UMC - Grandes Marques et Maisons de Champagne

Champagne Guest Book

The Twelfth to the Fifteenth Centuries

From the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries the daily drink of the inhabitants of Champagne was still the barley or wheat beer that was introduced in Gallo-Roman times. Wine was a luxury, accessible only to the nobility, the clergy and, towards the end of this period, a middle class that was becoming wealthy from the manufacture and sale of sheets. That is not say that the wines of Champagne were not already being sold by both secular and ecclesiastical wine producing estates, and by individual wine producers. The transporting of wine became commonplace, and for this Champagne was particularly well-placed; vineyards were usually not far from the Marne, the Aube, the Seine and also the Aisne rivers, which were navigable from Pontavert. Wine could thus be transported by rivers, which in those times constituted the main trade routes, to Paris and Rouen, and from there, even in the twelfth century, by sea to Flanders, Holland, England, Portugal, and Spain. In 1388 some wines from Rheims and Epernay, destined for the cellars of the Duke of Burgundy, Philippe le Hardi (Philip the Bold) in Utrecht, were escorted as far as Mézières. The orders of the officer in charge were then to put them on the River Meuse so that they could come by said river to the town of Treit in Germany [1]. Wine that could not be transported by river could join the flow of wagons going to the north and east on the comparatively fast routes that followed the old Roman roads, and to the south there were roads that had been built for access to the fairs that were held at Troyes, Bar-sur-Aube, Lagny and Provins.

It is sometimes supposed that wine had an important place in these well-known Foires de Champagne ("Fairs"). And while it is probable that some trade took place, and that they served to publicize the region’s wines, the main purpose was the sheet industry. The towns that organized them did not have vineyards, with the exception of Bar-sur-Aube.

This was without doubt one of the reasons for the excellent reputation that the wine of Bar-sur-Aube enjoyed in the last centuries of the Middle Ages in Flanders and Hainaut. But there is nothing in what we know about the organisation of the fairs at Bar-sur-Aube in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to suggest that there was any traffic in wine (175). [2].

Châlons and Rheims were thus the two key cities in the wine trade of Champagne. It can be observed from letters of patent written by Charles VI in 1412, that the commerce of Rheims rested largely on the vines growing around the city, which are brought and delivered there [3]. In 1448 a mandate from Charles VII specifies that the inhabitants of Châlons, a city located and well-established in the wine-producing region, make wines... and are accustomed to selling them to the merchants of Picardie, Haynau, Flanders and Liège [4]. Transport to the north was indeed organized from Châlons, which was an outlet for the wines of the Marne Valley and the Vertus region, as well as being a transit stage for those from Bar-sur-Aube [5]. In the fourteenth century however Rheims managed to acquire a dominant position in the commerce of its region’s wines and those of Epernay, and increasingly displaced Châlons.

Transactions were carried out using courtiers en vins ("wine brokers") as intermediaries. From the eleventh century provosts and aldermen of Rheims had the right to nominate courtiers. This right was confirmed several times and on the 18 November 1357 royal letters of commission were granted to the profession. On the 22 June 1415 Henri de Villedomenges had regulations published for the courretage of wines. Royal charges were established in Epernay in 1531 [6].

At the same time as penetrating external markets, the wines of Champagne began to be appreciated at the court of the kings of France where they did their best to compete with the wines from Beaune and Paris. It is said that in a meeting held in Rheims in the fourteenth century between Charles VI and the Emperor Wenceslas IV (who apart from being the king of the Romans, of Bohemia, and a German Emperor, was also known for his drunkenness), that the latter became drunk and would have agreed to anything that was asked of him, thus providing the wine of Champagne with its first diplomatic victory. The anecdote appears to have become somewhat embellished, for in his Histoire de Charles VI, Juvénal des Ursins, the Archbishop of Rheims, mentions the meeting, but says only that the king of Bohemia fut festoyé en toutes manières bien grandement ("had feasted greatly in every way").

In any case it is certain that the wines of Champagne were by this time present at the festivities accompanying the crowning of the kings of France in Rheims. Dom Chastelain gives us precious information on this subject, in the city’s archives, At the coronation of Philippe de Valois in 1328 the inhabitants of Rheims consumed at the meal that they gave for the king and all his court three hundred "pièces" of wine, in part from Beaune and Saint-Pourçain and in part from Rheims. Dom Chastelain lists the prices, from which it is clear that the wines of Rheims, or rather the wines of Champagne that are sold in Rheims, are substantially cheaper, even taking into account the cost of transport for the other wines, and he writes, It had to be that the wine of Rheims was either not very well-known or exceptionally badly made in order to be sold at a price so much lower than that of Burgundy (308). But we then find that by the coronation of François II, in 1559, the price of the wine from Rheims had exceeded that of the wine from Burgundy, and that after 1575, at the coronation of Henri III, it reigned supreme and no longer had to share the stage with other wines.

In the thirteenth century the wines of the Champagne region made their entry into French literature. One might think that it was to them that Colin Muset, born in 1190 on the borders of Lorraine and Champagne, was referring when he wrote (439):

I had wine from a barrel
Cold and strong and delicate
To drink in the great heat

Thibault IV, a Count of Champagne, known as the Chansonnier, could not manage to write verses exalting his platonic love for Blanche de Castille without mentioning the wines of his region in his poems. But in the thirteenth century Henri d’Andeli, a Norman trouvère, is very clear in the Bataille des vins (Battle of the Wines), a fabliau which takes place at the table of King Philippe-Auguste:

The king who was wise and courteous,
Gave instructions to all his messengers
That the best wine they should find,
That could be had in any land,
First he asked for the wine of Cyprus,
Wine of Soissons, and of Hautvillers,
Wine of Epernay the bachelor,
Wine of Sézanne...

The wines having been so named, take turns to present themselves and their qualities. Certain amongst them have a tendency to exaggeration and Epernay steps in to restore order:

Epernay said to Hautvillers,
Argenteuil is too contemptuous
Of the other wines of this table;
By the lord, you play too much the constable,
We surpass Châlons and Rheims,
We will cure you of the gout,
And extinguish any thirst

Epernay is in turn reprimanded:

Epernay, you are too disloyal,
you have no right to speak in the king’s court.

But nobody contests the merits that he attributes to himself, which suggests that a certain level of fame was already well-established.
Then there is Eustache Deschamps, born in 1346; a poet and great favourite of Charles V and Charles VI, he sang the praises of the wines of his Champagne in various poems [7], and liked to recall the local vintages: wine of Vertus, Cumières, Damery, Ay. Vertus, his native town, is often mentioned:

Born of Vertus, the famous land
Where there was a town most gracious
Of which the good wine held the name...
Vertus is a virtuous town8
Where God did virtuously place
A wondrous fountain
Where it was strangely dry
To water the people’s soil;
Good wines a...

It is remarkable that these poets mention vineyards but that never specifically refer to the vins de Champagne; Henri d’Andeli for example writes of the vins d’Anjou and the vins de Provence. This confirms that, as was suggested by the study of the relative prices of the wines served at coronations, in the fourteenth century the fame of the wines of the region of Champagne was not yet established. One wine producing area, that of the Rivière, which included the vines on both banks of the Marne at Epernay and on either side of the town, had however gained some renown. The vineyards cited by Henri d’Andeli and Eustache Deschamps who courteously accompanies Vertus with Cumières et Damery, come under the category of vins de Rivière. The Rivière is even referred to as an outstanding producer of wines by the trouvère Watrimont de Couvin in his fabliau, the Trois Dames de Paris, (Three Ladies of Paris) [8]. If the much esteemed wines of Rivière, those of areas around Reims, Vertus, Sézanne, Bar-sur-Aube, and Châlons are not grouped under the term vins de Champagne, it is because they were generally classified as vins français. This was applied to the wines of the central regions of the Seine basin, and more precisely those harvested along the large navigable rivers crossing the Ile-de-France. In 1367, for example, a lot of "vins français" of the standard of the aforesaid place of Reinz, was sold, without any reference to their coming from Champagne other than their place of sale.

In 1284, as a result of the marriage of Jeanne of Champagne with Philippe le Bel ("the Fair"), Champagne entered the royal domain, while still remaining under the administrative control of the Counts of Champagne. In 1361 it rejoined the crown of France. However, times were hard once again. With the exception of the sacking and burning of Bar-sur-Seine, the wine-producing regions were largely spared in the peasant’s revolt (1357-1360) that took place during the Hundred Years War. But the war saw military might sweep into Champagne: the Armagnacs and the king of France’s troop, and large companies of Burgundians, English, and mercenaries. Edward III of England arrived in 1359 leading 100,000 men, and besieged Rheims. He camped at Verzy and his son, the Prince of Wales, stayed at Villedommange [9]. After 38 days of fruitless attempts to take the city and crown himself King of France, he had to withdraw. Champagne was then the victim of English raids led by John of Lancaster in 1373, and by Buckingham in 1380. In 1420 Isabeau, the queen of France, signed the treaty at Troyes that gave France to Henry V of England. However strongholds in the vineyard country maintained resistance to the English, notably in Mont Aimé, Vertus, Tours-sur-Marne, Ambonnay, and Ay.

Joan of Arc brought about the coronation of Charles VII at Rheims in 1429 (she was born in a village in Lorraine near the border with Champagne, and her father was from Champagne), but it was not until 1445 that the country was truly liberated [10]. For nearly a century, apart from a few rare periods of respite, Champagne had suffered devastation, pillage and misery. In a ballad on the destruction of Vertus, Eustache Deschamps wrote:

The English drove all away by fire.
The land was then deserted,
And the harvest was forgotten.

The vineyard workers, like all the peasants, had had to endure both physical and financial hardship. During these miserable years there was a vicious circle of death: war led to famine and famine lead to plague; plague would then in turn bring back famine (415) . This was the case in 1350, when Rheims was temporarily deserted (241), and in 1422, when famine and plague reigned (308) . Insecurity was constant due to the troubles, to requisitioning and abuses of power. In 1432 Philippe II ("The Good"), Duke of Burgundy, took possession of Epernay and banished the inhabitants for three years. To this had to be added the burden of taxes, which increased with military spending. The institution in 1439 of a permanent army was paid for by a perpetual tax, which, being in addition to the tithe paid to the local Lord, put a severe strain on peasants’ pockets. Villagers were also subject to a salt tax, to numerous indirect taxes (aids), particularly affecting wine, to a church tithe (a share of the harvest), and to a host of seigniorial and ecclesiastical rights.

However the Hundred Years War did bring some favourable social changes for the lower classes and the feudal shackles were somewhat loosened. Emancipations, and also for that matter ennoblements, increased, and serfdom disappeared. Estates were still cultivated by tenants, but the day labourer appeared, who was generally paid for a particular task, and vineyard workers increasingly came to own their vines. And while the church was increasing its ownership of land planted with vines (due to donations or obits of vines that were made in order to provide for religious services after a person’s death) the nobility, who were becoming poorer every day, were finding themselves obliged to sell land to commoners or to grant them contrats de complant (q.v.), reinstated as in the eleventh century, in order to realize the value of land that remained or had again become uncultivated. The division of large estates, other than those belonging to the king or clergy, accompanied the increase in prices which began in the fourteenth century.

When a nobleman could not find a wealthy purchaser to take the whole estate he would be obliged to dispose of it plot by plot (518) , thus the number of small properties increased. Peasants who were more or less masters of their own land were not only numerous, but the land they owned tended to consist of scattered and rather meagre parcels.

Vine growers who did not become property owners had benefited, since the twelfth century, from contracts known as tenure à vinage, which set out the terms under which one could cultivate another person’s vines, and these generally evolved over the centuries which followed into tenant farming contracts, or more frequently a tithe agreement. On the one hand there was the necessity of restoring production after the Hundred Years War, and on the other the financial difficulties of the nobility, and these together enabled wine producers to obtain leases which, for the time, were extremely favourable. They were frequently granted free disposal of half of the harvest, in return for an annual rent to be paid in wine to the owner. The latter would nevertheless always retain priority when it came to selling the wine, thanks to the droit de banvin (right of the Lord) giving him exclusivity of sales by the pot, which basically meant retail sales, for a set period.

Perhaps the only conclusion that we can draw from all this is that it is hard to portray the wine producers of Champagne in the fifteenth century with much accuracy. One can only say that the misery they put up with did eventually result in a considerable improvement in their way of life (139), that they were much better off than their ancestors, that their social position became more established, and that their standard of living could, at best, reach that of a town artisan. One thing remains certain: it is to them that, against all the odds, we owe the existence of the vineyards of Champagne. From 1445, with peace finally re-established, they worked relentlessly to repair the ravages of the Hundred Years War, as did all the inhabitants of Champagne. There was rebuilding to be done, but there was also the restoration of vines that had been damaged or abandoned, and the planting of new ones. The total area of vines in Champagne grew, albeit erratically, from the eleventh century onwards, and the number of wine-producing parishes also did not stop growing. In the area that corresponds to the current département of the Marne, the number more than tripled in four centuries, reaching, according to the studies of Emile Moreau, close to four hundred by the end of the fifteenth century, which is nearly twice the number today. The area around Rheims has always been the densest, closely followed by that of Vitry-le-François which increased from having just a few parishes in the tenth century to having ninety five. Then comes the region of Epernay (with half the density of Rheims) and, in descending order, those of Vertus, Châlons, Sézanne and Sainte-Menehould, the latter containing twenty villages whose activities were at least partly wine-producing.


[1DION (Roger). Histoire de la vigne et du vin en France des origines au XIX e, siècle.(History of the Vine and Wine in France up to the Nineteenth Century) Paris, 1959.

[2DION (Roger). DION (Roger). History of the Vine and Wine in France up to the Nineteenth Century. Paris, 1959.

[3VARIN (P.). Administrative Archives of the City of Rheims. Paris, 1839-1853.

[4GANDILHON (René). The Birth of Champagne. Paris, 1968.

[5ROCHER (Jean-Louis). Recherches sur l’histoire du vignoble champenois. (Research on the History of the Vineyards of Champagne). Paris, 1951.

[6MANCEAUX (Abbot). History of the Abbey and Village of Hautvillers. Epernay, 1880.

[7DESCHAMPS (Eustache). OEuvres (Works).

[8DION (Roger). History of the Vine and Wine in France up to the Nineteenth Century - Paris, 1959.

[9GALERON (ME.). Historic Journal of Rheims from its foundation to the present day. Rheims, 1853.

[10Contrary to what is sometimes written, Charles VII never besieged Epernay.