|Fairs of Champagne|
As the European economy grew during the 11th and 12th centuries overland trade between Italy and northwest Europe increased and merchants from these regions needed to meet to exchange their goods. During the period from the early 12th through the 13th century, this exchange was centered mostly in the Champagne region of France, at fairs held in the towns of Troyes, Provins, Bar-sur-Aube, and Lagny. A great deal of Flemish cloth made its way to Italy during the 12th century via the fairs of Champagne.
Fairs are usually linked with markets and medieval charters granting permission for fairs and markets to meet often link the two. However unlike a market, which usually met weekly to serve local needs and to exchange cheap or perishable items, a fair assembled only once or twice a year for days or weeks to exchange commodities from distant places between merchants from remote areas.
Fairs provided a place for merchants to meet with other merchants to do business in an economy that did not have, and could not sustain, permanent trading centers. The fair gave regularity to a merchant’s wanderings and offered a place where he knew he could find other merchants, trade for the commodities and supplies he needed, and sell commodities he was carrying.
The fairs of Champagne are perhaps the most famous of the medieval European fairs. They originated during the first half of the 12th century as a center for the sale of horses. They developed from local markets to regional markets and finally to fairs of Europe-wide importance.
Before fairs merchants traveled on trade routes between north and south that followed the Meuse, Saône, and Rhône Rivers. However, a more direct route between the Rhône Valley and West Flanders later emerged. It ran from the Saône across the upland of Langres to the headwaters of the Paris Rivers, and then north toward Lille and Arras.
The four fair towns were on or close to this more direct route. Furthermore the counts of Champagne had unified this area by the early 12th century and could ensure safety and welfare of merchants and travelers who went to their lands. The guarantee of safety and the “liberal and constructive” policies of the counts toward the fairs were attractive to merchants and no doubt contributed greatly to their success.
The cycle included six fairs. Troyes and Provins hosted two fairs each, while Lagny and Bar-sur-Aube each hosted one fair. Lagny, near Paris, opened the New Year with its fair, and Bar-sur-Aube held its fair in spring at mid-Lent. The first Provins fair met in the week of the feast of Ascension and was followed by the first Troyes fair, which opened after the feast of St. John the Baptist.
The second Provins fair opened September 14 and the cycle ended with the second Troyes fair, which opened November 2. Generally there was an interval of a week or two at most between fairs. The fairs in Lagny and Barsur-Aube appear to have been less important than those in Troyes and Provins.
The fairs followed a rigid schedule. The first week merchants set up their stalls along the streets of the town and prepared for business. The next 10 days merchants sold cloth, the 11 days following that they sold leather and fur, and the next 19 days they traded a variety of other goods.
The last few days of the fair merchants balanced their accounts, and all debt and credit was settled by notary bill, which allowed the merchants to travel without carrying a great deal of money. The fairs’ importance did not persist beyond the end of the 13th century.
By 1296 businessmen from Florence had taken their business to Lyons, and tax revenues from the fairs fell dramatically. Genoese carracks allowed the Italians to establish a regular sea link via Gibraltar to Bruges, Southampton, and London by 1297. At the same time the most-used overland routes shifted to the east, taking merchants away from Champagne.
The 14th century decline of the fairs reflected a breakdown in law and order, the absorption of Champagne into the domain of the king of France, and the outbreak of the Hundred Years’ War. Goods had become increasingly standardized and it was no longer necessary to examine them before every purchase, and the banking houses of Florence and Bruges could handle financial transactions much more efficiently than a fair.
Finally by the 14th century the wealthiest merchants, and perhaps many others, maintained agents in the places where they regularly did business. Couriers carried orders and commercial information back and forth, while professional carters moved the commodities in caravans that they arranged.
The “international fairs” declined in importance but did not disappear. Many returned to being regional markets, specializing in livestock, while some handled seasonal goods, wines, or preserved goods. Fairs in other regions grew in importance as those in Champagne declined, but the fairs of Champagne remained regionally important until the Hundred Years’ War. The fairs of Champagne played a vital role in the development of the medieval economy.
They provided a center to the increasingly Europewide economy by offering long-distance traders a safe and secure place regularly to transact business, and they played a vital role in the development of Paris and France, whose culture, economy, and political system benefited from the international contact the fairs encouraged.