A brief history of how people communicated in the Middle Ages

In an age of mass communication, of 24-hour news and social media, it can seem that medieval Europe was less communicative, and parochial in outlook. Yet medieval Europeans conversed much like we do. Here, historian Laura Crombie reveals how

c1500: a medieval friar preaches to congregation (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Official speech

In 14th and 15th-century England, as the Hundred Years’ War raged in France, towns and villages heard about events through official speech – primarily through their priests. The church communicated the successes (or setbacks) of their king to the populace: they required masses or procession for thanksgiving in light of a victory, and prayers and invocations for hopes of a success at the start of campaigns. This helped to build public support for wars and the taxes to pay for them.

Official news could be delivered in both written and oral form. The towns of the late medieval Low Countries (modern Belgium and the Netherlands) were ruled by the powerful Dukes of Burgundy. Charters issued by the dukes were written communications, setting out new rights, laws or taxes, but they also carried a significant aural quality: charters would have been read out at specific places in towns, known as bretèches, or in churches or at important civic events. 

 

Rumour and subversive communication

Communication of legislation was important for medieval rulers, but, as today, people were also able to spread rumours and gossip. It is not always clear where medieval, or indeed modern, rumours began, but there is no doubt that they could spread quickly.

In the second half of the 14th century, England saw great upheaval and challenges: the war with France was going badly, and at home the Black Death, beginning in 1348–9, had killed at least a third of the population. Survivors might have hoped for better conditions, as a smaller work force tried to demand higher wages, but this was stopped by the Ordinance and Statute of Labourers setting wages at the pre-plague level.

In 1381 this famously erupted into the violence of the Peasants’ Revolt, but in 1377 there were already signs of discontent, manifested in the ‘Great Rumour’. This social movement, spread by word of mouth across southern England, saw rural labourers refusing to work, arguing that Domesday Book granted them exemptions from their feudal services.

 

Messengers and networks

In 12th-century England, kings did not stay in London – rather, they travelled around their lands. This necessitated an organised and efficient messenger service, ensuring that correspondence reached the king, and that royal letters, grants, patents and orders arrived at their intended destination. Messengers therefore became a permanent royal expenditure, paid continuously and travelling the kingdom to carry the king’s word.

The English system was efficient, allowing news to be carried quickly: in 1290 Edward I summoned a parliament to grant new taxes. The order, or writ, for the taxes was issued on 22 September at Edward’s hunting lodge in King’s Clipstone, in the Midlands. This was carried to the Privy Seal Office and then to the Barons of the Exchequer, in Westminster. The Exchequer then issued its own writs on 6 October to the sheriffs, ordering them to begin collections between the 18th and 29th of the month.

Thus, less than a month after Edward’s order, his messages had been transmitted to London and then out to the counties, and commissioners had begun their task.

 

Visual communication

As well as sending written messages, hearing official news from their priests, or listening to rumours spread form village to village, medieval people could also see messages. Late medieval clothing carried layers of meaning, and can be considered a potent means of communication – this is to an extent true also of the modern world, with black for funerals or badges and wrist bands to support causes.

On the battlefield, banners and coats of arms showed armies’ friend from foe, and royal standards enabled soldiers to see where their king was located. Coats of arms further marked out who was of a noble rank, and so worth taking prisoner, and who was not, meaning that being well dressed was about far more than vanity.

The wearing of badges and livery – clothes that bore a symbol, or particular colours or designs – marked out allegiance and community. Though their survival is rare, pilgrim badges were very common: they marked out those who had been on a religious journey, and acted as a souvenir, worn to show that one was devout and had visited Canterbury, or even Rome.

Guilds used badges or liveries to mark out their members, ensuring that anyone looking to buy goods or services in the medieval town would recognise a guild members from less reputable trades – visual forms of identification showed belonging and communicated identify and status.

Laura Crombie is a lecturer in late medieval history at the University of York. On Saturday 15 November she will be taking part in a colloquium on Communication in the Middle Ages at Lock keeper’s Cottage, Queen Mary, University of London, being held to mark London Medieval Society's 70th anniversary. To find out more, click here.

We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here