The Champagne fairs were an annual cycle of trading fairs held in towns in the Champagne and Brie regions of France in the Middle Ages. From their origins in local agricultural and stock fairs, the Champagne fairs became an important engine in the reviving economic history of medieval Europe, "veritable nerve centers" serving as a premier market for textiles, leather, fur, and spices. At their height, in the late 12th and the 13th century, the fairs linked the cloth-producing cities of the Low Countries with the Italian dyeing and exporting centers, with Genoa in the lead. The fairs, which were already well-organized at the start of the 12th century, were one of the earliest manifestations of a linked European economy, a characteristic of the High Middle Ages. From the later 12th century, the fairs, conveniently sited on ancient land routes and largely self-regulated through the development of the Lex mercatoria, the "merchant law", dominated the commercial and banking relations operating at the frontier region between the north and the Mediterranean.
The towns in which the six fairs of the annual circuit were held had some features in common, but none that would have inexorably drawn the commerce of the fairs: each was situated at an intersection or former way-station of Roman roads and near a river, but only Lagny-sur-Marne had a navigable one. Troyes and Provins had been administrative centers in Charlemagne's empire that developed into the central towns of the County of Champagne and the Brie Champenoise; the fair at Bar-sur-Aube was held just outside the precincts of the Count's castle there, and that at Lagny in the grounds of a Benedictine monastery. The self-interest and the political will of the Counts of Champagne was the over-riding factor.
The series of six fairs, each lasting more than six weeks, were spaced through the year's calendar: the fair of Lagny-sur-Marne began on 2 January: the fair at Bar-sur-Aube on the Tuesday before mid-Lent; the "May fair" of Provins on the Tuesday before Ascension; the "fair of St. John" or the "hot fair" of Troyes on the first Tuesday after the fortnight of St. John's Day (24 June); the fair of St. Ayoul of Provins on the Exaltation of the Cross (14 September);the "fair of St. Remi" or the "cold fair" of Troyes on the day following All Saint's Day (that is, on 2 November). Each fair began with the entrée of eight days during which merchants set up, followed by the days allotted for the cloth fair, the days of the leather fair, and the days for the sale of spices and other things sold by weight (avoirdupois). In the last four-day period of the fairs, accounts were settled.
In actual practice, arrivals and departures were more flexible and efficient, relying on flexibly formed and dissolved partnerships, which freed the "silent" partners from actually undertaking the arduous journey on each occasion, delegated agents (certi missi) who could receive payment and undertake contracts, and factors, integrated with communications and transportation, and the extensive use of credit instruments in the trade.
The towns provided huge warehouses, still to be seen at Provins. Furs and skins traveled in both directions, from Spain, Sicily, and North Africa in the south via Marseilles, and the highly prized vair, rabbit, marten and other skins from the north. From the north also came woolens and linen cloth. From the south came silk, pepper and other spices, drugs, coinage and the new concepts of credit and bookkeeping. Goods converged from Spain, travelling along the well-established pilgrim route from Santiago de Compostela and from Germany. Once the cloth sales had been concluded, the reckoning of credit at the tables (banche) of Italian money-changers effected compensatory payments for goods, established future payments on credit, made loans to princes and lords, and settled bills of exchange (which were generally worded to expire at one of the Champagne fairs). Even after trade routes had shifted away from the north-south axis that depended on the Champagne commodities fairs, the fairs continued to function as an international clearing house for paper debts and credits, as they had built up a system of commercial law, regulated by private judges separate from the feudal social order and the requirements of scrupulously maintaining a "good name", prior to the third-party enforcement of legal codes by the nation-state.
Reaching the Champagne fairs
To cross the Alps, the caravans of pack mules made their way over the Mont Cenis Pass, a journey that took more than a month from Genoa to the fair cities, along one of the varied options of the Via Francigena. Professional freight-handlers might make the trek, under contract to merchants. P. Huvelin documented the existence, by the second half of the thirteenth century, of a faster courier service facilitated the transfer of letters and market information between north and south, one organised for the particular advantage of the Arte di Calimala, the cloth-merchants' guild of Florence, others organised by cities of Siena and Genoa and by the mercantile houses. In early February, 1290, it took a courier no more than twenty days to make the journey from Lagny to Florence, R. D. Face noted. Alternatively, north Italian goods were shipped to Aigues-Mortes then up or along the Rhone, Saône and Seine.
Dominance and decline
The fairs were also important in the spread and exchange of cultural influences—the first appearance of Gothic architecture in Italy was the result of merchants from Siena rebuilding their houses in the Northern style. The phrase "not to know your Champagne fairs" meant not knowing what everyone else did.
It was in the interest of the Count of Champagne, virtually independent of his nominal suzerain, the King of France, to extend the liberties and prerogatives of the towns, which were founded in the increased security of the feudal settlement following the feudal disorders of the tenth century. The predominance of the Champagne fairs over those of other cities has been attributed to the personal role of the Counts in guaranteeing the security and property rights of merchants and trading organisations attending the fairs, and in ensuring that contracts signed at the fairs would be honoured throughout Western Christendom. The counts provided the fairs with a police force, the "Guards of the Fair", who heard complaints and enforced contracts, excluding defaulters from future participation; weights and measures were strictly regulated. Historian Jean Favier has written "the success of the Champagne fairs can be attributed solely to this intelligent policy of applying public order to business." The Counts' concern for protection of this profitable trade extended beyond their borders: Thibaut II negotiated a treaty in which the kings of France pledged themselves to take under royal protection all merchants passing through royal territory on their way to and from the Champagne fairs. Eventually even the king became involved; in 1209 Philip Augustus granted safe conduct within France to merchants traveling to and from the Champagne fairs, increasing their international importance.
Traditional historians have dated the decline of the Champagne fairs to the subordination of Champagne to the Royal Domain brought about by the marriage alliance of Philip the Fair in 1284. In 1285 Champagne became an integral part of France. "When the special motivation was removed in 1285", Janet Abu-Lughod observes, "the Champagne fairs lost their edge." The effect of the Little Ice Age and population-diminishing black plague took a toll also. Around the same time, a series of wars in Italy, most significantly the conflicts between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, disrupted the overland trade routes that connected the Italian cities with France, and Genoese and Venetian merchants opened up direct sea trade with Flanders, diminishing the importance of the fairs. Fernand Braudel also saw the decline as due to the increasing sophistication of communications and distance credit, changing the medieval merchant from a person engaged in constant arduous travel to one who mostly controlled his affairs by correspondence.
As the Champagne fairs dwindled to insignificance, their place was assumed by the fairs of Bruges, to which the Genoese ships sailed, and Cologne, a Hansa town, of Frankfurt-am-Main, of Geneva and, more locally, of Lyon.
- M. M. Postan, E Miller eds., Cambridge Economic History of Europe, (Cambridge University Press) 1952, vol. ii, p. 230
- R. L. Reynolds, "The market for northern textiles in Genoa, 1179-1200", Revue belge de philologie et d'histoire 8.3 (1929:495-533); Reynolds, "Merchants of Arras and the overland trade with Genoa in the twelfth century", Revue belge 9.2 (1930:495-533); Reynolds, "Genoese trade in the late twelfth century, particularly in cloth from the fairs of Champagne", Journal of Economic and Business History 3.3 (1931:362-81).
- John H. Munro, "Medieval Woollens". In David T. Jenkins, editor, The Cambridge History of Western Textiles, Cambridge University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-521-34107-8, p. 231-236.
- Elspeth M. Veale, The English Fur Trade in the Later Middle Ages, 2nd Edition, London Folio Society 2005. ISBN 0-900952-38-5, p. 65-66
- This point was made by Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 "The Fairs of Champagne and Their Towns" (Oxford University Press US) 1991, p. 55ff: "certainly there were many other modest bourgs, scattered throughout France, whose characteristics were equally propitious for development".
- R. D. Face, "Techniques of Business in the Trade between the Fairs of Champagne and the South of Europe in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries", The Economic History Review, New Series, 10.3 (1958:427-438) p 427 note 2.
- These aspects form the tenor of Face 1958.
- Paul R. Milgrom, Douglass C. North and Barry R. Weingast, "The role of institutions in the revival of trade: the law merchant, private judges and the Champagne fairs", in Kaushik Basu, ed. Readings in Political Economy 2003:68ff.
- Huvelin, "Les couriers des foires de Champagne", Annales de Droit Commercial Français Étranger et International (Paris) 1898, noted by Face 1958.
- Face 1958:435.
- Fernand Braudel, Civilization & Capitalism, 15-18th Centuries, Vol 3: "The Perspective of the World", p. 111, William Collins & Sons, London 1984, ISBN 0-00-216133-8
- Braudel, Vol 3, p. 66
- Braudel, Vol 3, p. 111
- Cambridge Economic History of Europe ii, 230.
- Jean Favier, Gold and Spices: The Rise of Commerce in the Middle Ages, translated by Caroline Higgit, New York and London, Holmes & Meier 1998, ISBN 0-8419-1232-7, p. 27
- Janet L. Abu-Lughod p. 58.
- Abu-Lughod p. 58.
- Carlo M. Cipolla, Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy, 1000-1700 (London, 1994), p. 202.
- Fernand Braudel, "Civilization & Capitalism, 15-18th Centuries, Vol 1: The Structures of Everyday Life", p. 419, William Collins & Sons, London 1981
- Aron Gurevich in The Medieval World Jacques Le Goff (ed), 1990, Collins & Brown, ISBN 1-85585-081-8; p. 265
- Clive Day, A History of Commerce (London: Longmans, Green) 1914) "Fairs" pp. 65-67 and map p. 66.