Friday, October 24, 2014

Medieval magic of Troyes...

Living in relatively modern accommodation has certain advantages. I no longer have to navigate two flights of old, winding stairs that seemed to have their own story to tell; the lift swiftly takes care of the journey up to the fifth floor. 

Meanwhile the layout of the flat is Lego-inspired and no-nonsense functionality and practicality have taken precedence over any flight of creative fancy in architectural design. Likewise, creaky centennial oak parquet that spoke volumes in the dead of night now finds a modern, ‘mute’ equivalent that has simply nothing to say. 

Whereas the close proximity of the historic buildings from the Renaissance and post-Great War Reconstruction programmes meant that we lived in an open-front dolls house (offering views into all of our domestic routines, in various different states of dress and undress); now there are distant expanses of housing blocks, no neighbours’ eyes.

What we do have is an impressively panoramic view over the immediate urban landscape and the vineyards far beyond, enabling us to fly miles and miles into glorious sunsets or glowering rainstorms that sweep across the horizon. The cats, too, have their escape onto the cat balcony and enjoy looking onto the street, the tram line below and birds in flight above.

Unfortunately, ‘modern’ does not necessarily mean reliable, as I am learning at great expense. Virtually all the utilities here seem to be resolutely unreliable, with one leak, short circuit or cranky performance replacing another.

I would be rather more forgiving of such short-comings if aesthetic care and character compensated such failings and weaknesses, but this place is just plain plain!

I feel short-changed! Raging over the latest leak to have sprung up from impractical plumbing, I was pleased to have the chance to surround myself with the visual feast of Medieval artistry and architecture that is known as the town of Troyes.

Many people converge on Troyes for its large selection of big-name outlet stores, situated around the town’s outskirts. The latest brand items are to be found at bargain prices, and this wields a magnetic power over the most basic of shopaholics.

However, the biggest draw of Troyes, for me at least, is the priceless quirkiness of the historic town centre. Indeed, the commercial aspect that enables Troyes to thrive today has its roots very precisely in the town’s Medieval ancestry.

After Reims, la ville des Sacres, Troyes is the second largest town in the Champagne-Ardenne region, in the North-East of France. Despite the efforts of Jean Sans Peur (John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy) to make Troyes the capital of France in 1417, this never came about.

Nevertheless it continued to benefit from advantages afforded by its historical significance. In existence since the Roman era, under the name Augustobona Tricassium, the town had grown from a natural transit site for soldiers, Gallic nobles, craftsmen and commercial tradesmen.

Situated on the Via Agrippa which linked Milan to Boulogne-sur-Mer it suffered the repetitive invasions of barbarians which led to the installation of ramparts to fortify the site.

 In AD 484, Clovis, the first king of the Franks, took possession of Troyes and the surrounding lands, later known as Champagne (Campania) due to their extensive chalk plains.

It was during the rule of the Counts of Champagne (950-1316) that Troyes grew remarkably in size and importance. The construction of a castle on the remains of a Gallo-romain amphitheatre was followed by an ambitious expansion programme, featuring palaces for counts and bishops, a town hall, outer surrounding walls and numerous roads to replace ancient walkways.

New quarters were developed as marshy land was drained by canal systems. Tanners, butchers and millers amongst others) plied their trade in these newly-established sites.

In the early 13th century, the Count of Champagne, Thibaut IV, set about changing the course of the river Seine in order to fortify Troyes further.

This led to the creation of the ‘Champagne-cork’ layout of the town as these new trade quarters formed the body of the cork, and the head itself was composed of the old town.

The fairs of the Champagne region – les foires de Champagne – made their first appearance in the 11th century and were fully established at the end of the 12th century.

These fairs were biennial and followed set dates, with Troyes benefiting from the ‘warm’ foire for the Saint Jean festival from the 24th June and the ‘cold’ foire of Saint Remy from the 1st October.

The tradesmen of these market fairs would come from all over Europe, eager to sell their goods to the townsfolk and visitors alike, albeit sometimes resorting to, or themselves victim of, dishonest practices.

From this time, the Troy weight was established, using Troy ounces and Troy pounds as a standard unit of mass with which to measure weight. 

The use of this standard measurement managed to spread, making its way from North-East France to England, where it is still employed today to weigh precious metals and gemstones. 

Naturally the fairs led to the evolution of many industrial trades such as textiles, paper-making, dyeing and tanning and favourized the parallel growth of money exchange, credit and banking. 

From the Middle Ages a large Jewish community grew in the town, and was protected by the Counts of Champagne; monnetary services were vital to trade since only the currency of the Comptes and the king were accepted in the fairs. 

By royal decree, Troyes became one of the eight sites in France to coin money (battre monnaie). 
The influx of money generated by such international and domestic trade was duly reflected in the architecture constructed over the years – both secular and ecclesiastic. 

Certain edifices were financed by the donations of wealthy merchants. Of the numerous churches that were built around the town from this prosperous period, a modest number have survived the ravages of time and Revolution. 

Although no longer famed for the peal of its bells (cf – the old saying - ‘Que fait-on à Troyes? On y sonne!), the eight remaining churches, cathedral and basilica continue to give Troyes a certain renown, though few people today probably know many of the historical facts…

Troyes cathedral was the stage for the marriage that served to officialize England’s hold over France through the union of Catherine de Valois to Henry V following the English victory in the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. 

The Treaty of Troyes stated Henry V’s right to the French throne on the death of Charles VI (Le Fou), effectively ruling out any claims of the Dauphin Charles. 

No one had yet heard of Joan of Arc, the peasant who would lead the Dauphin to Reims - Ville des Sacres - to be crowned King Charles VII of France in 1429.

The glory of Troyes’ religious edifices is reflected in stained glass window whose technique was mastered in the town that was later labelled the ‘Ville Sainte du Vitrail’. 

These highly-skilled craftsmen – maîtres verrriers - worked closely with the Compagnonnage des Bâtisseurs de Cathédrales and later founded their own school. 

Incidently, part of the spirit of the work of the Compagnons du Devoir can be seen today in the extensive collection of craftsmen’s tools of the Musée de l’Outil et la Pensée Ouvrière in Troyes. 

Founded by a Jesuit priest, Paul Feller, from the early 1970’s, the museum seeks to demonstrate the dialogue between Man and Material and the vast range of tools used to work stone, metal, wood, leather, wicker etc… .

The devotion of its founder, and his absolute belief in the capacity of craftsmanship to transform and transcend Man and his lot in life, especially adolescents, is very, very moving. 

I did wonder, rather cynically, what he would have made of the numerous youngsters whose manual dexterity is now uniquely bound to some form of digital screen or keyboard – my own children sadly included in this category.

Nevertheless, Reverend Feller’s aspirations live on today with the Compagnonnage movement.

After an initial apprenticeship alongside maîtres of all manual professions apprenti Compagnons still realise a Tour de France.

Indeed, they move from site to site, much as their ancestors did in the Middle Ages, improving and applying their acquired skills,

They vow to follow the motto of the Compagnon community ‘Servir sans s'asservir ni se server – To serve without enslaving or acting in self-interest.’

Aside from the ecclesiastic buildings, Troyes experienced a marked growth in impressive secular constructions too with the establishment of the fairs.

Façades in colombage (half-timbering) and pan de bois (timber-framing) dominated with their stark design are off-set by corbelling and mullion windows.

Others, in addition to the rooves, are covered with essentes, chestnut-wood shingles.

Even more striking are the carved beams, stone carvings and details that meet the eye,

Sometimes these are in the most unexpected places.

I spent the day trying to locate as many of these as possible – no mean feat! Today, the sight of Medieval buildings and the dramatic damier (chess-board) brickwork of the Renaissance hôtels particuliers draws in the tourists to Troyes, yet that these edifices have survived is somewhat miraculous.

A fire in 1524 destroyed many of the tightly-knit quarters that were in effect, tinder-boxes waiting to be ignited, yet the town rose up again, Phoenix style, through the determination of Troyes.

The quirky little lanes such as the Ruelle des Chats gives an idea of what Middle Age must have been like, with its parallel buildings, leaning in towards each other, separated by the narrow paved alley with its gully for water drainage.

More insidious threats also exist; more difficult to stem...

The very nature of the region, with its chalk base, means that architecture and foundations alike are somewhat vulnerable to changes in humidity and/or acidity.

Fortunately, unscrupulous and unsightly urban development projects were fended off by a law of the early 1960s, imposed by André Malraux – Minster of Culture, to protect the national cultural heritage, declaring the old quartiers of Troyes to be ‘secteurs sauvegardés’.

Nevertheless, there are some very strange forms of cohabitation as ancient meets modern.

Restauration projects have been realised over the last two decades, securing the future years of these buildings whilst respecting their essential spirit – often vivifying them through bright colour harmonies.

 In 2009, Troyes was given the official label of Ville d’Art et d’Histoire, thus joining the other 138 towns on the list.

Today Troyes depends largely on tourism and the service industries for its income. The trades that had flourished from the Middle Ages onwards gradually went into decline faced with growing competition.

More importantly, the hosiery trade that had made Troyes its capital during the 18th century lost its monopoly in the 1960s.

The glory years of the Medieval fairs came to an end in Troyes, as elsewhere in France, although some of spirit of the Middle Ages is recreated in Reims each year to commemorate the coronation of Charles VII…

A trip to Troyes is recommended at any moment in the year. Whenever you do actually go, just be prepared to get a crick in your neck from observing all those features - the devil really is in the detail!


  1. What an amazing place! Thanks for sharing it, visiting that museum has now been added to my wishlist.

  2. It really is a fantastic place - and the museum was great, set in an old building. Sadly my photos from the visit to the museum (not the same day) didn't do the place justice, as I arrived in Troyes with my camera without a battery.... I was so upset that I ended up getting another camera there and then, but hadn't got to know it very well and the photos were awful!
    If you go onto YouTube - under Maison de l'Outil by palisti1 - there's a fantastic video of around 9 mins long that shows many of the display cases. It's a big museum and the tools are exhibited really beautifully so it's a long visit.


Please share your ideas...