Medieval Occupations and Jobs: Messenger. History and Activities

Medieval messengers carried out a dangerous but prestigious job. Messengers were considered lesser diplomats, usually in service of a king or lord. If the news delivered were unfavourable for the receiver, though, the messenger could be blamed and imprisoned or killed.

Messengers delivered news and messages across the land. To do so effectively, they had to have topographical knowledge, know how to read and write and be able to work with horses. The wages of messengers were usually higher than that of an average worker.

History of Messengers

Messengers have existed in practically all civilizations, from the Persian Empire to the Inca state. In ancient times, messages were hand-delivered using homing pigeons, runners, and riders on horseback. We know, for example, that the Persian Cyrus the Younger used couriers.

The Greek courier Pheidippides is said to have run 26 miles to bring the news of the Greek victory over the Persians from Marathon to Athens in 490 BCE. In Rome, chariot-mounted couriers called anabasii quickly carried messages over long distances. 

In the Middle Ages, messengers were trusted by rulers, bishops and nobles to navigate difficult, dangerous terrain and act on their behalf. Universities, monasteries, trading companies and even towns had their own messengers – some of whom were protected by royal decree. Of course, only the most wealthy organization and individuals could afford private messengers – a monetary effort that also had to include the cost of horses, travel expenses, and accommodation. For this reason, messengers usually worked as “freelancers”, carrying messages from different sources,

Detail of the bottom border of the folio with a bas-de-page scene of a messenger delivering a letter to a man seated at a desk.
Detail of the bottom border of the folio with a bas-de-page scene of a messenger delivering a letter to a man seated at a desk. Image courtesy of British Library.

The Ideal Medieval Messenger

The ideal messenger had to be fit and healthy. It helped if they could also speak more than one language. For example, Latin would help to deal with the Pope, bishops, and abbots, while those travelling overseas were expected not just to deliver the message abroad but to gather information about their surroundings. 

A medieval messenger would frequently use pack animals to carry luggage or ride upon (and to bring gifts, which had to be carefully selected to match the rank and status of the recipient).  Sometimes, couriers would also adopt a disguise such as that of a pilgrim, hiding sensitive messages in clothing, walking staffs, or shoes. 

Transporting a Messenger

Horses, asses and mules were preferred. The ass, originally from North Africa and Arabia, was particularly used by members of religious orders. Riding one was seen as a sign of humility. Horses were regarded more as an animal for the upper classes, were stronger and could generally travel faster. They were the choice of those carrying urgent news. Mules were sturdy and noted for their endurance. They were less expensive to feed than a horse and ideal for long or arduous journeys.

Medieval Messengers and Couriers

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