FRAL - Appel Franco-allemand en sciences humaines et sociales

Configurations of European Fairs. Merchants, Objects, Routes (1350-1600) – CoMOR

Configurations of European Fairs. Merchants, Objects, Routes (1350?1600)

Fairs were a pivotal element of inter-regional European commercial exchange in the Middle Ages and early-modern times. To be able to systematically analyse the system of fairs in its entire European dimension, information on fairs, merchants, traded commodities and trading routes will be collected from various archival sources like chronicles, minutes of town councils, account books and merchant manuals, and combined with an already existing extensive specialist literature on specific fairs

Temporal and spatial changes in the structure of the late-medieval and early-modern Eu-ropean system of fairs shall be reconstructed and shall be plotted on a digital dynamic map.

The general objective of the CoMOR-project is to reconstruct different configurations of the European trade fair system in the late Middle Ages and early-modern times, more specifically for the period between about 1320, when the Champagne fairs had lost their former importance, and around 1630, when the financial fairs at Besançon declined, and to plot temporal and spatial changes of these configurations on a digital dynamic map. The reconstruction is done on the basis of archival sources, as yet unprinted as well as printed, such as chronicles, royal letters patent, minutes of town councils, printed calen-dars, account books and merchant manuals, which provide information about dates, locations and institutional arrangements of fairs, and also about merchants, traded commodi-ties and trading routes, and by systematically evaluating the already existing and vast historiographical literature on specific fairs. Both the structure of the system of European fairs and gradual changes in this structure will then be identified and systematically analysed in more detail. The focus will be on three periods, namely 1360-1420 (the late-medieval system of fairs), 1480-1540 (the dominance of the Lyon fairs) and 1580-1630 (the emergence of separate financial fairs), and the analysis shall be done in particular with regard to the geographical shift of the core area of the system of fairs, the role of public authorities in governing the trade fairs and in setting incentives to interregional trade, the use and relocation of trading routes, the composition of the group of mer-chants who visited the fairs on a regular basis, the goods that were traded at the fairs and to the differentiation and integration of commodity and financial markets across Western, Southwestern and Central Europe. In order to enable this kind of combined spatial and temporal analysis a Geographical Information System (GIS) will be imple-mented.

The available information about the late-medieval and early-modern system of European fairs - that is historical data on locations and dates of fairs, on the respective regulations, on merchants who visited the fairs, on traded commodities and financial services, and on trading routes - are collected from archival sources as well as from the already existing case studies on important fair cities like Geneva, Lyon or Frankfurt. The data are collected systematically using a standardised questionnaire, and stored in a relational database, together with the sources’ full texts and bibliographical references. The structure of the database enables to link the temporal data on fairs to the geospatial data on the locations of fairs and to the manifold information on economic activities of the merchants who visited the fairs on a more or less regular basis. A combined spatial and temporal analysis of the data on fairs, merchants, commodities and trading routes will be possible due to the implementation of a GIS. More specifically, it is intended, among others, to perform historical institutional analysis (with respect to the development of regulations of fairs and the emergence of financial fairs), historical corporate analysis (with respect to trading companies), historical financial analysis (with respect to the study of credit net-works and the deployment of sophisticated financial instruments within inter-regional commercial exchange), rythm analysis (with respect to the cyclical nature of fairs and the time schedule of events), historical simulation (with respect to the changing geospatial allocation of fairs and trading routes) and discourse analysis (with regard to the meaning of economic terms). Using a GIS will then also enable to visualise, on a digital dynamic map, changes over the course of time in both the structure and the spatial extent of the system of fairs, in the degrees of market differentiation and market integration, and in the time schedule of fairs.

A key result will certainly be, that after the project will be finished, a much more differentiated picture can be drawn of the diverse connections existing between individual fairs in the late Middle Ages and early-modern times. Such links were the result of the economic activities of merchants, trading companies and merchant bankers, but also of princes, towns and the church. The large number of economic links between the individual trade fairs is good indication of an already advanced integration of commodity markets and financial markets in late-medieval and early-modern Europe. Even more so, trading activities all across Europe were coordinated by establishing a tight time schedule of trade fairs and exchange fairs. Knowing this, market integration at the level of late-medieval and early-modern fairs was much more than only the convergence of price levels and price fluctuations at different markets, as defined in the traditional concept in economics.

So far, in most cases the history of only individual trade fairs has been written, especially of those fairs that played a central role in inter-regional trade. In contrast, from a strictly European perspective as pursued in the CoMOR-project, the entire late-medieval and early-modern European system of fairs can be analysed with respect to its structure and its further development. Even if the structure of the system of fairs may have changed over time, for example, because certain trade fairs lost their importance and new centres of trade developed, or because the exchange of goods and the concomitant financial transactions were finally separated from one another, the system properties of the trade fair system are nonetheless become clear, which makes it even more necessary to consider interregional trade in late medieval and early-modern Europe in its entirety, and not only focus on individual prominent commercial centres, such as Geneva, Lyon, Frank-furt or Antwerp, for instance. Thus, such a holistic approach will always add to a better understanding of the reasons for economic development and economic growth in the late Middle Ages and early-modern times.
A further achievement will be the dynamic digital map that is constructed on the basis of archival sources, information from the historiographical literature and historical maps. Research results can be displayed on this digital map, and the map together with the im-plemented GIS can be used for further economic history analysis of the late Middle Ages and early-modern times. In addition, research results will be presented in a travelling exhibition, which at first will be shown in Lyon and Erfurt.

The scientific output aimed at with the project comprises various elements: Firstly, a collected volume will be published, in which all of the research will be summarised through a number of papers of team members prepared for a total of seven workshops to be held. Secondly, several monographs on specific trade fairs and regional trade fair systems are going to appear, such as the Lyon fairs and the fairs in the Rhone Valley and the Old Savoyard States, the exchange fairs in Piacenza and Novi, or the Leipzig fairs. Thirdly, various in-depth analyses concerning the personal relationships of merchants and merchant bankers who traded at the fairs will be published, such as the credit net-works of the Lombards, through which Northern Italy was connected to the economic centres in the Northwest of Europe, the economic activities of merchant bankers such as the Florentine Piazzi family, which was active in Florence, Marseille, Avignon and Lyon, or the Salviati and Martelli from Florence, who were also active in Lyon and financed the trade of companies from Augsburg, or the credit networks, through which also the papacy gained access to the fairs. Finally, at least two articles will be published, which will focus on market integration, the embeddedness of individual fairs into the system of fairs and the coordination of trading activities at a European level via a time schedule of fairs.

The financial crisis of 2008 contributed to re-invigorating research in economic and financial history and revive, despite the relatively brief nature of the crisis, studies of markets over long periods. More recently, attacks against structures which have governed modern international commerce have thrown institutional studies into doubt and provoked questions about the very future of globalized markets.
It is within this context of questions and doubts that the CoMOR project takes up the history of European fairs from the perspective of “market integrations”. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, fairs formed a system resting on a tightly organised schedule (“calendar of fairs”) which permitted merchants to meet in specific places on specific dates, known well in advance. At the same time, these fairs facilitated the interconnection between local and regional markets (rural as much as urban) and the transregional commercial networks. During the sixteenth century, a decoupling occured between merchandise and financial fairs linked to the shift from financing products to pure money markets. The chronological boundaries of the project have as such been chosen in order to best account for these major transformations: from the decline of the old fair systems at Champagne, around 1320, through a cycle dominated by the fairs at Lyon, to the triumph of the fairs at Besançon around 1630.
The CoMOR project is particularly attached to studying the relational aspects (and their changes) of these merchant gatherings, the roles and the behaviours of the participants. For the first time, these exchanges will be mapped in their spatial and temporal dimensions through an integrated database and GIS tracing the merchants through their fairs, items, itineraries, and rhythms. This fundamental digital axis of the project will be brought to life by the French team with respect to Digital Humanities and the German team for Spatial Humanities. The investigation centers on France, Germany, and Italy, the specialties of the core consortium researchers, with, we hope and expect, expansions towards other economic and cultural regions near the end of the project.
The Franco-German team in charge of CoMOR brings a number of specific advantages to the project. Most importantly, a complementary specialisation in different eras: French medievalists and early modernist Germans. This is followed by the shared closed focus on the project's main terrain, Southern Germany to Lyon, with both teams also counting among their members specialists in Northern Italy. Finally, while each team brings with it certain academic dispositions – in France, the strong emphasis on social history and sociology of economy, in Germany, a tradition of Handelsgeschichte, the history of finance and exchange – they share an ambition to contribute to the history of the European economy, rooted in the study of the integrating effects of fairs on economic and social patterns over the "longue durée".

Project coordinator


The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


University of Erfurt

Help of the ANR 225,257 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: February 2020 - 36 Months

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