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The Athens of the Middle Ages

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(Excerpts here are from "Champagne: The Athens of the Middle Ages," which originally appeared in The Celator, Vol. 25. No. 11, November 2009.)

Today, we measure gold and silver in “troy” ounces because the great fairs at Troyes in Champagne created a confluence of commerce, scholarship and fine art evidenced by new consumer goods, a thriving Jewish community, the invention of cathedral architecture, creation of the Arthurian romances and interventions in papal politics, including the launch of the Crusades with the subsequent enrichment of the Knights Templar and the Cistercian orders. One of the last counts of Champagne was a troubadour. The county of Champagne was to the Middle Ages what Athens had been to the classical age.

With roots in the Roman Empire, Champagne’s first hint of new growth was the clearing the forests by pioneers to found new homesteads where they enjoyed new rights. Beginning about 1000 CE, gradual increases in population brought a need to find new lands for cultivation and settlement. What is today northwestern France was dotted with habitations founded by Romans. Small rivers – the Seine, Marne, Aube and Aisne – beginning in the southern highlands and flowing northward to the Channel, provided the rolling lands with sufficient irrigation. From those old Celto-Romanic castellanies, ordinary peasants forayed with some hesitation into the ancient forests. These commoners were mobile – either de facto or de jure. In addition to ordinary serfs and peasants a “hospite” was a man or woman who had left her natal village and moved into a new locale. Sometimes they were forcibly returned to their home lands. However, more often, after a year and a day, they were granted protection of their new lord and – more to the point – were responsible for payments to that lord. A decree from Champagne in the twelfth century (1171 CE) required that newcomers choose as lord either the count or the abbot. That a woman could pay her own tax – by the end of the century, in coin – meant that her obligation to her lord was her own. Such mobility was accepted as normal. When lands were first cleared, the fields belonged to the lord from whose manor the commoners had come. In time, however, holdings would be passed from one noble to another, or were granted to a church. Sometimes communes petitioned for a change. Some freemen were also “non-resident agents,” serving one lord while living in the domains of another: “servientes canonoricum de pane eorum viventes.”

The fairs brought prosperity, of course. As towns grew, city life became more complicated. Stalls at the fairs – at first temporary places – became inheritable property. Houses near the fair became valuable while those farther away were prized specifically for their distance from hubbub. Traditionally, the law of mainmorte said that if there were no direct heirs to land, then the inheritance passed to the lord of the manor. That became a problem in Troyes and the other towns. Unlike an agricultural community, it was not certain that lawful heirs would stay close to home. At Troyes, in particular, the new legal custom was to look for the closest surviving relative, not necessarily the traditional inheritor. Furthermore, the heritability of office went back to Roman times. New applications of anachronistic traditions left legal documents of the twelfth century even citing a “mayoress.”

The social status of those women is much debated today. There is no doubt that privileged women of that time could force divorces or annulments. It is also true that peasants were forbidden to marry outside their lord’s estate without his permission. Yet, the practical result of this was that lords agreed to reciprocity: one peasant woman’s choice to move out, brought in another. On the other hand, the Arthurian romances include rape as a narrative element.

Those Arthurian romances – Lancelot, Gawain, Parsifal – were the invention of Chretien of Troyes who wrote for the court of Marie of Champagne. Marie’s mother was Eleanor of Aquitaine. Her father was Eleanor’s first husband, Louis VII of France. Eleanor later married a rising duke, a decade her junior, who in two years became Henry II of England. Their sons became Count Geoffrey, Prince John and King Richard the Lionhearted. Marie of Champagne twice ruled as regent.


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