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History of Provins, a medieval fair town

Authentic witness of medieval history with its 58 listed monuments


Carving of Provins by Chastillon       Medieval town of Provins


History...


Provins seems to have existed since the early Middle Ages. The town is divided into an Upper Town and a Lower Town, respectively called the Châtel (Castel) and the Val (Valley).

The town’s importance is confirmed in 802, when Charlemagne sent his “missi dominici” -Étienne, Count of Paris, and Fardufle, abbot of Saint-Denis- to Provins. This period coincides with the earliest military architecture in Provins.


In 996, during the reign of Hugues Capet, the relics of Saint Ayoul were miraculously discovered in the Val. A number of religious buildings were erected on site and the marshland was completely drained.
This is also when the first Counts of Vermandois were born, which gave rise to the Counts of Champagne.


Provins
was a wealthy and much envied commercial town, famed for its trouvères (Northern France troubadours). Safe behind its fortified walls, it was brilliantly sparkling during the 12th and 13th centuries, the time of the celebrated Champagne Fairs.

Provins even minted its own coinage, and the denier provinois (Provins’ penny) was recognized and accepted throughout medieval Europe.
The town was at the height of its fame during the reign of Thibaud IV of Champagne (1201-1253), a vassal of the French Kings Philippe Auguste (1165-1223) and Saint-Louis (1214-1270).


The Earl Thibaud IV of Champagne

Count Thibaud of Champagne was a poet and warrior who took part in a number of sieges.

When King Louis XI was crowned in 1226, Thibaud left the army to join Blanche of Castille, his legendary lady-love (a legend that remains unconfirmed despite numerous rumours at the time).
His relationship with the Queen-Regent was a succession of quarrels and complicity.

In 1234, Thibaud, Count of Champagne, was crowned King of Navarre.
In 1239, Thibaud left on Crusade. He returned to Provins with the famous Damascus rose, which was later cross-bred and gave birth to many different French and European roses.

During the second half of the 13th century, due to the rivalry of the thriving Flanders and Rhine Valley Fairs, the economic decline foreshadowed the waning of the Counts’ power.
In 1281, the Mayor of Provins, Guillaume Pentecôte had to increase the working day by one hour. He was killed during the revolt that followed his decision.
As part of the punishment inflicted on Provins, the town lost most of its riches.

Moreover, the Count’s only heir – Jeanne of Navarre – married Philippe IV The Fair, and therefore on her death the Champagne region became part of the royal domain.



Provins, an exceptional witness of the Fairs of Champagne.

By the year 1000, the Counts of Champagne who ruled over the region had understood the economic importance of long-distance trade, and used the strategic geographical  position of the towns of Champagne to their advantage.

On routes to eastern Europe, these towns straddled routes from both the North Sea and the Mediterranean ports, between the trade centers of Flanders and Italy, Flanders looking towards northern and eastern Europe, and Italy to Byzantium, Africa and the Orient.

At that time, Provins was a major crossroads, with nine main roads and eleven secondary roads converging on it. Its siting made the twice-yearly fair one of the main focuses of European trade, especially in the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries.

The fairs were wholesale-trade affairs. There was no retail trade, which took place at local markets. Merchants bought goods in bales or casks: wools, woollen clothes, wines, furs, goldsmith's trades, etc.

Fairs of Champagne

The success of the great fairs in Champagne was partly due to the protection the counts gave to the merchants. They were quite happy to protect them as the fairs increased their wealth.
In fact, within their borders, the Counts organized special faire safe conducts, escorting at their own cost any convoy of merchants wanting to attend the fair.
This was a definite attraction on the difficult, unsafe roads of medieval times, when it took six weeks to travel up from Navarre.

In Provins itself, the Counts deployed special fair guards and lieutenants to keep order. They held courts of justice, demanded the payment of sales taxes, witnessed contracts, and settled disputes. They could pursue an offender anywhere in Europe.

The prerogratives granted to the merchants soon gave the fairs a solid reputation, fostered by good commercial practices.

The tradespeople of Provins itself felt the benefit of all this trade, and the local woollen industry expanded considerably, becoming famous throughout Europe.

The fair was also a time of celebration, with music and juggling shows. You must try to imagine the extraordinary bustle of people from all over Europe trading not only in goods, but also in ideas.

Melting pots like this were essential to social progress. Each country contributed some of its influence, and Champagne played a key role in litterature, art and taste.

It was during these good times that the basis for the wealth of the western world was laid, going hand-in-hand with increasingly refined cultural aspirations.
Similarly, the Church was importing ivory and precious woods and stones from Africa to decorate religious objects.

This period of flourishing trade gradually declined during the XIVth century as the trade routes shifted to the high Alpine passes and the straits of Gibraltar became more popular for shipping.

The wars of Religion, plague, and the abolition of merchants prerogatives sealed the fate of of the great fairs of Champagne not only in Provins, but also in Troyes, Lagny sur Marne and Bar sur Aube.


Merchants during fairs



Provins, a source of inspiration.

In the 12th century, part of the Roman de Renart was written not far from Provins.
In the 13th century, Count Thibaud IV of Champagne, known as “the songster”, was recognized as one of the greatest poets of his day.

Several writers passing through Provins evoked this town in the shadow of its ruins: Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, Prosper Mérimée, Jules Cousin, Marcel Proust, Paul Fort, Umberto Eco…

Provins, a source of inspiration - Honoré de Balzac