There are basically no non-sentient lifeforms of a size that could, and would be willing to, pull wagons from city to city.

The only lifeforms that physically could, are sapient.

Medieval, so no trains.

The only realistic alternative I see is using ships and boats.

Convenient and non-taxing transport for people is also a factor, and seems to fall into the same alternatives.

I imagine this would make a Venice-like canal city a more likely; Intra-city transport would effectively require the canals, no?

(The ecological effects of not having the multitude of lifeforms performing the various roles (Bees, for instance), are hand waved, so not part of the question)

I am somewhat uncertain if this is even an appropriate question.

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    $\begingroup$ Not exactly relevant to answering your question but, there are also no non-sentient lifeforms that can pull wagons from city to city in the real world. I'm assuming you mean sapient, not sentient. $\endgroup$
    – AngelPray
    Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 11:26
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    $\begingroup$ Do people count as beasts of burden? $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 13:12
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    $\begingroup$ If there are no beasts of burden in your world, you have a problem that is bigger than, and previous to, transportation: plowing. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 16:10
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    $\begingroup$ What would people eat? Cattle are bread for milk and meat but they also pull carts and plows. Goats area a replacement but I have seen pictures of them pulling carts. So, how small do the food animals have to be? $\endgroup$
    – ShadoCat
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 1:54
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    $\begingroup$ The canal network in England actually required at least one horse per boat to help pull the canalboats before boat engines where invented/designed. They walked along the footpath/towpath and towed the boats and were actually required to avoid the boats overturning/missing the turn on really sharp turns and I think also to travel upriver. There are stories of the towropes breaking or horses collapsing and the boats being lost (with loss of goods and sometimes deaths as well). $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 8:18

11 Answers 11


You are kind of answering your own question.

Human labor is the only possibility you did not exclude by your world setting.

Historically we have been using either machines, animals or manual labor to accomplish tasks like these. Since it's medieval times machinery is off the table. Animals are off the table too, because of your world design. So there is just human labor left. (This could be slaves for example.)

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    $\begingroup$ My first thought as well, slaves/serfs would be a normal thing in a medieval setting. $\endgroup$
    – Khris
    Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 12:34
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    $\begingroup$ SLAVERY!!!!!!!! -is all I wanted to answer $\endgroup$
    – anon
    Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 13:07
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    $\begingroup$ Even without slavery... there are still pulled rickshaws today (although fairly recently they have been replaced by cycle rickshaws in most places--but the places where they haven't offer some good ideas for what kind of conditions make this practical/useful). (See also: Mistwalker by Denise Lopes Heald.) $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 15:48
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure machines are entirely off the table. In a world without beasts of burden, it's possible certain types of a machinery would be developed much earlier/faster. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 20:09
  • $\begingroup$ Machinery in the beginning of medieval times were really, really primitive and not capable of that. So even if the end of medieval times is negotiable, the beginning of it is not. There is no available machinery there and the problem persists in that time. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 20:12

There are plenty of historical societies that didn't have beasts of burden: anybody in the Americas south of dog-travois or outside of llama territory, or Africa south of horses, and Australia and New Guinea. My understanding is that anybody who built big things or moved things over long distances had to use human labor. There wasn't any other way to solve those problems than "throw more peasants at it."

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    $\begingroup$ In Africa south of camels, I would think? $\endgroup$
    – njuffa
    Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 18:48
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    $\begingroup$ And in the Americas south of llamas, I suppose. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 22:15
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    $\begingroup$ We ate ours in Australia, and emus are damned hard to round up $\endgroup$
    – user19252
    Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 23:10
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    $\begingroup$ Whoops! I was wrong about llamas. But sub-Saharan horses are a thing. And Australia is good evidence for the fact that you might have lots of large animals around, but they just aren't domesticatable. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 7:17
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    $\begingroup$ You had me at "Throw more peasants at it" Solves all range of problems, from dragons to transportation. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 15:34

Your question contains a false assumption about medieval transport, namely that it primarily featured beasts of burden and carts. This is very much incorrect.

The first thing you have to remember is that there were no roads between cities. Not as we understand them, not as the Romans would have understood them, and barely even as good as a farm track or a logging trail today. Carts were practical for local transport around the farm or village, and perhaps to the next village along. Travelling any significant distance though was unbelievably difficult. Moreover, it took some time before medieval Europe had enough horses to spare for a farmer to be able to afford them, and draft oxen are slow creatures.

Any significant transport therefore went by water. Whether this was down rivers or along the coast, basically anything or anyone going any distance used boats. As the Industrial Revolution took off, this continued into canals. Steam engines took over somewhat later, of course. Roads did improve in the 19th century, so a carriage had a better-than-average chance of actually arriving at its destination. But it wasn't until well into the 20th century that roads became a truly practical proposition, and that was driven by cars.

So, you're looking at the same kind of transport structures as medieval Europe. Every city and major town will be on a navigable river or by the sea. Your medieval society doesn't have the technology to build canals, so they're limited to existing rivers.

  • $\begingroup$ I did mention ships and boats in the description. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ @MartinArrJay Fair enough, you did. But you also mentioned pulling wagons from city to city, and medieval people simply did not do this. A travelling tinker would take a cart from village to village, but that was about it. The only significant user of wagons over distances was the military, and they had the manpower to build roads ahead of the baggage train or to physically lift wagons around/over obstacles. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 10:48
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    $\begingroup$ There was a glass industry in the Black Forest in the medieval and post-medieval period. The normal way of transporting the glass for sale was in large wooden rucksacks. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 15:48
  • $\begingroup$ @MartinBonner Cool, I didn't know that. :) It makes sense - legs can tackle that terrain much more easily. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Commented Nov 13, 2017 at 11:39

Steam engines. The first steam engine was developed well before medieval times. However with the prevalence of slave labor and beasts of burden there was no great practical application at the time. Lacking that however, there might be a greater impetuous to put it to work.


  • $\begingroup$ This kind of motor isn't powerful enough to power a cart. You need to wait progress with metal work to achieve a steam engine who can sustain such an high pressure, to be energetic enough. $\endgroup$
    – Cailloumax
    Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 17:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Cailloumax your correct, this initial design is not powerfull enough. But an inteligent society without other options for manual labor might be motivated to evolve this into a productive steam engine. $\endgroup$
    – PCSgtL
    Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 17:25
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    $\begingroup$ You can make Stirling engine out of a wooden barrel and a crude piece of brass. And it will work just fine. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 15:43
  • $\begingroup$ @BarafuAlbino, but does it have enough power to drive a cart carrying its own weight? $\endgroup$
    – The Photon
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 18:47
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    $\begingroup$ Absolutely. They are more efficient than piston steam engines that people actually used. But they are huge and clunky, which is why they did not use them on transport. However, if no other option available, they would work. It is like leather armor: people never used it in reality not because it was bad, but because they always had better options. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 23:07

One alternative not yet considered, depending on the nature and size of the sentient 'life forms' is that they, themselves, observe the need for the transport of materiel or other species and choose to to offer their services, for profit, as hauliers.

  • $\begingroup$ How exactly do you think that will happen? Why would an intelligent creature that can work on command not be able to be domesticated? The description said anything big enough is too hostile. Your answer is implausible in the context of the question. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 9:08
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    $\begingroup$ The question states, in relation to the creatures' size: "The only lifeforms that physically could, are sapient." there's no mention of hostility, only sentience. These creatures cannot be 'domesticated' because that would, from my reading of the question, be tantamount to enslavement. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 13:44

This is going to depend on how big/heavy the load is, and what terrain you want to transport it over.

Smaller loads (less than 100 kilos?) over broken terrain, some people just carry it (think of the stereotypical image of a 19th century expedition with pairs of porters carrying supplies through the jungle on a pole over their shoulders).

If there is some kind of path, put it on a wheelbarrow. A central-wheel design puts all the weight on the wheel so the person essentially only needs to steer and push. Here is a great write-up of wheelbarrow transport. The path only need be as wide as a walking path, not a full wagon-width, but it does need to be hard and smooth enough for a big wheel to traverse.

Bigger roads could handle wagons pulled by people in order to move bigger cargo. The really heavy loads (more than a few hundred kilos) will need to be transported by barge. If the terrain is suitable, either from slow-moving rivers or if canals could be dug, a barge is the overwhelmingly the best mode of transport in terms of weight capacity and energy required to move it (can be pulled along by someone on an adjacent walking path or punted along with a stick). Unfortunately digging canals is extremely labor-intensive, which is why natural waterways are one of the biggest influences on where cities developed. Water transport is overwhelmingly useful.


Beside the already mentioned solutions, if winters are cold enough, people could transport goods using sledges. It'll require humans to provide the labour, but you can transport more goods than carrying it.

It may also mean trade happens more in some parts of the world than in others.


Then what question are you really asking? Alternative forms of travel and transport than boats, or are you asking what life would be like if society was based on a city like Venice?

Canal based cities are a possibility, but there are many other factors that you should be aware of:

City Life:

I visited Venice once. It is a very beautiful city with lots of canals, bridges, etc, but the old town which everyone thinks about is actually only a small area of a couple of square miles. I could not imagine what a large sprawling city like Los Angeles would look like if there were canals instead of streets and rivers instead of freeways.

  • Major cities are limited to the coast (tidal?), river banks and man-made aqueducts
  • Flooding may be a constant threat (buildings should be made of stone and first floor of buildings should be dry-season use only)
  • Buildings may not be very tall either (Venice only has a few buildings taller than 3 or 4 stories and they have a problem with sinking)
  • Drought may also be a major disruptor to inland trade and travel
  • Locks and dams to keep water from flowing downstream will cause stagnation, foul smells, pests, and disease
  • Water-born diseases (without clean drinkable water an illness started upstream might devastate an entire nation)
  • Trash may pile up
  • People will be starkly divided into haves and havenots
  • Gangs and thugs will be a constant problem (lots of hideaways, that even police will have a hard time keeping control)

Resource Gathering

  • Vegetable farms would be small plots that are close to navigable water (the issue is not whether the land is fertile, but rather getting the harvested crop to buyers)
  • Grains and breads could only be afforded by the middle and upper classes
  • Because of supply and demand, farm owners will be one of the richest individuals in society
  • Rooftop gardens would be very common (unless town is often affected by storms)
  • Fish would be primarily the source of food for the city poor
  • Red meat will be extremely scarce as many of our beasts of burden are also our food supply (ox, horse, deer, etc)
  • Trappers and hunters may provide a high demand product, but it would be difficult to get the meat to the city while still fresh (more likely only the skins are sent)
  • Possible to have rabbit and chicken farms, but feeding them would be expensive (wild chickens and rabbits outside the city might be a good industry for orphans)


  • Areas away from any navigable source of water would be considered barbarian and wild
  • Those that live outside of the cities would be feared
  • War between nations are mostly limited to navy
  • Assaults on cities can be controlled by a few well guarded access points
  • An overland army march from out of the wilds would catch everyone by surprise (but keeping army fed would be extremely difficult)

Original Answer:

Ants can lift 1000x their own weight.

So build a "sled" that rests on "giant" ants (the size rats). The ants are bred and have the queen installed inside the sled to communicate navigation.

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    $\begingroup$ The point is kinda that no such animals exist. Adding them would be counter to the whole concept $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 22:13
  • $\begingroup$ @MartinArrJay Your question was that there were no large beasts that could be used; and infers that the only possible solutions remaining are nautical based or human slave labor. I thought you were looking for other creative methods beyond those. $\endgroup$
    – Phil M
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 1:18
  • $\begingroup$ Ants can carry 1000x their own weight because they are tiny. Scale them up to the size of rats, and they will be no stronger than rats (in fact, they will be dead, because they rely on diffusion to get the oxygen into the centre of their bodies). Search for "the square cube law", and read "On being the right size" by J B S Haldane. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 15:52
  • $\begingroup$ A sprawling city like Los Angeles could not possibly exist in an early medieval setting. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 15, 2021 at 22:51

Canals; bah. Slave-drawn wagons; Ho. Hum. What else??

I propose dirigibles.


In 1850, another Frenchmen, Pierre Jullien of Villejuif, demonstrated a cigar-shaped model airship at the Paris Hippodrome. The airship's rudder, elevator, and gondola were mounted under the front part of the balloon. A clockwork motor that drove two airscrews mounted on either side of a center line propelled the airship. A light wire frame stiffened by a truss maintained the bag's form. Jullien was onto something that another man would leverage.

Jules Henri Giffard, a French engineer and inventor, took note of Jullien's design. He built the first full-size airship — a cigar-shaped, non-rigid bag that was 143 feet (44 meters) long and had a capacity of 113,000 cubic feet (3,200 cubic meters). He also built a small 3-horsepower (2.2-kilowatt) steam engine to power a three-bladed propeller. The engine weighed 250 pounds (113 kilograms) and needed a 100-pound (45.4 kilograms) boiler to fire it.

http://www.thehistoryforum.com/airships/henri_giffard/giffard_airship_1191x1783.php giffard airship

Medieval tech can build you an airship. You need a wicker frame (make a few spare Wicker Men this Beltane), and a light envelope that can contain your lifting gas - greased silk would work, or isinglass. Hydrogen is the lightest lift gas, but the molecule is so small it is hard to contain and it requires some alchemy to produce. Helium is good but it occurs only as small percentages in natural gas and must be refined.

But what about natural gas as a lifting gas? Natural gas comes out of the ground in some places. People know it is something different because it can sustain a flame. Methane is light enough to be used as a lifting gas and has the advantages of coming straight from the ground and being a larger and so more easily contained molecule. Plus if you are lucky maybe there is some helium in there as well.

The depicted aerostat has a steam engine. But you could have crew with handcranked propellors, or sails. or giant air oars. Or just go before the wind like a ship with a fixed sail. You would wait for a favorable wind and launch!

Those of you interested in seeing how medieval airships might look are invented to dive down the rabbit hole of google image, from which I have just returned.

  • $\begingroup$ Probably a bit too high tech, for a world somewhere in medieval times. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 22:14
  • $\begingroup$ @MartinArrJay: unpack that idea. I tried to show that the medievals could have done it with their tech. Poke some holes in the idea, metaphorically speaking. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 23:55

I'm picturing a world where it is - like most of the other posters have suggested - humans who do all of the heavy lifting.

However, this world could have used selective breeding to create a race of humans that are bigger/stronger and used only for the purpose of manual labour. Trained from an early age that all they'll ever do is transport cargo, or a rigid religious system in place that keeps them in their place - so that they don't rise up and overthrow their weaker brethren. Selective breeding of horses was used in medieval times on our world[1], so another world revolving around human labour could do something similar.

All of the methods for moving goods around the world are then tailored to these larger humans; harnesses for strapping goods, (or even smaller humans) or human-drawn carts, pedal-cabs in larger towns.

With an abundance of compliant, strong, labour, perhaps this world doesn't even think to develop technology to minimise human labour. They can always throw more larger humans at the problem.

This world could get very dark and twisted very quickly.

[1]: "Horses appear to have been selectively bred for increased size from the 9th and 10th centuries" - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horses_in_the_Middle_Ages

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    $\begingroup$ I remember a story where a colony ship crashed and only the human genetic material was saved. Out of necessity, they bred humans into every ecological niche possible. Beasts of burden, food, worms (soil-turners), building materials ... Sorry I can't recall the author or title but it would most likely have been ~10 years ago in Asimov's or F&SF. $\endgroup$
    – The Photon
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 18:45

Steam Engines

The aeolipile is the first recorded use of steam as power we know of, having been recorded in the 1st century AD. Other notable points in history: people using fire and cooking 2 million years ago, fire being commonplace 125 thousand years ago, pottery 30 thousand years ago, and simple machines in 3 BC.

Even without slavery, I think there is a good case for saying that at some point, somebody in early times would figure out how to control heat pressure. Something like "Why did that clay bowl explode in the fire?".


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