Sunday, July 31, 2005

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

Montaigne's essay "On Riding 'in Post'" is a short little snip of an essay but in spite of that it is quite a history lesson. According to the editor's note, from the early 16th century generals and statesmen "laid posts" along "post-routes." At first the posts were temporary but as time went by many of them became permanent. Horses were kept at each "post-stage" and it was the job of the "post-master" or courier to ride as fast as possible to the next post carrying dispatches. To ride "in post" meant that you were a "postman." In Montaigne's time riding in post had also become a sport, a sort of relay race, that Montaigne was quite good at. Montaigne's essay begins with him declaring "I have not been one of the weakest at this sport, which is suited to men of my stocky short build; but I am giving up such business: it makes too great an assay of our strength to keep it up for long." The rest of the essay is anecdotes of a sort of history of the post. King Cyrus stationed men with horses a day's ride apart so those traveling to see him from different areas of his empire would always have fresh horses. In the time of Caesar chariots were used. Caesar himself traveled 100 miles in a day in a hired chariot. And Tiberius Nero, going to see his brother who was ill in Germany, covered 200 miles in 24-hours using three chariots. Even faster than horses was the method Caecinus used. When he traveled he took trained swallows with him. When he wanted to send a message home he would stain the bird with a colored mark according to a pre-arranged code, and send the bird off. The strangest method of post came to Montaigne from Peru, where he heard, couriers "rode on men who bore them in litters on their shoulders with such agility that the first porters relayed their burdens to the next team at the run without missing a step." And so I learned quite a bit about the history of the post. It is particularly interesting in light of the fact that I am in the middle of reading Terry Pratchett's book Going Postal in which Moist von Lipwig has been charged with re-opening the post office of Ankh-Morpork. In doing so he finds himself suddenly challenging the clacks message systems. The clacks are a series of tall towers that send messages across the world (this being Discworld there is no around). The book is turning out to be a thought-provoking comparison between between written letters and technological forms of communication in the form of a fun fantasy novel. Such cross-pollination of reading material seems to be happening to me more and more these days through no planned effort on my part. I don't know why it is either. Am I reading more widely? Less widely? Or is it just that I am paying more attention? Whatever it is, it has the appearance of being serendipitous and is, therefore, quite delightful. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Bad Means to a Good End"