The Champagne Region: A History of Joy and Conflict
“The blouses of the men, the white caps of the women, were gleaming in the sunshine; they moved about crookedly among the tiny vine-poles. I thought them full of a charming suggestiveness. Of all the delightful gifts of France to the world, this was one of the most agreeable—the keen, living liquid in which the finest flower of sociability is usually dipped. It came from these sunny places; this little maze of curling-sticks supplied the world with half the world’s gaiety. I call it little only in relation to the immense number of bottles with gilded necks in which this gaiety is annually stored up.”
From “Rheims” in The Art of Travel by Henry James
The words of Henry James beautifully describe the unique quality of champagne and the land it comes from. Since grape cultivation first began in champagne almost two thousand years ago, the region has produced great wines noted in prose and poetry for their levity and joyful character. The wines of champagne sat in high favor with the clergy and nobility of Europe long before the creation of sparkling champagne in the late 1600s by Dom Pérignon. However, in stark contrast to the character of the wines of champagne stands the notorious history of war in champagne.
The champagne region occupies the northeast corner of France and sits at the crossroads of two of Europe’s busiest trade routes. Belgium and the Netherlands lie to the north of champagne with Burgundy to the south. Paris on the Siene River is west of Champagne with Alsace and Germany to the east. The busy trade routes brought goods and culture to the region but also provided a natural path for invading armies. This article will highlight some of the many battles that have shaken Champagne and pose the question of how can a place so often ravaged by war manage to produce such product as champagne.
The name champagne comes from the Latin word for field—“campania”. The Marne River Valley dominates the geography of Champagne. Running from east to west the Marne River Valley is wide and flat. Mont Aimé stands out from the flat land of this valley. The northern region of Champagne gives way to forests. The navigable waters of the Marne and the flat terrain facilitated the transport of goods from all directions as well as armies. In ancient times, this was the borderland shared by the Belgae and the Celtic tribes.
The Celtic tribes of France known as Gauls to the Romans were fierce warriors. These tribes after crossing the Alps launched a series of raids down the Po Valley on the Italian peninsula early in the fourth century BC. In 390, the Roman army clashed head on with the Gauls north of the city Rome at the Allia River. The Gauls devastated the Roman army and subsequently destroyed Rome. From this crushing defeat, though, Rome began its ascendancy by rebuilding its army and beginning an expansion of the Roman Empire that would stretch from Africa to England including Gaul and Champagne.
Under Julius Caesar, Rome expanded its empire and focused great military and strategic strength on conquering Gaul. Julius Caesar chronicled in succinct prose the years he spent from 58-50 BC conquering Gaul in his famous work “The Gallic Wars”. (I read the translation by W.A. McDevitte & W.S. Bohn.) In this fascinating book, Caesar details the many battles and conflicts as well as the people and cultures he encountered in the conquest of Gaul. The Champagne region figured importantly in the struggle for Roman dominance.
The Remi, a tribe that Caesar described as “The nearest of the Belgae to [Celtic] Gaul, played a significant part in the history of the Gallic wars. The Remi occupied the lands that were, in part, what is now Champagne. They, known as fierce warriors and excellent horsemen, occupied the northeastern Champagne plain in the southern fringe of the Ardennes. Surrounded by friendly tribes they frequently raided the Parisii and Senones tribes of Gaul. Their main town, Durocortorum sat on the site of what is now Reims the main city of Champagne. The Remi surrendered themselves to the protection and disposal of the Roman people and remained loyal to Caesar throughout the Gallic Wars and acted as go betweens for the Romans and the un-pacified Belgae. But this did not guarantee their protection. Cingetorix, a tribal leader, asserted to a council of tribes his plan to march at the request of the rebellious Carnutes and Senones tribes “thither through the territories of the Remi, devastate their lands and attack Labienus (a Roman General).
In 54 BC, the Gallic resistance came to a head under the leadership of the Averni warrior, Vercigetorix. Beginning in central France, the revolt against the Romans spread to include many tribes, even the Aedui who were loyal to Rome. Caesar hearing news of the revolt hastily returned from his invasion of Briton and began a massive campaign in the Fall of 54 BC to crush the revolt. After the winter, in the spring of 53 BC, Caesar set out subduing the resurgent Belgae and other tribes such as the Carnutes and Senones. Caesar mentioned returning to Durocortorum (Reims) with the loss of two cohorts after devastating the country in “such a manor—looting and burning all the villages.” Caesar besieged and conquered Vercingetorix and the Gauls at the opidium (town) of Alésia. This final defeat in 52 BC ended the Gallic rebellion and secured the peace in Gaul.
After the conquest of Gaul, Rome began planting vines throughout the region; Pliny noted viticulture in Champagne in 79AD. Romans developed notable vineyards in Champagne and began digging the chalk quarries called crayers in search of building materials; these crayers are the ancestors of the famous champagne caves of today. In 92AD, the Emperor Domitian ordered most of the vineyards of France destroyed to protect the wines of the Italian peninsula. Only by the decree of Emperor Probus, 200 years later, was the ban lifted and vines replanted in France including Champagne.
The peace in Gaul did not last, and an in 451AD, Chalôns-sur-Marne in Champagne witnessed one of the world’s worst battles and considered one of the 10 most pivotal battles in Western history. Attila the Hun known as “The Scourge of God” by the Romans led a barbarian horde of Huns, Ostrogoths and others into Gaul. Various motivations for Attila’s attack on the Western Roman Empire have been suggested. One assertion suggests that the Vandals urged Attila to wage war on the Visigoths who had been forcibly relocated to Aquitaine while urging the Visigoths to go to war with the Roman occupiers, which would create instability favorable for the Vandals. Other writers suggest that Attila’s murderous rampage was induced by a letter from Honoria, the troublesome sister of Emperor Valentinian III of Rome asking for help in rescuing her from a bad marriage to the Senator Herculanus. Attila asked for but was not granted a dowry of Honoria and Valentinian’s entire domain.
Roman control of Gaul by 450 AD had grown weak and in the spring of 451 AD Attila led his horde estimated in size between 300,000 and 700,000 across the Rhine into Gaul. Along the way Attila sacked and pillaged the cities of Reims, Mainz, Strasborg, Cologne, Worms and Trier. After murdering Nicasius in his own church in Reims, Attila headed south to lay siege on Orleans.
In response to Attila’s advance, the Roman general Aetius moved quickly into Gaul with a modest force. Aetius convinced the King of the Visigoths, Theododrid, to join forces against Attila. The combined Roman and Visigoth forces flushed Attila out of the city of Aureliani. Attila, escaping the confines of the enemy city, headed east back towards the Rhine. The Romans and Visigoths estimated at 100,000 strong caught up with the Huns at what is now Chalôns-sur-Marne in Champagne. The two great armies squared off in the Battle of Chalôns otherwise known as The Battle of The Catalaunian Fields. One day of fierce fighting in the last great battle of the Roman Empire routed the Huns, left 200,000 men dead and sent the Huns into disorganized retreat. Among the heaps of dead the Visigoths found the body of King Theododrid. His son, Thorismund, returned quickly to his people to secure the throne, much to the relief of Aetius who feared the Visigoths might turn on the Romans with the Huns out of the picture. The Roman hold on Gaul grew progressively weaker leading to the Middle Ages.
Following the defeat of Attila the Hun, the Champagne region suffered still with various wars and invasions. Over the span of 550 years from 450 AD to 1000 AD hostile forces destroyed the town of Reims seven times. Nearby Eperney suffered even more devastation with the town being pillaged or burned more than twenty times before the 1700s. However, the champagne region did continue to flourish at the same time as a major trading and viticultural center. The clergy especially developed the wine making in Champagne producing coveted wine for consumption by the nobility and the church.
Champagne enjoyed many international travelers moving through in part because it was on the well traveled pilgrim path of Santiago de Compostella or Shrine to Saint John in northern Spain. The city of Reims became in the Middle Ages the spiritual center of France when Hugh Capet was crowned King of France in the Cathedral of Reims in 987 AD. This would be the sight of French coronations for the next 800 years ending with the coronation of Charles X in 1825. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
In the 13 th century, the Champagne Friars traveled the towns of Champagne and Brie establishing trade connections with the cloth producing cities of the low countries and the Italian dye makers and bankers. The international linkage of money and goods greatly enhanced the coffers of Champagne, but wine and war would again dominate the region.
Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc, one of the great heroes of France, led an amazing series of battles in Champagne and surrounding regions against the English. Joan of Arc was born on January 6, ~1412 in the small town of Domremy in Eastern France during the 100 Years War (1337-1453) between the English and the French. At the time of Joan’s birth the English had reinvaded France taking advantage of the internal turmoil surrounding a dispute among the Royal Family for the throne of France between John-the-Fearless of Burgundy with the support of his pro-English son Philip “the good” and the “Orleanists” led by Bernard VII of Armagnac and Duke Charles of Orleans.
On August 15, 1415, Henry V invaded France claiming his family’s right to the throne of France. By 1419, much of Northern France had fallen into the English hands and Philip “the good” supported Henry V’s claim against Charles Ponthieu (later Charles VII), the last heir of the Valois dynasty that had ruled France since 1328.
Joan of Arc, canonized after her death, had visions of saints in her youth and received divine instruction, which she even used to accurately predict the outcome of battles. Joan of Arc believed that God wanted the English out of France. She proved her legitimacy to Charles of Orleans when she recounted verbatim a private prayer he had made to God some months earlier. Earning Charles' trust and following much scrutiny Joan of Arc was given the title of commander over an army.
Joan of Arc marshaled her army and began to lead her troops in valiant engagements against the English up the Loire Valley. She sustained a crushing blow to the head in one battle but emboldened her troops by getting up and pressing the charge. Pushing the English out of the Loire Valley stopped their advance and put them in retreat.
The Dauphin Charles VII had great doubts about his own legitimacy and the suffering his pursuit of the crown was causing the people of France, but with the encouragement and valor of Joan of Arc and the success of the Loire campaign, he grew in confidence as did many of his disheartened countrymen. Joan of Arc and Charles VII decided to press on to Reims and the Cathedral at Reims where all French kings had been crowned since 987 AD. Reims was well behind enemy lines but she persevered, and on July 17, 1429 Charles VII was crowned King of France in Reims.
Joan of Arc continued to fight by the will of God, which she would continue until instructed by God to do otherwise, even encouraging the people of Reims to stay strong in a letter to the city penned August 14, 1429:
“My dear and good friends, the obedient and loyal Frenchmen of the City of Reims, Joan the Maiden (as she called herself) lets you know of her tidings and asks and requests that you should have no concerns about the good cause she is carrying on for the Royal Family. And I promise and guarantee you that I will never abandon you so long as I live,…” (from http://archive.joan-of-arc.org)
By treachery she was captured by the English in 1431 and burned at the stake. The war with the English would continue for another 21 years.
Conflict over the crown of France did not end with the 100 years war. The French civil war known as the Frond in the 1640s and 1650s devastated the Champagne district. The Frond was a conflict over the right to the throne of France, but as Louis XIV acceded the throne in 1654 the civil war was finally crushed ushering in great time of expansion and growth of Champagne and the reputation of its wines. Louis XIV reportedly only drank the wines of Champagne until later in his life his physician Fagan prescribed different wine to help with the king’s health. The last years of the 17th century witnessed the gift of sparkling champagne from Dom Pérignon and his codification of the méthod champenoise.
As Champagne’s wines ascended to even greater heights in quality and reputation, France went through her revolution and rise of Napoleon Bonapart. The Napoleonic Wars of 1793-1815 expanded the Empire of France all the way to Egypt resulting in the loss of an estimated 2-3 million men. In this time of strife Champagne received it share of the bloodshed.
Following Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow in which he lost ~250,000 troops. The Allied armies of Europe, which included the Russians, Austrians, British, Prussians and others, followed him into Champagne. In Champagne on February 7, 1814, the town of Eperney was occupied by 221,000 troops from Russia, Prussia and Austria. During his campaign to drive the Allied armies from France, Napoleon fought the Six Days Campaign, in which he executed some of his most brilliant battles. From February 10-14, an outnumbered French force of 70,000 battled sections of the Allied forces spread out over the region and estimated at 500,000 strong and inflicted major damage with 10s of thousands of Allied casualties.
Napoleon hearing of the Russians taking Reims marched immediately from the Bishopric of Cavignon and upon arrival at Reims engaged the Russians. Fighting into the night, Napoleon entered Reims at 2:00 am while the Russians fled the city by a different gate. In Reims Napoleon stayed with M. Ponsardin the brother of Madame Clicquot.
On March 15, 1814, Napoleon left Reims to attack the forces of the King of Prussia and Emperor Alexander from behind to prevent the fall of Paris. On his way he went to Eperney where the garrison and the brave citizens of the town had just repulsed the enemy. Napoleon awarded the Mayor of Epernay, M. Moet (of Moet & Chandon fame) with the Cross of the Legion of Honor for the great valor he and his citizens displayed. However, Napoleon could not prevent the fall of Paris on March 30, 1814. He abdicated the throne on April 6, 1814. After one more rise to power and a series of conflicts, Napoleon would be exiled to Saint Helena in the South Atlantic. The Russians were now out of France but took with them a great thirst for champagne.
Again in 1870, Champagne witnessed the loss of their vineyards and sons in the Franco-Prussian War. Later at the turn of the century the Champagne Riots would rock the region. Champagne would face its greatest trials in the devastating events of the 20 th century.
The 20 th Century
The twentieth century brought to the Champagne district perhaps it’s most violent series of events in its entire history. These occurrences were both physically and economically destructive, but also somewhat stabilizing in that the standard of what “Champagne” is emerged.
The delimitation (setting out the geographic area) of the “Champagne Viticole” became official in December 1908. Three years of political struggle and civic unrest know as the Champagne riots brought about a measure of compliance satisfactory to the Champenois late in 1911. Essentially this issue prevented the importation of cheap wines from out of the region that were then blended fraudulently with champagne. Champagne wines were kept separate from these outside wines much of which were destroyed by riotous mobs and the practice was made illegal. Only grapes from Champagne could be used in champagne.
However the problems were not over. The growers in the districts outlying the Marne but not in “La Champagne” complained that their markets were being destroyed because they could not compete with the southern wines, and also that the southern producers could not call their wines “champagne”. The previous 1908 decree was repealed in 1911, this produced further rioting by the “Champagne growers”. A new decree resulted that reaffirmed the original delimitation, though unsatisfactory to most was finally put into law on July 22, 1927 and remains in effect to this day.
This area of Europe that had been the path of so much armed conflict in the past and it became the battleground and the avenue of the two most destructive conflicts in the history of civilization. The first battle of the Marne was the scene or perhaps the “turning point’ battle in the First World War. It was here that in September 1914 the French stemmed the tide of the German onslaught. It was then that the German plan to capture Paris, the focal point of the “Schleiffen Plan” was halted on the road to Paris.
The valiant efforts of the French and the legendary “Taxis” turned this war of mobility into a war of the Trench. Thus ensued the stale mate of trench warfare for the next four years. The trenches stretched from the English Channel to the Swiss border. The carnage in human life was in the millions and the suffering from injuries on both sides is beyond comprehension. The Champagne District, an area roughly from Rheims to Verdun, was particularly involved. Armies on both sides fought almost continuously. As a result the growing areas were involved not only with active conflict but were the avenues where men and supplies were in constant transit. This factor alone reduced the wine production to almost negligible levels.
In the spring of 1918 Ludendorff and the German Army made its last big effort to win the war. The Russians had been defeated. This enabled the Germans to mobilize their manpower from the eastern front. The hope was that they would be able to breakthrough the allied lines that were exhausted from four years of conflict.
This massive push severely “bent “ the allied line but the line did not break. The French, British and the upstart American armies held. This massive battle again threatened Paris. It is known as the Second Battle of the Marne. Ironically it marked the downfall of the German Army that culminated in the Armistice of 1918. The Champagne area was again pivotal in the geographic local.
For the First World War the champagne vineyards were battlefields. The resulting destruction of the geography was economically devastating. This factor was accompanied by the fact that the cellars were emptied, exports evaporated and the ensuing depression of 1929 left few buyers of luxury goods. Lastly the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its subsequent sequellae destroyed a major market. Despite these devastating factors the Champagne Industry was able to reclaim itself gradually in the inter war years.
The Second World War burst on the scene in 1939. France capitulated to the Nazi onslaught in six short weeks. The Champagne district in this conflict was an avenue of rapid transport first of the German armies easily overwhelming the undermanned French Army and the impotent “Maginot Line.” Four years later the Allies again raced through the Champagne district pursuing the markedly weakened German Army. There were few stand up battles. The conflict was marked by mobility. There was markedly reduced destruction of land and property compared to the First World War.
In the Second World War, the Champagne district was occupied by the Nazis. This produced an entirely different problem for the region. The Nazis wished to confiscate all of the Champagne. The challenge for the wine makers was to “hide” the good wines. This they did by many crafty methods. The vineyards were kept in production yet the majority of the good vintage was salvaged.
The Nazis countered the French efforts to hide the good wines by appointing “Winefurhers” to oversee the wine production. This produced a conflict of interest in Champagne because this person had to satisfy the ravenous appetites of the German elite, yet maintain a sphere of prosperity for the wine producers. For the Champagne district the Winefurher was a wine expert who tried to work with the various wine producers. Ironically he had many contacts before the war and after the war he returned to civilian life and was able to maintain these contacts.
The result of the Second World War was that the infrastructure of the Champagne Industry was maintained and post war production was more easily resumed with much less loss of land and property than the First World War.
Since the Second World War the Champagne Industry has flourished. The Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) was established in 1941. It administers to production regulations in Champagne in addition to promoting these wines throughout the world.
Champagne has been the site of many battles and the platform of destructive conflict. Yet ironically it has produced the one drink associated with victory and celebration of either of friend or foe. Despite all the conflict Champagne has been able to maintain its celebrity and rejuvenate and define itself despite all sorts of adversity throughout the ages.