One question constantly causes me to pause writing my novel set in eighth century Francia and do research: how long does it take to get from Point A to Point B?
The answer: it depends. Are the characters traveling by foot, horse, or ox cart? Are any of them sick or pregnant? At which cities or abbeys will they stop to rest their animals for three days? Does anyone break a wheel? If the characters are in a hurry (a rarity in the Middle Ages), are they changing horses? Can they afford to? And do they know how to get to their destination?
A journey in the Dark Ages was more miserable than the middle seat in coach. Travelers had no weather forecast, and they risked being waylaid by bandits. As they traversed wilderness, the folk would have been terrified of otherworldly creatures, especially at night. The food was awful, often a type of hard bread edible only when softened with water to the texture of leather.
On top of all that, progress was slow. Charlemagne’s armies typically went only 12 to 15 miles per day. The animals they used for transport would need to rest and eat around midday. Think of it as the equivalent of filling up the gas tank.
To calculate travel times in my novels, I use maps in my reference books and Google maps. Sometimes, I will redraw Google’s route so that it more closely resembles the roads and the cities that existed at the time. (Yes, Google, I know your way is faster, but I’m not interested in that right now.)
If the distance is great, the trek really is a combination of several trips, with three days at a civilized place to rest horse, mule, or ox. So a list for journey from Nevers to Le Mans—which my characters undertake in The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar—reads Nevers to Bourges, three to five days; three days of rest; Bourges to Orleans, about five days; three days of rest. You get the idea.
Today, a drive between those two French cities might take less than four hours. In the Dark Ages, people could be on the road for almost a month. And that reality can lead to conversations like this from Ashes, where my heroine’s son is trying to get to Le Mans to rescue his family from slavery, but he is way off course at Saint Riquier Abbey:
“Where is Le Mans?” Deorlaf grumbled. “The guard at Orleans said to go to Paris. The guard at Paris said to go to Orleans, but we had just been to Orleans, so that could not be right. The priest at Reims said go to Laon. And no one here knows anything.”
“Perhaps we have not reached it yet,” Ives said.
“But my sister said it would take a month to reach Le Mans from Nevers. It’s been well over a month.”
Originally published Aug. 2, 2015, on S.K. Keogh’s The Jack Mallory Chronicles.