Arbellot Guy (1973) “La grande mutation des routes de France au XVIIIe siècle”, Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, 28/3. 765-791.
When Louis XIV died (1715), the roads of the kingdom he was leaving to his successor were in a dreadful state. This was a major bottleneck for the growing economic and administrative activities. The controleur général (finance secretary) Orry and the intendant Trudaine decided to repair the old roads and build new ones where carts and coaches could travel fast.
Reach these objectives, Orry created the corvée des chemins (June 13, 1738) which gave the governors the possibility to force the peasants to work for the reparation and the construction of roads several days a year (766). After 1743, Turdaine took care of the operation, followed by his son who based his effort on the constitution of a corps of engineers dedicated to the construction of transport infrastructures. The preliminary tasks were over by 1750 and the most important construction operation ever undertaken in France was about to begin.
The roads from Paris to the main seaports were to be 19.5 meters large, the other important roads were to be 11.8 meters large (767). On each side of the roads, a ditch was to be dug and trees planted (768). The corvée des chemins was to be ended by Turgot (February 6, 1776) and the roads constructed after that were smaller as many complained that they were too good and expensive for crossing some empty country.
The engineers replaced the old zigzagging roads by straight lines which reduced travelling time, made the roads safer, easier to take care of and provided a strong rational to cut through people estates instead of negotiating (769). Paved roads were very expensive and were only common around Paris and next to the major urban centres. The rest was simply covered with gravel. Moreover specialised workers were difficult to find out of Paris. Most roads had been constructed by unwilling journeymen drafted by the corvée. Moreover, the engineers were not too interested by roads, they preferred bridges because they were more complicated (770).
Despite important innovations, the roads network turned out to be nearly as fragile as the old one and required constant fixing and maintenance (771). The corvée was only available during spring and autumn. A road damaged during winter could spend months before being repaired (and thus be even more spoilt).
Even though it faced major issues, the French road network was generally loaded by foreign visitors (772).
By the end of the monarchy, there were about 25,000km of major roads in France. This highly centralised network was mostly constructed during the last third of the 18th century (773). The so-called military roads that lead to the eastern frontiers reveal that favouring trade was not the only reason for the construction of the network.
A side effect of these constructions was the realisation (mostly after 1743) of numerous and detailed maps that had been only drawn before for the regions of military interest (775). As usual during the Old Regime, the administrative division of the territory prevents us from having a clear view of the whole network (only the maps of the roads of the Pays d’élection, those of the Province d’état remained in the provincial archives because they depended from another administration). A copies of the maps was sent to the king from 1752 to 1771 but some of them are somewhat inaccurate because entire provinces have not communicated the maps of their roads (785).
There were a regular service of coaches on all the main roads from and to Paris (787). These coaches never crossed more than 680 km (Paris-Toulouse), for longer distances (such as Paris-Marseille) one had to change coach once or twice. The coaches have bad suspensions and travel slowly (50km a day at most), it means that t take over 11 to go from Paris to Strasbourg, 13 to Bordeaux and 15 to Toulouse. A few routes have a faster system (coaches with better suspensions, more relays which allows horses to gallop and travel longer each day). They go more than twice faster (Paris-Lyon, 470km, in 5 days) (788).
In 1776, Turgot introduces faster coaches and allow them to use the numerous and well equipped royal post relays. The whole country was reached by the new light coaches and traveller save half or two third the time they spent travelling with the old system. Orléans was 2 and a half day away from Paris in 1765 but only one in 1780 (789). Marseille was reached in 8 days, Toulouse in 7 and Strasbourg in 5.
Some regions nonetheless remain untouched by the progress. Some are too far from Paris (Alps, Pyrenees, Languedoc) and other seem simply stubbornly opposed to transportation (Bretagne, Auvergne). On the other hand, intra-and inter-regional linkages are flourishing in some parts and many coaches travel the same roads as the fast and modern ones but slower and for a lesser price. The structure created by the monarchy remained untouched by the following regimes and still represent the blueprint of the French road system in the 21st century (791).
This article is essential as it documents the increased transportation capabilities of the late Old Regime. It is particularly interesting as it is one of the rare examples (with the construction of the Canal du Midi) of the French state investing heavily in something else than war and palaces. It shows. How much the French economy could have improved even without the invention of the steam engine.