The origins of the Via Francigena are very ancient: the historic route begun to take shape during the Dark Ages, at the time of the battle between Langobards and Byzantines. For the Langobards, the issue of linking the reign of Pavia with the southern dukedoms through ways not controlled by the enemies was solved by choosing a path considered unimportant.
The chosen path was the one crossing the Alpennines between Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna through the today’s Cisa’s pass. This way went down toward the Lunigiana’s area to reach Siena and, through the Val D’Orcia and Lazio, and it came up to Rome crossing the ancient Via Cassia.
This path was named after the Mt. Bardone’s way (from the ancient name of the Cisa’s pass, Mons Langobardum), even if it could not have been considered a road, according to Romans’ standards. So, it was not a well-defined track, but a mixture of beaten trails, used by the travellers, who often diverted toward the inhabited centres to find some rest.
The track was not always the same: natural phenomena, changes of the confinements and gangs of brigands always forced the travellers to change the route. Anyway, some reference points helped to develop a real itinerary during the centuries. The only paved pieces were the ones near the towns, the rest was just dirt floor. Basically, a real track of the Via Francigena never existed!
From the Langobards to the Franks
The Mt. Bardone’s way became Via Francigena at the end of the Langobards’ domination, when they where replaced by the Franks, that made of this way the main link between Northern and Southern Europe. During this period, the path became a real trade route, walked by merchants, armies and travellers. But when did the Via Francigena become a trail for the pilgrims?
Pilgrimage became a mass phenomenon between the end of the first millennium and the beginning of the second, and the Via Francigena turned into a strategic route to reach the sites of Christendom. The northern pilgrims followed the Via Francigena heading to Rome and then, crossing Puglia, they shipped to Jerusalem. The Via Francigena could also have been followed backwards, toward Santiago de Compostela.
The medieval pilgrimage enhanced the Via Francigena as necessary communication link for the development of Europe’s cultural unity. The use of this road during the centuries brought to the rise of several thriving centres along the way and it became a strategic asset for the transportation of the eastern goods to the markets of Northern Europe.
Thanks to the journey logs of the illustrious pilgrim Sigeric, we can asses the ancient route. In 990, after being elected Archbishop of Canterbury by Pope John XV, Sigeric travelled back home and wrote down all the 79 stops where he stayed overnight. Sigeric’s diary is considered a major historic source regarding the Via Francigena and its stops along the way from Rome to Canterbury.
Fall of the Francigena and rise of new trails
As we said, the establishment of the Via Francigena as preferred way among merchants and pilgrims brought to the rise of new cities: during the XIII century the trades flourished, the wealth grew and several alternatives paths were developed. A maze of roads, a thick net of branches and detours, more or less long and distant from the original route.
The Via Francigena lost its uniqueness and split into dozens of trails: the old “highway” of the Middle Age changed its name and became Via Romea, after its destination, Rome. After the establishment of the road linking Florence and Bologna as main way for the trades, the Francigena was consigned to the local traffic and started its decline.