Google Maps for 14th to 17th century trade routes

If you would like to know how long it took to get from Eindhoven to Deventer around 600 years ago, the updated version of Viabundus - which is like a variation of Google Maps for the 1350-1650 period - can be used to calculate just how much time was needed. One of the things that the project’s researchers managed to achieve this year was a more accurate map of Brabant’s road network.

These days, it is quite common to spend 30 to 60 minutes each day travelling to work, either by car or by public transport. But not so long ago, it was practically impossible to work 100 kilometres away from where you lived. The Viabundus web app shows you which route you would have needed to take in 1500 to get from one place to another and it will also tell you how long it would have taken you to reach your destination. For example, if you were on foot but you were not carrying any merchandise, the Eindhoven-Deventer route would have taken more than three days; however, if you were travelling with a pack mule, the same distance would have taken you nine days.

Researchers from the Viabundus project are mapping through roads that served as important trade routes in northern Europe between 1350 and 1650. At the end of September 2022, they will be launching an updated digital map.

Evidence of roads or inns

The map shows where waterways and country roads, tollhouses, locks, bridges, markets, staple ports and inns were located. "Isolated inns had a lot of influence on the distance you could travel in one day," says researcher Maartje A.B. of Radboud University. "They were also typical places where people would meet, and of course, also lose things. When archaeologists find a location that yields a large amount of coins pottery, it often indicates the existence of a former inn."

A.B. investigates relationships within the network of Hanseatic towns near the Rhine, Meuse, Waal and IJssel rivers. She is also the coordinator of the Dutch part of the Viabundus research project, in which she collaborates with partners in Germany, Finland and Denmark. She makes sure that the digital map is supplemented with insights from the research into the Dutch infrastructure from the late Middle Ages and early modern period.

"We have added a lot of new information about annual fairs and tolls that were found along the routes to the new version of the database," says the researcher. This involved quite a bit of research. For example, a volunteer from Erfgoed Brabant [Brabant Heritage] discovered that a toll was levied at a certain location. A.B.: "The only problem was that the digital map didn’t show any roads running through this spot. That meant that we had to look for 16th century maps of this area or sources that described the roads. And sure enough, we eventually found evidence that a road had run through there: it turned out to be a road that had been used by people who were travelling long distances. As it happens, we only include long-distance routes in the map."

Viabundus in research and in the classroom

According to A.B., Viabundus is more than just a fun app that can be used to measure distances and determine travel time. "The map and database provide researchers with more insight into the exact details of migration and communication, and how trade was actually carried out: ’Which routes did people choose and why’’ and ’What did these people encounter along the way?’" Museums and schools have also already actively started using Viabundus. "When used in the classroom, it gives students a better understanding of how their city connected with an international network of cities over the course of time, for example through the annual fairs that were held."

Latest version

At the end of 2021, A.B. started working with Erfgoed Brabant so that they could map out Brabant’s route networks in more detail. Thanks to local volunteers and a team of students from Radboud University and Utrecht University, many details were added to the map in Brabant. At the university, A.B. works with the Centre for Art Historical Documentation (CKD), which is headed by Willy Piron. The Danish project partners have also recently made several additions to the Danish part of the map.

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