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The Septimerpass was paved before 1400.

Old roads are historical land traffic routes that arose before the modern roads . They served as trade routes and military roads .

Some old streets were elaborately laid out and can still be recognized today by their straight course in flat and undulating topography as well as traces of engineering structures in steep terrain. These include the Roman roads . A large part of the old roads, however, was paved with minimal effort or laid out as unpaved natural roads . In mountainous terrain, they mostly ran along the watershed, either on the ridge or parallel to the slope. Many old trade routes only led through the high mountains ( Höhenweg ) as mule tracks .

Historical old road research is a sub-area of old road research . Still visible remnants of old streets are as Altwegrelikte referred.

Conditions of origin

Large parts of the old roads were unpaved nature trails , the course of which was based on the geology and topography of the landscapes that had to be crossed between important source and destination areas of traffic. In the early Middle Ages of Europe, the valley floors were mostly swampy . The unshaved rivers often overflowed their banks and often changed their course. Paths parallel to the river on valley slopes would have required extensive terracing . Fords were dangerous spots, and ferries , if any, were not reliable. Bridges were a rare luxury and could be destroyed by natural events or acts of violence.

The fortified exceptions include stick dams through moors and one or the other high mountain pass.

Route guidance

Höhenstraße: Breiter Rennsteig

Old roads ran preferably on watersheds (ridges), named for the Hohe Straße or parallel to the slope on a gentle slope at the level of the spring horizon (because of the watering options for the draft animals, mostly ox; horses could not pull heavy loads before the introduction of the kumt harness ), e.g. B. the Hellweg between Duisburg and Paderborn and its branches along the Teutoburg Forest . The Brabanter Strasse and the Westfalenweg were also laid out in the same way. The high-altitude trails also had the advantage that they were generally drier than trails in the valley. Weathered basalt soils were preferred because hollow paths quickly formed on sandstone soils . In areas where the forest had already been cleared , dangers could be seen from afar on the heights.

Cross-section / division

As can be seen from systematic comparisons of today's network of paths and street names, old streets by no means consisted of just a pair of wagon lanes. Depending on the nature of the soil, the density of settlements and the requirements of feudal landlords, there could be several parallel paths that were used at different times or for different purposes. In the sandy Senne, for example, the Hellweg (actually just a branch of the same), apart from the path for commercial and traveling wagons, still known today as Senner Hellweg , is divided into the Huckepackweg for foot travelers, the Reiterweg and the coal path for local firewood transport. These special routes could be several hundred meters apart. Further splits arose when a new one was paved next to a heavily rutted path. Another reason for the creation of additional or sunken roads was to bypass the compulsory road and the associated toll . As a countermeasure, lords of the castle like those of Karlsfried dug ditches and ramparts to make these roads impassable and thus to secure their income - also for road maintenance.


The Hessian archivist and historian Georg Landau (1807-1865) made a distinction between

  1. public roads and military roads ,
  2. Country or market paths (Viae Convicinales) ,
  3. Kirchwege (Viae Pastorales) and
  4. Emergency trails.

The demarcation can be difficult for roads that were built while the country was alive:

  1. North American emigrant trails are old roads because of their lack of fortification, even if they were not built until the 19th century.
  2. Post streets - At first, the old streets were inevitably used for postal traffic. In many places, which are post-roads or regular mail , the first "modern" highways; Even where they are out of use and dilapidated, they still stand out from the traditional network of paths with their dead straight course.

Public roads and military roads had many different names that indicate their use, their location or their surroundings. These were:

  • Royal or Imperial Roads (Via Regia) ,
  • public roads ( Via Publica ) ,
  • Military routes (laid out according to strategic criteria),
  • Hellwege (route to the salt transport),
  • Diet or Volkswege,
  • Country or mountain roads,
  • high streets,
  • Race tracks (fast routes for runners and riders),
  • Rennstiege (fast mountain routes for runners and riders),
  • Forest or giant paths or path giant (name: Giant Mountains ) and
  • (Probably within the meaning of Wine Roads car roads, may not with tourist wine routes , as is the wine route to differentiate in Thuringia, whose name historically from the Slavic be confused via Wintwech - turning street was Latinized -)

The names must not be overrated. Other goods were also transported on roads named after a commodity. Military routes also served as trade routes and vice versa. Significantly, the only old road running through from the Elbe to Jutland (there were too many wetlands to the right and left of it), which incidentally was rarely used for military campaigns, is called Ochsenweg (commercial goods) in German and Hærvej in Danish .


Southern Sauerland : early medieval paths and places

The emergence of some old streets in countries inhabited by Celts and Teutons at the time can be traced back to ancient times . Above all, salt , luxury goods from the Mediterranean area, amber and slaves were traded . There must have been significant long-distance trade as early as the pre-ancient Bronze Age , as bronze production throughout Europe depended on tin from Britain . From the quick conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar it is concluded that there was a good network of roads there even before the submission. The Romans traversed their empire with mostly dead straight streets, which basically consisted of a heaped dam between two ditches. The more important ones also had a solid surface. With the decline of their empire, the roads were no longer maintained, but often still used, so that many are still part of the road and path network today.

In the Franconian empire of the Merovingians , the road network still mainly consisted of Roman roads. They built palaces at important junctions . The Carolingians extended the Franconian Empire to areas that were not accessible by Roman roads. They used unpaved roads as military roads and secured them with castles. Monasteries were built at crossroads. With the Christian pilgrimages, pilgrimage routes developed and with the establishment of markets , traffic on the trade routes increased. The first documented evidence of individual paths that did not go back to Roman roads date from the early Middle Ages, such as the local path, which is mentioned in the Vita Sturmi of Eigil , the fourth abbot of Fulda , when Sturmius was looking for a suitable place for the monastery in 744 . Traces of trade routes in the Slavic area are several wooden bridges over the Havel.

In the High Middle Ages , new cities were founded along the trade routes, often under the protection of a castle or near a monastery. In the medieval feudal kingdoms , travelers on royal and other main roads were under the peace of the land or king. The landlord, usually the owner of a fiefdom , was responsible for the safety of travelers on this road. From this the escort developed in the Middle Ages . But there were also provisions that increased the income of the feudal lords and at the same time reduced their interest in maintaining the roads. The freight of a wagon fell to the landlord when an axle touched the ground ( Grundruhrrecht ). After the first clearing period (during the Carolingians ), old roads were increasingly found in the valley, as the population growth increased the settlement density in the valleys. As a result, there were more and more direct connections from place to place. High trails took on the meaning of secret routes to bypass customs posts or heavily fortified places. Due to their location on mountain ranges (natural borders), they often developed into border paths (see Rennsteig ).

Some sources give the Central European small states as the reason why one has been content with unpaved roads for so long. In contrast, road construction in Germany began in the politically highly fragmented regions of south-west and central Germany, while in the eastern provinces of Prussia, in a large contiguous national territory, there was not a single artificial road until the first decades of the 19th century.

The road construction and, consequently, the development of a modern road network began in France and south-western parts of Germany in the mid-17th century, in other areas until the middle of the 18th or first half of the 19th century. Mostly at the beginning there were strategic considerations of individual states to create faster transport routes. The road over the Simplon in Switzerland and the English Turnpike Roads, on the other hand, were built and operated by private companies. These artificial roads reduced the rolling resistance of the vehicles through better fastening and often had a lower gradient. They could be guided on dams through wetlands and in river valleys on a terrace above the floodplain, so they fell dry and were immune to flooding. In the mountains they had more even gradients or followed contour lines to overcome a mountain ridge. As a result, journeys on them could be mastered more quickly than on old roads. The latter thus lost their importance as long-distance connections and, if parts of the route were not taken over, were only rarely (mostly locally) used or not used at all.

Many of the old roads have been built over over the centuries (e.g. A 66 ), overgrown by the forest or leveled (e.g. to enlarge fields). Some paths are no longer passable, although theoretically the right of way still exists. Some sections of the route still exist in their original form and are used as field, forest or hiking trails.

Well-known old streets

Most of the old streets in Europe had no continuous proper names and neither a specific beginning nor a fixed end. The trails were always named by the local population after nearby destinations. Over the centuries, the routes have shifted because places have lost or gained in importance. Sometimes customs and unsafe areas were bypassed. There were also branches and alternative routes that travelers could use depending on the conditions (weather conditions, robber bands, feuds). This resulted in different names for the same street from place to place. Even when the owner changes, for example from emperor to landgrave, other names have become commonplace.

Fixed names were often only introduced by historians of old road research as an aid to describing the paths.

Central Europe

Ochsenweg in Schleswig-Holstein


Great Britain

Roman Empire

The total length of the Roman road network is estimated at 80,000 kilometers at the time of Emperor Trajan. The military roads in particular were already paved artificial roads in antiquity .

Middle East and Asia

Silk road

Inca Empire

The Inca roads opened up one of the most difficult areas on earth for road construction, the Andes . The Incas built a road network of 40,000 kilometers with bridges, tunnels and rest stops. The streets had foundations and pavement. Since the Inca did not know any wagons , steep sections were designed as stairs and gorges were crossed with rope bridges.


  • Erika Dreyer-Eimbecke: Old streets in the heart of Europe: kings, merchants, traveling people. Umschau, Frankfurt am Main 1989, ISBN 3-524-69078-5 .
  • Georg Landau: Contributions to the history of the old army and trade routes in Germany. Bärenreiter, Kassel 1958.
  • Mustafa Adak, Sencer Şahin: The Roman road and settlement system in the Lycian Milyas. In: Harald Koschik (Ed.): All roads lead to Rome. Rhine 2004.
  • Alexander Veling: Old ways research. State of research and methods. aventinus varia No. 44 [28. March 2014] ( digitized version ).

Web links

Commons : Old Streets  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Alexander Veling: Old ways research
  2. a b Kampsmann, Koch, Neumann, Thermann: Das Sennestadtbuch , 1967/1968
  3. a b Travel and Transport on the Golden Street, an old street from the 14th century
  4. ^ Thomas Kühtreiber : Street and Castle. Notes on a complex relationship. In: Kornelia Holzner-Tobisch, Thomas Kühtreiber, Gertrud Blaschitz (eds.): The complexity of the street. Continuity and change in the Middle Ages and early modern times. Publications of the Institute for Reality Studies of the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Era, 22, Vienna 2012, pp. 263–301, here pp. 286 ff.
  5. ^ Thomas Waschke: Old streets in Apolda - the wine route. In: Apoldaer Heimat. Vol. 7, 1989, pp. 24-25 ( online ). European culture and information center in Thuringia, accessed on May 3, 2017. In it the connection with "Wein" (- straße or Weinweg [from Wagenweg]) is rejected and the origin of the 1295 and 1318 documented via Wintwich (Wendenstraße; from Slavic wiritwinwein ) derived.
  6. Winfried Schich: The Havel as a waterway in the Middle Ages (PDF; 299 kB).
  7. Texts on road construction in various German states in the Historical Geographical Information System ( HGIS ) and other sources: