In an age before telephones or telegraphs, how fast did news travel?

One of the most fascinating history books I’ve read is the social / geographic / linguistic history, The Discovery of France by Graham Robb. He really effectively and evocatively demonstrates the effects of geography on the culture and language of France, shining a light on something that I never thought much about but which touched so many elements of French history and society.

For much of the history of that country, it was really hard to get around. There are few navigable rivers and the network of roads the country had were not very extensive and often were poorly maintained. As someone who lives in Canada and doesn’t think much of driving for 700km for seven hours to visit relatives a province away, even in winter, geography in an age before asphalt roads or motorized vehicles is a bit abstract and academic. For such a “small” country (I live in Canadian territory, so that’s most countries), France was hard to travel and easy to be isolated or to disappear.

Stagecoach and travellers on their way to Puycerda, in Ax-les-Thermes in the French Pyrenees, second half of the 19th century. Image from the Gallica archive.
In the same way, I’m unused to delays in information due to geographical distance. If I, say, want to know the up to date results of an election in a different country, or where the latest confirmed cases of Coronavirus have been found, I can pull my smartphone out of my pocket and Google it. Boom, instantaneous information. (How accurate that information is, is an entirely different and concerning question that we’re still hashing out as a society, but regardless the point still stands.) 

We read about the events of the past – for instance, the developments of the French revolution – knowing the ending, the main milestones, in advance. We don’t have to wait anxiously for news. But how quickly would you hear about these things if you lived outside of Paris during the time period? There’s a fascinating passage in Graham Robb’s book discussing it:

Long before railways and the modern telegraph, news of important events could spread across the country at amazing speeds. The usual speed for an earth-shattering piece of news travelling over a hundred miles was between 4 and 7 mph. Le Havre heard about the fall of the Bastille (late afternoon, 14 July 1789) in the early hours of 17 July. In good conditions, Brest, at the tip of the Breton peninsula, was fifty-four horse-hours from Paris. Average speeds fell drastically on longer journeys, even on post roads, where horses and riders were relayed. Béziers – five hundred and twenty miles on post roads from Paris – heard about he fall of the Bastille almost seven days after the event (an average speed of less than 4 mph). Smaller towns might be closer in space but further away in time, unless a local inhabitant happened to bring the news. Vitteaux  – a hundred and sixty-five miles from Paris in the Auxois region east of Dijon – heard about the Bastille from a local tailor who travelled without stopping for two day sand two nights at an average speed of 3 1/2 mph. Even the high-speed messengers employed by groups of traders averaged only 7 mph over long distances.

Despite this, there are several well-attested examples of news travelling at much higher speeds. The arrest of the royal family at Varennes in the Argonne was known on the other side of France in Quimper at 7a.m. on 24 June 1791. On post-roads, Quimper was five hundred and forty miles from Varennes, which means that the news reached this remote and poorly served part of France at an average speed of almost 11 mph, maintained for two days and two nights. This is faster even than the news of the Battle of Waterloo brought by fleeing soldiers. At Villers-Cotterêts, the young Alexandre Dumas found their speed of a league and a half an hour (just over 4 mph) quite extraordinary: ‘It seems that the messengers of misfortune have wings.’

The century’s greatest expert on gossip and pre-industrial telecommunications, Honoré de Balzac, suggested that rumour could travel at about 8 mph. (pages 140-1)

The author then goes on to discuss the fascinating implications of such speeds, namely how they travelled, and how much we don’t know. It wasn’t all by riders swapping horses whenever they got tired. Messenger pigeons were used by some merchants, and there was apparently at least one occasionally used network of stationary messengers who would just shout to the next person a distance away to pass along the message. But the speed that rumours travelled defies expectations, especially as researchers have determined that they often seemed to travel independently of the main arteries of roads. Geography slowed them down, but nothing can stop the human hunger for more information.

Further Reading

Stepping Off the Page: Ron Chernow’s Biography of Alexander Hamilton

I have been working my way through Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton over the course of the last few months. It is a truly excellent work of popular history. As a Canadian historian, I’d never really been exposed to much of the detailed history of the American revolutionary era and early decades of the United States, and the early financial and political history of the independent country is surprisingly fascinating. I think a lot of my newfound fascination is a testament to Chernow’s ability to both humanize historical figures but also parse out their politics in an engaging, clear, and detailed way. The country could have gone in so many other directions. Chernow does an amazing job of laying out just how fragile the early republic was. Too often the success of the revolution and the formation of the American state as we know it today is treated almost like political certainty, or some sort of destiny, but reading this book you get a real sense of how figures like Washington and Hamilton could have lost, not just the revolution but in other great projects of theirs that they’re known for. I now understand much better why there were amendments to the American constitution. I understand early banking a lot better, and how sketchy people thought it was then … and I can see parallels to today with people who are not financially literate having very firm ideas about the politics determining the finances of a nation. I have a better sense of just how vicious the early politics could be, with politicians publishing anonymous diatribes about each other either using proxy authors or thinly-veiled pseudonyms themselves. Some of it was incredibly petty, and a lot of it was character assassination and treating rumours as fact. (So… the more things change, the more things stay the same?) Nevertheless, the sheer amount of detail that Chernow draws together in this work boggles my mind.

I really like Chernow’s authorial voice. He sets the tone early, in his very first author’s note before the title page:

In order to make the text as fluent as possible and the founders less remote, I have taken the liberty of modernizing the spelling and punctuation of eighteenth-century prose, which can seem antiquated and jarring to modern eyes. I have also cured many contemporary newspaper editors of their addiction to italics and capitalized words. Occasionally, I have retained the original spelling to emphasize the distinctive voice, strong emotion, patent eccentricity, or curious education of the person quoted. I trust that these exceptional cases, and my reasons for wanting to reproduce them precisely, will be evident to the alert reader.

Chernow has an evocative way of gathering together content from what must be thousands of pages of primary research into an incredible cohesive narrative. It almost reads like a novel. The historical figures nearly step off of the page, and not just in their grander moments. Take, for instance, this bit about Hamilton’s immediately post-war job as an up-and-coming New York lawyer:

The departure of many Tory lawyers had cleared the path for capable, ambitious men in their late twenties and early thirties, including Burr, Brockholst Livingston, Robert Troup, John Laurance, and Morgan Lewis. They were constantly thrown together in and out of court. Much of the time they rode the circuit together, often accompanied by the judge, enduring long journeys in crude stagecoaches that jolted along jumpy upstate roads. They stayed in crowded, smoky inns and often had to share beds with one another, creating a camaraderie that survived many political battles. (pg. 188)

These are the kinds of details I find fascinating. (I am a social historian, not normally a political one.) How did these people know each other? What had they been through together? It’s often in little details like these that we get really good contextual information to the relationships of historical figures. It’s interesting how the everyday details of people’s lives influenced their politics.

I also loved the moment where Chernow describes the secular leanings of Hamilton at Constitutional Convention:

When [Benjamin] Franklin suggested on June 28 that each session start with a prayer for heavenly help, Hamilton countered that this might foster a public impression that ’embarrassments and dissensions within the convention had suggested this measure.’ According to legend, Hamilton also rebutted Franklin with the jest that the convention didn’t need ‘foreign aid.’ The Lord did not seem much in evidence at this point in the convention. One story, perhaps apocryphal, claims that when Hamilton was asked why the framers omitted the word God from the Constitution, he replied, ‘We forgot.’ One is tempted to reply that Alexander Hamilton never forgot anything important. (pg. 235)

I now have a much better understanding of how the story of Alexander Hamilton inspired Lin Manuel Miranda to write his amazing musical, famously based on this book. The life of Alexander Hamilton is almost too dramatic to be true. I wanted to highlight the following story in particular, as it really stuck in my mind. I believe it would make an amazing television episode by itself. During the revolutionary war, Hamilton was acting as aide-de-camp to General George Washington…

Washington dispatched Hamilton, Captain Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee (father of Robert E. Lee), and eight cavalrymen to burn flour mills on the Schuylkill River before they fell into enemy hands. While Hamilton and others were destroying flour at Daviser’s … Ferry, their sentinels fired a warning shot indicating the approach of British dragoons. To guarantee an escape route, Hamilton had moored a flat-bottomed boat at the river’s edge. He and three comrades now leaped into the craft and pushed off from shore, while Lee and others took off on horseback. Lee recalled the British raking Hamilton’s boat with repeated volleys from their carbines, killing one of Hamilton’s men and wounding another. All the while, the intrepid Hamilton was ‘struggling against a violent current, increased by the recent rains.’ Hamilton and his men finally drove from the boat into the swirling waters and swam to safety. Scarcely stopping for breath, Hamilton dashed off a message to John Hancock that urged the immediately evacuation of the Continental Congress from Philadelphia. Just before Hamilton returned to headquarters, Washington received a letter from Captain Lee announcing Hamilton’s death in the Schuylkill. There were tears of jubilation, as well as considerable laughter, when the sodden corpse himself sauntered through the door. (pg. 98-99)

This is what public history is supposed to do. It is a good story, and an evocative and accessible one. This one scene, in and among all of the others that Chernow writes about, highlights elements of Hamilton’s character, the part he played in the revolution, and the relationships he has with other historical figures such as Washington. Drawing these types of vignettes together to tell the story of a person’s life: that’s a historian’s job.

The role of a historian is in part to gather together evidence of past historical events, critically analyze them, and assemble them into coherent narratives. As Chernow himself has said: “History is long, messy, and complicated.” However, Chernow does an excellent job at portraying that messiness in a way that doesn’t put people on a pedestal, and makes sense of the many factions of that period in American history. The men and women that Chernow writes about don’t feel as remote to me anymore. I particularly like how Chernow sometimes highlights their handwriting. The materiality of a document can tell a historian a lot about the person writing it and the circumstances under which they wrote it. For instance, lot of the surviving dispatches in Washington’s name from the revolutionary war are in Hamilton’s handwriting (being an aide-de-camp involved effectively being a secretary among other duties), testifying to just how involved Hamilton was with Washington’s inner circle at critical moments during the war. There’s also this charming aside about Hamilton and his wife Eliza:

On April 30, 1781, Hamilton sent a marathon letter to Morris – it runs to thirty-one printed pages – that set forth a fully-fledged system for shoring up American credit and creating a national bank. Portions of this interminable letter exist in Eliza’s handwriting (complete with her faulty spelling), as if Hamilton’s hand ached and he had to pass the pen to his bride at intervals. (pg. 156)

I’m not only picturing them as static paintings and statues, as formal words spoken in florid or stoic language, but as real human beings with all their foibles and physical weaknesses and petty words, with their passions and dedication to duty.  The figures in Chernow’s biography get tired, they get sick, and they get frustrated with one another. They defend their ideals against all comers. They have great passions and they have tender moments with their loved ones. They’re people. Fascinating ones.

And oh man I’m only about 400 pages into an 800 page tome, and I’m so excited to read more.


  • Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. (Of course.)
  • Ron Chernow Interview: Hamilton on Broadway: Chernow talks about how he came to be involved in Lin Manuel Miranda’s project, and the process of adapting an 800 page book into a two hour musical. Adaptation necessitates a straightforward narrative, so how does a historical consultant grapple with ideas of “historical accuracy” in a new medium?
  • Speaking of writing: if you’re interested in learning more about the clever writing of Lin Manuel Miranda in his musical based off of this book, I highly recommend this video: “Hamilton and Motifs: Creating Emotional Paradoxes.” (Bonus, it has clips of the musical that I can’t find elsewhere!)

Notable Knitters of Yore: the Stilt-Walking Shepherds of France

Later this month, I’ll be presenting a talk entitled Interpreting Ecology in a Cultural Context: Respecting the “Buffalo”  at the National Association For Interpretation’s International Conference in Reims, France. (Come say “Hello/Bonjour!”) I’ll be arriving in France a week early to travel through Normandy, visiting friends and historic sites.

To prepare myself for that leg of the trip, I’ve been rereading one of my favourite European history books: The Discovery of France by Graham Robb. It’s a geographical and linguistic history of France outside of the history of the military, aristocracy, or Paris. (AKA the rest of the country, which is rarely spoken about.) This book shifted my entire perspective of French history, namely because Robb eloquently makes the argument that, well, French history isn’t really full of that many French speakers. France is full of hundreds of little, isolated communities, and until very recently (with the advent of trains and highways), it was a very rough country to navigate. Some of my favourite fun facts from this book:

  • There were in fact more accurate maps of the surface of the moon than the interior of France in the 1740s.
  • There are some gorgeous dialect words that have apparently made their way into standardized French. Some new and delightfully specific ones I learned are “affender” (to share a meal with an unexpected visitor), “aranteler” (to sweep away spider’s webs), “carquet” (a secret place between breast and corset), and “river” (to strip off leaves by running one’s hand along a branch).
  • For most of its history, French has been a minority language in the land now known as France. Only about 8 million people, or 20% of the population, of France in 1880 felt comfortable speaking French (as understood by Parisians). That’s not to say that this 20% were native French speakers – that’s 20% could hold a basic conversation in French. There were still French soldiers from Brittany in the First World War who were shot either because of insubordination (they didn’t understand their French orders) or because these Breton-speakers were mistaken for Germans.
  • There were shepherds in the Landes region who wore long stilts all day as they followed their sheep. Even on marshy terrain, they could apparently travel at the speed of a trotting horse. Oh, and they had a third stick they used as a seat to create a tripod, and they would knit as they watched over their flocks.
Shepherd from Landes watching over his flocks. Image via the Bibliothèque de Bordeaux.

I very deliberately didn’t post this entry on April 1st, lest it be interpreted as an April Fool’s Day joke. As far as I’m aware, shepherds in the Landes actually did (and sometimes still do) go about on stilts.

Shepherd of Landes, 1818-1819. Image from the Bibliothèque de Bordeaux

Further Reading and More Images

“Berger des Landes” (the Shepherd of Landes/the Wastes), 1820, via the Bibliothèque de Bordeaux. (I can’t help but feel this image would serve as excellent inspiration for a character in someone’s historical fantasy novel.)

The Surprising Link Between 18th Century French Fashion and the Partition of Poland

These are examples of what is called a robe à la polonaise.  As a non-native but fluent French speaker, I always mentally translated its name as a “dress in the Polish style”, like robe à la française or robe à l’anglaise. Not knowing much about the history of 18th century fashion, I just assumed that it was the style of dress popular among Polish aristocrats that at some point became de rigeur in fashionable French circles, like how “dresses in the English style” came to be popular in France.

However, last week I was drawn into Caroline Weber’s masterful work Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. It’s a detailed, nuanced, and fascinating history of the politics of Marie Antoinette’s body and fashion choices, and how they were interpreted by the court and by the public. This particular passage caught my attention:

“… the polonaise did represent a significant move away from such [artificial, aristocratic] costumes by eliminating the restrictive paniers and train of the grand habit and the robe à la française and replacing them with a pert little bustle made from layers of glued cotton. The cut of the overdress was loose. . . and its overskirt was looped up around the hips into three jaunty swags. (These three swags were what gives the dress its name, after the three way partitioning of Poland by Austria, Russia, and Prussia. . .)” (page 147)

Weber discussed many other instances where Marie Antoinette and her compatriots commemorated contemporary events through fashion, often through the elaborate pouf hairstyle. Marie Antoinette’s body was a canvas upon which she could assert her political positions. It is in-character but adds another layer of meaning onto the dresses in this style that I found completely surprising!

Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Français, 30e. Cahier de Costumes
“Jeune Dame en robe à la Polonoise.” Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts

Further Reading on the History of Fashion

  • Weber, Caroline. Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. New York: Picador; Henry Holt and Company, 2006.
  • The “Fripperies and Fobs” tumblr for a random assortment of historical fashion pieces from collections all over the world.
  • An Agreeable Tyrant: Fashion After the Revolution“: using actual extant examples of clothing, this website traces American fashion trends from 1780 to 1825.