I read some sources that transport by boat over European rivers developed already in the early medieval period, ie after having developed ships with low draft as well as the invention of a controllable rudder. However, boats were mostly used for transport of goods. Transport of passengers developed much later, ie late medieval period (1350-1500), despite there being many travelers, such as merchants and pilgrims.

  1. Why did passenger transport over water take off so much later? Was it because the passenger numbers were too low to make it profitable?
  2. In case of combined goods and passengers service, were passengers convenienced in any way, such as benches to sit on, awnings against sun/rain?
  3. The upstream trip would presumably require the use of a sail? Would that mean that the height of masts were such that the boats could sail under bridges? If not, what would be a common mode of propulsion?

Here are a few images that show various ship types from the late medieval period, albeit none specifically for people transport, other than a row boat: shipno1, shipno2, shipno3, shipno4, shipno5, shipno6

Then there is the Ulmer Schachtel, as used in Bavaria (Danube), but designed for goods transport, not specifically people. It states "Ships from Bavaria did also sail upstream to Ulm, but the people of Ulm had no ships of their own at that point." and "done by raft".

Also this source mostly discusses goods transport and makes the point that "most inland Utrecht-type ships must have been towed, poled, or oared."


2 Answers 2


River transport was used very much already in the Neolithic and Ancient times. Fast, cheap, quite reliable. It was used both for goods and travelers.

  1. What developed in late Middle Ages was a trans-european waterway transport service economy. This is only true for northern Europe. Southern Europe does not have many navigable rivers, plus, its navigation economy was tied in the Mediterranean sea, and the "Mediterranean transport service economy" was never out of business even after the fall of the Roman Empire.
  2. I'm not an expert on this but conveniences were poor. Just sit in the barrel, Joe.
  3. No sails for river navigation. That's a crazy idea that would get you crushed against the river edges pretty quickly. Just rowing was used.
  • In south america indians (including before 1500) and colonists used canoes and rowing for river transportation, not sails. This is true even today in the Amazon, there is rowing and/or motors, not sails.
    – Luiz
    Commented Jan 10, 2022 at 13:29
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    In fact, humans had boats back into the paleolithic, at least as far back as 40kypb, possibly as much as 900kypb.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 10, 2022 at 13:44
  • 2
    @Luiz around Berlin, sailing was very common for transportation in the 18th and 19th centuries. . I guess this depends a lot on local conditions. On some rivers sailing is possible and on others not so much. Note the sail on this painting (from Russia): en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barge_Haulers_on_the_Volga
    – Jan
    Commented Jan 10, 2022 at 16:08
  • @Jan I am in doubt, so I didn't write before: search for images "guerra do paraguai naval" - in the XIX century riverine battles between Brazil and Paraguay, the sails are always unused and folded. The masts look 'empty'. The same on your link. Are they are rowing or using steam propulsion and "turned off" the sails? Or, for some reason, we can not find an image where the ships are shown with full sails? I do not know.
    – Luiz
    Commented Jan 10, 2022 at 16:36
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    @Luiz I am sure no-one would want a full sail when towing a ship. But I believe in Repin's image the sail is really quite obvious. Full sails near Berlin, full sails on some other river
    – Jan
    Commented Jan 10, 2022 at 17:19

Upstream the boats were usually towed by men or animals on the river bank. In Russia, people in this trade were (later?) known as Burlaks, but similar jobs existed in other countries too, notably on the rivers in Germany.

Punting was quite common on short river sections where towing was not possible.

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