or outright impossible. $\endgroup$ Jul 26, 2023 at 5:06
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    $\begingroup$ Quick note: I've edited out a metaphor that was causing some offense and cleaned up some comments about the situation. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Jul 26, 2023 at 19:51
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    $\begingroup$ Looking at the revision history, I definitely would have considered "prissy little atheist [whatever]" offensive. It's hard to read that as anything but derogatory towards atheists. The context about paraphrasing a quote from a civil war soldier doesn't make it less offensive. Someone with more respectful views toward atheists would not have picked a quote like that. $\endgroup$ Jul 27, 2023 at 1:40
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    $\begingroup$ The response of specific people who personally like you and have reason to interpret your words in a positive light isn't reflective of the general population. Consider asking atheists who don't like you. (And what makes you assume I'm offended on someone else's behalf?) $\endgroup$ Jul 27, 2023 at 2:59
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH The comments were maybe not definitive, but there were flags about the phrase, which is how the thing came to my attention. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Jul 27, 2023 at 13:35
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45 miles is easily achievable in one day on horseback. You could walk that far in two days.

When travelling, people back then would be the same as now when travelling open country. By first light they have already packed and had breakfast, so they start at sunrise, and go on until dusk. The journey is a task they want completed asap, not a sightseeing adventure.

Soldiers like the Roman legions were expected to be able to march 20 miles a day carrying gear and be able to set up a camp afterwards. It's not a huge distance to fit people.

The factors that would mean the most to your speed is what you're carrying with you. If your horse is loaded down, or is an old sickly beast, or dragging a cart, you'll need more time.

Roads are not made of mud, medieval people weren't stupid. They use the easiest paths for the weather. Snow they would use ridges, wet they would use paths over bedrock.

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    $\begingroup$ There are places in Europe where everything is made of mud in autumn and in spring. See raspututitsa. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 25, 2023 at 23:44
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    $\begingroup$ The point is that in large parts of Europe (e.g., the lands called today Belarus, Ukraine, most of western Russia, most of northern Poland, parts of Romania, large parts of Hungary, etc.) there are no ridges, and the bedrock is below hundreds of meters of mud. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 25, 2023 at 23:51
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, that's the land, the Eastern European Plain. In summer and in winter once could travel on horseback easily and quite fast -- there are no significant obstacles. In the eastern and southern parts of the plain there weren't even any large forests to slow down the riders. In mud season, not so much. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 26, 2023 at 0:45
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    $\begingroup$ They don't turn to swamps when it rains; the land is very good agricultural land. They turn to deep (as is many meters deep) mud when it rains for many days, because the clay layer underlying the black soil has poor permeability, and there is very little slope to drain the water. Flat plains do that, it's normal. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 26, 2023 at 0:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Kilisi Would you believe studies done by modern, industrialized militaries? Back in May, the mud-inducing properties of Ukrainian soil and weather, and the effects these would have on troops, were the point of discussion about the war. Armies have struggled with this for centuries, it's simply not possible to move quickly or en masse over this kind of ground during the wet season. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Jul 26, 2023 at 7:16

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