It’s well established that travellers carry in their minds a perception of the world dependent upon the ease by which they may travel. These mental maps are coloured by the risks involved. Today, in the UK, the risks are usually of cost and time, few worrying about safety. But even in the UK, it is highly probable that all of us live within an hour of a person who would have no compunction against killing us for a small cash prize. We take for granted that we have an effective policing and military system.
In East Anglia, in 866, the mental map of places one might visit safely, would surely have been rather different. At a time when the daytime rural pedestrian population density might well have been higher than today, much would have depended upon the information available to the potential traveller.
In today’s society, it is conventional for rural walkers to stop and pass the time of day with people they meet. It is quaint, think town-dwellers. But perhaps it was not so innocent in the past. The knowledge of a threat, or a disaster, can be quite rapidly spread by word-of-mouth. A galloping horse can reach speeds of 30 mph. A fast rowed boat, downstream, 12 mph (modern racing eight). If, in 866, the message had been passed from one swift medium to another, a warning might have travelled across land at 100 to 200 miles a day on dry and passable summer roads.
And there was the distinct possibility that a sea-going ship with a following wind could match and outrun this cross-country speed. Even more quick would be the lighting of beacons and the sounding of bells – and the sun flashing on polished helmets.
Often ignored by historians, I feel, is the psychological effect of the absence of maps. I once worked in Hungary, just after the regime change in 1988. My work demanded that I obtain a detailed understanding of the roads of Budapest but the Hungarian authorities were very reluctant to release their ‘Ordnance Survey’ equivalent maps for security reasons. Without them I was completely unable to do my job and found myself literally lost, both in location and confidence.
So how did the large army of Danes that, according to the AS Chronicle, arrived in East Anglia in 866, cope with the need to understand the lie of the land? Could it have been that the Roman road system provided a conceptual map of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in an easily remembered form as is the London Underground Map. Though the coastline was a mess of inlets and protrusions that defied understanding, the simple almost-straight lines of the Fosse Way, Watling Street, Ermine Street, Portway and Akeman Street provided a memorable pattern, linking shorelines and rivers. It is worthy of note that so pronounced in the mind of Guthrum was the Roman road system that both he and Alfred quoted Watling Street as the dividing line between their kingdoms – see the Peace of 878 page.