A Matter of Britain
Travel in Britain
Your character will spend much time traveling through Arthurian Britain, a risky, time-consuming business. Difficulties of which modern people are largely unaware create problems for everyone moving from place to place in this era.
Maps in the Dark Ages are nearly nonexistent, and those that do exist are not at all similar to the maps of our day. First of all, most people are illiterate and thus unable to read symbols. If anything, a “map” might be a list of stops along the way, probably indicated by a coat of arms of the castle or other holding. Some symbol might indicate whether the stop is a manor, castle, monastery, city, or other landmark.
The usual manner of getting around in strange places is to have a general idea of direction and to ask for more specifics every time someone is met along the way. Since most such meetings are with locals, those asked tend to have a pretty good idea of their locality (which in the case of peasants is only the 5-mile radius around their homes, or for knights the extent of their native domain).
People have only vague, often incorrect information about areas outside their homelands. Directions are not usually given in miles, but rather in vague travel times, like “a long time” or “a little while,” or perhaps at best “until high sun” or “nearly till sundown” or the like. Landmarks are better travel aids, and may be specific, like “the ford,” but can be confusing too—“the big tree” or “where the rocks fell down” or “the ruins.” Information about dangerous areas is particularly sketchy, and often plain wrong. Vast areas of forest in Britain are unknown to anyone.
Even moderately settled areas may be lost to the knowledge of nearby folk should a group of enemies cut off the roads and trails to the settlement. A modest quest for a group of young knights might be to travel into an area with which their lord has lost connection, and return with an accurate description of landmarks and so forth. It is not uncommon to get lost and have to backtrack to the last secure place.
Traveling is not just a matter of simply going from one place to another. In addition to the problem of not knowing your route are the problems of traveling safely and finding safe accommodations. This increases travel time.
Travel is usually safe within the demesne of a lord, unless of course the local lord lives by robbing travelers weaker than himself—which is regrettably quite common outside of Logres. As well, groups of bandits often hide near roads and tracks through forests and wild lands to waylay the unwary. Journeyers must always be on the lookout, perhaps even sending out scouts, a process that slows them down considerably.
Finally, stopping to eat and rest is common. In particular, persons not used to travel, especially women or children, require more frequent stops.
Knights normally stay at some castle, manor, or other settlement along the way. Hospitality is an honored tradition, and standard custom is to help any traveler according to his or her status.
Most people travel very little, and are likely to be starved for information and gossip about the outside world. Thus strangers who are known not to be enemies are welcome, and if they are entertaining, then they are the more welcome. No payment is expected from the visitors.
Of course, not everyone is allowed entry. The normal procedure is for a party to ride to the gate and knock, blow a horn, ring a bell, or simply shout until someone comes to listen to them. This person is usually called the porter, because his job is to tend the porte, or door. Porter is a rather prestigious job at any location, despite normally being a commoner’s position, since he determines who enters immediately or enters later.
The porter is fully authorized to ask who the visitors are and what they want. He may decide to allow entry right away, especially if the visitor is known to him, but more likely will go to his lord and relay the information before making a decision. The travelers wait patiently outside, perhaps in the rain or in the dark.
If it is an enemy who has inadvertently come to the door, the porter simply stalls for a while, perhaps exchanging bitter or insulting words with the travelers, while knights and soldiers arm and prepare to rush out and capture the foe.
Once guests enter a castle or manor, they are shown to the long hall or bedroom where the lord welcomes them, interviews them, and instructs servants to show the guests to their accommodations. Occasionally they are shown to a place to wash up before seeing the lord.
Accommodations for visiting knights are normally in the great hall, where the household knights and ladies also sleep, unsegregated (but also without much privacy). Honored guests may be given a chamber or tower room to themselves, but most likely will have to share it with the rest of their party. These rooms are normally the residences of someone else, who will have been forced to give it up for the guests. Only a great palace has enough space to give individual guests their own private quarters.
A worthy visitor will have pages or women assigned to help him disarm, disrobe, and wash. Washing may be from a public basin or—luxury of luxuries!—a hot bath. Women servants commonly help men bathe without any necessary sexual implication (but plenty of opportunity…), though the reverse is most certainly not true.
Monasteries have similar customs. Separate rooms are often available for those of different social ranks, thus keeping the nobility away from the commoners. Particularly high-ranking individuals may actually be offered the quarters of the abbot himself.
Where no noble accommodations exist, knights may seek to stay at peasant dwellings. The traveler goes from building to building asking for hospitality until someone tentatively agrees. The commoner complains that he is poor with nothing to spare, and the traveler offers to compensate somehow. They dicker over the price until agreement is reached. Nothing is guaranteed except what is agreed upon by both parties. Remember that commoners are usually reluctant to allow powerful strangers into their houses, and may recommend someone in town who is more affluent and less suspicious. Out of these individuals’ hospitality will—within the campaign, but not in Uther’s time—grow public inns.
Inns are not yet known at the start of the Pendragon campaign. They arise later, in cities but only rarely elsewhere, and will be frequented mostly by pilgrims and merchants. They are generally of very poor quality, unlikely to have private accommodations, a menu to choose from, or food other than common peasant fare. The inn is likely to house everyone in a single large common room with a single fireplace, with space closest to the fire charging a premium rate.
If no accommodations can be found, knights do what soldiers have always done—camp out on the cold, hard ground.