In the Middle Ages the Hellweg was an ancient east-west route through Germany, the main corridor from the Rhine east to the mountains of the Teutoburger Wald, reaching from Duisburg, at the confluence of the Rhine and Ruhr rivers, to Paderborn, with the slopes of the Sauerland to its south. In the tenth and eleventh centuries the Hellweg was the preferred route of the Ottonian and Salian kings and emperors travelling at least yearly between Saxony and Aachen, when they were not in Italy or on campaign.
From the Early Modern period, with the rise of the coal and steel industries, medieval towns founded along the trading route evolved into industrial hubs and absorbed most of the population growth of the region.
The Hellweg, as an essential corridor that operated in overland transit of long-distance trade, was used by Charlemagne in his Saxon wars and later was maintained under Imperial supervision. Its breadth was decreed as an unimpeded passageway a lance's width, about three metres, which the landholders through which the Hellweg passed were required to maintain. Its name, connoting the wide "bright" clearway through the forest, derives from Low German helwech with this same significance.
Another etymology for Hellweg is from Salzweg, the "Salt road", on the ancient roots hál-s (Greek), and hal (Celtic), "salt".
- John W. Bernhardt, Itinerant Kingship and Royal Monasteries in Early Medieval Germany, c.936-1075 (2002), "Westphalia as a transit zone— the 'Hellweg'", pp 177ff, introduces the medieval use of the Hellweg and offers a bibliography.
- Bernhardt 2002:177, noting A.K. Hömberg 1960 and Goetz 1990.
- J. Hamhaber, Route Industrie Kultur: geographers' perspectives and contributions to an itinerary of industrial heritage 2007.