By Jeremy Edwards and Sheilagh Ogilvie
Explorations in Economic History (2012)
Abstract: The medieval Champagne fairs are widely used to draw lessons about the institutional basis for long-distance impersonal exchange. This paper re-examines the causes of the outstanding success of the Champagne fairs in mediating international trade, the timing and causes of the fairs’ decline, and the institutions for securing property rights and enforcing contracts at the fairs. It finds that contract enforcement at the fairs did not take the form of private-order or corporative mechanisms, but was provided by public institutions. More generally, the success and decline of the Champagne fairs depended on the policies adopted by the public authorities — for good or ill.
Introduction: The Champagne fairs were a cycle of trade fairs held annually in the county of Champagne, a polity governed almost autonomously (despite formal vassalage to France) until annexed to the French kingdom in 1285. These fairs arose in the twelfth century, reached their zenith in the thirteenth century, and declined to mere regional markets after c. 1350. During their medieval heyday, the Champagne fairs took place six times a year and rotated among four towns – Bar-sur-Aube, Lagny, Provins and Troyes – none of which was a major merchant center in its own right. Each fair lasted for about six weeks, followed by a break for merchants to move on to the next fair, so the Champagne fair-cycle constituted an almost continuous market throughout the year, a notable advantage over many other medieval fairs. Although merchants from many countries traded many goods at the Champagne fairs, the core business was the exchange of cloth and wool supplied by Flemish and French traders for spices and luxuries provided by Italian and Provençal merchants. The Italian presence also fostered financial sophistication, and the fairs increasingly attracted international payment and exchange services. The Champagne fairs operated as the undisputed fulcrum of international exchange in Europe for much of the thirteenth century.