This one’s been a long time coming. Back in March I posted this piece about how medieval banking actually worked and how we can integrate banking into our games to make them more immersive. I mentioned off-handedly that I would write a piece on medieval postal services at some point.
Here is that piece, or at least the first part of it. I realised in workshopping this piece I’d need to split it into ‘How’ and ‘Why’.
Let’s get stuck in.
How Do I Run A Postal Service?
Ok so we may have put the cart before the horse by starting with ‘how’ and skipping ‘why’ (for now) but let’s just assume you already know why. In truth we have to go a little more broad than just ‘how do I run one’ because, in truth, there was basically no such thing as a medieval postal service. Or rather, there’s no such thing as a postal service in the way we might recognise one today, or even in the form of generally accepted practices like what we saw in the banking world in the last piece.
This means what we’re really going to do here is examine the potential ways a postal service can be operated, how each one works, and draw upon some real-life examples where applicable. To make this easier I’m going to start with something more medieval and work my way forward through time from there as we generate example postal services. Unlike banking, postage changed significantly across the Early Modern.
Let’s start with something quite fundamental to postage: the writing of letters. Remember that widespread literacy is an extremely modern concept. Most folk couldn’t read or write or even spell their own names. In fact the main reason there wasn’t much of a postal service until the early industrial period was because there simply weren’t enough people writing letters to justify one.
But a few people were writing letters and those people needed those letters transported. These people would have been nobles, diplomats (often nobles in their own right), wealthier merchants, and high-ranking military officials (who again are probably nobles).
What this means is for anything on the more medieval end of things we have a low-demand system as there are not many people actually sending letters, but when that demand is there it’s extremely urgent. A lord sending something even as mundane as news of his father’s passing to his nearest liege is highly pertinent to those who need to ensure the continued governance of a peoples. A merchant informing a business partner of a disastrous transaction requires the information be carried at the greatest possible speed1 with close care.
The system that emerges in light of this is going to be very expensive.
A Rider In The Night
In our world postal services in this era took the form of riders placed at various stations along key roads. Letters would be sent from point of origin and handed from rider to rider as each horse reached its limit of exertion until the letter arrived at its destination. The cost of a letter running through this system needed to account for the extreme cost of maintaining a network of horses dotted around the countryside.
Though here we can again look at who was using this system to better understand how that cost was shouldered. It was predominantly, in fact almost entirely, nobles and landed gentry. This meant the system might well be able to be funded by a government. While nobles of various rankings might use the system it is the Duke above them all that is responsible for its funding.
Alternatively, such a system may be privatised. Wealthy merchants may operate these postal horse networks knowing that the landed gentry can be charged enormous prices for access to this critical service. Perhaps your world will have a mix of the two. That being said, when a neighbouring army comes rolling through the countryside, shutting down undefended rider stations is a great way to leave their enemy in disarray as their lines of communication are shut down. Perhaps it would be better if the Duke, who can levy an army, were the one in charge of the post…
But this all only applies to the fastest, most sensitive mail.
Not every letter is urgent. Indeed correspondence-as-recreation still existed. Now yes, such a writer may still be wealthy enough to send their letters via our expensive horse-based postal service (and indeed may do so as a show of wealth to their friends), but let’s assume they don’t want to or otherwise can’t afford to. How do they get their mail around?
Well at this point we must look to those who might already be travelling from place to place. Performing troupes, travelling merchants, marching armies, and so forth, become the primary carriers of mail. A merchant caravan rolls through town so you ask if they might be headed to Abbotsford soon and, if they are, whether they could carry a letter for you and seek out Hammond Leyland.
Nobody’s going to carry your mail for free though. The merchant says ‘Aye we’ll be at Abbotsford by the Summer, that’ll cost you a Drak and a Half.’
But what happens if the merchant isn’t going to Abbotsford? Well he may instead say something like ‘We’ll be near there, I could pass it along when we get to Blithewyn just before the summer.’
Now you have two options, you can send it now or you can wait for another traveller to come by and hope they’re going to Abbotsford. You decide to send it now.
So what happens when the letter gets to Blithewyn? The merchant can’t charge you full delivery price, since he’s not taking it all the way to Abbotsford, so he’s only got one Drak out of you. He could pay someone else to take the letter the rest of the way, but that cuts into his profit. What does he do?
He sells the letter.
The merchant approaches another merchant he knows who will make the jaunt to Abbotsford and says ‘I got paid a Drak for this, buy it from me for three Jots and you can sell it to Hammond Leyland in Abbotsford for probably a full Half.’. That’s a nice tidy profit for the merchant in Blithewyn, so he agrees. A few days later the letter reaches Hammond who pays a Half to receive his friend’s letter.
In a non-centralised postal system these varying cuts will be standard. Paying to both send and receive letters would be standard, even if the same merchant is in fact carrying the letter the whole way. ‘If this letter is important enough to you, you will pay me for the privilege of receiving it, else I’ll be on my way…’
Maybe the letter never even reaches the intended recipient. Such is life.
Inner City Living
So far we have covered long-haul post. What about in cities? Well, as we draw the focus more on urban post we also naturally trend more modern. Remember that pre-industrial cities were not necessarily enormous. If you were wanting to correspond with a resident in the same city as you it would probably be easier to just seek them out in person.
Sometimes messages need to be left though. Your friend Jubal is out of town on business and you’ll be leaving before he returns, so you write him a letter and drop it at his address personally. Actually no, you’re in a hurry, you can’t stop by his house. What to do?
Well you just do the same as what we covered in the last section. You pay someone to drop the letter at a given address (that is if you don’t otherwise have a house servant, spouse, child, or confidant who could deliver it for you). Odds are it’ll arrive, but maybe not.
But as we go further into the future and approach early industrial cities we get two things occurring (at least in the real world). One, cities grow physically larger. A house call may be far more time-consuming now. Two, more people are becoming literate (and there’s a growing merchant class). More people have cause to write letters now.
An enterprising individual sets up ‘Patenoy’s Post! Fast, secure, delivery guaranteed!’. He has in his employ a number of boys and young men who are physically fit such that they can comfortably jog around the city all day delivering letters. Most can do 3 or more deliveries a day!
Now a series of small postal services start popping up around the city. Each suburb might have a postal hub (or indeed central office) within walking distance of most residents. You drop your letter off there in the morning with instructions on where it’s going and the letter is passed to one of the mailboys who runs it to its destination sometime during the day. The cost of the letter needs to cover the employment cost of the runner, but the runner is doing multiple deliveries per day which brings the cost per-letter down significantly.
With multiple small-scale services running they might even start needing to compete. If you live within walking distance of both Patenoy’s and Percilly’s postal services but Patenoy still tries to charge the recipient upon delivery while Percilly doesn’t then you will favour Percilly’s service.
Now another enterprising individual sees an opportunity. Her business is limited to those who live near her office and wish to write letters. She sends flyers out to the residents of the next suburb over saying ‘Drop your letters with Penelope’s Postal Runners! Spot them in scarlet shirts on your local street corner!’
Penelope has extended the service to include pick up. Now the runner takes the letter from a local, runs it to Penelope’s office, and Penelope hands it along to another runner for delivery. Some of the people in her employ do pick-ups (as ensuring the letter reaches the office quickly is paramount) and some do deliveries. Letters might go a little slower, but the convenience of being able to drop off anywhere you might see a scarlet-shirted runner makes it worthwhile. Then a competitor of Penelope’s starts leaving scarlet-painted lockboxes around the streets with information on them explaining you can put letters into the slot and runners will come to clear them each day. Even better! Now you don’t even have to spot some runner going about his day, you can just go to the nearest lockbox.
In purely capitalistic theory, eventually one postal service offering the full ‘pick up, drop off’ package will come to dominate the free market and become city-wide.
A particularly profitable company may even be able to start operating long-distance services to other major urban centres (perhaps their cousin owns another major service in the next-nearest big city).
I’m sure you can extrapolate from here and see how this will eventually evolve into something resembling a modern postal service. But this assumes privatisation (at least under the modern understanding of the word). There’s one thing that a private postal service can’t quite offer…
For Your Eyes Only
Informational security is hard to come by. Even if most letters are mundane, some aren’t. Indeed, what if the government needs to send letters from their parliamentary house out to their municipal offices and vice-versa? Would they entrust something like census data to a private postal service? Absolutely not.
In fact as the city’s government sees these private postal services become more efficient and profitable they will begin taking them over to offer them as city services (alongside things like sewerage, streetlighting, etc). The government assigns a Master of Posts to oversee the system. The whole thing is profitable enough (and the government is funded by taxes anyway) that they can generate efficiencies that the private system cannot. They can also do things like hire auditors and security people so that sensitive information can move through the now highly-efficient mail system. Things like postage stamps as a pseudo-currency to make payment easier and homogenisation of postage costs based on distance can now be implemented. The postal service becomes almost a force of nature.
By the time we reach the 1800’s there could be up to 12 regular mail deliveries per day in places like London. You could get up in the morning, read the letter your friend sent late last night, pen a response over breakfast, post it on the way to work, receive a response by lunchtime, and send a receive two more letters before bed. The speed of correspondence was unprecedented. Such is the power of the post.
I had to use that header at least once.
Look, trust me when I say that the history of postal services is fascinating. In England the first central postal offices start popping up as early as the 1600’s. In some places private postal services competed with one-another, in some places multiple postal services were operated by different parts of the government, in some places postage remained largely decentralised until the advent of the telegraph.
In essence all I’ve really laid out here is some of the structures a postal service might take on and how they would operate. When it comes time to integrate such a thing into your campaign worlds start with what exactly you want the postal service to do for your world. If it’s simply window dressing for immersion’s sake then don’t sweat the details, but past that if you want to unlock certain gameplay opportunities presented by postal services then you need a robust idea of what gameplay opportunities you’re actually interested in.
You need to figure out Why you want a postal service.
And so we come to an end of the first part. With a good foundational knowledge of different forms of postal service we will now in the next part begin exploring what opportunities and challenges each style of postal service presents your players.
Thank you as always for reading! If you like what I do then give me some support on Patreon. The more people support me there, the more time and effort I can put into research-heavy pieces like this one!
1This, by the way, is where we get part of the messy etymology of the word ‘Post’ in the way we mean it when we talk about posting a letter. The idea of riders and horse stations ‘Posted’ at intervals gives us the term ‘Post’, and given that this system is the fastest way of conveying such information we then find terms like ‘Post Haste’.