History and stories emerge in places where peoples come into or break off contact with each other. In our modern times, we have seen many new networks emerge: the Internet, social media, mobile phone networks and practically borderless mobility. When a people has achieved prosperity and has available the appropriate technical infrastructure, it can participate in these modern networks spanning the world, even in such a predominantly rural region as East Belgium. But which networks determined interactions and exchanges between peoples in Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages? What infrastructures were available between the Meuse and the Rhine, and how did these affect the lives and governance of the peoples living there.
Between 2005 and 2009, archaeologists excavated a number of burial mounds to the south of Sankt Vith, the first vestiges of permanent settlement in what is now East Belgium. We have no knowledge of how such peoples were networked (in the form of roads and paths) or where their religious, political or economic centres were.
A roman "vallum" not far from Holzheim. Source: Quelle: Michaela Schumacher-Fank, Ministerium der Deutschsprachigen Gemeinschaft, 2004
The first towns were established by the Romans after they conquered Gaul (58 - 51 BC). These were built along the region’s main rivers, i.e. where ships could be used to transport goods. For example, Cologne and Bonn were along the Rhine, while Trier was built at a place where there was a ford through the Moselle. The Romans built roads through forests and mountains, building towns at major crossroads (as was the case in Tongeren and Arlon) or at hot springs (as in Aachen).
There was no river capable of being used for transport purposes running through the hilly Eifel and Ardennes. But a Roman road crossed the region with its forests of birch, oak and beech trees: the road from Cologne to Rheims, probably passing through what is now Thommen, St Vith, Amel and Büllingen. Only a few Roman villas have been found along this road in what is now East Belgium, most of them probably farms. To the north of Eupen, near Baelen-Nereth, archaeologists discovered a settlement occupied from the 1st to the 4th century where iron ore was mined. We even have proof that iron ore was processed in the settlements of Lontzen-Krompelber and Baelen-Corbush in the 2nd century. The local and regional transport of the iron ore meant that a road network had to be available.
Even today, we still know very little about such networks, with many questions still unanswered: Who used these roads? For what purposes were they used? Were there any stop-overs? Where were they? Were there just isolated villas along the roads or did small villages exist? Were there any minor roads? What we can be sure of is that the Roman roads remained important arteries many centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire. One example: a (minor) Roman road ran through the Hohe Venn, a moorland area to the east of Eupen. Probably built in the 1st century AD, we have proof that it was still being maintained in the Carolingian period, i.e. in the Middle Ages.
Many settlements sprang up along these roads in the Middle Ages. Along or near this ancient Roman road, the Merovingians and later the Carolingians operated numerous farms, as in Thommen, Neundorf, Amel, Büllingen, Manderfeld, Weismes, or, further north, in Baelen and Walhorn, all of which were owned by the monarchy and sometimes used by it as places of residence. After Charlemagne had chosen Aachen as his seat of government, what is now East Belgium became closer to the centre of power.
Rivers and roads were not just arteries for trade. They were also used by invaders. In the 9th century, the Vikings took their ships up the Meuse and the Rhine and then fanned out in the region, plundering inter alia the monasteries in Stavelot-Malmedy, Prüm and Kornelimünster, but also the towns of Liege and Aachen. Nobles started building castles, offering protection and demonstrating their power, as witnessed by the castle in Reuland.
The castle of Reuland. Source: Quelle: Michaela Schumacher-Fank, Ministerium der Deutschsprachigen Gemeinschaft, 2007
Beginning in the 10th century, many towns were founded throughout Europe, surrounded by walls to offer protection, with a marketplace for trade, and with a town hall as a sign of self-government. In the Middle Ages, Sankt Vith received its town charter. The town was located at the intersection of the main roads between Cologne and Sedan and between Liege and Luxembourg, in the middle of a large forested area. Its residents probably earned their living mainly from intermediate trade between the cities along the Rhine, Meuse and Moselle. With its first records dating back to 1213, Eupen developed into a town only much later.
Rivers and roads, castles and towns were also of importance for exercising power. In the High Middle Ages, the region’s noble families started doing their best to consolidate their often widely scattered lands into centrally-governed units. Such moves were however dependent on good road networks. In what is now East Belgium, the dukes of Limburg and Brabant and of Luxembourg, the elector of Trier, the prince-bishop of Liège, the prince-abbot of Stavelot-Malmedy and the lord of Schleiden were invested with sovereign rights.
These networks played no great role in historical research, with the focus up to the end of the 20th century much more on the contemporary border between Belgium and Germany. Both the Roman era and the Middle Ages were often (ab)used as a projection for current political issues, giving legitimacy to modern national states through referring back to the distant past, while at the same time justifying claims to power. The first significant written sources in the region date back to the 8th century.
History thus shows us that the region’s first settlements and further development were very much influenced by networks of rivers and roads. In complete contrast to this, contemporary life is centred around very much different networks. Can you imagine living in a world without social media and without a mobile phone? Have you any idea how this would change work, leisure activities and shopping? Would such a world be better or worse? What do you think?
Carlo Lejeune, David Engels (Hg.): Grenzerfahrungen. Eine Geschichte der Deutschsprachigen Gemeinschaft Belgiens. Band 1: Villen, Dörfer, Burgen (Altertum und Mittelalter), Eupen 2015.
Carlo Lejeune (Hg.): Grenzerfahrungen. Eine Geschichte der Deutschsprachigen Gemeinschaft Belgiens. Band 2: Tuche, Töpfe, Theresianischer Kataster (1500-1794), Eupen 2015.