The Use of the Ass, Mule and Horse in Medieval Travel


Whether travelling singly, or in a group, the medieval traveller often used pack animals either to carry luggage, or to ride upon.

The Ass as a Form of Transport in Medieval Times

The ass, a native of North Africa and Arabia was used as a form of transport from Biblical times and by the medieval times, was well-established as a means of transport and of travel. Since an ass can carry both a person and luggage, it was an ideal way to transport the medieval traveller, particularly across mountainous regions, where other animals would falter.

The ass was particularly used by members of religious orders, as riding an ass was seen as a form of humility, whilst horses were regarded as an animal for the upper classes. Because Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, many clerics were keen to follow his example.

The Horse as a Form of Transport in Medieval Times

Because the horse is a stronger and generally faster animal than the ass, it tended to be the transport of choice for moneyed people and those who needed to travel quickly, perhaps with urgent news. From the eleventh century onwards, successful breeding had made sturdy and reliable horses, some of which were strong battle chargers, others which were more suitable for long journeys. One of the reasons that horses were favoured by wealthier people was that a horse was less economical to keep than an ass. A horse could be fed on oats, which during medieval times, formed a significant portion of the human diet and so could be costly to feed to an animal.

The Mule as a Form of Transport in Medieval Times

A mule, which is an offspring of a he-ass and a mare, was another sturdy animal which could prove its worth on medieval journeys. The mule was particularly noted for its endurance, and so was an ideal mount for a long or arduous journey, particularly since it was less expensive to feed than a horse. However, for all pack animals, the costs of stabling, hay, and food all had to be taken into consideration.

Other animals used in the Middle Ages for travel included the camel, the elephant, and oxen, which were also used as plough animals on the medieval farm. Goats and sheeps were often taken on crusade, as not only could they be used to carry goods, but could be killed and eaten during the journey.