In Latin referred to as the Nundinae, these fairs were usually annual, or at most bi-annual events, owing to the massive local administrative preparation required. The fairs were wholly separate from the typical town market, usually held once a week, which were oriented purely towards meeting the needs of local sustenance. The Great Fairs, by contrast in roughly the 13th c., served as meeting places for the new far-flung merchant class which had emerged in cities scattered across Western Europe as a result of urban growth in the 10-11th centuries.
The Fairs offered a unique venue for artists, performers and craftsmen, as well as facilitating the exchange of goods between ‘gilds’ (or 'guilds'), ‘charites’, ‘compagnies’, or ‘hanses’ (as business ventures were interchangeably referred to in the documents of the period) – at these events trade could take place on a distinctly wholesale and trans-national basis – though it should be mentioned only the Champagne region hosted Fairs during the Medieval period which attracted merchants and goods from every region of Europe. The Fair of Saint Denis, held outside Paris, was the oldest such event – dating from the early Merovingian era. Most of the other fairs were established in the 11-12th c. (after Europe emerged from a long period of recession and depopulation) by local princes (the only officials authorized to establish new commercial practices). Princes usually granted the fairs to regions which need economic stimulation – hence smaller centers like Bruges, Ypres and Lille hosted these merchant fairs, but great commercial towns like Milan, Venice and Ghent were denied them.
All attendees of a fair were given the local lord’s sworn protection, the ‘conduit’ and special guards (‘custodes nundinarum’) circulated constantly through the crowds, maintaining peace and order. Feasts, games of chance and passion plays were also important sideshows but certainly the biggest attraction of these events, besides the exchange of goods, was the permission to lend or borrow money and charge interest. At all other times, canonical Church law forbade the practice of money-lending (usury, as it was called and as is frequently pointed out, would get you a place in Dante’s version of Hell far lower than murder or adultery, so seriously did the Church frown upon it). However, during the Fairs, it was deemed a permissible commercial practice.
The Largest Fairs were: Lagny-on-the-Marne (January), Bar (just before Lent), Provins’ Fair of Saint Quiriace (May), Troyes’ ‘Warm Fair’ (June), Provins’ Fair of Saint Ayoul (September) and Troyes’ ‘Cold Fair’ (October). Other smaller merchant festivals included Bar-on-the-Seine, Chalons-on-the-Marne, Chateau-Thierry, Nogent-on-the-Seine (all in France) and Burges, Ypres, Lille, Thourout and Messines (in Belgium).
To give an extent of how goods were circulating by this point (12th c.) Flemish drapery and linen was all the rage in throughout the Champagne region, and was even being imported across to Genoa for export to the Levant. As early as 1127, silk, gold, silver, spices, cloth and wine were crisscrossing Europe bound for various markets. Special ‘clerks of the Fairs’ carried merchants’ documentation and commercial correspondence from Italy to Britain. Out of these fairs grew the first Western standards for credit, bills of exchange, receipts, promissory notes and loan contracts – the foundation of European mercantilism. These fairs prospered until the carnage of the Hundred Years’ War forced most commerce back behind the fortifications of Europe’s major centers.
Source: Henri Pirenne, Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe (NY: Harcourt, 1937), pp. 96-102.
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