Road Travel

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Road Travel


Impact of Roads. Any overland travel presumes that roads or ways, at least, were passable, which was certainly not always the case. The crux of the problem of land transportation during the Middle Ages was the extent to which the Roman road system had survived in Europe. Where the Empire’s roads still existed, they formed a ready-made grid for the movement of any type of traveler, but most of the European portion of them fell into grave disrepair in the early Middle Ages. There was a lack of an overriding political authority in Europe and often an inability or, perhaps, desire to maintain transportation routes. Stretches of road in good condition tended to be a reflection of private maintenance, whether by a lord as part of his domain or by the citizens of a town. The Castilian king Alfonso the Wise stated that as a general rule citizens of towns were under obligation to maintain “the pavements of the great highways and of the other roads which are public.”

Roman Roads. In certain areas, maintenance and continued use of Roman roads were reinforced by military or economic stimuli. In 1066 Harold II had traveled over the old but well-maintained Roman road between Londinium (London) and Eboracium (York). Trade between the Mediterranean coast of Spain and France and trans-Pyrenean or -Alpine Europe took place along the Roman system. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when commerce revived, it was often oriented on routes dictated by the surviving Roman roads and bridges. The land travel of traders is not easy to generalize, but a couple of examples might serve briefly to illustrate the range of their overland activities. Before 1300 few peasants ever traveled more than a few miles from home, but by then peasant women were known to sell eggs and produce in market towns as far as 12 miles away from their village. Between 1296 and 1346 English merchants sold grain from manors in Wiltshire in local markets within a 10.5-mile radius. Nonetheless, in 1326—1327 a reeve in Kent sent an expedition more than 180 miles away to Gloucestershire to buy horses, and continental overland merchants traveled from town to town, the length of trade routes stretching from Flanders to Italy.

Effect of Pilgrimages. The demands of travelers and commerce connected with pilgrimages in Christian Europe had, however, a different effect on transportation. Originally the route of these journeys was determined outside the framework of trade or military use, although occasionally the three coincided, as in the case for reaching the site of Rome via the existing iter romanum, via Francigena, or chemin romeret. Initially within the pilgrim’s context of good and pious works, there was much to encourage the organization of road-building or maintenance projects. At first Church orders were established to seek the minimum improvements in bridge building, road construction in mountain passes, and other forms of construction to facilitate religious travel along Roman roads or even older routes where possible.

Route Improvements. When the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela became popular, it created enthusiasm for nine passable land routes and for alterations to beaten ways. In the early eleventh century King Sancho the Great of Navarre, for example, changed a section of the road to Santiago de Compostela to make it safer. There were routes from the east coast of Spain and two roads through Portugal. The Camino de Campostela (also known as the Camino Frances) crossed the Pyrenees from France, following routes from Paris, Vezelay, Le Puy, or Aries to meet the Roman via Trai-ana running about four hundred miles in northern Spain to Astorga. Following the old Roman silver road from Huelva in the south, the Camino Mozarabe was the approximately four-hundred-mile route taken by pilgrims from southern Spain leading north, either through Braganza, or in a more or less straight line from Seville to join the Camino Frances in Astorga, or through Verfn and Ourense and straight from there to Santiago.

Via Nova. Medieval centers of habitation not on Roman roads were more isolated and, as population increased and settlement became denser, documents begin to mention the via nova, starting out perhaps as no more than a foot or riding path. New roads helped lords link their holdings together more efficiently. Sheep ways {cañadas) developed for the seasonal movement of flocks provided an increasingly viable new road grid for the traveler on foot in southern France or Spain. The Romans had known how to design a road of good quality: straight, with no steep inclines, and without marshes. In the Middle Ages bad weather and illness combined with the often poor roads to slow medieval travel. Stiff climbs could easily lengthen good travel time by a quarter or more.

Legal Matter. Medieval road conditions generally did not favor the use of wheeled vehicles. Pack mules continued to play an important role in land transport. Only a few roads were as wide as twenty feet, necessary for the comfortable transportation of goods other than by packhorse or draft horse pulling a load attached by poles. The ill state of repair of most old roads and the limited width of newer roads made passage for vehicles difficult, if not impossible. A Castilian document of 972 allows the monks of Cardeña to drive “a cart through whatever place it might go; if there is no direct route, we give license to go through woodlands, through cultivated fields, through vineyards, and to cut across boundaries in order to traverse the way with cart, horse, or pack mules.” By custom, towns had the right to demand that their citizens spend a specified time in corvée work on roads and bridges. Even so, instances of roads washed out due to neglected ditches or road pits so deep that they caused accidents were not unusual.

Need for Infrastructure. Users of wheeled vehicles saw the greatest practicality in improving the surface, alignment, and grade of roads so that people and goods could be moved safer and more quickly. By the end of the Middle Ages there was a diverse and highly specialized choice of vehicles that transported passenger as well as freight. At the close of the Middle Ages, France, which had the largest national population, the most powerful army, and the most advanced economy, became the first country to plan and execute a national system of roads.


Margaret Wade Labarge, Medieval Travellers: The Rich and Restless (London: Hamilton, 1982).

Arthur Percival Newton, ed., Travel and Travellers of the Middle Ages (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1968).

J. R. S. Phillips, The Medieval Expansion of Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).

Marco Polo, The Travels, translated by Ronald Latham (London: Penguin, 19S8).

Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A Short History (London: Athlone Press, 1987).

Marjorie Rowling, Everyday Life of Medieval Travellers (London: B. T. Batsford, 1971).