History for Fantasy Writers: Wagons, Carts and Trucks

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.

Overview

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

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 [646]. 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.

Further Reading

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.

I am a retired medieval historian who is now engaged in deconstructing the Middle Ages into a fantasy setting. I've been writing my entire life, from poetry to science fiction to history and now to fantasy. I've been married since 1969 and have three grown children and two grandchildren.

Leave a Reply

Notify of
avatar
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Sheilawisz
Member

Thank you, Skip!

I have indeed researched the Battle of Sluys, and also the Battle of Crécy and that of Poitiers. All of them are mentioned in my Joan of England story, but they are never seen directly since only part of the first novel takes place in the 14th Century.

For the article, I think it would be great if you describe the ships of those times in detail.

Many people assume that all wooden ships of centuries ago were pretty much the same, when in reality there were many different types and sizes and also they changed a lot with the passing of time. In Joan I did not describe the ships in great detail because my research was not that good, so it would be great to know more about this.

There are so many fascinating things about Medieval life that more people should know about.

Sheilawisz
Member

Hello Skip!

I love how you talk about Medieval life in such a natural and familiar style. You are very good to explain many aspects of what the Medieval world was really like, it's all clear like water and at the same time you add nice touches of good humor. Thanks to your article, I have learned more about the history and evolution of carts and carriages.

Certainly it would be strange to find a high-speed chase with carriages in a Medievalish story, but what would actually happen?

Let's say that the road is very smooth dirt, and the escaping carriage is really desperate to get away as fast as possible. Would that be a terribly bumpy experience for the driver and the people inside of that carriage? How fast could they actually go? How long would pass before the carriage's safety is compromised?

In my Joan of England trilogy I have some carriage scenes, but they were used only to transport Joan and her entourage from her residence at Surrey to the nearby Portsmouth.

I have an idea for a future article of yours: What were naval battles really like in the mid 14th century, for example at the start of the Hundred Years war? I know the answer to this because I have researched the war adventures of Joan's father Edward III, but the article could be great for people that do not know this type of information.

Cheers, Skip! Congratulations for a great article.

Russ
Member

Great article as usual Skip. The minute I saw the title I thought of the War Wagons of the Hussites. The middle ages were never boring!

Nimue
Member

Thanks for the overview, Skip! Good to know the eras of each. This is something I’ve thought of fairly often, around story logistics, but never done more than a quick google about it… Usually I just spell wagon “waggon” and hope that conjures up a sufficiently antiquated image! Researcher I am not…

Antonio del Drago
Admin
Dark Squiggle

I feel this is a vast and rich subject and you have barely scratched the surface.

That's the thing… this is an article for a writing blog. It's meant to be a basic primer on the subject, to prevent writers from making the most basic of errors. There is only enough space to scratch the surface. To go truly in depth would require either a book or a whole series of articles on this one subject.

If you wish to explore this subject further, you are welcome to write a follow-up article that goes deeper into the areas that interest you. Here are the submission guidelines:

Write for Mythic Scribes

I see you put in a picture of both a cart pushed from the front and from behind and of a wagon with a sail, and mentioned neither…

That's on me. I added the image of the cart with the sail after the article was submitted.

Dark Squiggle
Member

No mention of chariots? I guess not very medieval, but neither is any mention of Romans, da Vinci, or Michaelangelo.
No mention of the chinese one wheeled carts, and how they fair better on rough roads, or of the evolution of the wheelbarrow from the barrow, or of leather tires? No mention of the importance of where the center of gravity is in relation to the axle/axles, or of different types of harnesses or yokes. I see you put in a picture of both a cart pushed from the front and from behind and of a wagon with a sail, and mentioned neither, in spite of the fact that both where commonly used. Also no mention of horse drawn railroads, or of the smoothness of Roman roads – many are still good, smooth, serviceable, paved roads, even now, 500 years after the period you are writing about.
Just so I don't sound hypercritical: I really like this series of articles, and this happens to be a favorite subject of mine, so I feel a need to attack it. I feel this is a vast and rich subject and you have barely scratched the surface.

Corwynn
Member

Very interesting information. I'd hoped for more 19th century stuff, since that's my area of interest. Still, I have some knowledge of my own in that area if anyone is curious.

Another important thing to understand is that public transport as we understand it did not exist prior to the 18th century. Before then, you either walked, rode or drove yourself, or hitched a ride with someone going in the same direction. Vehicular transportation was heavily freight-oriented, and carrying people other than the crew was an afterthought at best. There wasn't much call for passenger transport since people rarely traveled far from their home unless their job required it. Given the dangers and ordeals they had to face, can you really blame them? The coach was the first vehicle (that I am aware of) that was specifically designed to carry passengers. Then, somebody in 18th century England had the bright idea to let people ride a coach for a fee. These coaches that anyone (with enough money) could use, and which went to fixed destinations and arrived and departed (ideally) at fixed times was a thing unheard of before then. Combined with better suspension and Macadamized roads (a method still used to build unpaved roads to this day), this ushered in a revolution in transport that came to full flower in the 19th century. A lot of modern-day vehicles such as taxis, buses, trucks (as mentioned above), and even trains got their start with horse-drawn predecessors.

Also, when it comes to stagecoaches at least, a high-speed chase is not out of the question. Speed was important to the stagecoach companies, and coaches from rival companies would sometimes race each other, even though they weren't supposed to, and these horse-drawn drag races often ended badly. Of course, this requires a setting that has stagecoaches or something similar.

This site uses XenWord.