England by Foot

One of many culture clashes noticed, and suffered by Carl Philip Moritz was the treatment of travellers. He was from Prussia, a pastor fond of walking, so when he announced his plans to go for an extended walk in England, he was repeatedly warned against it. On arrival at inns, he was often refused food and/or lodgings, and treated with great rudeness , though the staff expected to be tipped for service. He was told that the English were too rich, too lazy to walk, that the roads were too dangerous – he risked being attacked by the lowest of criminals – footpads, highwaymen without horses, so easier caught, so tended to be more. But as a simple pastor with no obvious signs of wealth, he was an unlikely victim.

This rudeness seems at odds with his general treatment in this country, and seems to have been the result of the draconian Elizabethan Poor Laws that were still in force. If a traveller became sick or destitute, they had to be transferred to their place of settlement, ie the parish where they were born or apprenticed. In the case of women, this would be the place of their husband’s home, which she may never have visited. Moritz was clearly treated as a vagabond, covered in dust and unwelcome at most of the inns, though as he travelled further north towards Derbyshire, he found more tradesmen walking, and his reception generally improved.

There are many stories such as the ant and the grasshopper which condemn idlers who are seen to prey on hard working stay at homes, and there are many songs and poems about the joys of the road. England was called a nation of shopkeepers by Napoleon, and to an extent that is true. But the original shops were workshops, where tradesmen sold their wares direct to passers by. Just as factories began as manufactories, ie where things were made by hand. But before merchants settled, they were travellers.

As Nigel heard wrote in his book on international fairs:

‘by the 10th century the outcasts, pedlars and vagabonds who had kept the trickle of trade moving through the great stagnation of the Dark Ages had achieved a respectable position within the feudal society. These were the men who now formed an important part of the sturdy middle classes who were playing an ever-increasing part within the security of their town walls. This did not mean that the roads were becoming deserted. The wandering merchant might have become a settled freemen of a town, but travel was still the essence of trade. Indeed many merchants undertook long journeys themselves, especially to the important centres of commerce. Quite apart from this the merchant had become a master employer and continued to send caravans under the command of his agents and servants. In any case with the return of comparative peace to Western Europe the roads became thronged with a motley band of vagrants, quacks, beggars, pilgrims and entertainers all on their way to, or from, the ever-growing towns.”

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