The “Dark Ages” of the Roman Roads

By Nina Dengg, Team Magdeburg

The Viabundus project initially aims to map the Hanseatic road system. It stretched from the Netherlands all the way to Russia and from Denmark to Czechia. One can rightly say that a truly European road system was established and used, not to mention the connections that existed via sea routes.

But this is only the perspective of the Hanse: Pan-European road systems are much older and have connected Europe since Antiquity. The most famous example would be the imperial road system that the Romans maintained, which stretched from the westernmost tips of Europe, along the Mediterranean, including the North African colonies all the way to the Levante during its Golden Age. The clearly organised structure of the Roman road network has attracted much attention from researchers, resulting among others in the ORBIS digital map of Roman roads, which has been an important source of inspiration for the Viabundus project.

But what happened to this expansive road system? How come we can see the remains of Roman roads quite clearly until today in certain places, while in others they seem to have disappeared completely? The following thoughts are derived from my master’s thesis in which I worked on the (dis)continuity of the Roman road network in northern Italy, the Alps and southern Germany.

The Roman road system. Map by Furfur (German localization (with minor changes) of the original by Andrei Nacu) – Wikimedia Commons.

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Disease control and pre-modern travelling

By Bart Holterman

During the current pandemic, it has become clear that viruses are spread all the more quickly by human movement. Among the first measures taken to stop the spread of the Corona virus were travel restrictions, eventually resulting in the lockdown of entire countries. Interestingly, the reaction of governments to epidemics has many parallels in pre-modern times. Despite the modern advances in medical knowledge, the basic factors are still the same: human contact, especially combined with frequent long-distance travel connections, significantly stimulates the spread of diseases. Although pre-modern authorities did not understand the mechanisms behind infections well, it was clear that social distancing and travel restrictions greatly reduced the chance that diseases would spread. Not for nothing the term quarantaine is derived from a medieval measure first taken in Venice during the Black Death, where merchant ships arriving to the city that were suspected of being plague-infected would have to wait 40 days (Italian: quaranta giorni) in isolation before being allowed to enter the city.

Death as a cart driver. Detail from Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Triumph of Death (c. 1562).

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Inns: tiny but indispensable

By Maartje A.B. (Radboud University; Viabundus Team The Netherlands)

The nodes on our Viabundus map come in all shapes and sizes. Among the tiny ones are inns. They could be a single house in the middle of nowhere, and yet function as crucial elements in our road system. The presence of an inn along a road could determine whether it was still possible to continue the journey, even though the next town could not be reached before darkness, and thus influence travel time. However, the exact location and the history of inns are often hard to identify, and therefore we cannot claim to present a complete set at the end of the project. The end result we aim for will rather be a solid basis for further research, in which especially inns laying outside towns between 1350 and 1650 are incorporated as much as currently possible.

In April, I wrote a blog post about inns on the Dutch blog of my dissertation project ‘Mirror of mutual relations: communication between Hanseatic cities (ca 1450-1650)’, with examples related to the area central to this research: the region around the rivers Rhine, Meuse, Waal and IJssel. On my project blog, I share research results, interesting finds, and project-related activities. What follows is a translation of this blog post, showing why inns are fascinating places worth bearing in mind in different types of historical research.

A typical inn in a village, according to J.W. van Petersen, because of the sign and trough (ca 1800, anonymus) in: Reizen is tol betalen, p. 123.
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The backbone of Viabundus: the nodes database

In this post (in German), Nathalie Rudolph of the FGHO in Lübeck gives us an insight into her work on the backbone of the Viabundus map: the database with nodes.

Hinter den Kulissen: (M)ein Tag mit der Datenbank
Ein Werkstattbericht von Nathalie Rudolph (FGHO).
Das Viabundus Projekt hat sich zum Ziel gesetzt, eine online frei zugänglichen digitalen Karte von vormodernen Fernstraßen in Nordeuropa zu schaffen. Die Idee für diese Karte entstand 2017 in einer Tagungs-Kaffeepause. Mit dem erfolgreichen Pro*Niedersachsen-Antrag konnte es dann in Zusammenarbeit von IHLF (Uni Göttingen) und FGHO (Lübeck) mit einem Projekt zum Gebiet des heutigen Niedersachsen losgehen.
Für eine solche Karte braucht man jedoch eine Datengrundlage, in dem Fall Viabundus eine Datenbank mit „Nodes“ (Knoten), wozu wir von der FGHO in Lübeck die Vorarbeit geleistet haben. Wir von der Ausgangspunkt war die Arbeit mit dem Buch „Hansische Handelsstraßen“ von Friedrich Bruns und Hugo Weczerka von 1962, aus dem Friederike Holst, meine Vorgängerin, die „Nodes“ herausgesucht hat. Bei den „Nodes“ handelt es sich um Orte, aber auch beispielsweise um Häfen, Zölle und Jahrmärkte, die Land- oder Wasserstraßen verbinden. Seit der „Kaffeepause“ sind heute bereits 11.000 Orte in der Datenbank verzeichnet.
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Viabundus – der Straße folgen(d) / following the road

For English see below

Welchen Namen gibt man einem Projekt, das sich mit mittelalterlichen Handelsrouten und -straßen in (Nord-)Europa beschäftigt und diese in Form einer Karte in einem Geographischen Informationssystem (GIS) digitalisieren möchte? Es wurde schnell klar, dass der frühere Name, „Vormoderne Fernhandelsstraßen und regionales Wegenetz in Norddeutschland“, keine Option darstellte, da unter diesem Titel nicht alle Aspekte und derzeitige sowie zukünftige Partner des Projekts einbezogen werden.
Unter Rücksichtnahme sämtlicher Anforderungen an den Titel wurden zunächst einige Akronyme entwickelt: PRISM („premodern roads interactive street map“), NERTS („Northern European road and transport systems“) oder DRONE („Digital roads of Northern Europe“). Allerdings waren die Akronyme nicht zufriedenstellend und gleichzeitig wurde unter keinem Titel das Projekt auf den Punkt gebracht. Daher griffen wir zum ‘Allheilmittel der Historiker’: Latein! So wurde schnell entschieden, dass Viabundus – frei übersetzt als „der Straße folgen(d)“ oder „weitergehen(d)“ – gut zusammenfasst, was Gegenstand unseres Projekts ist. Ergänzt um den Untertitel „Map of premodern European transport and mobility“ („Karte des vormodernen, europäischen Transports und der Mobilität“) sind wir zuversichtlich, dass ein Name gefunden wurde, der zugleich einprägsam und verständlich ist.
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After the first year: a look behind the scenes

It has now been one year since our pilot project about Lower Saxony started in Göttingen. Moreover, the project partners in Aarhus and Magdeburg are in the saddle and the Dutch project is taking on shape. Time for our second plenary meeting to discuss the state of the project, this time at the offices of our team at Otto von Guericke Universität in Magdeburg on January 23 and 24.

Confidential Documents on the Table
Two days of technical details and strategic discussions at our Magdeburg Workshop

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Medieval road discovered in Flanders

VRT News: Middeleeuwse "snelweg" ontdekt
Middeleeuwse „snelweg“ Gavere bij toeval ontdekt

In April this year, volunteers of the local tourist organization in Gavere near Gent, Flanders, discovered the overgrown remains of a late medieval paved road near the village of Asper by chance. They were planning a historical walking tour and saw that on old maps (1669) a road was drawn which did not exist anymore. Visiting the site, they discovered the setts (stones) of the former road under the earth and bushes.
Most pre-modern road remnants take the form of hollow roads, where the road lies deeper than the surrounding land, carved out from the earth’s surface by centuries of continuous use (see for example the image in the blog’s header). The find of the Flanders road is exceptional in that it is the opposite of a hollow road: the paved road surface is located on a higher level than the surrounding land. Roads like these were constructed in terrain that was marshy or prone to flooding, designed to prevent the road from turning into a mud pool.
The map that is being created by the pre-modern streetmap project is also intended to cover a part of Flanders. If we will find someone to work on a Flemish sub-project (volunteers welcome!), the newly discovered road might be included on the map as well. At least the find shows us that when trying to reconstruct medieval roads, it is sometimes worth going into the field in addition to studying old maps and written sources.
Original article (in Dutch) here:

Maps and Digital Humanities

Poster about the Project at DH Expo in Göttingen
Poster about the Project at DH Expo in Göttingen

DH Expo in Göttingen
GCDH and DigHum Institute present DH Projects from Göttingen Campus

DH is not only about text recognition, annotation, language processing, the accumulation of metadata, the creation of colourful network-visualisations or 3D scans. We all know: Space is a very important aspect in humanities, be it in the location of dialects, the spread of certain artefacts or, most prominent, the course of history in general. Time and space belong together. This has always been a major challenge in the creation of maps depicting historical events. The printed map could only use the given space once. Monochrome maps had to operate with shades of grey or certain patterns to show changes in time and space and used arrows to depict movement. Coloured maps opened up new possibilities to show dynamic events or changes in landscape or built environments. It is now with digital maps and the use of GIS and its online presentations that the dynamics in time and space can really be made visible. Layers open the possibility to interact: they can show a status in time or highlight certain elements. But most important: A real interactive data driven map can be a research tool in itself – that is, what we are aiming at.
The Faculty of Humanities at Göttingen University showed off with their current projects in an (analogue) exposition. It looks like DH is slowly becoming a valued element of research in the humanities and students are well aware of it; there is a growing demand for courses involving methods of DH.

The very basic presentation of what we’re doing here

Presenting the Roads

Bart presents the project
Bart presenting at the Workshop Agrarian Market Production and Infrastructure of the Network for Premodern Economic History, Göttingen June 26th/27th

We had a good time discussing methodology and perspectives. People quickly get an idea of what might be possible for future research once the map and database are available.

Niels presenting at Hansischer Geschichtsverein
Niels presenting at the Pfingsttagung of the Hansischer Geschichtsverein, Hanover June 11th/12th