Provins, Town of Medieval Fairs
Location: Provins, France, Europe
Theme: Cities & Towns
The town of Provins was one of several towns in the Champagne region of France to have hosted important trading fairs in the medieval period but is the only one to have survived with the walls, churches, homes and other buildings characteristic of the period intact.
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Provins, Town of Medieval Fairs
At the beginning of the 2nd millennium, Provins was one of several towns in the territory of the Counts of Champagne that became the venues for great annual trading fairs linking northern Europe with the Mediterranean world. It preserves to a high degree the architecture and urban layout that characterize these great medieval fair towns.
In the Gallo-Roman period, the site of present-day Provins was related to two important regional axes: the route from Soissons to Troyes towards the north and the route to Sens to the south-west. The earliest document related to Provins, an ordinance by Charlemagne of 802, indicates that the site was already an established fort. Because of its political and commercial importance, the castle on the high ground was fortified in the 11th and 12th centuries. The original enclosure (castrum ) was small, but the settlement grew up rapidly outside the fortifications and this, too, was encircled by a defensive wooden wall in the late 12th century. A third set of fortifications, this time in stone, was added in the first half of the 13th century.
Provins is thus one of the four towns (together with Troyes, Lagny and Bar-sur-Aube) where medieval fairs were held in the reign of the Counts of Champagne, developing here from the 11th to the 14th centuries. Provins is the only one to retain its original medieval fabric.
The town developed to the south of the Brie chalk plateau, in a gently hilly region at the confluence of the valleys of the Voulzie and the Durteint. It consists of the Upper Town, which grew up on a spur of the Brie plateau, and the Lower Town, lying further to the east at the confluence of two rivers. The Upper Town is characterized by the small houses built from stone and timber-framed construction and by green areas and gardens. There are two large buildings: the so-called 'Tour de César' or the Big Tower, is a stone structure, dating initially from the 12th century, consisting of three large spaces one above the other, covered with a 17th-century conical roof; and the Romanesque-Gothic church of Saint-Quiriace. Construction of the church began with a choir of impressive size in the 12th century and went on until the decline of Provins in 1320 up to the crossing of the nave and two bays beyond. The vaults above the crossing were damaged in a fire in the 17th century and replaced with a dome. The centre of the town was the old market square, surrounded by houses that developed in relation to the fairs, each with large vaulted underground storage spaces.
The 12th-century ramparts still surrounding the Upper Town on three sides have been relatively well preserved, whereas the enclosure of the Lower Town was dismantled in the 19th century. In the area of the Lower Town there were at first religious ensembles, including the churches of Saint-Ayoul and Sainte-Croix.
When the town was extended into the valley, the religious orders created lots, building and selling houses, following a typology that corresponded to the needs of the fairs. As the land did not allow underground spaces, the storage areas were built above ground, using a similar vaulted construction to that in the Upper Town. The private buildings may be divided into two groups: those with multiple functions and those with solely commercial functions, all date to the 12th and 13th centuries. A characteristic of all the ancient buildings in Provins, whether for mixed or for commercial use, is their system of vaulted cellars, dating from the 12th to the 14th centuries. These are either entirely underground (Upper Town) or partly built up above ground (Lower Town), and all open out to the street by means of a large door to which access is gained by a wide stone staircase. The oldest building in the town is probably the 12th-century Maison Romane (now the museum), constructed in coursed dressed stone. Its location in the former Jewish quarter suggests that it may originally have been a rabbinical school or even a synagogue. The Lower Town of Provins is in particular testimony to the development of various handicrafts into an industrial process; the locations of this development still exist. There are three areas in the slopes of the plateau where clay was extracted for the process of removing grease from wool (fulling). These intricate underground galleries were quarried at several levels and were later also used for storage of wine, etc. The entire town developed in relation to the fairs, either directly serving the fair functions or being indirectly related as an outcome.