Seminar CLXXII: roads to nowhere?

I’ll have to beg still more forgiveness for the sudden drop-off in posting here. I sent in the final version of an article the day before yesterday, finished a late review yesterday, hope to finalise another chapter today, and that still leaves me three pieces of work to get done before the end of the month, one of which I didn’t know about two days ago… It’s a bit like that at the moment. I can already see that there’s no prospect of my getting as far as last year’s Leeds before departing for this one, which is a bit embarrassing. Since the only thing that can make this worse is not posting, however, here is another backlogged seminar report, from 24th April 2013, when I was at the Medieval Social and Economic History Seminar in Oxford to hear Professor Andrew Fleming of the University of Wales Trinity St David give a paper entitled “Exploring the History and Significance of Early Medieval Roads”.

Hollow Lane, near Canterbury, linking the old Roman road, Stone Street to Wincheap

Hollow Lane, near Canterbury, linking the old Roman road, Stone Street to Wincheap, certainly an old road – but how old? Image from Wikimedia Commons

I might, I suppose, given that I was still in Oxford, have expected that this would turn out to be solely about England, but it was still interesting, because Professor Fleming has been working on landscapes and how you get through them, and specifically on this with regards to Dartmoor in Devon, where there has been comparatively little to change routes since prehistoric times, for a long time. Rather than reprise the paper, given my lack of time, I’ll just draw out the points that particularly interested me.

  1. There was great stress on the difficulty of putting an archæological date on a road. Since what a road most fundamentally is a space, the bottom limit of which people wear away by using it, really all one has to work with beyond place-names and surveys (so, for early medieval purposes, charter boundaries and Domesday Book) is stratigraphy where the road intersects with something else. On the one hand, because roads are linear and long that does mean you get quite a lot of such intersections, but on the other you can’t necessarily expect all the road to have been built, maintained or replaced at once so even on the rare occasions where you have a date to work with, it’s not usually clear how far down the road it will travel.
  2. It is apparently a big argument of Professor Fleming’s that medieval roads did not join places, but joined regions, being long-distance routes rather than the short-distance ones eventually joining up into a system that Hoskins, invoked in the first sentence of the paper, saw in the English landscape.1 Places are then jointed to these long routes by their own little roads, leading up out of the valley or wherever to meet the main track along the high ground. I don’t know how true that is everywhere but I could certainly think of places where it is, in fact it would be true of a good distance of the A404 which must be the single road of any size I have travelled the most. So that was interesting to think with as it implies that roads need not necessarily go where people wanted to go to them on, and that guessing those destinations may therefore be harder than it appears.
  3. That said, roads, especially military or transhumance routes, tend to generate supporting settlement, especially at junctions. What started as a few huts seasonally occupied gets a bit more established, sooner or later someone puts a church up and suddenly you have a community locus where before settlement was dispersed. It still is, at that point, probably, but even so the road, though a line not a point, can give places a centre. This all made me think about things in my area like the strata francisca and the Camí Ral, which certainly weren’t intended to link the places I’ve been to on them to anything else but may explain some of why those places are where they are. (Roda de Ter is older than the Roman bridge across the Ter there, but that bridge has certainly focused subsequent settlement, not least as someone built a church at one end of it2)

One of the questions we didn’t really touch on was who maintained these routes, and I’m surprised at myself there given how much I would usually be all over any questions of agency. There were lots of other questions, though – this seminar was always good for that as I would duly find out myself – and they raised the further points that private property could be on a large enough scale to account for some of that, in as much as a lot of the Dartmoor places that had been mentioned had some connection with Tavistock Abbey, who might well have wanted to join up their properties and move sheep between them. Other questions took this question of livestock down to the micro-level, asking about how roads that might have been intended mainly to move animals interacted with field boundaries that might be even older, but given the dating problems little that was substantive came out of that. There was a question about roads imposed by élites for rapid communication and how those might differ from drove roads but Professor Fleming contended for overlap here. It all made for some interesting thoughts the next time I was being driven anywhere, anyway, and perhaps it will for you too. Now, back to the grindstone!

1. Referring to W. G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape (Cambridge 1955, 2nd edn. 1973).

2. See Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer, Maria Ocaña i Subirana, Maties Ramisa i Verdaguer & Montserrat de Rocafiguera i Espona, A banda i banda del Ter: Història de Roda (Vic 1995).

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