Saturday, November 01, 2014

Historical Sunday - Like a horse and carriage...

Carriages and coaches in the Middle Ages seem to have become a common trope in movies and TV shows. I don't know if other readers have noticed a proliferation of them in the BBC Robin Hood series (in fact in many versions of Robin Hood), in First Knight, Young Ivanhoe and many other productions the wealthy always seem to have a carriage handy- which is almost invariably attacked by some miscreant, or even a target for the hero if he wants to apprehend some enemy. 

Yet, according to a recent discussion I had with author Dina Sleiman the very existence of such vehicles in the Medieval Era is a source of debate amongst historians.
In such cases, it can perhaps be wise to allow whatever evidence as does exist to speak for itself- and perhaps surprisingly- there is visual evidence that attests to the existence of simple carriages- from manuscript illustrations- a wonderful medium that can testify to aspects of Medieval life that may have been passed over in written material. So here are a few examples I found:

1. 15th century
2.

The word carriage might conjure up images of the coaches and hackneys of the 18th century, or of Austen and Dickens novels- maybe even the fairytale like Coronation Coach of HRH Queen Elizabeth II- yet Medieval carriages, as the images seems to show, appear to have been little more than glorified wagons. Covered wagons, decked out with cushions perhaps, but in style and design little different from their rather less romantic cousins.
According to one source, carriages were known from the 12th century, but were not widely used until the 14th and 15th- and were not called 'carriages'1. Another historian suggested that because of the cost of making them and using them, they were few and far between.2 

3. Fifteenth Century

I'm not sure about my readers, but it doesn't look as though these carriages were the cosy, enclosed affairs of later centuries which accorded those who rode in them a good deal of privacy- except perhaps the one above which seems to have been fitted with something that looks like curtains. 

Other images show five or so horses harnessed to carriages, suggesting perhaps that they were heavy and cumbersome vehicles, requiring more pull-power than the usual cart or wagon. One almost feels sorry for the unfortunate beasts.
 Another interesting feature that all the images seem to have in common is the apparent lack of a coachman- or at least the type of coachman we would be used to seeing guiding the horses from from a sear or platform.
Instead these carriages seem to have been steered and directed by the fellows sitting on horses in front of them. 
 
So the images above suggest that something akin to carriages did indeed exist in the Middle Ages, but there were very different from the carriages and coaches of the popular imagination, improved perhaps by the developments of later centuries. 
So if Marion or any other High Born Medieval Lady did ride in a carriage it might not have been very much different to wagons driven by the pioneers who colonized the American West in the nineteenth century, like the one shown in the fourth image, below.

4. Early 15th Century, France
The irony is that wagons like theirs may seem anachronistic to modern readers, but are actually far less so than the coach Jane Eyre occupied for days in Charlotte Bronte's classic. 
Personally, I don't believe it would have been a very bright idea to travel through a bandit-infested forest in a covered wagon like those above, yet has anyone noticed that in Robin Hood movies the sheriff or any number of other wealthy nobles seem to do just that.....
 
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References 
1. Keri Peardon, 'Today's History Lesson bought to you by Nora Roberts (or not): When a Cariiage is not a Car', Keri M. Peardon Presents- Vampires, Ladies and Potpourri, accessed 2nd November 2014, http://keripeardon.wordpress.com/2013/01/02/todays-history-lesson-brought-to-you-by-nora-roberts-or-not/

2. Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century (London, 2008) p133-4
 
Image References  
 
1.http://visualiseur.bnf.fr/ConsulterElementNum?O=IFN-8100143&E=JPEG&Deb=76&Fin=76&Param=C
2. http://rkgregory.cmswiki.wikispaces.net/Middle+Ages. Manuscript: De casibus (BNF Fr. 226)
3.http://keripeardon.wordpress.com/2013/01/02/todays-history-lesson-brought-to-you-by-nora-roberts-or-not/
 
4.https://www.flickr.com/photos/myladyswardrobe/galleries/72157629128003723#photo_5606990299/ From manuscript Harley 4431, British Library.


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