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Flanders and North Sea Trade in the Middle Ages. 3. Alost, a Roman Road and the Coast of Picardy

Updated: Mar 4

In a recent Dutch-language book, Robert Nouwen analyzes the history of the Roman road that connected Cologne with Boulogne-sur-Mer. This road ran through Maastricht and Tongeren, and linked Alost, among other cities, to Courtrai and Cassel. In the Middle Ages, the importance of this road had remained. It became a pilgrim’s route and in the thirteenth century was used for commerce within Hanseatic networks. However, the importance of this road for medieval trade in the county of Flanders is not widely known.

A document that was written within the administration of the count of Flanders, and which dates from the mid-thirteenth century, mentions a toll for the lord of Alost that had to be paid by merchants going from the Holy Roman Empire to Guînes (Bredenarde) and Wissant. Alost was a small town, along the river Dender, but which gained momentum after the year 1000. Its lords managed to become of the most influential nobles in the county of Flanders; they held the advocacy of St Peter’s abbey in Ghent and relatives were viscounts of Ghent. Near the end of the eleventh century the county of Alost had been integrated into the county of Flanders, and ever since the alliance between the Flemish count and the lord of Alost was most natural. Rodulph of Ghent (d. c. 1052) was succeeded by Baldwin of Alost (d. 1083). The latter’s son Baldwin II (d. 1097) was a powerful noble.

A Roman road

The mentioned toll most probably dates from the later eleventh or early twelfth century. In Alost, merchants coming from the East could continue their journey over the Roman road, or they could load their merchandise onto ships. Their cargo was then brought on the Dender and along the Scheldt to Ghent, from where the river Lys was followed. Travel over land was protected by the lords of Alost. The toll implied that no other lord was allowed to collect taxes. Moreover, paying the toll granted saufconduite which meant that merchants could rely on the support of the lords of Alost in case of threats, and this for the entire trajectory until the coast.

One is inclined to consider this protection as rather illusive, especially in areas that were far from Alost. Between Wissant and Alost there were approximately 150 miles. However, one must not underestimate the extent of seigneurial networks in the eleventh and twelfth century. Also, lords typically had estates all over the county of Flanders.

The lords of Alost held land in Maritime Flanders. There are early traces of possessions in Broekburg (Bourbourg). In 1037, the fishing rights in Bourbourg were donated to St Peter's Abbey by count Boudewijn V. The first witnesses to that donation were a count Hendrik and his brother Lantbertus (Lambert), followed by Diederik, iunior comes (young count). The Henry mentioned can be none other than Henry I (d. 1038), count of Leuven (Louvain), who was succeeded by his brother Lambert II. The Diederik mentioned is probably Diederik of Ghent, better known as Dirk III of Holland (d. 1039). Dirk III was a grandson of the West-Frisian count Dirk II. The deed is not explicit about this, but it confirmed recently established family ties. After all, around 1035 the lords of Alost had become related to the house of Louvain. In approximately 1024, Mathilde of Louvain, daughter of count Lambert of Louvain (d. 1015), who was the father of the mentioned Henry, married Eustace I of Boulogne (d. 1049). Around 1035 their daughter Gerberge (d. before 1059) married with Frederick II of Luxembourg (d. 1065), the brother of Rodulph of Ghent's wife Gisela. The deed of 1037 probably sealed the new alliance with the counts of Louvain.

The coast of Wissant

Rodulph of Ghent had at least three sons. Besides the mentioned Baldwin, who succeeded him as lord of Alost, there was Reingot, who became lord of Termonde. References to Reingots, relatives or vassals of the lords of Alost and/or Termonde, in the wide region between Saint-Omer and the coast confirm the involvement of the lords of Alost in that region. In 1093, a Reingot was named as witness in a charter in which count Robert the Frisian donated goods near Loberghe to the abbey of Waten. In the early twelfth century, Reingot of Meulebeke acted in transactions in marshes between Bourbourg and Waten, in Krommedijk (near Bourbourg) and Palingdijk along the IJzer (the canal from Bourbourg to Gravelines), and in Nieuwpoort. There are also indications that Rodulph of Ghent had land near Arques in the 1040s, just next to Saint-Omer.

The presence of the lords of Alost around Boulogne and Wissant also had to do with activities across the Channel. Giselbert of Ghent (d. c. 1095), a son of Rodulph of Ghent, had fought alongside William the Conqueror (d. 1087) and was granted several estates in England, many of which were situated in Lincolnshire. His son Walter was a noble that was close to the English king Stephen of Blois. And the road to Wissant was clearly for traffic to England; Wissant was still in the early twelfth century an important port. It was only from that time onward that Bruges rose in popularity.


De ruysscher, D., Noordzeehandel en middeleeuws Vlaanderen (ca. 1000-ca. 1300). De families de Russe, van Gent en de Straten in Sint-Omaars, Brugge en Temse, Gent, Skribis, 2020 (2nd edition 2021), 410 p. (ISBN 978-94-639-6941-3).

Doehaerd, R., “Féodalité et commerce: remarques sur le “conduit” des marchands, XIe-XIIIe siècles”, in Contamine, Ph. (ed.), La noblesse au Moyen Âge, Paris, 1976, 203-217.

Nouwen, R., De Romeinse heerbaan: de oudste weg door de Lage Landen, Gorredijk, 2021.

Wauters, A., “Wissant, l’ancien “Portus Iccius””, Bulletin de l’Académie royale de Belgique 48 (1879), 111-169.

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