Saturday, July 5, 2014

The business of communication

Thurn und Taxis board game
Rulers in the early modern period invested in expensive courier services to keep abreast of the activities of fellow-rulers. Such correspondence was of course restricted to the highest circles of "government," such as it was. By the 13th century, however, a new network of correspondence began to develop, namely, among merchant companies who were in the process of transforming the economy of Europe. Again, I take this information from Andrew Pettegree's The Invention of News (see previous post). Italian merchants, according to Pettegree, gave up the laborious activity of traveling from town to town and instead entrusted their business to brokers and agents in, for instance, Antwerp and Bruges. The introduction of paper (over parchment) made correspondence more cost-effective, leading to the construction of paper mills in Italy, France, and Germany by the 13th century. By the 15th century, "a branch system" of Italian companies dealing in various commodities led to the development of "an international European business network."

Maximilian I, by Albrecht Dürer (1519)
Interestingly, the major development in postal communications came with the reign of Maximilian I. He did not succeed in uniting the Holy Roman Empire, but he inaugurated an imperial post in 1490, two years before the Islamic kingdom of Granada was reconquered and Columbus discovered the New World. Maximilian's intention was to link his dominions in the Low Countries and Austria. The system was expanded by Charles V and Philip II who, through marriage and inheritance, became the most powerful rulers in Europe. After the conquest of the Americas, Philip II ruled over a territory larger than the old Roman empire.

It was Charles I who, in 1516, established a contract with the Taxis family who expanded Maximilian's network to Italy and Spain and established a route from Antwerp via Innsbruch to Rome and Naples. The revolutionary development was the permission received by the Taxis family to take letters for private clients. In return, the Habsburgs were relieved of the cost of maintaining the network, and the Taxis family had to invest in infrastructure: purpose-built postal stations, for instance, thereby relieving postal riders with the necessity of staying in inns.

 By the 1530s the Taxis had introduced "ordinary post": "fixed service, publicly advertised, leaving on a particular day of the week." The only imperial city within the network was Augsburg; the other German imperial cities were outside of it fearing the incursion of Habsburg institutions inside city walls. The postal service also ran all night, but city walls did not open. Even in Augsburg, where the Fuggers profited immensely from the new network, the post was outside the walls. Frankfurt was served by a postal station in Rheinhausen. As Pettegree writes, late-16th century correspondence between Italian merchants and their business partners in northern Europe (Antwerp, Cologne) was "testimony both to the continuing vitality of international trade and to the role of the imperial post in sustaining it."

Post Boys and Horses, by George Morland (1794)
To give some idea of how fast the system was it is fun to compare the pace of Goethe's travels. From the book Goethe: Der Manager by Georg Schwedt, I have learned that Goethe, when traveling by horse, was able to achieve 9 km per hour on average. Thus, "bei bis zu neun Studen im Sattel kam er auf eine Tagesstrecke von 80 bis 100 km." In contrast, writes Schwedt, "die regulären Postwagen konnten bei nicht mehr als drei Poststationen (zum Wechseln der Pferde und der Aufnahme neuer Reisenden) 70 bis 75 km zurücklegen." Even the "Extrapost mit kürzeren Aufenthaltzeiten in Poststationen kam auf maximal 100 km am Tag." Another factoid: "Schnellpost" from Frankfurt am Main to Leipzig (386 km) in 1830 required 33-34 hours. The above painting by George Morland, from 1794, suggests to me sites and conditions Goethe encountered while traveling by horse.

Picture sources: Hans im Glück; Arteparnasomania; Jane Austen's World

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