Roads of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania
in the 16th and the 17th centuries:
French and Italian experience
The article discusses travel conditions and the most frequently used roads in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania of the 16th and the 17th centuries. The sources of the investigation are contemporary French and Italian texts. They include relations and correspondence of diplomats, papal nuncios and ambassadors, as well as, other references and descriptions of the Grand Duchy in memoirs.
The topic has not been investigated. Italian and French sources on the history of the Grand Duchy are almost unknown in Lithuania and Belarus. Foreign historians, French, Italians and especially Poles (one of the most famous being T. Chynczewska–Hennel), have been working intensively on the western descriptions of Poland–Lithuania and produced many publications. All of them, however, regarded Lithuania as a part of Poland and have not paid attention to its unique traits. As a result, specific Lithuanian image, travel conditions, most frequently used roads and visited regions have not been studied by any of these nations.
Early modern French and Italian literature was chosen because of several reasons. Firstly, these nations had not been direct neighbors of the Grand Duchy and their viewpoint was less neutral and concerned compared to that of Russians, Germans or Poles. Secondly, through the 16th and the 17th centuries cultural and political contacts between Lithuanians on one side, and French and Italians on the other side were the most intensive compared to any other period. It is calculated that Italian and French diplomats, ambassadors, nuncios and military men were producing correspondence that referred to Lithuania and were publishing descriptions of this country much more intensively than all other nations put together in this period.
Similar to Poland, roads and travel infrastructure of the Grand Duchy seemed to Europeans inferior compared to those in Western European countries. There were no inns, the roads were awful and the distances great. In winter, a voyage was the most rapid, because rivers, fields and swamps were covered by ice and snow. In fall and spring, rains and mud made travels long and almost impossible.
Different from Poland, there was nothing interesting for the Europeans to look at in Lithuania because of its comparably poor cultural life. The result was obvious, Italians and French traveled to Lithuania only when they badly needed it.
Most of Italian and French voyageurs visited Lithuania accompanying the King of Poland during his voyages to Vilnius or Hrodna. The most frequently, they used Kraków — Hrodna — Vilnius or Warsaw — Hrodna — Vilnius roads. Cities remote from this road were visited and described much rare. The only exception could be the course through the Grand Duchy to Moscow, which crossed Minsk and Smolensk. It can be concluded that the region of Black Rus’ (today south–west of Belarus, including such cities as Brest, Hrodna, Nieswiž and Navahradak) was known the best for the travelers. The reason was its proximity to the route leading to Vilnius, presence of the Hrodna which was an important political center of the state and high density of mansion houses of the most important Lithuanian magnate families, such as Radziwill and Sapieha
The period of time needed to travel from Warsaw or Kraków to Vilnius can not be exactly calculated. The voyage could last from less then one week to several weeks. It depended on many factors, such as the period of the year, weather conditions and the means of transportation.