There has been no comprehensive scholarly work on medieval roads. Regional road networks have not been mapped; there has been little detailed analysis of the nature of roads, or of how travellers found their way. A book that combines the insights of literary scholars and historians is thus to be greeted with considerable anticipation. The cover of the book promises an ‘accessible collection’ which looks ‘afresh at the relationship between the road as a material condition of daily life and the formation of local and national communities’. The collection ‘challenges the long-held picture of Britain lacking in technological sophistication’—although this reviewer and others have mounted such a challenge for several decades. Chapter One, entitled ‘Introduction: roads and writing’, which is written by the editors, Valerie Allen and Ruth Evans (both Professors of English), unfortunately lacks the clarity of the cover. There are early references to Freud, Levi-Strauss, ‘Wittgensteinian’ and Derrida’s juxtaposition of roads and writing: ‘Writing and roads are cultural systems that create meaning. From this it follows that humans do not so much make roads as roads make humans.’ The language is obtuse, but the point that roads shape society in many ways sensible. The chapter goes on to discuss ‘Naming’, pointing to the relatively well-known fact that the term ‘road’, with its present meaning, was first used in the seventeenth century; the road as a right of way, quoting apparently uncritically from the Webbs’s book on Local Government; Roman roads, their manner of construction and influence on medieval ideas of highways. The rationale for including these sections is unclear. Usefully, the introduction concludes with a description of the chapters that follow. The chapters are of variable quality and interest. Michael Prestwich makes fascinating use of the itineraries of Edward I, showing that there was a wide choice of routes and that roads were used by heavy traffic even in winter. Edward spent long periods on pilgrimages and hunting, using a network of local roads away from the main thoroughfares. In contrast, Paul Hindle uses the itineraries to map a medieval road network, which produces the unlikely depiction of Woodstock, a royal palace, as a hub of the road system. In general, this chapter adds little to Hindle’s previous work. Alan Cooper continues his important studies of the law and roads, tracing the Crown’s capacity to legislate to clear highways, impose tolls for the repair of roads and bridges, and prevent the diversion of highways. Claire Martin addresses interesting aspects of water transport in London, from price regulation to the navigability of Thames tributaries, but lacks the space to do justice to them all. Sarah Rees Jones ponders on the street, the home and the window that links them, as in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. The meat of her chapter analyses neighbourhood court records, demonstrating the weight that local communities gave to addressing environmental nuisance. The book extends beyond England with pieces on Scotland and Wales. Richard Oram examines roads on the Anglo-Scottish border, but does not attempt to be comprehensive. Rather, he focuses on a few, such as Dere Street passing through Piercebridge and Corbridge and surprisingly ignoring the major North/South routes to the east: Cade’s Road through Durham and Newcastle and the non-Roman road through Warkworth, used by Edward I. Nevertheless, Oram produces an eye-catching argument that the development of the road system produced economic prosperity at great environmental cost; the devastation of woodland led to the import of Baltic wood for the roof of Roxburgh Friary. Dylan Foster Evans, who studies Welsh poetry, details the construction of roads in Wales in an excellent chapter. The Monks’ Trod road involved cutting into solid rock and metalling. Welsh princes may have built roads, as did Edward I, who assembled a great workforce in 1277 to clear a route from Chester. Welsh reaction to road creation and its negative consequences is explored through poets for whom woodland and roads marked conquest and resistance. While the prose of the historians is generally clear and comprehensible, the literary scholars’ writing can be inaccessible. Valerie Allen examines the key question of the meaning of ‘broken roads’ and frequent references to road repair; her language jars at times: ‘The equivocation is claimed here for medieval roads, making them both transparencies through which travellers look with the inner eye of intention towards the place they need to be and opacities that fully occupy their vision.’ In fact, the chapter contains interesting examples of road repair. She concludes, with references to Braudel, that repairing roads encouraged a sense of community. Ruth Evans tackles wayfinding, drawing on Lefebvre’s work on space, Saussure’s on semiotics and Latour’s actor-networks. With maps rarely used, milestones and signposts lacking, travellers relied on memorised places and landmarks on their route and the guidance of fellow travellers and locals. Drawing on space syntax, Michelle M. Sauer examines the rise of the bridge- and road-hermit, noting the popularity of the road as a spiritual metaphor and of a vocation which combined physical exertion and contemplation. Chris Chism explores the significance of roads in Athelston and two Robin Hood ballads. Aaron Legassie considers pilgrimages and pilgrimage roads, rightly observing that there was no such physical entity—the road most heavily used by pilgrims was the main road from London to Canterbury—but that the pilgrimage road loomed large in the spiritual imagination. He explores the role of the pilgrimage road in medieval romances as heterotopic spaces and as chronotopes. To conclude, while the inaccessible language and esoteric concepts of some of the chapters can be problematic for historians, this collection contains interesting material, which indicates how roads could build communities and demonstrates that the Middle Ages were not lacking in technical sophistication. However, the book is unlikely to appeal to the wide, interdisciplinary readership it is aimed at. It may be well received in cultural studies departments, but economic and transport historians may find it too impressionistic and lacking in in-depth analysis and quantification. We still await a comprehensive and thoroughly researched account of medieval roads. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 4, 2018
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