Medieval Road Networks Were Any Built?

Having a network of well-maintained, functioning major roads has been a crucial element of the success of many a great empire throughout history.

With that being said, for much of the medieval period, this was a practice that was largely neglected.

Indeed, the Middle Ages were, so to speak, a rather simpler time than, say, the heyday of the Roman Empire, and technical innovations like paved roads became less of a priority. 

This does not mean that roads weren’t used at all during the medieval ages.

Rather, a combination of older, more sophisticated networks were used in conjunction with newer, more rudimentary ones. This article will explore the relationship between the two. 

Road Transport During the Medieval Period 

You’d be forgiven for thinking that road building must have been a practice of some significance throughout the Middle Ages.

Holloways: Many roads became 'holloways', sunken lanes carved into the landscape by centuries of foot traffic, cart wheels, and erosion.
Holloways: Many roads became ‘holloways’, sunken lanes carved into the landscape by centuries of foot traffic, cart wheels, and erosion.

After all, this was a time of relative population growth and social development, as well as, in many cases, conflict and warfare. 

However, this was, generally speaking, not the case. Constructing roads – that is, laying tracks that would make up paved, long-distance roads with their own drainage systems – was more or less a lost art by the Middle Ages (broadly speaking, anyway).

While ‘proper’ roads were still in use at this time, most of them had been built centuries prior by the Romans and other, especially advanced civilisations. 

There are examples of roads being built on a smaller scale during the medieval era. However, by and large, new roads made during this time were fairly rudimentary and spartan, being largely the result of ground that was gradually worn down by foot traffic across a particular course. 

Road Surfaces

As such, major medieval roads could consist of anything from grass, stone, and dirt. This was a far cry from the order and structure provided by the Roman road network (and, naturally, there was a significant difference in quality between the two). Nevertheless, the peoples of the Middle Ages continued to make roads this way. 

Most roads were simple dirt tracks, which could become muddy and nearly impassable in wet weather.
Most roads were simple dirt tracks, which could become muddy and nearly impassable in wet weather.

Bridges, which are often a necessary element of road building, were rarely built during the medieval period.

It probably goes without saying that bridges can be used for crossing stretches of water that would generally be impassable on foot or horseback; after the fall of the Roman Empire, bridge construction was largely forgotten until much later, when, in the 1500s, Europe saw the assembly of some of its first stone bridges since the Romans. 

One exception of sorts to this was instances where marshland or other, less stable terrain needed to be crossed. In cases like these, a causeway could be built to ensure travellers the safest possible passage over the more dangerous stretch of ground.

However, these causeways would generally be fairly short and used almost exclusively by the same locals who built them. 

How Were Ancient Roads Used in the Medieval Era?

During medieval times, roads were used just as they have been for much of history; to help people get from point A to point B.

However, due to the rudimentary nature of many medieval roads, they would typically provide a less comfortable travel experience than the more elegant Roman roads tended to. 

The historian David Harrison believes that, in the case of the UK, roads fell fairly neatly into three categories; national highways, secondary roads, and minor roads.

Bridges were relatively rare and often in disrepair; fords or ferries were more commonly used to cross rivers. The Cornford Bridge, circa 1480, is a remarkable and noteworthy example of a medieval multi-span bridge. With less than 200 surviving instances of this type of bridge in England, its existence is of great historical and architectural importance.

National highways were typically major roads; long and straight, they would generally not require travellers to divert if they needed to find a bridge. 

While some of these roads would have been either partly or wholly Roman in origin, others still would have been newer, owing to the need to connect newer settlements with one another.

This was especially the case with secondary roads, which were constructed to link market or county towns up.

Many of these towns were relatively new, and, as such, the old, Roman network that had existed in Britain likely would not have sufficed to connect them all. 

Curiously, in the case of minor roads, ferry crossings were often used in lieu of bridges. It’s likely, therefore, that many of these roads would not have been Roman in origin, either. 

The Roman Road Network

Given the renown the expansive Roman road network acquired for itself, it’s perhaps unsurprising that much of it continued to be used through the medieval period.

The most durable and prominent roads in medieval Britain were Roman roads, like Watling Street and the Fosse Way, which were often straight and well-engineered. Incredible picture, taken in 1903 and is a cross-section through the Fosse Way, Radstock, Somerset, and there also looks like there are cart tracks running along it.

This was the case for much of the former Roman Empire. With settlements having been constructed over the remains of Roman towns, it was, in many cases, fairly natural to simply use the existing system of roads which already linked many of these places together. 

However, this was an initiative that had its limitations. Firstly, it was far from commonplace for medieval craftsmen to have the tools or knowledge required to maintain Roman roads to the standard necessary to keep them functioning at a reasonable level.

As a result of this, many of the larger Roman highways that saw especially heavy use during the Middle Ages would eventually fall into disrepair and wear away. 

Not Just for an Army

Indeed, the best-maintained roads that can be found today from the old Roman network were ones that ended up covered by soil or other detritus.

Largely forgotten, these highways and tracks have been rediscovered in more recent years, and can provide us with a far better example of what a contemporary Roman road may have looked like than the vast majority of the Roman network that saw regular use through the medieval period. 

It’s also worth noting that, in many cases, the Roman roads that did see sustained usage had to be modified considerably to make them more suitable in connecting medieval settlements with each other.

The Roman road system in Britain was very impressive. So why did it decline?

While it was far from uncommon for new buildings or even towns to be built on old Roman sites, this didn’t always mean that the old network of roads would be sufficient in supporting road travel between them. 

Rather, as Europe’s population continued to grow throughout the medieval period (prior to the Black Death, in any case), the ancient Roman network had to be expanded upon or modified in many instances.

The Landscape

While this changed its composition drastically, it also allowed, in some sense, for an ongoing reliance on Roman roads as a primary mode of navigating the landscapes of these particular countries. 

In fact, the A1, a major motorway that covers much of the length of the UK, lies on the remains of, among other routes, a series of roads originally laid by the Romans.

Holloways: Many roads became 'holloways', sunken lanes carved into the landscape by centuries of foot traffic, cart wheels, and erosion.
Holloways: Many roads became ‘holloways’, sunken lanes carved into the landscape by centuries of foot traffic, cart wheels, and erosion.

While the A1 was constructed far more recently than the Middle Ages, this serves as a testament to the ongoing relevance and deep importance of the networks that the Romans managed to construct. 

Ancient British Highways 

In the case of the United Kingdom, there existed another set of roads and tracks that had been extant long before the arrival of the medieval era.

Indeed, Bede’s writings from the 7th century appear to allude to the legendary ‘four highways’ that cross the UK from north, south, east, west, and diagonally. 

While it doesn’t seem fully clear when these highways were first made, they are referenced fairly extensively in medieval literature. And these aren’t the only ancient trackways in Britain that saw ample use throughout the Middle Ages. 

A former Roman Road running through woodland on the Wintershill Estate. Image Credit: David Martin

As a matter of fact, two of the world’s oldest roads – the Sweet Track and Post Track – are found in Britain. Both of these are said to date back as far as 3,800 BC. They were made using oak planks, ash, and lime, and are located near Glastonbury. 

While not quite major roads themselves, it’s fair to say that these highways and trackways saw fairly extensive use among cattle drovers in particular, as well as citizens of more rural areas.

Many of the more ancient roads appear to have been laid out in such a way that they pass by, or bring the traveller to, neolithic spiritual sites, leading some to speculate that their construction was perhaps ordered and overseen by the Druids. 

The Appian Way 

Even among other, major Roman roads, few have a name as significant or recognisable as that of the Appian Way.

Construction on the Appian Way began in 312 BC; the primary motivating factors for doing so were to promote ease of communication between Rome and her forces in Southern Italy, as well as making it simpler to supply Roman troops in the region, who, at the time, were invading. 

Stretching all the way from Rome to Brindisi, the Appian Way took over 40 years to complete, and much of it still exists in reasonable condition to this day.

That’s not to say that it has remained unchanged since its construction, though; the Appian Way has been expanded upon and diverted in places, owing to changing demographics and populations in the surrounding areas. 

As a result of this, the Appian Way can perhaps be considered one of the prime examples of ancient Roman engineering maintaining its relevance right through to the Middle Ages. Unlike many of the UK’s Roman roads, the Appian Way is still in fantastic condition to this day.


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