Saturday, May 17, 2014

Fairs and markets in France from the Gauls to the Halles

The French historian Anne Lombard-Jourdan wrote at length on the history of trade and fairs in general, of certain specific fairs and on the early history of Paris and, in particular, the Halles, the great central market in Paris for centuries. Her work then is an excellent introduction to the early history of trade in France and, here, specifically to that of fairs and markets. What follows is largely, though not uniquely, based on her work.

Oppida, cemeteries and cities

Probably Lombard-Jourdan's broadest look at early trade in France comes in a paper titled “On the problem of continuity: is there an urban protohistory in France?”. The title announces its main theme: an attempt to define the early pre-history and history of towns and cities in France. 

Lombard-Jourdan begins with this glimpse of the Gauls:
In independent Gaul, as in all the antique World, religious feasts on set dates accompanied fairs. These served to disperse the surplus of local production and provided the opportunity for distant goods to be introduced into the country: necessities (salt, metals) or others, considered superfluous until their use became a need, like wine. From the end of the second century before our era, Roman merchants advanced into the country.... They arrived at dates and places set by long custom to meet there valuable correspondents, potential buyers and sellers and peaceful and correct conditions of exchange.
At the time of their arrival in Gaul, the Romans knew urban markets (macella, nundinae), but not the periodicity of fairs. Their economic liberalism nonetheless saw no reason indigenous markets should not continue to be held.
She notes that after the conquest many oppida (the proto-cities of the Gauls) continued to strike a fractional coinage, demonstrating the continuity of their commerce and not incidentally allowing them to operate outside the Roman administration; though she does not say as much, one might even regard this separate Gallic trade circuit as a form of passive resistance.

Though she also does not emphasize this, it is important to know that the Romans had a standard “template” for a city, one centered around the market (forum), and which defined French cities under their rule. The Celtic fairs, then, existed apart from this carefully defined infrastructure.

These played a lively role in the Gallo-Roman economy:
If for some products it was possible for the Romans to place orders at mines or the producers', for others indigenous fairs served them as convenient centers for negotiation and provisioning. Certain Gallic specialties... were highly prized in Rome and in Italy. Preserved pork, Aubrac cheeses, fleece of Langres, seasonal agricultural produce, as well as cowls and cloaks, made by small artisans, were taken to regional markets where exporters found them already gathered. It was at these same fairs that dealers, mainly Gauls, who supplied the Roman army drew a good part of the merchandise which they undertook to carry to the great cities and to the military outposts of the limes.
With Barbarian invasions, cities declined and markets and roads with them, and water routes regained their former importance. Lombard-Jourdan does not linger on these points and in general the state of trade in the early Medieval centuries is open to conjecture. She is not the only one to point out that trade may never have declined as much as is often thought:
The fear inspired by the Germans and later the Normans further must not be exaggerated. The invaders are judged by the devastation they inflicted on cities; but, the risks, which made it more profitable, never stopped commerce. We see Nordic pirate boats pursue and seek to capture merchants' boats and their incursions often have the purpose of raiding fair grounds, warehouses of riches and easy prey.
Based on narrative sources, Lombard-Jourdan sees a continuity of exchanges from the independent Gauls through the early Medieval period, notably the slave trade and trade in wine.
In the times of closed economies, agricultural goods and products of small artisans might well have only fed a domainal or local market; salt and metals always formed – and before slaves and wine – the object of a long distance trade which had its privileged sites of stopover and exchange.
Livestock was subject to seasonal sales and to sale "upon sight". Various early authors emphasize Gauls' riches in cattle, but also their love of horses which often came from very far away. This trade would later become more sophisticated. “Starting in the eighth century, this trade intensifies, because other customs were added to the older ones, and the races of horses transformed to satisfy new needs. Starting in the ninth century, breeding produces large solid horses beside finer saddle horses."

Overall then, these exchanges resulted in long distance trade, “whether it was the buyers or the sellers who came from afar”. This in turn led to further penetration of luxury items.
We do not think that the merchants – Jews or Easterners – for the Merovingian period were content to seek out the great in their domains. The “foreign products of great price” were always present at fairs, but in variable proportions according to the place these occupied on the commercial circuits, the number and the quality of their customers.
Who attended such fairs?
The texts also distinguish the dual nature of the personnel of the fairs: on one side, local merchants, producers and breeders of neighboring regions...who, “because of the facilities for sales”...., brought their raw products or those already worked in local and domestic workshops; on the other, professional merchants (mercatores, negociatores), who brought foreign products from afar; on the one hand, the descendants of those who took the initiative of gathering; on the other, merchants who came to join them.
What about regular markets? Lombard-Jourdan does not address these, but in those of the Roman cities which survived, the old model of a central market no doubt continued, at least initially. And local markets may have existed in some form where excess goods might be traded or even (despite the uncertain coinage of the time) bought. But it is difficult to track all this in the earlier documentation.

Specific mentions of markets begin to appear under Charlemagne. His own Capitulary de Villis tells stewards to list profits from a variety of sources, including markets. A Capitulary of 809 specifies that no market is to be held on Sundays except where this has long been the custom – showing not only that markets were then standard but that some were long established. In 813, the Council of Mainz forbade holding executions or judgments in markets (which is especially notable, since marketplaces were later standard sites for executions). These and other references of the time show that markets had again become regular parts of French life, if indeed they had ever declined.

Nor does she address the role of Marseilles, which remained the entry point for goods from the East well into the Frankish period, until 739, when a series of calamities began with Charles Martel punishing it for its defiance of his wishes. Attacks by Greeks and Saracens followed and for over a century the city was in decline. This had great significance for foreign trade in France; one key result was to shift much trade north. The (probably) ninth century Brevis de Melle, for instance, lists spices to be bought at the fair of Cambrai for the Picard Abbey of Corbie, where previously the monastery's cellerar had traveled south to pick up such goods.

Otherwise, whatever the exact situation at the start of the Medieval period, she notes that fairs had a particular advantage: “The bond which joined fairs to religious practice was certainly, in these troubled times, an element of permanence.”

Where fairs are documented, were they heirs to those which preceded Caesar? Some later fairs, she says, have been shown to have a pagan, pre-Roman origin, suggesting similar origins for others.
One thing is certain in any case: At the start of the economic renewal (VIIIth-Xth centuries), almost all the fairs are in the hands of religious establishments and none can justify its tenure by anything but long use or a false act. Must we suppose that these first commercial meeting places were spontaneously born near churches, say in the VIth-VIIth centuries? If the thing was possible much later, it would no doubt be to under-estimate the attractive force of new places of worship in a time of recent Christianization. It would be to misunderstand the importance of tradition at a time when oral transmission held sway and no change in religious, economic and social habits occurred without many hitches. As for us, we prefer to believe in the immutability of places of exchange ...
It is likely in other words that later commercial sites leveraged the earlier use of the same locales.

Meanwhile, renewed development sprang from an unexpected source: cemeteries.

As natural gathering places with a sacred character, cemeteries were often the precursors to neighboring churches, which in turn were often associated with a specific saint. They were also often the sites of spontaneous markets. This reached such a point that “canonical interdictions on buying and selling at cemeteries were repeated in vain over time.” Some of these gatherings grew into fairs, which often took on the name of the local patron saint, with the result that the peace and the legitimacy of the fair were under that figure's auspices. The churches, in turn, would claim the right to profits from such fairs based on their rights to the saint's day.

This development is of interest in itself. But Lombard-Jourdan makes the further point that ”saints' days often coincided with the dates when great Celtic fairs were held", citing Gregory the Great's advice (in the seventh century) to basically co opt places and dates with pagan associations. The result of course was an unacknowledged continuity from the gathering places of the pagan Gauls to those of the Catholic church.

By the time fairs appear in records they have grown to a point which implies a long existence (as will be explored further below). All this developed in close association with the Church and the surviving records often reflect ecclesiastic efforts to document an abbey or a church's claim. This was especially necessary because local lords (and even rival clerics) often tried to usurp privileges and claim part of a fair's revenue. The result was increasingly a pragmatic partnership with lay authorities:
As for clerics, the de facto owners, feeling henceforth impotent to guarantee order in the places of exchange and to protect merchants on the roads, they are sometimes the first to solicit the support of lay authorities to ensure the "conduct" and the "safeguard" of the fairs; they readily renounced part of their privileges to peacefully enjoy the rest.
In Lombard-Jourdan's analysis, all this activity was intimately entwined with the rise of cities, often on the same sites where Gallic oppida had existed and where fairs grew up.
Then the periodic pole of a whole region slowly became “a market”. Inns are established around it for merchants, food trades, then specialized artisans set up shop. The fair ground is surrounded by shops and workshops. In a parallel evolution, the fairs move towards a quasi-permanent state. They last longer and their number multiplies. Everywhere, their dates are calculated so as to avoid competition between neighboring localities. They become... a perpetual market. The foreign merchants have a hostel to live in and a hall in which to sell during the fairs. Payments are domiciled. In a last step, merchants install their places of commerce in the cities. Thus are reduced and erased certain essential characteristics of the original fair and notably its "spaced periodicity" which formed all its importance.
...we see a direct relationship between the holding of a fair and the birth of an agglomeration of merchants. We say precisely the birth, because the decline of fairs is linked to the development of cities. The fair and the city are two distinct organisms which correspond to different systems of exchange and to different levels of material civilization.
This then is how fairs were linked to the “protohistory” of cities; rather than the carefully structured Roman model of a city, the new Medieval cities were rooted in ancient Celtic ways of gathering, in the institutions which became Medieval fairs:
Gaul rejected, in a way, the urban civilization imported by Rome to forge its own, matching its traditions, its nature and its possibilities. The Gallo-Roman cities again became the centers and the markets of the ancient peoples whose names it had taken.

The fairs of the Plain

Perhaps the most famous period document concerning fairs is a diploma granting rights to a fair to the St. Denis abbey. One nineteenth century writer went so far as to say that it recorded "the origin of fairs in France". (Gragnon-Lacoste) The document is supposedly from Dagobert I (603–639) and is dated July 31, 629. But it is generally acknowledged today to be a forgery from the first half of the eighth century which outlines existing conditions at the fair, as opposed to defining (as it claims) what was to come.

It "establishes" a fair on October ninth, for both French and foreign merchants, to be held in Paris on St. Martin's Hill, Reference is made to "those who come from beyond the sea to the port of Rouen and to the port of Vic [that is, Quantovic, once near Etaples] to buy wine, honey, and madder." Initially, no toll was to be levied for two years. The details of those to be levied after are of interest:
For each measure of honey they shall pay two solidi to the brothers of St. Denis; similarly for each measure of madder they shall pay two solidi. The Saxons and their servants and the citizens of Rouen and pagans from other lands shall pay as toll on their ships twelve denarii for each measure, and they shall pay wheel tax and passage forever, according to ancient custom.
(Cave/Coulson translation)
Further, the diploma specifies: “The fair shall last for four weeks, and the merchants of Lombardy, Spain, Provence, and other countries shall be able to go there."

No trade was allowed elsewhere around Paris during the fair. The abbey of St. Denis is to have full control of the fair and to “be able to exact at the fair from all merchandise, tolls, customs, portage, pontage, mooring tolls, wheel taxes, road tolls, tolls on travelers, laudaticum, charges on beasts of burden, gifts, each and all of them, whatever they are, from our exchequer and from the public fisc.”

All of this information is believed to accurately reflect the actual state of affairs in the eighth century, and so the diploma records the importance of the ports of Rouen and Vic (Quentovic) and of the three products listed (madder being used for dyeing). The fact that Saxons, Lombards, Spaniards and those from Provence attended the fair is also precious information.

Lombard-Jourdan examines this fair at length along with another run by the same abbey, the Lendit fair, in a paper on “The Fairs of the St. Denis Abbey”. The Abbey also possessed a third, that of St. Mathias, held within Paris itself, but it was never very important. The gist of what she says on these three fairs, contradicting some earlier conclusions, is that they arose spontaneously, in unknown ways, and so any attempt (as has been made) to demonstrate that they were founded by a particular party (sacred or secular) is futile, though the production of forgeries like that for the St. Denis fair show the importance in the time of trying to document such “origins” (typically to the profit of a monastery).

Note too that the Abbey had to defend its rights both against royal agents and the Bishop of Paris.

Claims were made that Charlemagne and Louis the Pious had been involved with the original foundation and that the Lendit fair, for instance, had been transferred over time towards Paris. All this appears to be apocryphal and is of most interest in showing how much energy was spent in trying to assign the most profitable pedigree to these fairs. The exact details of this discussion are probably only of interest to specialists. What is of more general interest is the general importance of the fairs of St. Denis and Lendit and their successors.

The fair of Lendit was held somewhere (it is unsure where) in the plain of Lendit, which was to the north of Paris, roughly between St Ouen and Aubervilliers, or just above the modern location of the Paris flea market (a street, the rue de Landy, marks its former location). Lombard-Jourdan traces the importance of this location back to the Gauls as
an important center of worship for the time of Gallic independence; in effect, the locus consecretus at the center of Gaul (Caesar, VI, 13, 10) which each year saw the great gathering of brothers in race and where the druids named their supreme leader, discussed public affairs, took important decisions and rendered justice {NOTE: Caesar says only that this took place "at the middle of Gaul" so Lombard-Jourdan's point may be arguable]. The existence of this omphalos to the immediate north of the mid-Seine, on the border which separated the Celts from the Belgians, explains many problems so far regarded as insoluble. The fair of the Lendit, in June, is the last avatar of these seasonal meetings, where merchants supplied what was necessary to the crowd of visitors while trying to see to their personal profit.
By the time the fair itself was mentioned in documents, it had probably existed for some time:
The best argument in favor of the great age of the Lendit fair resides in a series of three letters from Gregory VII... [from] 1074; these inform us that the fair then enjoyed a success which attests an already-long existence, that it attracted merchants who came from numerous countries and goods of great price were brought there.
She traces the St. Denis fair, and even the Abbey itself, to similar ancient origins.
The first basilica built by St. Genevieve on the tomb of Saint Denis... was intended to exorcise by Christian practice the dangerous paganism of the spot. From its construction at the end of the fifth century, it polarized the ancient practices and a marcadus or annual market was held nearby.
The essential point here is that (at least in Lombard-Jourdan's view) these major fairs had their distant roots in Celtic gatherings before the time of Caesar.

Lombard-Jourdan references the similarity in origin of the Lendit fair with that at Compiegne. This was another great fair which had existed for some time. In 1066 Philip I confirmed a sentence against Aubri de Coucy, a lord who had troubled merchants coming to this fair, which was considered to be under an abbey's protection. These included Flemish merchants and shippers of wine and dealers from the four "counties" of Noyon, Vermandois, Amiens and Nanterre. Again, in calling on the king's aid, the abbey which claimed rights to the fair tried to document an origin for the fair which corresponded to its own claims, but which had no historic basis.

No doubt similar issues existed around others of the great Medieval fairs.

Otherwise, the relative importance of St. Denis' three fairs shifted over time:
From the start, a fact seems established: the commercial exchanges within the city, at St. Mathias, were never very important. The true fair ground both at St. Denis, in October and at Lendit, in June, was always the plain which stretched to the north from the pas de la Chapelle, a hill which separated the heights of Montmartre from those of Belleville. Although these three last fairs took place at two very different times of the year, everything occurred as if the success of one succeeded that of the other: until the eleventh century there is only question of the Saint-Denis fair; one then begins to hear of the Lendit and the Saint-Denis fair, without being eliminated, becomes less frequented.

A cemetery in the Little Fields

At about the time that the Lendit fair was coming to the forefront, and eclipsing that of St. Denis, yet another cemetery was becoming the site of a spontaneous market. This one was much closer to Paris, in fact a short walk away from what were then its walls. The site of this graveyard was known as “the Little Fields” - the Champeaux.

Writes Lombard-Jourdan: “The fairs of Saint-Denis and of the Lendit were only competed with and finally outstripped by the Parisian commerce of the Champeaux.” Once trade had grown up at this site, “the bishop of Paris had “a small field” or champeau enclosed with a ditch, with the intention of better watching over and regulating the exchanges within this parameter.” In 1137, he shared the revenue from this "bishop's ditch" (fossatum episcopi) or "ditch of the Champeau" (fossatum Campelli), where mercers and money changers were already installed, with Louis VI. This deal had the advantage of associating the king's authority with the new market.

Note that the main product sold at this new improvised market was textiles. It was because these were easily damaged by inclement weather that in 1183, Philip August had two buildings built to protect them. Covered shops surrounded these and a wall was built, allowing the space to be closed at night.

The buildings themselves were referred to as "halles" and their construction represented the start of the Halles market, set beside a cemetery which would become, in later centuries, the Cemetery of the Innocents. Though the bishop of Paris would establish and long maintain his authority over part of the Right Bank of Paris, Philip also freed the two new structures from the bishop's authority (for, as always, a price).

Meanwhile, in 1181, Philip essentially “bought out” the lepers who owned the neighboring fair of Saint-Lazare, transferring its rights to the new market. Around 1300, the fair of St. Germain-des-Près was similarly transferred to what would soon became the main Paris market. (The old Roman market had been on the Left Bank; but a later "old market" is also mentioned and appears to have then been on the Right Bank.)

The history of the Halles from this point on is complex; it would be some time before it became largely a food market and more time still before it was considered the “Belly of Paris”. But its increasing success was to have a pronounced effect on the “fairs of the Plain” which had been so important until then, and so this improvised market which began by a cemetery exemplifies the trend mentioned by Lombard-Jourdan in which fixed markets began to displace the once-vital fairs.


As this specifically Parisian market grew, Lendit declined. By the fifteenth century only merchants from neighboring regions – Ile-de-France, Picardy, Champagne, Normandy, Burgundy, the banks of the Loire and the Center – came. Much of what it had sold could now be found in Paris. It retained importance however for trade in horses, sheep and certain raw materials.

The St. Denis fair too endured, but both fairs would be moved more than once and steadily declined in importance. Neither disappeared completely and even the St. Mathias fair, though interrupted, would be revived and last into the eighteenth century. The St. Denis and St. Mathias fair were revived after the Revolution and towards the end of the nineteenth century sheep were still being sold at the most recent location of the Lendit fair.

What did a Medieval fair look like in the nineteenth century? In 1816, the St. Denis fair included “sellers of toys, gingerbread, sweets, but also merry-go-rounds, swings, trained monkeys, theater, magic lanterns, magic mirrors...” It drew a large crowd, perhaps the largest in Paris. But these were now of spectators and consumers, no longer of merchants come from far and wide to exchange their goods. Yet even then, it could arguably be traced, no matter how distantly, back to long-forgotten gatherings of the Gauls and to the ghosts of a "dangerous paganism".


Lombard-Jourdan (Anne). Aux origines de Paris: la genèse de la Rive droite jusqu'en 1223. 1985

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