Post-classical history


The Champagne Fair

There are ten fairs in the land of France,
One at Bar, another at Provins,
Another at Troyes and a fourth at Lendit,
And three in Flanders, and the eighth at Senlis,
The ninth at Cesoirs, the tenth at Lagny


The Hot Fair of Troyes, celebrated in song and story, is the most important of the six Fairs of Champagne, which are divided unequally among four towns stretching across the county from its easternmost to westernmost borders. Geography and season make the first two fairs of the cycle,1 those of Lagny and Bar-sur-Aube, the smallest. Lagny is close to Paris, Bar on the edge of Burgundy, a hundred miles east. The Lagny Fair is held in January–February, that of Bar next in March–April. Third in the calendar year comes the May Fair of Provins, running through May and June, followed by the Hot Fair, or Fair of St.-Jean, held in Troyes at the height of summer in July and August. The distance from Provins to Troyes is only forty miles, and many fair clients pack up at Provins to unpack again in Troyes. The next fair, in September–October, is the Fair of St.-Ayoul in Provins, and again there is heavy inter-fair traffic. Finally comes the Fair of St.-Rémi, the Cold Fair of Troyes, in November and December. These four, in the two neighboring cities, lasting through the good traveling weather, form the major loci of this unrivaled marketplace for wholesale merchants and moneymen from Flanders, Italy, England, Germany, Spain, and even more distant places.

The Hot Fair is the climax of weeks of preparation. Apprentices have been up early and late, sewing, cleaning, sorting, finishing, storing, and repairing. The big halls and little stalls of the fair area have been put in order for their guests, as have the hostels and houses used for lodgings. In the taverns the dice are freshly cleaned, a precaution that may prevent a few knife fights. The cadre of regular prostitutes has been reinforced by serving wenches, tradeswomen, and farmers’ daughters. Cooks, bakers, and butchers have added extra help and lengthened their families’ working hours.

An army of officials ensures that all goes smoothly. At their head are two Keepers of the Fair, chosen from the ranks of both nobles and burghers. They are appointed by the count at the excellent stipend of 200 pounds (livres) a year, expense allowances of 30 pounds, and exemption from all tolls and taxes for life. Their chief assistants, the keepers of the Seal, receive 100 pounds apiece. A lieutenant of the Fair commands the sergeants, a hundred strong, who guard the roads and patrol the fair. There are tax collectors, clerks, porters, roustabouts, and couriers. Notaries2 attest all written transactions. Inspectors check the quality of merchandise. Finally, heralds scour the countryside to advertise the fair to the rustics.

The hubbub of the fair is as sweet a sound to the count as to the citizens of Troyes. Notaries, weighers, and other fee collectors divide their earnings with him. Thieves and bandits come under his high justice, their booty confiscated in his name. Sales taxes, the “issue” fee levied on departing merchandise, and other charges go to the count. So do rents on many stalls, booths, halls, stables, and houses. The bishop profits, too, drawing a sizeable income from rents, as do burghers and knights of Troyes. The Knights Templar draw revenues from their monopoly of wool weighing.

In return for all the fees and charges, the visiting merchants get freedom and protection. Fair clients are guaranteed security for themselves and their merchandise from the day of arrival to the day of departure, sunrise to sunset. At the height of the fair the streets are even lighted at night, making them almost safe.

Merchants are not only protected from bandits and robber barons, but from each other, and in fact today this is the more important protection of the two. Crimes committed at the fair are answerable to special courts, under the supervision of the Keepers of the Fair, but both town and provost try cases too, and law enforcement becomes a lively three-way competition. The special courts were actually created because the foreign merchants demanded protection against the other two agencies. Merchants can choose which court they will be tried in, and the most important cases fall to the courts of the fair. Energetic measures are taken to ensure collection of debts. A debtor or a swindler will be pursued far beyond the walls of Troyes and stands little chance of escaping arrest if he shows his face at another fair. This is not all. He is liable to arrest in any city of Flanders or northern France, and if he is Italian he will be least safe of all in his home town, for the keepers of the Fair will threaten reprisal against his fellow townsmen if they do not assist in bringing him to justice. The extent to which these guarantees are actually enforced was graphically demonstrated eight years ago when a caravan of merchants was set upon by robbers on the highway between Lodi and Pavia. It was ascertained that the bandits were from Piacenza. The aggrieved merchants reported the offense to the keepers of the Champagne Fairs, who promptly and effectively threatened to exclude the merchants of Piacenza unless restitution was made.

These protections, together with a general diminution of lawlessness and improved physical conditions for travel, have brought merchants from all over Europe in steadily increasing numbers. Throughout the yearly cycle the stream of traffic to and from Champagne never ceases.

But merchants can trade at the fair without making the journey in person. A regular contract form known as a “letter of carriage” exists for the purpose: “Odon Bagnasque, carrier, promises to Aubert Bagnaret to transport at his own cost, including tolls, with risks of robbery falling to Aubert, six bales from Marseille to Troyes, from the day of this act to Christmas, in exchange for a horse given by Aubert.” Or they can enter into a form of partnership developed by the Italians, known as the commenda, by which a younger man undertakes the risks of a journey in return for a quarter of the profits, while an older merchant puts up the capital. When the young businessman has some capital of his own, he can alter the agreement and put up a third of the capital, taking half the profit. This and other forms of contract are so common in Italy that a Genoese patrician dying in 1240 left no property but his house and a portfolio of commenda investments.

The fair, though primarily a wholesale and money market for big business, is also a gala for common folk. Peasants and their wives, knights and their ladies, arrive on foot, on horses, on donkeys, to find a bargain, sell a hen or a cow, or see the sights. Dancers, jugglers, acrobats, bears, and monkeys perform on the street corners; jongleurs sing on the church steps. Taverns are noisily thronged. The whores, amateur and professional, cajole and bargain.

For a farmer or backwoods knight, the fair is an opportunity to gape at such exotic foreigners as Englishmen, Scots, Scandinavians, Icelanders, and Portuguese, not to mention Provençaux, Frenchmen, Brabanters, Germans, Swiss, Burgundians, Spaniards, and Sicilians. Most numerous are the Flemings and the “Lombards,” a term which includes not only men from Lombardy, but Florentines, Genoese, Venetians and other north Italians. The rustic visitor hears many languages spoken, but these men of many nations communicate with little difficulty. Some of the more learned know Latin, and there are always plenty of clerks to translate. But the lingua franca of the fairs is French; though there is little sense of French nationality, and though French is not universally spoken throughout the narrow realm of the king of France, nearly every merchant and factor at the fair can acquit himself in this tongue. French is already acquiring exotic words which the Italians have picked up from their Arab business contacts. Eventually douane, gabelle, gondran, jupe, quintal, recif, and many more will find their way into French. English will acquire bazaar, jar, magazine, taffeta, tariff, artichoke, tarragon, orange, muslin, gauze, sugar, alum, saffron.

The first week of the fair is occupied with the merchants’ entry—registration, unpacking, setting up displays. Then the fair opens with a ten-day Cloth Market. The Italian merchants pass from one to another of the halls of the famous cloth cities, examining the bolts, which have already been subjected to a rigid inspection at home, for every cloth town guards its reputation like Caesar’s wife. It is an offense to sell defective cloth abroad; below-grade or irregular material must be marketed locally. Each kind of wool is folded in a different way, both to make it identifiable and to display its special virtues. An expert can recognize at a glance the cloths of Douai, Arras, Bruges, Tournai or Ypres—towns which, together with a number of others of the Low Countries and northern France, form the “Hanse of the Seventeen Towns,” an association of wool producers who have agreed to sell their cloth only at the Champagne Fairs.

Each town has its own standard bolt—those of Provins and Troyes are twenty-eight ells long; those of Ghent thirty, except for the scarlets, which are thirty-six; those of Ypres twenty-nine ells, and so forth. A special official is on hand to explain the different lengths. The ell itself varies in other parts of Europe, but here it is the standard ell of Champagne, two feet six inches. An iron ruler of this length is in the hands of the Keepers of the Fair. Against it all the wooden rulers in use have been measured.

The tables in the cloth halls are a kaleidoscope of colored bolts, ranging from ecru, uncolored and little finished, through gray, brown, vermillion, rose and scarlet. The reds, highly prized and expensive, are a specialty of the famous Arte di Calimala of Florence, whose agents at the fair buy undyed cloth and sell dyed. Here and there is cloth heavy with gold and silver thread. Though wool predominates, there are also silks, mostly from Lucca; cotton from Italy, France, and Flanders; flax in the form of linen for sheets, sacks, purses, and clothing, and of hemp for nets, ropes, bowstrings, and measuring lines.

Bargaining finished, deals concluded and notarized, and arrangements made for the transfer of goods, the sergeants close the Cloth Market with the traditional cry of “Hare! Hare!” and attention turns to the next order of business. This is “avoir de poids,” goods that must be weighed—sugar, salt, alum, lacquer, dyes, grain, wines. These come from a diversity of places—salt from Salins in Franche-Comté, sugar from Syria, wax from Morocco and Tunisia. But just as the king of textiles is wool, the prince of avoir de poids is spices. They are the fabulous commodities that alone sustain a trade by pack train, galley, camel caravan, and Arab dhow. There are literally hundreds of spices; one medieval list names two hundred and eighty-eight.3 The Italian merchants themselves do not know where all the spices come from. They load their precious cargoes at Constantinople, or Acre, or Antioch, or Tripoli, and if they question their Arab suppliers, they receive a shrug or a strange answer. Cinnamon, they may be told, comes from the nest of a bird of Arabia who favors this aromatic fruit as building material. Cassia trees grow in glens or lakes watched over by ferocious winged animals. Another opinion holds that the spices are harvested by the Egyptians, who stretch nets across the Nile.

Few of the merchants at the Hot Fair believe these fairy tales. They know the spices come from the distant East, from coasts and islands no European visits, lost in a fog of fourth-hand knowledge. It is not difficult for them to credit the costs involved in the arduous and perilous freightage over thousands of leagues. Tolls must be paid by the dozens, and caravans guarded. Losses must be made up for in the prices. No wonder a pound of mace at the fair is worth as much as three sheep.

The very mystery of the spices adds something to their desirability. Their basic value is twofold: as flavoring for meat whose toughness needs long cooking, and as preservatives. For these two purposes, one spice surpasses all others: pepper. This small black wrinkled berry has become a metaphor—“dear as pepper.” It is not the most expensive spice; saffron and cinnamon are much costlier. But at four sous a pound it is expensive enough, and by far the most popular of the spices. Pepper merchants sell it retail by the peppercorn; a housewife may buy just one if she wishes.

Its popularity and costliness cause pepper to be guarded like diamonds. Longshoremen who handle it are closely watched and frequently searched. Crossbows and blades bristle on the galleys that bring it through the Mediterranean, and in the pack trains that carry it through the Alpine passes and across the hills and plains of Burgundy and Champagne.

All these precautions do not protect the pepper from depredations of a different kind—those of grocers, wholesalers and middlemen, any of whom may mix a bit of something with it—perhaps a few peppercorns confected from clay, oil, and mustard, difficult to distinguish from the genuine article. At the fair, experts scrutinize every batch of pepper with eyes, fingers, and nose. The arguments that ensue add to the din around St.-Jean.

When a spice deal is consummated, the merchandise is taken to a weighing station. The weighing, too, is followed by several pairs of alert eyes. Only responsible merchants are permitted inside the spice halls and the weighing station.

Other food products besides spices do a brisk retail business, as celebrated in a contemporary verse:

A Laigny, à Bar, à Provins

Si i a marcheand de vins

De blé, de sel et de harenc…

[At Lagny, Bar, and Provins

There are sellers of wine,

Grain, salt, and herring.]

Among the comestibles are meat and cheese (that of Brie is already celebrated) and, above all, wine. The wines of Champagne—Reims, Epernay and Bar-sur-Aube—are popular, but the principal wine sold at the Champagne Fairs is that of Auxerre, a few miles south of Troyes. (Wine is too bulky a commodity to be shipped far, except by water.)

Dyestuffs are also included in avoir de poids. Some are produced in Flanders and sold to the Italians, some sold by the Italians to the Flemings and Champenois. The greatest demand is for indigo, from India, which the Italians buy in the Syrian ports. Alum, an essential to the dyeing as to the tanning process, is now produced in Spain as well as Egypt and the East. The Italians produce certain other dyes, violets and reds, from lichen and insects—tricks they have learned from their Moslem suppliers, either by observation or espionage.

During this part of the fair, a host of commodities is sold, ranging from raw materials like skins and metals to finely worked handicrafted products. Armorers buy iron from Germany and steel from Spain. Lead, tin, and copper are on hand, from Bohemia, Poland, Hungary, and England. Furs and skins sold by local dealers compete with imports from across the Rhine and even from Scandinavia. Then there are luxury goods from the East, imported by the Italians: camphor, ambergris, musk, rubies, lapis lazuli, diamonds, carpets, pearls, and ivory tusks. The Champagne Fairs are a source of supply for the ivory carvers of Reims, Metz, and Cologne, whose intricate masterpieces, ivory replicas of castles and cathedrals, are on display. So is the art of the Italian and local goldsmiths and silversmiths, and astonishing work in ebony, such as carved chess sets from the Far East. Amid the shoes and leather displayed, the famous Spanish cordovan is in the limelight.

The happy uproar of opening day does not diminish during the weeks that follow. Bargaining is conducted with zest and vehemence. Faults are found with the merchandise: there are complaints that cloth has been stretched, flax left out all night in the damp to increase in weight; that wine has been falsely labeled. The loudest bargaining, the bitterest disputes and the most frequent invocations of the saints are heard in front of the small stalls. Big companies like the Bardi and Guicciardini of Florence, the Bonsignori and Tolomei of Siena, and the Buonconti of Pisa have reputations to maintain for quality and probity.

Throughout the month following the Cloth Market, however, the busiest section of the Fair is the moneychangers’ area near St.-Jean. The commerce of which the Champagne Fairs are the focus has stimulated a lively flow of foreign exchange, and the fairs themselves are the natural center of this money trade. Travelers who are not fair clients may visit Troyes simply to have their money changed or to buy letters of credit. Essentially private businessmen, the twenty-eight moneychangers are at the same time functionaries of the fair. Half of them are Italians, many from Siena. The other half are Jews and Cahorsins.

The standard coin of the fairs is the denier de Provins (Provins penny). A strong currency, of high and stable relative value, it has even inspired an Italian copy, the “Provinois of the Senate,” minted in Rome for fair-bound merchants. But dozens of other pennies of widely varying worth also put in an appearance. Moneychanging is governed by strict regulations. One ironclad rule directs the changer to remove from circulation all debased or false coins. Exchange rates on all kinds of money are posted, the quotations made in terms of one sou (twelve pennies) of Provins.


Moneychangers, such as these shown in Chartres Cathedral window, were the principal bankers of the thirteenth century. Some of those who held tables at Troyes became wealthy patricians.

But the moneychangers’ function at the fair is not limited to providing a standard medium of exchange for the merchants’ use. They are also the focus of a very extensive system of credit.4 This operates in several ways. A certain Florentine house is a regular purchaser of cloth at the fairs. But the company’s cargoes of spices and luxury goods, which they sell in Champagne, do not always arrive on time. Therefore they keep a balance to their account with the moneychangers so that their agents are never without funds. Further, they can deposit Florentine money in Florence or Genoa and have the money paid to their agent at Troyes in silver of Provins.

Or an Italian merchant may borrow a sum in Genoa in local currency, pledging as security the goods he is shipping to Champagne, and specify that repayment is to be made in money of Provins at the Fair. If the goods are entrusted to a third party, the contract may specify that they travel at the creditor’s risk.

An even more sophisticated method of credit is employed by the big Italian houses. Instead of sending a pack caravan to arrive during the opening week, the firm dispatches a courier with a bill of lading for its agent in Champagne. The agent buys cloth on credit and sends it off to Italy. When his firm’s merchandise arrives, in time for the avoir de poids market, the agent turns seller and negotiates credit transactions in reverse, acquiring enough paper for his spices to cover his cloth debts.

Apart from credit transactions and currency exchange, the fair moneychangers do a great deal of business in straight loans. The “Lombards” are notable pawnbrokers. Behind his moneychanging stall a Lombard may have a back room full of rings, paternosters, and silver plate. Not only businessmen, but all classes use the fairs as banking places. Princes, barons, bishops all borrow at the Hot Fair and promise to repay at the Fair of St.-Ayoul. Not all this lucrative loan business is in the hands of the moneychangers, but they are generally involved, as are the notaries (who are also frequently Italian).

Sometimes a merchant borrows at one fair and promises to repay in installments at the next three or more, as he sells his goods. This sort of arrangement is taken care of in the closing days of the fair, during the debt settlement (pagamentum), a time of general liquidation of the promises to pay that have accumulated on all sides. Among other things, the system of dating loans from one fair to another helps solve the problem of variant calendars.5 Venetian, Pisan, and Florentine merchants do not agree on when the year begins, or even what year it is.

An ever more complex financial system is taking shape. A merchant’s promise to pay may itself be sold at a discount, and a third party may appear at the subsequent fair to claim the debt. A merchant of Florence may buy a stock of cloth from a merchant of Ghent at the May Fair of Provins, and promise to pay twenty pounds at the Hot Fair of Troyes. The two take their “Letter of the Fair,” spelling out the agreement, to the Keeper of the Fair, and have it witnessed and sealed with the fair seal. The Fleming then has in his possession a negotiable piece of paper, which he may use to pay for his own purchases of pepper and cinnamon. The Letter of the Fair makes it possible to execute a considerable proportion of the fair’s business without recourse to the moneychangers, and without the need for handling large sums of cash.

Thus in the cheerful clamor of the fair, the jingle of silver is quietly being replaced by the rattle of the abacus and the scratching of the quill, turning bales and bolts into livres and deniers, and recording them in notarial documents.

Here, more than in anything else in this busy, knowledgeable, money-oriented city of shopkeepers, lies a portent of the future.

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