“….What are the scandals that made headlines in the Middle Ages? Kings and Popes would be involved in some of the craziest stories of sex and corruption that would make today’s news seem quite tame. From a cross-dressing prostitute to the trial of a dead Pope, here are ten almost-unbelievable medieval scandals….”
Well, you’ll find these “gems” at this site I imagine they’re all true, although some of them beggar belief. Especially the rather gruesome episode illustrated above.
Collyweston is a small village in Northamptonshire, approximately three miles from the town of Stamford. It was not always so unassuming, however. In the 15th century there was a large fortified manor house that dominated Collyweston, of which today no trace remains above ground. The manor, sometimes known as ‘The Palace’ was first purchased by Ralph, Lord Cromwell, who fought with Henry V in France and later became a Yorkist supporter (he was probably at the first Battle of St Alban’s); his will was proved at Collyweston after his death at South Wingfield, Derbyshire in 1456.
Later, in 1486, the property went to the Crown and was given to Margaret Beaufort for life. She enlarged it further and added to the park and gardens. It was leased off later on, and dismantling of the house began in the 1630’s. She also added to the church in the late 15th century, and ‘My Lady’s Chapel’ might have been named after her. There are also a pair of ‘mutilated beast gargoyles’ from Lady Margaret’s time–I dare say they are NOT meant to be her and Henry, unlike the pair of heads on the church in Langport.
New excavations hope to find the ground plan of the house, and the area it covered is apparently so large it stretches into the back gardens of various properties throughout the village.
This excellent Channel Four programme, presented by Professor Alice Roberts, with Dr. Ben Robinson in the helicopter, has returned for a new series. The early venues were Dover (World War Two, visiting the underground base, concentrating on the retreat from Dunkirk and subsequent Channel defence, meeting some survivors, wearing ATS uniform and riding in a tank), her home city Bristol (Georgian, with slavery, gin, chocolate and great architecture featured) and Cardiff (where coal and the Marquess of Bute brought much prosperity in the Edwardian era, before it could supplant Machyllenth as Wales’ capital).
The series then moved on to Oxford to illustrate the Civil War sieges, where Alice Roberts’ Worsleyesque love of dressing up saw her in New Model Army uniform, playing real tennis and viewing Charles I’s ersatz capital. Episode five illustrated Plantagenet Canterbury, featuring St. Augustine, Becket, Chaucer, the Black Death and Peasants’ Revolt. We were also shown a copy of the Magna Carta. The last show was about Stewart Stirling, where she visited the Castle and walls, brewed beer, played with a replica antique football and visited a well, illustrating how individual Stewart monarchs were vulnerable, even to internal opposition, but the line was secure.
Here is a piece about a pearl and diamond pendant, formerly owned by Marie Antoinette and was sold recently in Geneva.
Anyone who heard BBC news coverage during the week of this event may well have learned two things:
1) “She ordered it before she was executed.”
Really? How do you order a pendant posthumously and where do you put it without a head?
2) “She was the last Queen of France.” – except for two others, including her own daughter (technically). There were also three Empresses up to 1870.
As Ricardians, we know very well now, history can be twisted to suit. The matter of those strawberries and what happened next, for instance. I mean, the different versions are legion, even to the point of whether or not Thomas, Lord Stanley was ever present at all, let alone injured in a scrap and obliged to hide under a table. So delightful and worthy an image.
Anyway, while researching an earlier event (1377) I have come upon another did-he?/didn’t-he? scenario, this time involving the Duke of Lancaster/King of Castile, John of Gaunt. He from whom the Beauforts, the House of Lancaster and the Tudors are descended. I have never been very fond of him, not even after reading Anya Seton’s Katherine.
To me, at this 1377 point in history, he was a scheming heap of double standards, arrogance, blatant dishonesty and unworthiness. (Don’t hold back viscountessw, tell it how it is!) He was bungling, a lousy military commander, and quite determined to prevent the bloodline of the sole female offspring of his older brother, Lionel, from getting anywhere near the throne. Oh, no, dear John of Gaunt wasn’t having any of that! A right to the throne through a woman? Heaven forfend. Besides, Johnny-boy wanted the throne for himself and his own descendants, even though he was lower in the pecking order than Lionel had been. What a hypocrite! He himself was claiming the throne of Castile through his second wife! And he was even Duke of Lancaster in right of his first wife. Yet, suddenly, the throne of England had to be different. No female intrusions, pul-eeze!
Edward III was no better, because he claimed the throne of France through his mother, but he developed a very convenient memory when he was persuaded by Gaunt to sign an entail that excluded women from the succession. Mind you, I do wonder if Edward would have signed any such thing if he had not been put under extreme pressure by Gaunt. Edward was elderly at the time, perhaps in his dotage, and very, very tired. He was a mere shadow of the great king he had once been, and still bereft from the loss of his beloved queen, Philippa of Hainault. He was now becoming doddery, and was reliant for comfort on his disliked mistress, Alice Perrers, whom it suited Gaunt to support because she gave him more access to his father. Some might say Edward III was a sitting duck when it came to Gaunt’s overweening ambition.
In early 1377, Gaunt was strongly suspected of wanting the throne for himself, and old rumours were resurrected (presumably by his supporters) that called into question the legitimacy of Joan of Kent’s marriage to the Black Prince. And therefore also questioning the legitimacy of her son by the prince, the future Richard II. The Black Prince was not known by that name then, of course, he was Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales (or, as I’ve recently seen him identified, the Prince of England). Joan had a chequered history, it’s true, but she was lawfully married to the Black Prince.
Well, the Pope said Joan was the Black Prince’s wife, so she had to be, right? I won’t go into the whys and wherefores of her story, just that legally, at this point in time, she was the wife/widow of the Black Prince, and her little son by him, Prince Richard, was trueborn. Anyway, two-faced Gaunt was prepared to secretly sponsor attacks her reputation one day…and the next rush off to seek her protection when a mob was (justifiably) out for his blood. If I’d been her, I’d have thrown him to the wolves!
I believe it was with all pips squeaking that Gaunt swore to protect his nephew, the boy who would become Richard II. Protect the child? Hmm. Back in those days the lives of youngsters were notoriously delicate and at risk, and I do not doubt that Gaunt’s fingers were crossed behind his back as he made his vow. With Richard out of the way, or childless—although waiting for such to prove the case was an unknown risk, and could mean a long period of impatient thumb-twiddling and foot-shuffling for Gaunt and his family—and Lionel’s Mortimer descendants forbidden the crown, there would be no argument when a Lancastrian backside was plonked upon the throne. Which, of course, happened in due course when Gaunt’s eldest son stole Richard II’s crown and probably murdered him.
Where is all this invective leading? Well, simply to a scene at St Paul’s, at the trial of Gaunt’s friend and protégé. Wycliffe/Wyclif (and other spellings) who was believed by many to be a heretic. Or verging on it. There was a confrontation between Gaunt and the man who had hauled Wycliffe before a Church trial, William Courtenay, Bishop of London, who was also a son of the Earl of Devon.
The Church had been provoked by some of Gaunt’s activities, and did not like the rumours, so another rumour (or an old one resurrected) began to circulate, that Gaunt was a changeling. It was claimed that his mother, Philippa of Hainault, had confessed as much to William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, telling him to only let the truth be known if it seemed Gaunt was about to become King of England. Gaunt, needless to say, was livid, and deprived Wykeham of all manner of things. Mind you, in Gaunt’s place, I’d have been livid, too, but handsome is as handsome does, and (to use the language of the school playground) he started it! Courtenay and the bishops were intent upon getting at Gaunt through Wycliffe—punishing the duke himself being out of the question.
Wycliffe was escorted to the trial by Gaunt and the Earl Marshal, Henry Percy, who was a man capable of putting force before common sense. He angered the onlookers outside St Paul’s by clearing the way through them with much more strength than necessary. The trial opened with Courtenay telling Wycliffe to stand throughout the proceedings, and Gaunt declaring Wycliffe should be allowed to sit. Gaunt and Courtenay couldn’t bear the sight of each other, and the disagreement got out of hand. When Gaunt was heard to mutter something about dragging the bishop out by his hair, there was uproar that would to lead to the riots from which Gaunt had the brass neck to expect Joan of Kent to save him.
The above is the gist of the ‘facts’ as I have always understood them, but now, in a book entitled Lady of the Sun (a biography of Alice Perrers, by F George Kay) I find a much more colourful account of the flashpoint in St Paul’s:-
“…Gaunt lost his temper, knocked off the Bishop of London’s cap and started to drag him out of the way by his hair…”
Um, that’s slightly different from a mere heated exchange of words and a sotto voce threat. So, which is the right version? Something muttered? Or a violent laying-on of ducal hands?
F George Kay goes on to say that:-
“…The onlookers surged to the rescue of the Bishop. Gaunt and Percy [Earl Marshal and Gaunt’s sidekick, whose heavy-handedness had started the proceedings on the wrong foot] fled for their lives…and went by boat to Kennington. [Where Joan of Kent was residing with the little prince.]…)
Even with the missing words, this account implies that Gaunt and Percy fled from the scene of the trial, across the Thames and into Joan’s protection in one fell swoop. They knew she was popular with the people, and respected. The presence of the little prince was an added plus. One fell swoop? Not quite true. After the scene involving the Bishop of London’s hair, Gaunt and Percy went on their way in their own time, taking Wycliffe with them. The onlookers in the streets were shocked and angered by the quarrel, but were not, as yet, a rampaging mob.
It was the next day that things escalated and the rioting began, when London was informed that Percy had high-handedly imprisoned a man at the Marshalsea prison in Southwark for (apparently) no good reason. This imprisonment was the touch-paper.
When the mob went into action, Gaunt and Percy were sitting down to dine at the inn of a friend, a rich merchant named Sir John d’Ypres.
The hors d’oevres had just been served (neat touch in the account of the eternally spiteful Walsingham) when a frightened messenger arrived to tell them the Marshalsea had been attacked and prisoners (or the prisoner) freed, Next, Percy’s house in Aldersgate had been ransacked as the mob looked for him (presumably with some dire punishment in mind). From Percy’s abode, the dissatisfied, frustrated, even angrier mob marched upon Gaunt’s fortress-like palace, the Savoy, broke in, and began another ransacking. Had either Gaunt or Percy been found, would they have been killed there and then? I don’t know, but it seems likely. What a difference to English history Gaunt’s early demise would have made!
Anyway, on learning the awful news, Gaunt and Percy took to their highborn heels, bolted from d’Ypres’ house for the Thames, and then took a boat across the river to Kennington to throw themselves on her mercy. Joan was clearly nobler than them, because she took them in and defended them! Eventually—and no doubt very smugly—it was William Courtenay, Bishop of London, who calmed the mob and dispersed them. And he still had his hair!
So, here is another famous occasion for which the accounts are mixed. Maybe February 1377 isn’t of as much interest to Ricardians as anything that went on between 1483 and 1485, but I find it fascinating that such different slants can be extracted from brief accounts. Historians then adopt their preferred version, and claim it as the truth.
Oh, and F George Kay doesn’t say Gaunt allowed the rumours about Joan’s marriage to be spread, he says that Gaunt stood up in Parliament and suggested the succession should be discussed! Parliament was shocked. What was there to discuss? Until then they’d all been satisfied that the succession would go to Prince Richard. Gaunt was clearly reminding them all about the doubts concerning the Black Prince’s marriage. Did Gaunt really make such a suggestion? Would he do it? Would he stand there and publicly dig up doubts and questions about the marriage of the heir to the throne, and the legitimacy of the next king? He was already very unpopular, and widely suspected of having designs on the throne. Well, I am perhaps not the best person to ask. I’m not exactly unbiased! But then, nor was Gaunt. And Parliament’s response was to invite the prince to come before them, so they could acknowledge him and see that all his father’s estates, etc. were bestowed upon him forthwith. This was, perhaps, not what Gaunt had planned. Certainly it was a very public a rejection of any designs and ambitions he nurtured for himself.
It will by now be very clear that I have no time for John of Gaunt. Maybe he became a steadying influence in later years, but at the time of which I now write, he was a dangerously ambitious, scheming magnate who was prepared to do whatever it took to get his own way. He didn’t give a fig who he hurt, or about family loyalty—except when it suited, and especially when it came to sucking up to and manipulating his elderly, worn-out father, Edward III. He ‘persuaded’ Edward to disinherit his son Lionel of Clarence’s daughter, and her son (Roger Mortimer, the future Earl of March) from the succession, in order to insert himself in the nicely cleared slot. And he wasn’t above permitting his supporters to spread whispers about the Black Prince’s marriage and the legitimacy of the future Richard II.
If you wonder what did happen with the succession, read Appendix Two of Ian Mortimer’s The Fears of Henry IV, which explores and explains it all in great detail. Throughout Richard’s reign, Gaunt endeavoured to persuade him to name Gaunt’s son, Henry, as heir presumptive. Richard resisted, and seemed to regard the Earl of March’s son as heir. Richard made an entail of his own, superseding that of his grandfather, Edward III. In the end, of course, the entails were useless, because Gaunt’s son and heir usurped the crown and did away with Richard. Job done. Except that Gaunt never knew how successful his line finally became, because he died before Richard, and thus before Henry’s Lancastrian backside graced the throne.
I don’t just dislike Gaunt, I loathe him! His machinations were the root cause of the bloody Wars of the Roses. But I know that he has many supporters, and they will not agree with anything I’ve said. They will probably regard me as being guilty of the very things I’ve commented on: fake news and twisted facts!
There is a pub in Bridgnorth, near where I live. Well, let’s be honest, there’s about a hundred. If you have ever been to Bridgnorth, aside from the Severn Valley Railway, the funicular railway from Low Town to High Town and the remains of the slighted castle, which lean at a greater angle than the Tower of Pisa, the sheer number of pubs will strike you. The one I was referring to is The Bell and Talbot on Salop Street in High Town. The hanging sign shows a dog lying beneath a bell while the one on the wall looks a bit more like a coat of arms, with two hounds rearing up either side of a bell.
The Bell and Talbot, Bridgnorth
The symbol of the Talbot Hound is easy to miss but is significant in Shropshire. Talbot dogs were small white hunting hounds, extinct now, but understood to be an ancestor of the beagle and the bloodhound. The origin of the breed, its emergence in England and the reason for the name are all lost in the mists of time, but they have an enduring connection to the most prominent Shropshire family of the last five centuries.
Henry VI is believed to have referred to John Talbot in 1449 as ‘Talbott, oure good dogge’: I’m sure he meant it as a compliment, but I wouldn’t appreciate such a label! Did the name of the hound emerge from this quip? Or was it a reference to the already-established Talbot breed, coincidentally sharing a name with Henry’s premier general in France? John Talbot became Earl of Shrewsbury and his family inextricably linked with the title and surrounding county for generations. The 1445 Shrewsbury Book, commissioned by Talbot, has an image of the earl presenting his book to Margaret of Anjou, Henry’s queen, with a little white Talbot hound standing behind him.
The Shrewsbury Book, presented by John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury
In 1569, George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury was one of the few English noblemen wealthy and trusted enough to house Mary, Queen of Scots during her period under house arrest at Elizabeth I’s instruction. Shrewsbury was a prominent Protestant and Elizabeth made him a Privy Counsellor as part of the arrangement because of ‘his approved loyalty and faithfulness, and the ancient state of blood from which he is descended’. Mary was initially held at Tutbury Castle and although Elizabeth would not meet the costs of her prisoner’s keeping, Mary’s French incomes covered her hosts expenses for a while. She was moved two months later to Wingfield Manor, a more suitable, well-kept lodging than the dilapidated Tutbury with its inadequate drains. Although he would discharge his duty diligently, Shrewsbury was censured any time he left Mary’s company for his own business and despite his wealth, he and his wife, Bess of Hardwick found themselves financially embarrassed by the cost and Elizabeth’s refusal to help meet them. Mary was eventually removed from Shrewsbury’s care before her eventual entrapment and execution at Fotheringhay Castle.
Alton Towers lies just north of Shropshire, across the border into Staffordshire, and even as a theme park, it retains a link to the Talbot family who made it their ancestral home. The buildings that lie ruined today were built by Charles Talbot, 15th Earl of Shrewsbury in the early nineteenth century. The ride Hex is contained within the ruins and tells the story of that earl’s battle with the supernatural to lift a curse placed in him and his family.
For anyone interested in the fifteenth century, John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, remembered as Old Talbot, is a towering figure sadly eclipsed by later events. He was one of the few Englishmen Joan of Arc is reputed to have known by name. His fearless, often reckless leadership made him the most successful English general in France over many years. He was probably in his mid-sixties when he was eventually killed at the Battle of Castillon in 1453. His loss was such a blow that Castillon is considered the last battle of the Hundred Years War and there is a memorial in France to him, set up where he fell in recognition of a foe worthy of respect.
The Talbot Monument at the site of the Battle of Castillon
For those with an interest more precisely focussed on Richard III and the events of 1483, the Talbot family have a vitally important role to play. Unfortunately, there is little solid fact on which to hang any opinion of the controversy of Edward IV’s marital status. Where hard, written evidence is lacking – and we should expect it to be lacking, given the systematic destruction of Titulus Regius after Bosworth – I tend to fall back on the actions of people affected by events. In their reaction, or even inaction, we can often glean an idea of what must have been going on and what people thought of it.
The Talbot family come into sharp focus because the basis of Richard’s charge that Edward IV’s children were illegitimate is a claim that Edward was a bigamist. It was alleged that prior to his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, he had already contracted a marriage to Eleanor Talbot, daughter of the 1st Earl of Shrewsbury. We have no solid evidence that this is the case, but as I said, we probably shouldn’t expect to. Look at what people in London in June 1483 did, though. They accepted the evidence we are told they were shown. We cannot examine it and for the most part, historians dismiss it as fantasy. Yet those who could read it accepted it so completely that they deposed a king and offered the crown to his uncle. Why would they do that? Fear of Richard? Hardly. He had no army in London or anywhere nearby. He was mustering a few hundred men at Pontefract, but they had not left by then and London was well versed in resisting thousands, never mind a few hundred. Fear of a minority? Maybe, but Richard had shown himself willing to act as regent for his nephew, and he was the senior royal male of the House of York, an experienced governor and successful general (within his limited opportunities). Could it be that, just maybe, the allegations looked true?
Edward IV’s reputation, deserved or otherwise, surely made it seem plausible. None would doubt that he was capable of contracting a secret marriage to a relatively unsuitable older lady. That was, after all, how he ended up married to Elizabeth Woodville. By 1483, George Talbot was 4th Earl of Shrewsbury, the first earl’s great-grandson. He was probably too young to fight at Bosworth, but definitely supported Henry VII during the Lambert Simnel Affair. The Talbot family were Lancastrian in their sympathies; after all, their patriarch had built his reputation and title on defending that House. They are often considered hostile to Richard III, probably because of his accusation against one of their number, but I’m not sure that was the case. By the time of the Lambert Simnel Affair, supporting Henry VII was the natural position for the 4th Earl. Besides, if, as I strongly suspect, the Affair was an uprising in favour of Edward V rather than Edward, Earl of Warwick, then the Talbot family perhaps opposed it because they were perfectly well aware of Edward V’s illegitimacy.
Back in 1483, the Talbot family made no move against Richard or his accusation about Eleanor Talbot and Edward IV. When Simon Stallworth wrote his newsletter to Sir William Stonor as late as 21 June 1483, the day before Dr Shaa’s sermon at St Paul’s Cross, he knew nothing of the impending bombshell. He did, however, note that Lord Lisle ‘is come to my Lorde Protectour and awates apone hym’. This is more significant that it is often deemed to be.
Lord Lisle was Edward Grey. He was not only the younger brother of Sir John Grey of Groby, the first husband of Elizabeth Woodville and therefore uncle to her two oldest sons, but he was also married to Elizabeth Talbot, a niece of Eleanor Talbot. If Richard was looking for evidence to substantiate or refute the charge he had been made aware of, Lord Lisle was a sensible person to consult. He might know whether there was any family tradition that Eleanor had married Edward and whether any evidence remained in Talbot hands.
Lord Lisle was from a Lancastrian family and Richard was about to offend the family of his wife, yet Lord Lisle remained with Richard and offered no opposition. Indeed, Lord Lisle attended Richard’s coronation, as did the Duchess of Norfolk, Elizabeth. Elizabeth had married John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk and was the mother of Anne Mowbray, the ill-fated bride of Edward IV’s younger son. She had been born Elizabeth Talbot, though, the youngest daughter of John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury and a sister of Eleanor Talbot. She was not so outraged by Richard’s accusations that she boycotted his coronation. Was this because Richard was, in actual fact, righting a wrong that the Talbot family perceived had been inflicted on one of their number by a deceitful young king?
There are many other elements to the precontract story. The timing is always cited as too convenient, but I would counter that George, Duke of Clarence seems to have been on the verge of revealing it in 1477 and it cost him his life. Who else would have been brave enough to trumpet the allegation during Edward IV’s lifetime? It would have been tantamount to signing your own death warrant. This piece of the puzzle is interesting though. We cannot be certain of the truth of the allegation of bigamy. We can, however, be entirely certain that the charge was made, that evidence was gathered (or fabricated), that what evidence existed was unanimously accepted by those able to examine it, that this evidence has subsequently been lost or destroyed and that there was no backlash from the Talbot family in 1483 (accepting that in 1485 Sir Gilbert Talbot, younger son of the 2nd Earl, joined Henry Tudor’s army).
It amazes me that such certainty in the fraud of the bigamy allegation is espoused today. There is no hard evidence for it, but there is also none against it. Expanding our consideration to more circumstantial elements, it is probable that the story nearly emerged in 1477, costing George his life, and it is certain that those who were exposed to the evidence in support of it entirely accepted it. It may have been a well-constructed lie, but it is at least as likely, if not more so, that it was true.
Many of you will remember the episode of “Who do you think you are” in which Danny Dyer was revealed as a descendant of Edward III. In this new two part series, he “meets” a few prominent ancestors, some even more distant.
The first episode began with Rollo, ancestor of the Dukes of Normandy, which saw Dyer visit Sweden, although Danes and Norwegians also claim that Viking dynast, to learn sparring with a sword and shield. Then he went to the Tower to talk about William I and Dover Castle for Henry II, discussing his rebellious sons and his mixed relationship with Becket. At every stage, riding a horse, jousting or dyeing (Dyeing?), he was accompanied by a professional genealogist (Anthony Adolph, in a cafe opposite Buckingham Palace) or a historian, if not one of television’s “usual suspects”. At the end, Dyer visited France to learn of a slightly different ancestor – St. Louis IX, although Margaret of Wessex is another canonised forebear.
The second episode did feature some real historians: Elizabeth Norton, Chris Given-Wilson, Tobias Capwell and Tracy Borman. The opening scene had Isabella on the Leeds Castle drawbridge shouting at Edward II (Dyer): “Git aht ov moi carsel” (you may need Google Translate, but not from French). We were shown an image of Hugh le Despencer’s grisly execution, without pointing out that there were two of that name, followed by Edward’s confinement in Berkeley Castle, forced abdication and the legend of his even grislier end. Henry “Hotspur” Percy, who died in battle at Shrewsbury, followed as Dyer tried on late mediaeval armour. The next scenes concerned Sir John Seymour at Wolf Hall, inveigling his daughter into Henry VIII’s world, as Dyer dressed up and tried “Tudor” dancing. We then moved on to Helmingham Hall as Catherine Cromwell married Lord Tollemache, whose successor met Dyer, his cousin, again. The series concluded with a “sugar banquet” as the star’s family joined in, dressed as Elizabeth I’s contemporaries.
Both programmes were informative about mediaeval life, such as the “silver pennies” bearing Dyer’s image and the West Ham badge, although his stereotypical East London patois grates a little. It brought to mind Ray Winstone as Henry VIII (“I have been betrayed!”) or Nick Knowles‘ egregious Historyonics.
Here is a short but interesting article about the time Richard and George are thought to have spent with their sister Margaret in St Omer in the summer of 1475.
St Omer in 1640
PS: The illustrations are not from the article (which contains others of great quality), and you will find some interesting pictures of a model of St Omer here. The illustration at the beginning of this post is one from the latter.
Whatever the truth about this amazing ruby, it must be (still is?) one heck of a precious stone. It belonged to a French king, and leapt from his ring to attach itself to the tomb of Thomas Becket, who was born 900 years ago today, in Canterbury. The ruby then ended up belonging to Henry VIII (who had it removed from the tomb and put in a thumb ring for himself). George IV then had Henry’s tomb opened up, in the belief the ruby would be inside, but it wasn’t. So where did it go?
A friend in America sent me the following article, by Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post. Having just been researching the ancient route from Paris to Lyon, as it was in the late 14th century, I found it very interesting to think that the routes and places chosen by the Romans all those centuries ago, are still ruling us today.
“Ancient Roman roads drove later development
“Prosperity begets prosperity: On a global level, economists and historians have shown that places that prospered 100, 500, even 1,000 years ago tend to be more economically developed today.
“But how? We’re less clear on the exact channels by which economic activity sustains itself over the millennia. Could dynastic wealth play a role? How about the concentration and transmission of knowledge via institutions such as schools and libraries? How does military might factor in?
“Now, a team of Danish economists has put forth a forceful case for one largely overlooked driver of economic development in Europe: roadways built by the Roman empire nearly 2,000 years ago. They demonstrate that the density of ancient Roman roads at a given point in Europe strongly correlates with present-day prosperity, as measured by modern-day road density, population density and even satellite imagery of nighttime lighting.
“Their data show that infrastructure investments are — if you’ll pardon an unpardonable pun — a pathway to long-term prosperity.
“To arrive at this conclusion, Carl-Johan Dalgaard of the University of Copenhagen and his colleagues first obtained a geographic database of the major roads of the Roman era that had been compiled by Harvard University’s Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilizations.
“Roman roadways were massive infrastructure projects even by modern standards. They consisted of several base layers, including stone, gravel and sand, over which large stone slabs were laid. At the empire’s peak in 117 A.D., scholars estimate, the Romans had built nearly 50,000 miles of roadway across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Many of them have lasted well into the present day.
“Dalgaard and his colleagues took a map of the major ancient Roman roads and superimposed it over satellite imagery showing the level of nighttime illumination in 2010. Economists often use nighttime lighting as a proxy for economic activity: more lights, more development.
“The visual relationship is particularly striking in France. There, you can clearly see the paths of ancient roadways connecting not just major modern cities, like Paris and Lyon, but also many minor ones, too. Across inland France, nearly every junction of ancient roads is marked by a splash of light in the modern era.
“While just eyeballing it like this is certainly suggestive, it’s not good enough for social science research. So Dalgaard and his colleagues took it several steps further: They divided the entire ancient Roman empire into a grid of 1 degree latitude by 1 degree longitude squares and measured the density of Roman roads within each. For each square, they also measured modern-day population, the density of current roadways and economic activity as indicated by the satellite imagery.
“They then ran a battery of statistical tests to determine how the presence of ancient roadways was related to the modern-day variables they measured. The answer: quite a bit. Places with more Roman roads in antiquity tended to have more roads today, as well as more people and greater levels of economic development.
“Now, there’s a big question of causality looming over all this: Can we really say that ancient roads caused greater economic development down the line? Or is it more accurate to say that more prosperous areas in the ancient world simply had more of a tendency to build roads to other places as a natural result of their prosperity?
“Dalgaard and his colleagues marshal convincing pieces of evidence to argue in favor of a causal link that runs from ancient roadbuilding to modern-day prosperity. For starters, Roman roads weren’t typically built with trade in mind: Their primary purpose was to move troops and supplies to locations of military interest. Trade was an afterthought.
”Roman roads were often constructed in newly conquered areas without any extensive, or at least not comparable,existing network of cities and infrastructure,” Dalgaard and his colleagues write. In many instances, the roads came first. Settlements and cities came later.
“Then there’s the fascinating question of what happened to Roman roads built in North Africa. At some point between 500 and 1,000 A.D., wheeled transport was essentially abandoned in the region. Goods were ferried around on the backs of camels, rather than in carts pulled by oxen. The exact reasons for this are up for debate and probably involved costs, advances in saddle technology and the increasing military and political might of groups that had traditionally relied on camels for transport, Dalgaard and his colleagues explain.
“If you’re not pulling carts around, you have less of a need for paved roadways. As a result, the Roman roads in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) weren’t maintained the same way they were in Europe, where cart-based transit remained dominant. ”The implication of these developments is that since ancient roads fall into disrepair in the MENA region, to a much greater extent than in Europe, one should expect to see much less persistence in infrastructure density.”
“Indeed, that’s exactly what Dalgaard and his colleagues found. The correlation between ancient roadways and modern-day development so prevalent in Europe is much smaller and less significant for the Middle East and North Africa. ”As ancient roads are left to decay they ultimately become a less reliable predictor of modern road location in the MENA,” they found. ”Roman road density does not predict current day economic activity within the MENA region.”
“In sum, Dalgaard’s research adds historical heft to the idea that infrastructure investments can be a driver of economic growth. While most research into that question has focused on short-term results, Dalgaard’s paper suggests that infrastructure investments today could continue to bear fruit for thousands of years to come.
Across inland France, nearly every junction of ancient roads is marked by a splash of light in the modern era. WASHINGTON POST ILLUSTRATION | DATA FROM NOAA EARTH OBSERVATORY, NATURAL EARTH AND DIGITAL ATLAS OF ROMAN AND MEDIEVAL CIVILIZATION
Ancient Roman roads superimposed on 2010 satellite imagery of nighttime lighting in Europe. WASHINGTON POST ILLUSTRATION | DATA FROM NOAA EARTH OBSERVATORY, NATURAL EARTH AND DIGITAL ATLAS OF ROMAN AND MEDIEVAL CIVILIZATION