We know a lot about some famous people from letters they have written and received. It seems that a lot more communication with people who were important in their lives was written instead of face-to-face, as it generally is today thanks to technology, i.e. because of video communication we can now talk face-to-face with someone on the other side of the world via the internet.

I think most of us have heard concerned people complaining that computers, smart phones, etc. have made us less sociable but I'm wondering if we were artificially sociable previously due to advanced transportation (cars and high-speed trains) before real-time, affordable long-distance communication?

So between the 15th and 19th centuries in Europe and England, did people who did not live in close proximity (lets say middle class people) write to each other as their primary form of communication because travel was prohibitively difficult/expensive or did they often meet face-to-face and reserve writing to each other for special occasions? Was socialising mostly done with people in the immediate neighbourhood or did people frequently travel for a long time to meet their friends, family and acquaintances? (e.g. it might take me between half an hour to one and a half hours to visit my friends and family or travel to work).

  • 2
    I'm skeptical of the notion of "middle class" people in the 15th century.
    – MCW
    Oct 4, 2015 at 1:07
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    You may wish to consider pilgrimage.
    – MCW
    Oct 4, 2015 at 1:09
  • @Mark Thank you for the link to that fascinating article, but it's more about medieval tourism than visiting people they already knew.
    – CJ Dennis
    Oct 4, 2015 at 10:02
  • Sorry - my thought was incomplete. Correspondence relies on the existence of a correspondent. Pilgrimage seems to be the most plausible way to have a correspondent, and therefore to create the correspondence you wish to study. If I recall correctly, the article touched tangentially on other issues of social range. IIRC, the article also discusses the cost of travel (which your question seems to underestimate).
    – MCW
    Oct 4, 2015 at 11:38
  • @Mark I am interested in people like Gilbert and Sullivan, who exchanged many letters, and also collaborated on 14 operas in the late 19th century. My understanding is that Gilbert would send the words to Sullivan who would then compose the music. It's my feeling that they only met in person occasionally, despite "working together". Also, La Cecchina was written by northern Italian, composed by a southern Italian and first performed in 1760. These people weren't uneducated commoners nor nobility, hence why I'm asking about the "middle class".
    – CJ Dennis
    Oct 5, 2015 at 3:31

1 Answer 1


There is little doubt that until 19s century most people could communicate and socialize only with those in close proximity to them. Travel was slow, expensive and dangerous. But regular mail service was also not available to everyone in most places, most of the time. When we read in the history of mail that such and such emperor "established mail service", this usually means that he established it for himself, not for the general public. Regular mail which anyone can use seems to be the 19s century institution, even in the most advanced countries of Europe.

Until that time, rich people could use couriers and messengers (or various kinds of private mail), and ordinary people had to use occasions, passing a message with someone traveling. The examples are abundant in the literature.

Even in the first half of 20s century, people traveled much less than they do not, much less people could travel, and the main mean of communication was mail.


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    It's not a specialised source, but I read in Nelson's Trafalgar by Roy Adkins that "Some men were lured [into service in the Navy] by the prospect of travel. In an age when people seldom went anywhere beyond the nearest market town and those from another county were commonly dubbed `foreigners', travel was an indulgence of the rich."
    – JMVanPelt
    Oct 3, 2015 at 18:47
  • Yes, the evidence from the literature is abundant, that ordinary people traveled very rarely, and most of them did not travel at all.
    – Alex
    Oct 3, 2015 at 19:28
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    Benjamin Franklin's papers include many letters sent to and from other middle class people; he was even head of the USPS briefly, at least 50 years before the period in your answer.
    – Qsigma
    Jan 15, 2018 at 16:55

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