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.

Diligence_et_voyageurs_en_route_[...]Trutat_Eugène_btv1b10579083z_1
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

Return to Rouen Part One: the Ossuary of Saint Maclou

My friend and author Erin Kinsella interviewed me last year about travelling to Rouen, Normandy, in France. I gushed about the history of Joan of Arc, elaborate clocktowers, impressionist history, and an amazingly eclectic ironworks museum. In November 2016, I had the opportunity to return to Rouen. One of the odd but fascinating places I visited was the Aître Saint-Maclou.

“Aître” comes from the Latin word for “atrium” or courtyard, and was used to talk about cemeteries in medieval France. This place had been used as a cemetery dating back to the Great Plague of 1348, though most of the buildings date from the early 16th century, when the plague returned to the city and it began to be used as an ossuary to make room for the more recent dead. Most of the skeletons were moved to the Mont Gargan cemetery in 1780, but recently more skeletons were discovered in the courtyard by archaeologists. The style of buildings, with the white walls and wooden crossbeams, is seen all over Rouen, but this is the only place that I could ever find that had such carvings. They’re all decorated with danse macabre skeletons, skulls and crossbones, and the tools of the trade of gravediggers. There is even a mummified cat on display!

The Aître Saint-Maclou is one of the few surviving examples of medieval charnel houses that still exist in Europe.

Aitre Saint Maclou, 1908
The Aitre Saint Maclou in 1908. Photo courtesy of the Institut national d’histoire de l’art.

Further Reading

Elk Island National Park: What’s in a Name?

Beautiful Elk Island National Park! But where did its name come from? Is there an Elk Island on the lake? Or is it all a beautiful metaphor?

sunset-over-astotin-lake-4-september-2016
Is THIS Elk Island? (Photo by the author of Astotin Lake at Elk Island National Park, 4 September 2016.)

When I first arrived at Elk Island in 2014, I went searching for the origins of the park’s name. The “elk” part of the park’s name made intuitive sense, as it is pretty well-established that Elk Island had been founded as a federally controlled elk preserve in 1906.

But where did the “Island” in its name come from?

Islands of Astotin Lake
Yes, there was an island on Astotin Lake called “Elk Island”, but it is now a peninsula. That name came later, though, and it is so called because elk apparently used to swim out there to give birth. So no, that island wasn’t important enough to name the entire park after it. Image courtesy of Parks Canada.

 

Visitor guides from the 1980s seemed to go the metaphor route. Judith Cornish wrote in Finding Birds in Elk Island National Park (1988): “Elk Island – an island of wilderness in a sea of rural development.” Jean Burgess in Walk on the Wild Side: An All Season Trail Guide to Elk Island National Park (1986) also described the park in its introduction as an “‘island’ of wilderness.” I’ve heard ecologists talk about how the Beaver Hills, where the park is found, are like an island of unique geology, rising up above the surrounding landscape. That may well be true, but is it where the park’s name came from?

I had read early newspapers that called the place “Elk Park” before it became a dominion park with the Dominion Parks Act of 1913, at which point it became “Elk Island Dominion Park.” Why the addition of the word “Island” at that time?

So I did what any historian would have done… I looked it up.

I went over to Peel’s Prairie Provinces, an archive of Western Canadiana, and did a quick search of their newspaper archive. I put “Elk Island” in quotation marks to get an exact phrase, and then sorted the newspapers in ascending order of dates to get the oldest entries. And wouldn’t you know it – I found my answer in an article from 1908, a bare two years after the park was founded but five  years before it gained its full name officially with the parks act of 1913:

“Quite apart from the attractions which the park will have for those who love wild animal life, the scenic beauty of the park and its surroundings will make a powerful appeal. It is four miles square and the lake, from which it obtains its name, is situated wholly within its borders, being two miles long by an average width of a mile and a half. It contains twenty-one of the most beautiful islands imaginable…”

  • Elk Island Lake Park: One of the Beauty Spots of Alberta,” Saturday News (January 25, 1908): 1.

I have since read elsewhere that Astotin Lake was also once called “Island Lake,” like in this caption from a photo album circa 1910:

PC003646.2
Island Lake in Elk Park, Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, circa 1910. Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

From 1906 to 1922 (when the park expanded its borders to what is now the Yellowhead highway) the park was a little fenced postage stamp of land around Astotin (Island) Lake with a bunch of elk. People came to admire the park’s two distinctive features:  the elk and the islands. Hence:  Elk Island National Park.

Also, the name “Buffalo National Park” was already taken.

Postcards That Intrigue Me #7: Wildlife in Jasper National Park

This weekend, I’m heading off to Jasper National Park, so my historian brain immediately thought of the many tourists who have explored the park over the past century. Wildlife, then as now, was a huge draw for visitors, but there was plenty to see and do in Jasper! Here is a historical photo album compiled from various images from my favourite database of historical postcards, Peel’s Prairie Provinces. These photographs largely date from the 1920s through the 1940s, but the wonder at the many sights of Jasper is timeless!

Related Blog Posts

Postcards That Intrigue Me, #4: Moose-Drawn Carriages

Today I was attempting to chase down a few historical images of a moose transfer from Elk Island in the 1940s (as one does), and instead ran across something very intriguing. A few months back, I spotted a similar postcard of a chariot being pulled by bison from approximately the same era. Was this a trend in the first two decades of the twentieth century in Western Canada? Let’s see what’s the oddest animal we can hitch up to our buggies…? Was there a shortage of horses or oxen in Alberta that I’m unaware of…?

Gano J.H (Photographer) . [Early transport]. [Wainwright]: Photo J.H. Gano, [before 1920]. PC005072. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces. http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC005072.html
Gano J.H (Photographer) . [Early transport]. [Wainwright]: Photo J.H. Gano, [before 1920]. PC005072. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Novelty Manufacturing & Art Printing Co (Publisher) . Canadian scene, an old team - but they can go some. Montreal: Novelty Manufacturing & Art Printing Co., Montreal, cca. 1911. peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC009664.html
Novelty Manufacturing & Art Printing Co (Publisher). “Canadian scene, an old team – but they can go some.” Montreal: Novelty Manufacturing & Art Printing Co., circa. 1911.  PC009664. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Judging by all appearances, despite the different publishers of these two postcards, it appears to be the same team of moose: one male, one female – and the same buggy, with potentially the same driver. The entry for the second postcard on Peel’s Prairie Provinces includes the following transcription of the description of the image on the reverse (unscanned), which charmingly gives the names of the two moose, as well as the driver: “W.R. (Billy) Day driving two moose (Pete and Nellie) at Edmonton Exhibition.”

Edit: Further information can be found in this St. Albert Gazette article. Apparently Mr. Day (also called “Buffalo” Bill Day) raised these moose and used the buggy to deliver mail to the City of St. Albert.