How Should Early Modern Europe Look?

News Networks in Early Modern Europe has been spending some time recently contemplating the challenges of mapping early modern news (see previous posts).  I’ve looked admiringly at some of the impressive visualisations developed by various projects (ORBIS, the Republic of Letters, and this effort, measuring sites against years of production for the various pre-1500 items – manuscripts as well as incunabula – in the collections of the Houghton Library.)  Some of the hazards and obstacles to early modern news circulation have been predictable – shifting geopolitical boundaries, for instance – while others have come as more of a surprise.  According to E. John B. Allen, for example, French, Spanish and Imperial diplomatic couriers – diplomatic intelligence networks representing, of course, an important subset of early modern news – often tried to avoid the region around Poitiers in the 1560s, which was “notorious, not only for the robbing of foreign couriers, but also because the Huguenots pounced on couriers sent from the French court.”[1] So to the list of phenomena influencing the routes and speeds of early modern news communication, we apparently need to add sectarian banditry.

By 1632, when Nicolas Sanson produced his remarkable map of the post routes of France – recently shown at News Networks’ Viennese workshop by André Belo – Poitiers was an important junction on two major French post roads, to La Rochelle and Bordeaux (the Bordeaux road representing the principal line of land communication between France and Spain.)  If Poitiers and the lands around it had been dangerous to Royal and Imperial couriers in the mid-sixteenth century, it had resumed its place as an important node in the network, following the subjugation of La Rochelle and the largely successful suppression of the Huguenot risings of the early seventeenth century.

In 2004 Patrick Marchand adapted Sanson’s map so that the relations between the network’s most significant points are more readily intelligible.   The resulting map has been cleared of a great deal of clutter but there are some losses; it doesn’t, for example, reflect the striking extent to which French post routes map onto the country’s major rivers.  The Seine, the Rhône, the Marne, the Garonne and the Loire, among others, have post roads following much of their length; and Sanson was notably assiduous in representing, though not labelling, the river systems of France (as well as those of eastern Germany, the southern Netherlands and the south of England).  The reason for this may have less to do with the actual significance of the rivers of France to early modern transportation and more with historic (and pre-historic) patterns of settlement, and the happenstance of France’s having much larger and more navigable rivers than, for instance, Britain (none of whose six principal post roads in the 1630s follows a river for any very significant part of its length); but it is interesting, nonetheless, to note that a Frenchman mapping a national communications network should be at such pains to include rivers in his illustration of it.

Also noticeable on this map – and the broader subject of this post – are the places the roads don’t go.  Virtually the whole of Brittany, as well as what is now Lower Normandy, form a vast blank, with Nantes in Brittany’s southeast the only point of connection to the national network: probably a consequence of Brittany’s status as an independent Dukedom until 1532.  In this instance, a change in the geopolitical map effaces a distinction which the infrastructural map still reflects a hundred years later.  It’s also a reminder of the extent to which Europe’s Celtic periphery remained disconnected; the English postal network extended through Wales only to be able to receive news from Ireland (the Holyhead road was only permanently established from the time of the Irish rebellions of the late 16th century), connected to Scotland through a single route (the Great North Road from London to Edinburgh), and was reliably linked to Cornwall only by the 17th century, and then only by the slow and difficult business of crossing the Tamar estuary, a process which usually added a day or more to the post’s journey.

The shape of the Imperial, French and English postal networks in the late 16th and early 17th centuries plainly reflect the extent to which they exist to service the needs of the monarchies, particularly in the matter of foreign policy – although, as Joad Raymond pointed out at the Vienna workshop, the English crown was not at all interested in funding the post to the necessary level, and the emergence of the post as a viable service formally available to the public was a matter of pure commercial necessity: without the income from public use of a royal service the royal service was absolutely unsustainable, making it an early and perhaps unusually successful instance of Public-Private Partnership in action.  The right of the post to carry what were called ‘bye-letters’ (that is, private letters, as opposed to government packets) was acknowledged by implication from at least 1584 in England,  although the question of accessibility is relevant here.  By the middle of the 17th century there was probably no dwelling in England further than 20 miles from a post-town, but there were still many people who lived inconveniently far away from any connection to the postal network.   Delivery along the main highways might have become considerably quicker but it didn’t herald easy and universal access to the system.

A recent image which considers the effect of some related questions in the modern world appeared on Google’s lat-long blog: a map of the world measuring road density.  It highlights land which is 10km or more from the nearest road.  There is almost no land of this kind anywhere in Europe, and very little in the United States – even in parts of the US that are notoriously sparsely populated, such as the Plains States.  Another version of the algorithm, which considers land isolated that is more than 1km from the nearest road, still makes it clear that even in many of the most mountainous and remote parts of Europe the sense of isolation they produce is really an illusion (as a thought experiment, we might imagine another, and no less interesting map, would measure isolation in Europe as a function of the distance of any given area of land from a commercial airport.)

If we’re to be able to visualise effectively the operation of an early modern European communications network, we need to be able to represent it temporally as well as spatially – to measure the time news took to travel between given locations rather than distance.  The real shape of early modern Europe is in some respects a function of this; and one of the principal challenges of this project is to enable us to see it free of the distortions – which is to say the geographical realities – of modern cartography.  This might produce some eccentricities of its own – one easily imagines a situation whereby London, its position calculated by the time taken to travel to say, Antwerp, Hamburg and Venice respectively, might appear some distance from where we would expect to find it, and in an unusual place relative to Paris – but this is a key characteristic of the Europe we wish to describe.


[1] Post and Courier Service in the Diplomacy of Early Modern Europe (1972), pp. 91-2

4 thoughts on “How Should Early Modern Europe Look?

  1. Contemporary references to distances that I’ve come across are usually measured in time: how many days from X to Y. ORBIS does a great job in displaying temporal distance – it would be nice to have it for EMod post roads too. Having said that, plotting post-houses in Google Maps shows how regularly they occur, so there’s something to be said for purely spatial representations (my plottings of Berey’s map (= Sanson’s?) include Paris-Bayonne and Calais to Nice).

    • That’s what I tend to find too – about distances, that is (partly because precise distances are hard to fix, usually relying on co-ordinated observations of a celestial event). I haven’t seen Berey’s map; a cursory search suggests it’s a bit later (early C18th rather than 17th) but it may very well incorporate Sanson’s map (engraved by Melchior Tavernier.) The spatial dimension isn’t something we’d want to lose, you’re right, and I suspect that we’re going to end up wanting to produce two maps – one plotting the networks in their full physical detail and another that represents distance as time…

  2. A source from 20 years later suggests that by then at least Brittany and Lower Normandy were more closely integrated into the postal networks. Of course, both had strong carrier/packhorse networks before the royal posts made inroads (the city of Rouen, like the University of Paris, was one of the corporations that objected to encroachments on their customary carrying privileges).

    Works like Richard Rowlands’s The Post of the World (1576) or Giovanni de l’Herba’s Poste per diverse parti del mondo (1563) give distances in local miles/leagues, with a table for conversions (a German mile is so many English miles, etc.). Times would vary so much as to method of travel (horse, donkey, post horse, waggon, carriage, foot) as to be meaningless.

    And chapter 4 (“For to aske the way”) of Colloquia et dictionariolum septem linguarum (much reprinted) contains the exchange:
    A. Hoe veyl mylen hebben wy van hier tot aant naeste dorp? C. Twee mylen ende een half, ende een luttel meer.
    A. How many miles have we from hence to the next village? C. Two miles and a half, and a little more.
    A. Wie viel meyl haben wir von hinnen biß in das nechst dorff? C. Zwo meil und ein halbe, und ein wenig mehr.
    A. Quot milaria sunt hinc ad proximum vicum? C. Duo & dimidium, & paulo amplius.
    A. Quantes lieues avons nous d’icy au prochain village? C. Deux lieues & demie, & un peu plus.
    A. quantas leguas aura aun de aqui hasta la primera aldea. C. dos leguas y media y un pocquito mas.
    A. Quante leghe habbiamo di qui al prossimo villagio? C. Due leghe & mezza, on poco piu.

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