View Full Version : How did river crafts travel in medieval?

anthony draco
05-30-2014, 05:02 PM
My character is travelling along a great river on a ship with sail, in medieval period. I have a few questions:

Do they travel only by day and stop at night?

If it's a river craft where fresh water is readily available, do they wash/take a bath? If they don't, is it realistic for a privileged military personel to be privileged enough to be allowed bath/wash?

I've been looking for a site that give me details of life at sea or aboard river craft but can't find it. Any help?

05-30-2014, 05:17 PM
Rivers can be pretty treacherous with sandbanks, weird currents and floating obstacles so boats moored up at night while the crew slept.

'The Medieval Traveller' by Norbert Ohler is a good reference text for this sort of stuff.

anthony draco
05-30-2014, 05:18 PM
OK, thanks. One question answered. What about bath/wash?

05-30-2014, 05:21 PM
There will be huge variations from culture to culture, river to river, and boat to barge. I don't know, but I doubt there are any actual ships found on rivers in medieval times. I also doubt there will be pure sailing vessels because of the wind blowing the wrong way. Rivers tend to have bends after all, so even if the prevailing wind is good for the general course upstream or downstream, the vessel will have to make frequent course changes on many rivers. And then there's going the other way. So sails will be supplemented or replaced by oars, poles, or even livestock (oxen presumably) towing a barge. Often the sails will have to be taken down if the boat or barge is to make any progress.

I would guess without any other knowledge they only travel by day. Piloting by night is dangerous, even if they wanted to travel that way, which they probably didn't. They'd need a double-sized crew to travel all day and all night.

There's a myth about medieval people not washing; but apparently they did bathe more frequently than their renaissance and later successors until modern times. However, any given river may be polluted near a town or city, or may be dangerous to bathe in for other reasons like current. Swimming skill was not universal, so river bathing would probably only be common in a shallows or flat without much current.

anthony draco
05-30-2014, 05:29 PM
Thanks. Well, bathing might be difficult at sea where fresh water is rare, and going overboard is out of the question unless you fall. From the homework I've done, seafarers don't bath or rarely do until port. So I wondered if the same went for river craft. Apparently, it's easily done at night.

Anyway, thanks for the heads about about sails.

05-30-2014, 10:12 PM
Another thing to consider, is that very few sailing crafts plyed rivers without also having the manpower to row, or pole. Most river traffic was by barge...

05-31-2014, 04:06 AM
Rivers are treacherous. You want to tie up somewhere secure at night, not find yourself at the mercy of currents, shallows, and other dangers in the dark.

A sailing ship, as people have said, is not likely to be the most useful kind of vessel on a river. Oars & poles give you much more control & flexibility. If the vessel is meant to carry any quantity of cargo or passengers it's likely to be a barge, drawn by a team of oxen or mules on a towpath.

One thing to keep in mind about rivers in medieval Europe is that they were not only the major route for moving goods in bulk, but they were also the center of most industrial activities. Every river of any size was filled with watermills in every possible spot, some of them perched at the bank but also many of them floating out in the middle of the stream where the flow was strongest. Until steam engines were invented, watermills were literally (not figuratively!) the main driver of most industrial processes. So whenever your ship is traveling through some well-populated area, or some stretch where the river itself has favorable conditions for building and operating mills -- there's going to be a lot of them, of all sorts and sizes, and a lot of associated navigation hazards. Not to mention tolls, delays, etc.

05-31-2014, 04:23 AM
Do they travel only by day and stop at night?

If it's a river craft where fresh water is readily available, do they wash/take a bath? If they don't, is it realistic for a privileged military personel to be privileged enough to be allowed bath/wash?

What does your story require?


05-31-2014, 04:50 AM
Most ships would have a deck pump, that would be rigged every morning to wash down the deck. This can easily be used to provide a shower underneath its hose. Some sailors took frequent showers, salt water not being a problem, some sailors didn't take any showers. Remember that after you've been at sea for a while the salt covers pretty much everything.

Rivers vary widely in how easy they are to sail. The best was the Nile, which you could sail up (south) and come back on the current (north). Your mileage on other rivers depended on prevailing winds, current speed, and navigability. A river can be sailed easily up to the first rapids or falls. Getting around a rapid or fall is major work.

You have to navigate at sea 24/7. Rivers allow you to tie up at night. Maybe you'd try to gain some extra sailing time with a full moon.

Most likely you'd pole or row or pull from shore.

Best of luck

Jim Clark-Dawe

05-31-2014, 06:40 AM
What does your story require?


This is always a core question.

Also, when is your story set and in what country? The middle ages were widely diverse.

As for bathing, there's a lament in the writings of an Anglo-Saxon priest in England around the 9th to 10th century. He complains as to how the good, Christian Anglo-Saxon women were marrying heathen Danes (from the Danelaw in England, not from Denmark) instead of good, Christian Anglo-Saxon men, because the Danes (Vikings) smelled better. They bathed once a week and combed their beards.

At about the same time, ibn Fadlan was writing about Rus (Swedish Vikings in Russia, probably near Kiev) and how horribly dirty they were because they all washed from the same bowl and only once a day, if that.

So you see bathing customs differed widely even in the same(ish) time period.

Where and when is your story and, as WeasleFire asks, what does your story need to have happen?

05-31-2014, 01:08 PM
I don't think there are any definite answers here. As others have said, it depends on context - country, date, technology and so on.

Is the country at war or is there a risk of bandits? If so, you might be tempted to carry on through the night. Is the river treacherous or dangerous to navigate? If so you might want to moor up during the hours of darkness.

Do you need to get where you are going quickly?

Do you characters have money? If so they might stay at an inn. Or is your boat big enough to have its own galley and sleeping quarters?

Bathing depends on social class, the period, the availability of water and how busy your characters are doing other stuff. It would probably look very odd if your characters bathe as much as we do now, but equally we shouldn't imagine them never bathing.

In the Hornblower novels of CS Forester when the eponymous hero reaches the rank of captain he has a deck pump rigged up so that he can have a shower. But the books make it clear that he is the exception rather than the rule.

05-31-2014, 04:45 PM
Huge digression here...

I just want to point out that how we do things now isn't the way we always did things. Sometimes we take it for granted that a shower a day or several times a week is the norm, but things can change rapidly and within a generation or even less time.

Poll your older relatives. Ask them how often they bathed. I'd be surprised if they said every day. In my own lifetime this very 'normal' occurrence has changed very, very drastically. When I was a girl it was normal for everyone to bathe once a week. Wash your hair the same. Once a week. (I had friends who went every other week. No kidding. And we all had long straight hair back in the 60's.)

Go back further and my mother bathed once a month. There was no bathroom in her house and she was from a fairly 'affluent' family. (Her parents put in a bathroom after she married, around 1942.) I once asked how she 'washed up' in the morning or at night, and she said in the kitchen sink.

Go back farther and my grandmother, who had eight siblings, bathed about once a month also, in her family's kitchen (in a large tub) after her mother kicked all the 'boys out of the house.' She shared the same bathwater with her mother and one sister.

All I'm providing here is to show how within a few generations, or less, things can and do absolutely change. The same would be true for any time period in the past. I've read accounts where women were horrified a friend bathed once a month - horrified by how wasteful of water she was, or horrified that she didn't bathe more.

The time period, the customs, social class, the availability of clean water, even of a fairly 'private' locale to bathe, all come into play.

And I know others in the thread have said basically the same thing, but I thought I'd throw in some 'real life experience' to make my point.

(Btw I shower every day now. hehe :D )

06-02-2014, 05:20 PM
'The Medieval Traveller' by Norbert Ohler is a good reference text for this sort of stuff.

Ooh. Thanks for that. Just ordered it. (Here I was, reading this thread out of curiosity because medieval travel is something I've looked at a bit, and there is a book I want to buy.)

Incidentally, regarding a later post in this thread - regarding ship travel by sea in the period - a lot of it was trundling along the coast and they also anchored at night. (From reading a book on medieval sailing some years ago.)