The ‘legs’ of the community: Of pedlars and the imperial Taxis Post

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In the early modern era, wayfarers and messengers were the main source of news, conveying gossip as well as delivering aristocratic correspondence. However, information services were soon to undergo systematic organization.

In early modern times, oral communication was often the only means of disseminating information. As only a very small part of the population could read and write, any news had to be passed on by word of mouth. The journeymen, students, pedlars and itinerant workers of the time were often referred to as the ‘legs of the community’ when in the course of their travels they were asked to carry messages. Conveying messages and letters was even one of the obligatory services demanded by the feudal lords from their peasant subjects. In larger towns, the monasteries, universities and enterprises such as that of the Fugger family had employed ‘professional’ couriers since the Middle Ages.

Messengers on foot were able to walk between 25 and 40 kilometres a day, while runners often covered more than 60. By comparison, stage coaches were only able to travel about 37 kilometres on average every day as there were few roads and the distance between the wheel tracks varied, which meant that the axles of carts and wagons had to be frequently lengthened or shortened in the course of a single trip.

In 1490, Franz von Taxis set up an innovative organization for distributing correspondence. Known as the Taxis Post, it conveyed messages faster and more efficiently across the Habsburg lands. The first regular route was established between Innsbruck (and later Vienna) to Brussels. The route had several staging posts where horses and couriers were changed. A relay of riders covering a distance of up to 150 kilometres a day ensured an uninterrupted flow of communication. Rudolf II declared the Taxis Post an imperial prerogative, with the intention of disrupting the postal operations of the Estates – with little success, however. A comprehensive postal system was also established in the Protestant lands.

In the second half of the seventeenth century the postal routes which had previously served to transport goods and information were extended to include passengers. Previously used as a means of transport for women, children and the elderly or infirm, travelling by coach now became socially acceptable for all.

Anita Winkler