Through the Lens of History 10: “Message for you, Sir!” – Part II Mail and Messengers from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern World

16 April, 2010

Through the Lens of History: Using History for Better Gaming
Vision 10: “Message for you, Sir!” – Part II
Mail and Messengers from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern World

Literacy supports mail systems and by the Middle Ages in Europe, literacy had again become widespread enough to make communication by letter feasible.  With letters came people to carry them, this in turn let to organizations and systems to carry letters and packages.  Over time, these systems evolved into our modern postal systems and package delivery companies.

Following on from Part I, this month the lens looks at messenger and mail from the Middle Ages to the early Modern World.

Part I – The History

The expansion of the church, universities and trade networks throughout Europe meant that by the eleventh century correspondence began flowing along these mercantile and ecclesiastical routes.  The Church needed to communicate with its widely dispersed monasteries, nunneries and churches to dispense and receive information, both political and religious, throughout the Christian world.

One such system was that of the Teutonic Knights, who had a mail system that linked Marianberg (in Germany), Vienna, Venice and Rome.  Each stronghold of the Teutonic Order had a postmaster (called a Wything) who oversaw mail passing through his area, checking each piece in and out, and directed mounted couriers (called Jonges).  A messenger would carry the mail through one stage and then turn it over to the next messenger and return to his home stronghold.  The Jonges carried the mail in linen bags, waxed to be waterproof, and only official mail was carried.

Merchants needed messengers for the more worldly matter of making money.  By the thirteenth century mounted “Clerks of the fairs” carried commercial correspondence between Flanders and Champagne in France.  The city of Venice developed an impressive postal system. As an important commercial city rapid exchange of information was of great importance to the Venetians.  The Compagnia dei Corrieri Veneti (the Company of Venetian Couriers) founded in 1305 maintained a virtual monopoly on foreign mail as well as a majority of the mail delivered overland in the Venetian Republic’s territories.  Standardized rates and an efficient network throughout Italy made the Compagnia highly successful.  An interesting feature of the Compagnia’s network was that the couriers’ tired horses would be left at post stations and could be hired by someone who was returning along the same route.

The courier services of Venice, established by the Tasso and Della Torre families, slowly expanded into international services, and the families were united by marriage.  The couriers carried a strip of badger skin as a symbol of their authority (“Tasso” means badger).  In 1450 they were knighted by the Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick III and the families Germanized their name to Thurn and Taxis.  In 1500, Franz von Taxis was appointed Captain and Master of the Posts and he negotiated the establishment of posts between the Holy Roman Empire and the kings of France and Spain in exchange for an annual stipend.  When the Empire fell behind in paying the stipend, von Taxis opened the entire service to the public.  By the mid-16th century, the Thurn and Taxis Post operated all over Western Europe.  By the 17th century, the Thurn and Taxis system had 20,000 employees, but revolution, war and political change slowly encroached on the Thurn and Taxis Post until, finally, they sold the last of their operations to the Prussian State in 1867.

Europe had the advantage of being relatively densely populated with an existing transportation network. The North American colonies, on the other hand, were isolated from each other and distant from England.  In the early years of the colonies, official news and letters were carried aboard warships of the Royal Navy.  Private letters were transported from coffee house to coffee house.  A ship’s captain would hang a bag in a coffee house, letters and payment would be placed in it and on the sailing date, the bag would be taken aboard (letters could also be given directly to the ship’s captain for delivery).  The captain would drop off the letters in another coffee house following his arrival on the other side of the Atlantic where people would have to come and collect them.

The coffee house system had obvious problems and attempts to standardize it (by the Act of Queen Anne in 1710) by forcing captains to deliver the mail to official post offices were widely avoided. (Captains frequently “forgot” to stop by the post offices).  Colonists looked on the post offices as another form of tax (which they were to some extent).

Inland routes were established in North America, essentially on a colony by colony basis, which were overseen by appointed postmasters.  Benjamin Franklin was one of these serving from 1753 until 1774 when he was dismissed by the British government.  Franklin reformed the postal system as best he was able, instituting such innovations as night post-riders between Boston and New York and reducing the time for letters to be exchanged between these cities from two weeks to four days.  The inland postal system only functioned effectively in the fairly densely populated North; attempts to establish regular service in the Southern colonies was hampered by lack of population and the climate.

After the Revolutionary War, the Federal Government established a Post Office which was initially headed by Benjamin Franklin.  This era saw, Royally sanctioned and supported messenger services in Europe slowly move away from delivering royal messages only, to carrying private mail and then to becoming postal systems in the way we think of the post office today.  By the late 19th century, most European states had created national postal services following the British model of universal service at a single price indicated by stamps.

A study of messengers and couriers would not be complete without a mention of that most American of courier services: the Pony Express.  Created to link the west coast of the United States with the east, the Pony Express (officially the Central Overland, California and Pike’s Peak Express Company) ran mail from St. Joseph, Missouri (where the rail line from the east coast ended) to Sacramento and San Francisco, a route of 1,950 miles (3,138 kilometers.) Riders covered this distance in ten and a half days, except in winter when the time it took to cover the route increased to fifteen days or more.  The riders of the Pony Express carried messages (usually written on tissue paper to save weight) in a specialized pouch called a mochilla, which could be quickly moved from one saddle to another, vital as only two minutes were allotted for changing horses at each stage of the route.

Founded in 1860, the Pony Express only remained in existence for eighteen months before technology, in the form of the telegraph, supplanted it.  During that time the riders dealt with weather, a “revolt” by Native Americans (which was more of a panic caused by settler overreaction) and other problems to deliver mail across eight states and almost every sort of terrain.  But, in the end, the horse could not deliver messages faster than telegraph and the Pony Express faded into the mythology of the American West.

Part II- Breaking it apart and putting it back together

Messengers follow similar themes as were explored in last month Lens, the importance of delivering certain messages, money to be made as a courier and so on as already discussed.  As a society moves closer to a modern conception of the post office another option emerges beyond stealing a single, valuable letter to stealing entire bags full of mail and pilfering them all for cash (and information).

As mail systems become larger and more complex, the government become more inclined to step in and administer them.  This give opportunities for character to assist in the running of postal systems.  Perhaps a character is assigned to become the new post master of a distant part of her homeland and has to deal with uncooperative locals, missing mail and a distant bureaucracy that expects things to be done in a certain way with no knowledge of what conditions out in the field actually are.  Or character could be sent to investigate why mail is vanishing along the coast road or why postal receipts are too low in Kingston Port.

Supplemental d20 Material:
New Feats
Order Messenger [General]

You serve your Order as a messenger and you will not be turned from your task.

Prerequisites: Wis 10, Knowledge (local) 1 rank, Ride 2 ranks, membership in a knightly or religious Order.

Benefit: You receive a +2 bonus on your Knowledge (local) and Ride checks. If you have 10 or more ranks in one of these skills, the bonus increases to +4 for that skill. Your gain a +2 bonus on Fortitude saves made to avoid nonlethal damage from hot or cold environments and a +1 bonus to Will saves. Also, you may sleep in the saddle without becoming fatigued.

Special: Combined with the Endurance feat, you gain a +5 bonus to avoid nonlethal damage from hot or cold environments.

Postmaster [General]

You are a postmaster, a position of responsibility, skilled in handling both mail and people.

Prerequisites: Int 10, Wis 10, literate, Diplomacy 2 ranks or Knowledge (local) 1 rank.

Benefit: You gain a +2 bonus on Knowledge (local) checks.  In your home locale you gain a +2 circumstance bonus on Diplomacy, Gather Information and on Profession (postmaster) checks. If you have 10 or more ranks in one of these skills, the bonus increases to +4 for that skill.

Special: If you spend too long away from your posting, you are likely to loose your position.  An unemployed Postmaster loses his circumstance bonuses until he is rehired or finds a new position.

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