An exceptional environment

Communication routes


The summits have never been an obstacle to communication between nearby populations: this is true above all when thinking about the role of passage that the greater hills existing between Valle d'Aosta, Savoie and Vallese have always had. From the late Neolithic period there always existed in Valle d'Aosta and Vallese two civilizations that expressed themselves in very similar ways: that of Petit Chasseur, in Sion, and that of Saint-Martin de Corléans in Aosta. In these two places, in fact, two megalithic areas with anthropomorphic stones having very similar characteristics were brought to light. Aosta is an area of cult and burying, in which an interesting, subsequent, consecration ploughing with human teeth is also present. These two communities must have had steady contact through some pass, probably, but not necessarily the Great St. Bernard; more concrete traces of human passages on this pass date back to the Bronze Age, when a significant business flow started, to continue then during the Iron Age, characterised by the extraction of this mineral and its sale. There was certainly lots of communication even with the Savoie side, which is confirmed by the cromlech (a round stone with probable cult functions and a point for observing the stars) found in the Little St. Bernard pass, dating back to the early Iron Age but probably, according to recent studies (Mezzena), much older.

The reason for Roman interest in the territory around Mont Blanc was the presence of hills that were passable fairly easily for most of the year. Indeed, they began colonising the Alps after they conquered the territories of transalpine Gaul. The route familiar to the Romans was drawn on a map that is today famous, the Tabula Peutingeriana, from the name of its owner during the Middle Ages: it was a road map, drafted over several periods between the 3rd and the 4th Century A.D., in which the main stopping points of the era are indicated.

The Romans settled in the three regions during the three decades that preceded the birth of Christ: in Valle d'Aosta they founded, in around 25 B.C., the city of Augusta Pretoria, and during the following years those of Bergintrum (Bourg-Saint-Maurice), Axima (Aime), Darantasia (Moûtiers). Finally, they transformed the Celtic city of Octodurus (Martigny) into Forum Augusti Vallensium, renamed Forum Claudii Vallensium following the death of Emperor Claudius.

They initially clashed with the native populations of the Veragri (Vallese), the Salassi (Valle d'Aosta), and the Ceutrones (Tarantaise, Arly and the high valley of the Arve), which had to be defeated before occupying the territories.

The most frequented passes were, even in Roman times, the Great St. Bernard, called Summus Pœninus (from the name of the Celtic god Penn, assimilated to Jupiter), used mainly by the military, and the Little St. Bernard or Alpis Graia; on both sides of the passes there were mansiones and mutationes (hostels and horse changing posts). In around the 11th Century, after a period of abandonment, these resting places were replaced by two hospices founded by the man who later on became the saint of the two passes, Bernard, archbishop of Aosta. His wish was to offer hospitality to weary travellers who had made the difficult journey up to the passes, but also and above all to create a place where one could stop and rest safely from the assault of the robbers who spread terror in these hauts-lieux during the last centuries. Many other hospices arose, often upon the initiative of noblemen or monastery orders (among which the Agostinian canons of the Great St. Bernard), along the whole length of the main road that crossed the valleys around the Alps. During the Middle Ages the road was also known as the via francigena, and it was used by pilgrims travelling to Rome or the Holy Ground, in particular from the year of the first jubilee (1300). In Vallese, the road coming from the north-west passes the gorge of Saint-Maurice d'Agaune; the ruins of Saint Maurice, who is told was massacred here by Roman troops, were conserved in the monastery here. The road then rises to the Entremont valley, moving up towards the Great St. Bernard where the road to Italy began.

On the road of the pilgrims, but also of merchants, soldiers and wayfarers, service structures arose such as taberne and casane (pawnbrokers that loaned money), or toll collection places, as well as new cult areas, in which a pause for prayer was often taken. Attracted by the possibility of controlling the toll collection places and the extraordinary strategic connection position that this area had, thanks to its easily practicable passes between Northern and Western Europe on one side and the Mediterranean and the East on the other, the antique dynasty of Savoie progressively extended its dominion over all three faces of Mont Blanc. This is why it was given the nickname of "Keepers of the Alps".

The passing of men and goods over the "non-official" routes was more difficult but still fairly intense, because a good number of customs blocks could be avoided.

The Ceutrones, and after them the Romans and the Savoyards, could easily reach Vallese through the Bonhomme, Montets, and Forclaz passes, and goods of a certain weight (cheese above all) and animals could also be transported from the La Seigne pass, once called La Lex Blanche, through Val Veny. The same type of commerce took place between the Swiss and the Italian Ferret Valleys using the pass of the same name.

                                                                                                                                              Fausta Baudin