It should be simple: you want to describe a scene of people coming into a town for market. Or maybe it’s just a chance encounter on a road with some merchants. Or maybe it’s peasants on their way to market, loaded down with hay or squash. What are they carrying it in?
Answering the question isn’t a matter of a few minutes or even a few hours. There are whole books on this topic of wagons and transport, and the answers are complicated. Eh, oh well. Welcome to the Middle Ages, right? Everything here is complicated.
But for the writer, complicated is where the fun is.
Carts came first, then wagons, then trucks.
Even that simple statement is tricky, for “truck” is a verb that goes way back, at least to the early 17th century, but it was not used in the sense of a vehicle for carrying heavy loads until the late 18th century. So that part is easy: no trucks in the Middle Ages.
Carts are the oldest form of man-made transport. They appear with the earliest traces of cities, pulled by all sorts of animals from dogs to humans, and from goats to horses. A handcart is probably the oldest form, since all other types of carts require some sort of harness for the animal. They’re also the cheapest, so if your characters are poor (and if your world is quasi-medieval, then 80% or more of your characters are in fact poor), then they’re likely to be using a handcart. A handcart is really little more than a variation on the wheelbarrow.
Carts were in fact used for all sorts of special purposes. In these images we see a cart to hold a baking oven. Most households, especially in towns, did not have an oven–they bought bread from a baker. But as the image shows, in some cases, the baker might make house calls.
Don’t underestimate the utility of the handcart. Pioneers crossing the American West went the whole distance pushing a handcart, a distance of about 1300 miles.
The Mormon handcart companies are a famous instance of this, whole trains of handcarts, pulled by simple human power.
Wagons are more complicated. There are some historically important aspects you may want to keep in mind; specifically, spokes, wheels, and suspension. Taking the easiest first, you can forget about suspension. Springs in all forms are post-medieval, and even suspension using leather belts is very late (14thc) and expensive.
Spokes were a great innovation of the ancient world, replacing the simpler, cheaper but far less resilient wheel of solid wood. Roman wagons had ten spokes, but the number could vary. The wheels themselves were wood, but they could be rimmed with metal. Most importantly, the hubs were metal in ancient Rome, but it appears medieval wagons used wood hubs. These wear out much more quickly.
Land transport was far more expensive than shipping, perhaps ten times more, so merchants or armies needing to move goods over long distances used water whenever they could. The wagon was better for short haul, say a hundred miles or less. Longer was possible, of course, but you’d better bring repair kits.
Roads were poor anyway, and every bump was transmitted directly up to the cargo. This has some interesting consequences. For example, beer doesn’t do well shaken up, whereas wine does just fine. This is one factor (there were others) in why beer was such a local product while wine was an international trade item. Another consequence was that paved roads were hell on wheels (sorry, couldn’t resist). A cobblestone street was like a jackhammer, tearing apart wheel rims, breaking axles and spokes, and shaking the cargo. We are accustomed to thinking of paved roads as a Sign of Progress, and that medieval roads being unpaved was a sign of being technologically backward. It was in a way, but it was also not really practical to have paved roads until we had developed suspension systems that could stand up to the pounding. Even those famous Roman roads had wide paths on either side for wagons. The paved part was for the footsoldiers.
Spokes were one innovation, but probably the most important was the harness. So long as the beast of burden was attached to the wagon by wrapping something around the neck, transport was severely limited. You would choke the poor thing. The harness moves the weight down, around the shoulders and chest, which lets the ox or horse put its full strength into the pull. The harness was one of the great technological innovations of the Middle Ages.
Carriages and Other Newfangled Devices
“Carriage” was derived from cart (“car” is an alternate form of “cart”); originally it denoted the means of transport–á la cart = carriage. Eventually it designated a particular kind of four-wheeled vehicle intended specifically for carrying people. Leather suspension was used at first, but in the 17th century came the great innovation of spring suspension, which was nothing more than curved bars of metal on which the carriage body rode, bending down and back up. What luxury! Why, one could even travel in comfort on city streets.
Then there is the tumbrel, which is indelibly linked to the French Revolution, but which in fact was an ordinary two-wheeled farmer’s cart. Its big wheels and high sides were perfect for carrying hay or other harvested goods. Or traitorous enemies of the République.
With the discovery of rubber and rubber processing, wheels could be put on that made the ride even better . Between metal hubs, rubber tires and spring suspension (coiled springs), the ride became smooth as … if not silk, then perhaps cordouroy. And so we can return to trucks, which was a term in use before the development of the internal combustion engine. In the 19th century it was quite common to see trucks pulled by horses.
By the 19th century, we have a wide array of wheeled transports, including chaises, charabancs and coaches. Since modern history is not my field, I’ll leave off there.
For the Writer
Let’s establish this at the outset: high-speed wagon chases are right out. <grin>
Which is another way of saying that a wagon is not likely to occupy the foreground of your story. The information here is almost literally background—just a detail to use here or there. Even so, I’m hoping that you might be able to use one of those details in an interesting way. You could imagine an overturned or stuck wagon, a runaway, even a traffic jam. One of my favorite wagons is Nordic, in which the body of the wagon could be lifted off the wheels in winter time, converting it to a sled.
One type of wagon you may not think about right off is the medieval pageant wagon. These were used in medieval cities on which to stage plays or other public demonstrations, and were also used by traveling theater troupes as the means to bring their stage from one village to the next. Medieval pageants, by the way, provided an important source of work for artists. Even famous ones like da Vinci or Michelangelo got at least occasional work from painting sets or designing these pageant wagons.
I provide one image here, but if you do a search you will find a number, some incredibly elaborate. The point, of course, was to show off the skill and wealth of a particular guild, abbey, or town, rather like floats in a modern-day parade. Such a pageant wagon could do good work as a Trojan Horse or the setting for a spectacular assassination. Or a romantic proposal. We don’t have to be all blood and murder, do we?
I’d love to hear if this article has sparked any ideas of your own.
Gerhold, Dorian. Road Transport Before the Railways, Cambridge 1993
Gies, Frances & Gies, Joseph. Cathedral Forge and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages, Harper Perennial Edition (Paperback), New York, 1995
Gimpel, Jean. The Medieval Machine, New York, Penguin Books, 1977
Leighton, Albert C. Transportation and Communication in Early Medieval Europe AD 500-1100, David & Charles, 1972
E.L. Skip Knox is the creator of the fantasy world called Altearth, a place where magic is real, monsters roam the land, and the Roman Empire never fell.