Medieval roads - definitions and usage

Medieval people used a variety of terms when referring to a road, reflecting the diversity of road conditions and destinations, and of linguistic heritage. The principal roads were known as ‘highways’, with the term ‘way’ deriving from the Latin ‘via’. ‘Portways’ were roads leading into ports or market towns, and ‘byways’ were secondary roads, often turnings off highways, and described as such by the Post system, which developed formally in later centuries. The medieval word for travelling on highways and byways was ‘journeying’, found in written sources from 1290, and defined as ‘an ordinary day's travel, the distance usually travelled in a day. As a measure of distance, varying with the mode of travel, etc.; usually estimated in the Middle Ages at 20 miles.’ Journeying was only linked to ‘road’ linguistically from the 1590s when it had come to mean a ‘ridden journey’.7Philip Beale, England's Mail: Two Millennia of Letter Writing (Stroud: Tempus, 2005), pp. 66-67.

Types of medieval roads

Table 3: Medieval road categories taken from Harrison, The Bridges of Medieval England, pp. 64-70
Harrison's categories of roads
National highwaysMore or less direct, and did not have to divert to find a bridge. Generally straight, except where they have to avoid marshland. For example, the Old North Road takes a detour to avoid Hatfield Chase and the Fens.
Secondary roadsLinked market towns to each other, and to the county town.
Minor roadsMany minor roads, but few with bridges. Ferries were used instead.

Harrison thought roads fell into three categories - national highways, secondary roads and minor roads (Table 3). While this is broadly true, the nature of roads in medieval times was more fluid than this simple grouping suggests. Not only did roads vary depending on weather conditions and types of traffic, but the importance of roads also changed with economic conditions.

Case study - the decline of the road from Gloucester to Oxford More

When discussing medieval roads, it is more helpful to think in terms of adaptable highways rather than roads. A modern definition of a ‘road’ implies an asphalted surface, fixed in space, that can bear all types of vehicle. By contrast, medieval highways were not all surfaced, and the conditions of the road could vary with the weather. Road surfaces could become rutted and waterlogged, and impassable for some types of traffic, forcing those travellers to seek an alternative route. Even in normal conditions, it was possible for a road to temporarily fork into two alternative routes – one for heavier forms of transport such as wagons, and another for other types of travellers. While this was a different section of 'road', the line of travel was nonetheless the same. This is illustrated in the late seventeenth century by John Ogilby in Britannia, the first set of road maps of England and Wales, published in 1675 (Figure 2).12John Ogilby, Britannia. Volume the first, or, An illustration of the kingdom of England and dominion of Wales (London: Printed by the author, 1675), Plate 1.

But Harrison’s point about the directness of the main routes suggests something fundamental about travel. The desire to travel efficiently between two places is unlikely to be just a modern phenomenon. Once a direct route (or as direct as possible given the terrain) had formed, it would have become self-perpetuating, with travellers attracted to a line of travel that others used. Inns that provided food, shelter and equine services would have grown up along the route, reinforcing its popularity. It would have had to sustain the passage of carts carrying heavy goods, such as wine or timber. Other travellers, either on horseback or foot, could ride or walk across fields when it suited them, but this type of route would have excluded heavily laden wagons, or the passage of large groups of people such as the King and his entourage.

The Gough Map is at too small a scale to reflect the subtleties of road options as described by Ogilby. But the red lines and their distance markers, as well as lines of settlements, appear to mirror the broader lines of travel, based on highways, and perhaps some byways.

An adaptable, dual highway

Section of Plate 1 of Britannia showing the road between Wickham and Stoaken Church
Figure 2. Plate 1 of Britannia showed the road between Wickham (High Wycombe) and Stoaken Church (Stokenchurch). Ogilby showed the road going through the woods but just after West Wickham, he indicated a turning north 'To Stoaken Church the Coach way'. A mile south of Stoaken Church, he showed the same road re-joining from the south marked 'To Wickham the Coach way'. The unmarked route has been added as a red dotted line and does not appear on the original map. Both roads reflected the same line of travel from Wickham to Stoaken Church.