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All That:

The Fairs of Champagne

by Kali Harlansson of Gotland
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In this article we take a quick look at the Fairs of Champagne. If this phrase makes you think of people sipping bubbly on a giant Ferris wheel, think again. For more than a century and a half, approximately 1150 to 1320, the fairs of Champagne constituted the international center of European commerce, credit, and currency exchange.

Champagne was (and still is) an agriculturally rich region north and east of Paris, with a large and affluent population. The principal fairs were held in four cities in the southwest of the province: Lagny, Provins, Troyes, and Bar-sur-Aube. There are early references to fairs there before 1150 which imply an already long-established presence, maybe even as early as the 5th century, but these were probably not much more than local farmers' markets. So what's the difference, you ask? What were these fairs, as distinct from markets?

Fairs are distinguished by merchants buying and selling with each other more than selling to customers, and (especially) by their legal privileges: their own laws, their own courts, and special legal protection for travelers. Fairs are further distinguished from markets by their long sessions and the long intervals between them: the great fairs lasted five weeks or more, and only Troyes had more than one in a year; in contrast, one thinks of a "market day," maybe once a week.

Contemporary descriptions of the fairs do make them sound like large markets, listing mostly agricultural products (cattle, horses, grain, wine, wool and hides), but other goods accounted for the international draw: cloth above all, but also different kinds of avoirdupois (meaning anything sold by weight - spices, metal, dyes, and such).

The fairs were established in the 12th century, by deliberate policy: the counts of Champagne guaranteed the protection of merchants on the road and allowed the fairs their own merchant-friendly laws, and they levied only moderate fees. Besides these liberal policies, the chief reason for the tremendous prominence of the fairs was their location on the overland part of the main trade route between the prosperous regions of Flanders and north Italy, where it crossed the main east-west routes between Paris and Germany.

Instead of presenting a lot of figures and statistics (boring reading for you, and tedious research for me), let me toss off a few general indicators of this international prominence:
- Merchants traveled from all across Europe to attend: furs from Novgorod and leather from Cordoba were regular items at the fairs.
- 60 cloth towns of northwest Europe sold their output exclusively through the fairs; that may not seem remarkable from a modern viewpoint, but think of what it meant in the context of a subsistence-level manorial economy.
- Contracts drawn up by the officers of the fairs were valid anywhere in Christendom, and letters of credit drawn on the fairs were negotiable anywhere.

In general, although "international commerce" isn't usually part of our picture of the High Middle Ages, it was happening in Champagne, and from Champagne it reached to all corners of Europe.

At its fullest, the cycle consisted of nine fairs spread throughout the year. The major fairs, each lasting a month and a half, were: at Lagny in January-February; at Bar-sur-Aube, in March-April during Lent; at Troyes in July-August (the "Hot Fair"); at Provins in September-October; and at Troyes in November-December (the "Cold Fair"). (There were four more fairs, shorter and smaller, in the intervals.)

The fairs had their own officers: two wardens (executives of the laws of the fairs); a chancellor and court officers (lawyers, agents, notaries, etc.); a police force (by 1317, 140 strong); and a host of brokers, couriers, and messengers serving the fair population at large.

Merchants from distant regions began to form organized companies, that traveled to the fairs together, and lodged and worked together while they were there. These companies also had their officers: captains, in overall charge; consuls, to represent members to the officials of the fair; and harbingers, to arrive early and supervise set-up.

Starting around 1280, the fairs began to decline in importance. First dynastic marriage brought the county into the French royal demesne, which was something of a financial black hole: fees and duties rose, and the money was not re-invested. Then there was war between France and Flanders, which took the Flemish out of the fairs. But since the financial techniques of credit and exchange developed at the fairs had ironically made the fairs themselves less necessary, international commerce did not decline with them.

There were other major cycles of fairs in medieval Europe: a cycle in Flanders itself, the fairs of Pezenas and Montagnac in Languedoc, of Frankfurt and Friedberg in Germany, and the herring runs of Skaane. (Wars were fought in the Baltic for control of the herring runs - I know that sounds like a joke, but the wealth involved was fantastic for the region.) And there were hundreds of other, smaller local fairs; but Champagne was far and away the hub of the commercial world.

In the Current Middle Ages

Here's the point where I usually draw a parallel to something we do in the SCA. I've got one word, and it ain't "Plastics."

I used to complain that Pennsic had grown too big, too complicated, too organized. This was supposed to be a war, dammit! Wars don't have street signs! ("C'est magnifique, mais c'est pas la guerre," I'd mutter, but no one got the reference.) Then I came to realize that Pennsic isn't really a war at all anymore, it's a fair.

It's a temporary community, that recurs at the same place and time each year; it has its own laws and administrative officers; people come in organized groups, sending representatives ahead to claim space and set up; it has grown beyond its original function (trade in one case, war in the other), with street vendors, entertainers, public works, special events, and crowds that come purely for the social occasion.

During the Great Board Crisis of 1994 some people observed that events like Pennsic, that drew people from all over, did more for game standards and continuity thoughout the Society than any rules coming out of Milpitas. Other people love Pennsic for an opposite reason: to see the different things people do, and the different ways they do them, in other parts of the Known World. Both of these functions - the touchstone of common experience, and the opportunity for cross-pollination - were provided in the First Middle Ages by the fairs of Champagne.

Further Reading

A lot of us have the classic work, Life in a Medieval City by Joseph and Frances Gies, in our bookcases (or our local library). The medieval city in question is Troyes, and the book has a chapter on the Hot Fair. I find the book as a whole a bit light and somewhat dated, but it's an easy read and it has a nice bibliography.

Across the aisle in Fiction, I recommend St. Peter's Fair, of the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters. It's set at a fair (no surprise) - not one of the ones in Champagne, obviously, but a smaller three-day fair at Shrewsbury. Nevertheless, it conveys the sense of community of the fairs, and their economic impact, all as the well-developed background to a murder mystery.


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text copyright 1997 by Caleb Hanson (e-mail)
illuminated border adapted from a French Book of Hours, late 14th-early 15th c.
Links to Books
book cover Gies, Joseph and Frances
Life in a Medieval City
(paperback, Sept. 1981, $11.48 at Amazon.com)

book cover Peters, Ellis
St. Peter's Fair
(paperback, reprint, Jan. 1995, $4.79 at Amazon.com)

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