I'm aware of the historically importance of rivers for earlier civilizations. Some of the most significant economies of the past were built on the bank of a river.

I would like to know if:

  1. Was it possible to navigate a river against the current on a medieval boat?

  2. If it depends on the river, I'm more interested on the Douro river, starting at Oporto city (Portugal) and going to Spain (Valladolid). What would be the requirements of a medieval ship to get two people to make this trip?

  3. If that was not possible, I would like to know if there was any value on walking along with the flow of the river, and if it was a common practice at the medieval time.

  • Yes, you could row or you could pay people to pull your ship forward while they're walking on a path made for that purpose. About question 2, what are you asking? Obviously the boat has to be big enough for two people. 3. Of course, people walked a lot in medieval times. Not really sure why you're even asking that.
    – Jeroen K
    Dec 6, 2014 at 22:20
  • Dear @JeroenK, thanks for your time. The question is about possibility and common practice in the middle ages. If the current of a river is too strong, then it could be not possible (or worthy) to go against it. And question 3 is about which is the desirable walking path from Oporto to Valladolid: a road or going along with the river.
    – Chaotic
    Dec 6, 2014 at 22:29
  • I see, I won't be able to answer that though.
    – Jeroen K
    Dec 6, 2014 at 22:41
  • 4
    If you think about it, obviously you could do it, since the alternative was building the ships upriver, and dismantling them after a single trip.
    – o0'.
    Dec 7, 2014 at 13:30
  • 1
    This was a common practice in the early frontier in the Ohio river valley. Flatboats would be made, floated with cargo downriver to New Orleans, and broken up. The crew would walk back overland on the Nachez Trace and other trails.
    – Oldcat
    Feb 29, 2016 at 22:03

2 Answers 2


In response to question (1), very much so. You could row the boat, you could pole it, you could have it towed by people or beasts of burden, or if the wind was in your favor, you could sail up the river. Poling and towing, in particular, could be used on any navigable river regardless of how strong the current was.

  • Even if the wind was blowing downstream, couldn't you tack? I guess the river would have to be wide enough to come about, the current would have to be slow enough, and the river would have to be deep enough to allow sailing on it with a vessel that had a keel.
    – user2848
    Dec 9, 2014 at 3:03

Yes. Punts, Barges and Hulks were poled or towed up river.

Here's a book with multiple chapters focused on Southern Northern Europe: Medieval Boat and Ship Finds of Germany, the Low Countries, and Northeast France

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