THE PACKHORSE TRADE
Three or four hundred years ago, one used to see unusual horse formations on our roads, if you can call the narrow, uneven pot-holed tracks of that time roads. Thirty or more horses strung one behind the other, accompanied by their masters and servants on horseback, used to carry goods from country to country on their backs. This was the packhorse trade. For long distances there were of course commercial carriages, but these were confined to roads that could be driven along, of which there were few in the mountains. Some carriages from the Puster valley on the other side of the Brenner pass could be seen in Hall, but most of the other roads could only be used by packhorses.
The Tirol in those times was simply a transit route. Apart from salt and iron-ore there was not much to interest foreign traders here. However, the most important trade routes ran through the Tirol: goods which came from the East and were shipped to Venice were transported over the Brenner pass to Nuremberg and North Germany; from the west of Italy there was a road past Lake Garda which led to the Brenner; and from the main trans-alpine road in Switzerland which connected the Rhine with Locarno on Lake Maggiore there was a branch route from Chur to the Inn and along the river to Hall; another branch went past Nauders and Meran to the Brenner. Another famous trade route went from Hall over the Arlberg pass into Switzerland and Swabia, and from this there was a branch via Füssen and Kempten into southern Germany.
Most of these routes, particularly over the passes, were nothing but endless climbs which could only be tackled by packhorses. This is why the packhorse trade was so important at that time.
The following paragraphs show how important this trade became to the town of Hall under the rule of Archduke Ferdinand from 1550 - 1600. Most of the details come from the Hall court records.
Hall itself had very few local packhorse traders. Only one or two are mentioned, for example a certain Pfanner who came from „the other side of the bridge“ who had a son in Schwiz who also had packhorses. Most of the packhorse traders lived on the Nons and many were from Swabia, Kempten, Landeck, Nauders an the Engadin. They lived in the middle of the route they used. These routes stretched from Hall to lake Garda, into the Engadin and up to Swabia and Kempten. There were no major packhorse routes to the east, and the river Inn was used to transport weapons. Smaller items were transported by carriage and the road through the lower Inn valley. How far the packhorse trade stretched is proven by a document which records jewish merchants from Moravia, Poland and Lithuania being supplied with goods from Italy by packhorse traders from the Paznaun valley.
The packhorse trade was a commercial trade and there were some large enterprises: 20 - 30 horses was not unusual. They had their own laws which were often refered to in court and used to make judgements. Goods were accompanied by a bill of lading which stated the destination, and the merchants directed the packhorse traders to their agent in Hall for payment. The goods were then transported further by river via Passau to Germany or via Linz and Vienna to Bohemia or Hungary.
The goods were transported in barrels, crates, bales, baskets or sacks, and one horse-load was known as a pack. The horses were harnessed together, one behind the other, and were accompanied on horseback by their owner or his servants. Return loads included salt and cereals, the latter coming by boat from Bavaria. Other goods which were transported by packhorse included wine, furs, glass from Venice, materials including velvet and silk from Flanders and Bergamo, fruit from the south, including bay leaves, oil and groceries for the merchants who visited the German and Austrian markets, as well as sack-cloth, twine and yarn, soap, spirits, hemp etc. Even a „Pinggl“ belonging to the Venetian Embassy was included, and the dwarf who was given to Archduke Ferdinand by an Italian cardinal also made his trip to Innsbruck in a basket on a packhorse.
It was the custom for packhorse teams to join together when they met, perhaps out of solidarity, but probably also in order to exchange news. It was also an old custom to travel together from a safety point of view.
The packhorse traders had many difficulties to overcome: paths and tracks were often in poor condition and all sorts of other problems could threaten to disrupt progress. For example a trader from the Engadin was once making his way through the Upper Inn Valley when a bridge at Imst gave way underneath him. One horse drowned and the goods, a bale of silk, got wet. When he came to deliver the goods to the agent in Hall the agent refused to accept the bale of silk, and tried to claim damages from him. The trader said it was not his fault and he had risked his life and lost a horse and the merchants should accept their goods. The loss of the horse was going to cost him 50 crowns anyway.
Another time six traders from the Nons were given the order from a merchant in Sulz to transport cereals from Hall to the southern countries. However, the boat did not arrive as planned, so six traders with 31 horses had to wait in Hall for three days. They demanded reimbursement from the merchants for the cost of keeping them waiting. The merchant went to the ship’s captain but he blamed an unexpected stopover in Rattenberg.
Once a merchant from Maderno asked some traders from the Nons to deliver goods to Hall. The traders were five days late. The merchant claimed damages because he had missed his boat and the market in Krems. The traders gave the excuse that they were held up by flooding in Meran and had to go back to Bozen, and they lost a further day in Vipiteno was not contrary to packhorse trading regulations. Here is an apparent contradiction, since the route over the Brenner is the shortest. Apparently they had to wait for goods from a Swiss pack in the Upper Inn Valley.
Another story tells of a merchant from Brescia who sued two traders from Landeck who were three days late with a load of rice. They replied that they had been snowed in somewhere.
Two traders from Nauders were once carrying bay leaves and rice to Hall on twelve horses. The merchant’s foreman refused to accept delivery, saying he had no order and no money had been paid. The traders then had to hang around for three days, and to pay for this auctioned off six sacks of rice.
As the trader Baptist the Gypsy travelled past Vipiteno one of his horses was knocked off the road by wood which had been felled by a farmer.
Records also show that traders visited inns in all corners of the country, and that they had debts everywhere. On the occasion of the reading of the will of a deceased innkepper by the name of Fürstetter in Hall a debtors’ book was produced, in which debts of up to 30 guilders were recorded from 30 packhorse traders and 50 carriage drivers. 30 guilders at that time was the average price of a horse. It was probably the same story at other inns. Fürstetter had a special packhorse traders room with eight beds where they spent the night. These debtors’ books did not record the place of origin of the traders, but their names were alsways listed: Pfeiffauf, Goas, Fähndrich, Mäusl, Spatzennest. These names obviously came about as a result of their profession.
The number of traders was obviously considerable, and their very existance also brought employment to other handicrafts: packhorse saddlers, who made and repaired the tackle, and in Hall there was an inspector of weihts and measures especially for packhorses. There was also a packhorse street in Heiligenkreuz.
A packhorse trader’s wage varied from five to eight guilders.
I could not find anything out about the time taken to travel. They were, however, more than a match for the carriages, apart from the fact that because of their condition most routes were impassable for carriages.
The Swabian traders often ended up spending the winter in the Tyrol after the Arlberg pass was snowed in, and therefore they had to look for another way of earning their living.
In 1580 the city of Hall lesased the Lafatsch alp and undertook all sorts of improvements there. The carpenters who did this work were supplied by packhorse.
Therefore the packhorse was the main means of transport in the mountains since the beginning of commercial trade. The blossoming of the packhorse trade was certainly during the time of Archduke Ferdinand, but when a short time later the 30 year war destroyed Germany’s wealth, the packhorse trade in this areas also diminished. Plus, with the improvement of the roads the carriage trade increased. Nowadays commercial packhorses have disappeared altogether, apart from the odd working horse in the side valleys.