Fairs and Markets

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Montserrat M. Miller

Although their origins are much older, fairs and markets of one form or another have been important components of Europe's commercial economy since the eleventh-century recovery of urban life. Emerging wherever surplus was great enough to stimulate exchange, markets nearly always involved the retail sale to urbanites of staple goods, especially food, produced in the countryside. Fairs, on the other hand, which could be much larger than markets, more frequently featured the sale of costlier items such as cloth, livestock, and agricultural implements, as well as wholesale trade in a range of goods. And while markets were usually weekly or daily, fairs tended to be held less often. Both fairs and markets proliferated through medieval Europe, expanding and contracting in response to economic cycles linking regions together in relationships that involved the production, consumption, and exchange of goods, money, ideas, and cultural practices. While the importance of fairs declined after the 1300s, a highly complex, specialized, and hierarchical network of markets continued to develop and by the eighteenth century was operating at the foundation of Europe's dynamic economy.

During industrialization, fairs and markets were neither entirely eclipsed by shops and more formalized arrangements for high-level wholesale exchange nor rendered insignificant within the economy. Indeed markets in the nineteenth century were reorganized by governing authorities to better serve the conditions of crowded cities and were often covered with impressive iron and glass roofs that signaled new levels of municipal efficiency and pride. Likewise, mammoth fairs became symbols of industrial might or, on a smaller scale, deliberate expressions of the regional folk culture that was so important to emerging nationalist identities. Although interest in building new markets dwindled in the early twentieth century, in some areas there was resistance to the larger, and ultimately preponderant, trend toward shops and stores and then super and hypermarkets. While specific social and cultural practices appear to have been transformed by these structural shifts in the commercial system of distribution, parallels remain between the consumer megacomplexes of the late twentieth century, and even internet shopping, and the older forms of exchange in Europe's fairs and markets of the past.

In its treatment of fairs and markets, the social history literature emphasizes a number of themes. When focusing on the earlier period, empirical research on fairs and markets frequently tests the limits of economic models postulating the inexorable workings of supply and demand. Another theme involves the emergence and operation of the central place and network systems of exchange upon which the industrial economy was built. Scholars have also frequently used markets to explore the social relations that linked peasant societies to the more elite and formalized expressions of the dominant culture. The nineteenth and twentieth century work is more focused on the relationship of fairs and markets to the state and questions of gender and social class within an urban, industrial context. So fairs and markets are of significance to historians working on a number of specific questions related to Europe's economic, political, cultural, and social past.


In the early Middle Ages, markets existed in some form everywhere that economic life teetered above complete self-sufficiency. Wherever towns survived there were markets to supply the population with the relatively small surplus of agricultural goods available. Though villages tended not to have markets, all towns certainly did. In this period before Europe's economic recovery, markets were frequently small, and their offerings quite limited. Typically, peasants brought their extra foodstuffs to sell to passersby, and in some places they were joined by artisans selling locally manufactured goods such as pottery and baskets. Seignorial or ecclesiastic authorities set the market days and often regulated such elements as pricing. Lining up along a church wall, or in some other specified place within or just outside the town, vendors traded goods for money, and markets thus operated as one of the only venues for local exchange in an economy otherwise marked by subsistence.

All of the late-ninth- and tenth-century changes in the European countryside that stimulated agricultural productivity also acted to expand market operations. More surplus translated into more goods for sale, more hawkers and vendors on town streets, more market days, and longer market hours. Expanding markets thus stimulated urban growth. Where new markets emerged, villages often grew into towns; where towns expanded, the process of growth usually involved the construction of new defensive walls encompassing peripheral areas where successful new markets had become established. So the simpler, smaller markets of the early Middle Ages were transformed by the tenth-century rise in agricultural productivity, and then population, into clamoring centers of economic and social exchange.

By the late Middle Ages, markets had become much more crowded and lively, characteristically featuring a cacophony of sights, sounds, and smells. Vendors, usually women, competed for the attention of customers as crowds of people milled through the market's array of open-air stalls, each specializing in particular goods such as meat, fish, eggs, poultry, bread, vegetables, cheese, and sausage. Although artisans and merchants operated market stalls as well, they were more often drawn toward sedentary points of sale from within shops attached to or near production or storage. Retail food vendors, on the other hand, were slower to move to the more permanent quarters of the shop, although bakeries, and in some places butchers, were exceptions to the rule.

While some trade was certainly spontaneous and unregulated, markets were in general tightly controlled. Initially operating under ecclesiastic or seignorial auspices, emerging royal authorities were quick to claim their right to charter markets. In fact, more royal market charters were issued in some areas than the number of actual markets that operated; it was one thing to receive a market charter and quite another to invest in stall construction and management of a successful operation (Matte, 1996). Whether seignorial, ecclesiastic, or corporate, market authorities determined the hours of operation; charged vendors stallage; set prices and tolls; and monitored weights, measures, and the terms of exchange. Authorities usually operated public scales so that weights could be independently verified. There are innumerable instances of vendors receiving severe punishment for violations that were interpreted as transgressions against the common good. Indeed most historians who study markets maintain that vendors and customers shared a set of "moral economy" precepts about the way in which markets should operate and that these community standards of fairness were reinforced by market authorities as part of their claim for popular legitimacy.

Although the growth of marketplaces was deeply intertwined with the process of urbanization, markets also served as one of the several complex and dynamic links that bound villages, towns, and cities to the countryside that surrounded them. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, town life, and in many ways town culture, became increasingly differentiated from that of the countryside. The towns, where free men could engage in commerce, featured greater opportunities for mobility than the countryside, where the social order was more static. And characteristic elements of town life such as guild corporatism, which came to permeate town culture, were largely foreign in the rural world. Yet markets constituted the most quotidian and direct link between urban and rural life through this period. Urban marketplaces distributed goods produced in the countryside, and urban demand shaped rural agricultural production. Markets drew a segment of the rural labor force, mainly composed of women, into towns to work in their stalls, and market sales injected money into the rural economy. Along with coins earned on trade and the odd goods that peasant vendors may have purchased in town, news, information, and wide-ranging cultural practices traveled back into rural areas at the end of the market day. An ongoing flow of humanity from countryside to town and back was part and parcel of successful markets everywhere.

Attention to the nature and dimensions of the catchment zones that extended outward from urban nodes into the rural countryside has led historians to conceptualize Europe in terms of the development and growth of a series of central places: villages, towns, and cities ringed by the overlapping areas within which money was directly exchanged for goods and labor. Indeed the central-place functions of towns were to a great extent reflected in the number, size, frequency, type, and scope of markets that were held within the corporate boundaries. Increases and decreases in the size and number of urban markets were directly linked to the expansion and contraction of central-place catchment zones. Markets are therefore one of the key places where historians look to observe the nature and extent of rural/urban interplay during the preindustrial period. So while markets were physically located in urban settings their connections to the rural world were extensive and complex.


Like markets, some of Europe's fairs had origins that dated back even to Roman times, but much more than town markets, fairs, especially the larger ones, often linked far-distant regions together in a network. In their twelfth and thirteenth century heyday, especially, performers and entertainers, peddlers, specialized merchants, and financiers spent much of their year traveling the circuit of fairs that extended across Europe. Frequently sponsored by municipal corporations and trading houses, fairs stimulated economic growth by periodically bringing a concentration of buyers, sellers, performers, and onlookers together in one specific physical place. Fairs were festive occasions that combined entertainment, wholesale exchange, banking, and the retail sale of agricultural implements, farm animals, and manufactured goods.

From the late middle ages until the first quarter of the seventeenth century, the network of fairs that reached from the Low Countries through France to northern Italy, with branches extending outward in various directions, served as the main western European institutions for high-level finance and credit. This stimulated economic growth and urban specialization in both north and south. The old Champagne fairs, which reached their zenith in the thirteenth century, drew in practically the whole commercial and financial capitalist elite. Such fairs were the venues for international trade between merchant houses, and they were the points at which currencies and bills of exchange were settled. Beginning in the fourteenth century, however, the royal authorities more frequently extended exemptions from duties and tolls to high ranking merchants and merchant houses, causing fairs to decline. Such exemptions made fairs less attractive. By the seventeenth century, fairs had lost many of their highest-level economic functions in western Europe and had been largely replaced by banks and the establishment of more sedentary structures for wholesale trade. Perhaps the foremost historian of European fairs and markets in the early modern period, Fernand Braudel, called fairs archaic forms of exchange (Braudel, p. 93). In eastern Europe, for example, where the economic trajectory was less dynamic, fairs flourished much longer, reflecting the later emergence of modern financial capitalist structures.

In western Europe the likes of the Champagne fairs were replaced in the economic system by an essentially new form of higher-level market. Frequently called exchanges or bourses, these institutions had become established in the Mediterranean cities of Genoa, Florence, Pisa, Venice, Barcelona, and Valencia by the fourteenth century (Braudel, p. 99). Usually housed in special buildings, bourses of various types emerged not long afterward in the commercial cities of northern Europe as they increasingly dominated long-distance trade. The exchanges of Bruges, Antwerp, Amsterdam, and London had taken their place within the highest ranks of the economic order by the early 1500s. As was the case with many markets and fairs, the exchanges of Europe became more specialized as the economy expanded. Major cities opened exchanges that concentrated on the sale of grain, cloth, insurance, merchant company stocks, and government shares. These bourses incorporated many of the wholesale and banking functions that had earlier been the province of fairs.


Both fairs and markets persisted through the early modern period, with some noteworthy modifications. Fairs, shorn of many of their highest-level financial functions in western Europe, remained much-anticipated cultural and economic events on a regional level. In other words, although fairs lost some of their network functions, they retained much central-place importance. Many small-scale manufacturers organized production around the temporal rhythm of the fairs, still usually seasonal and periodic, and depended on them for much of their annual sales. Alongside the crowded calendar of religious holidays, fairs continued to represent one of the main secular institutions for regional sociability and cultural diffusion. Urban markets remained important through the early modern period as well. They grew in number and size, especially from 1450 and 1650, while population growth and urbanization were linked. During these centuries towns and cities had to devote more attention to market regulation and policing and to find new places within the walled environs where markets could be held. While market management came to represent an ever more urgent problem for municipal authorities, the expansion of markets heightened their cultural impact on the urban quarters where they were held.

Because scholars have generally come to view culture as a body of shared ideas and practices that is always in the process of being created and recreated when individuals interact, the complex exchanges taking place within fairs and markets have assumed great social historical significance. The discursive exchanges and behaviors associated with fairs and markets can be interpreted as forces acting to create, re-create, reinforce, or undermine the various rural and urban cultures that existed in Europe at any given time. In just one morning, a single vendor might have spoken directly to and/or exchanged looks with hundreds of other participants in the fair or market. Female consumers would most likely have only rarely come into close contact with as many people at one time as they did when they went about the process of shopping for food at town markets. Because fairs and markets were nuclei of commerce and thus places where face-to-face contact was concentrated, they were among the most intensive points for the generation and recreation of popular culture. Indeed, the atmospheres of fairs and markets, easily read by the regular participants, reflected collective attitudes of optimism or fear. News traveled fast from one stall to another, and a failure to comprehend the cultural rules governing exchange in fairs or markets could carry with it grave economic consequences.

In song and folk tales regional fairs appear over and over as much-anticipated occasions for status display and entertainment, as well as places to buy colored ribbons and other minor luxuries of a festive nature. Through performances, ceremonies, and economic exchange, rural groups came into contact with one another at fairs, observing local differences and absorbing cultural elements that ranged from new variations on old stories and songs to changes in styles of dress. Moreover, because fairs brought rural and urban groups into contact with one another, they represented points at which popular traditions intersected with more formal and dominant cultural expressions. The differences in dress, speech, and behavior between urban and rural groups could easily be observed at fairs, and, as a consequence, broader diffusion of dominant cultural forms was effected.

Regional fairs also remained occasions for the display and reinforcement of social hierarchies. Because among other things they were the sites of servant hiring and the livestock trade, fairs drew in the most successful farmers. There the lowest-ranking members of the agricultural order could see crisp representations of the rural hierarchy and their place within it. Fairs also always featured women and children, explicitly engaged in displays of social rank, wearing their finest clothes and seeking to spend a bit of money on something that would be perceived as fun. Fairs offered the opportunity for children and women to see how their economic means placed them in relationship to others, and thus refined their sense of place within the social hierarchy. So in a number of ways fairs offer abundant historical insight about the social and cultural context of rural life in early modern Europe.

Regular urban markets operated as important social institutions through the early modern period as well. Markets were hierarchically arranged and both reflected and reinforced the urban social order. The most prosperous vendors, frequently butchers, had the largest or best-positioned stalls. Butchers defined themselves as skilled laborers, required apprenticeships, and operated their stalls from within a well-established tradition of guild membership. Poulterers, sausage and cheese vendors, and fishmongers sometimes created similar guild associations as well. Vendor groups with guild membership and using artisanal language to define themselves wielded greater influence with market and corporate authorities than those traders who sold bulk produce such as cabbage, or, later on, potatoes. Making no claims to skilled labor, vegetable vendors of all varieties were much less likely to belong to guilds. The relatively low level of prestige associated with their trade was reflected in the size/or location of their stalls within the market. At the bottom of the market and social hierarchy were ambulatory or itinerant vendors, operating legally or illegally, in a range of goods. Ambulatory trade was often carried out by the most marginalized members of society and frequently raised the ire of both established vendors who paid stallage and the law enforcement authorities. So while market vendors represented a category of urban retail merchants, they were also a group within which sharp hierarchical relationships existed.

As at fairs, the cultural dimensions of urban markets were rich, complex, and shaped by rank and hierarchy. Through the butchers and other types of vendors holding guild membership, markets were drawn into the festivals and ceremonies of the artisanal community. Because markets sold food, they were starting points for the celebration of all Saints days and other holidays that involved the preparation of special family meals. In extending credit, individual vendors often determined whether the poorest of households would mark holidays with any type of special foods at all. By the early eighteenth century, even modest European cities held a half dozen food markets daily. With dense urban settlement clusters around them, markets had become one of the most crucial types of public spaces in the city, especially for women. Neighborhood reputations could be made or broken through behavior in the markets, and markets were places within which female consumers often sought to defend the honor of their homes. In fact, markets had come to rival churches, government buildings, and public squares as the most-frequented sites of social and cultural exchange.


The long process of industrialization brought tremendous change in the scale and functions of urban places in Europe. After a lull of approximately a hundred years, the mid-eighteenth century ushered in a period of major urban growth and demographic expansion. The technological and organizational shifts necessitated by the factory system of production urbanized new areas, often with chaotic results that strained inadequate infrastructures. England's midland cities in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries exemplify this. Industrial growth accelerated the urbanization of older cities as well, presenting civil authorities with real problems of provisioning an expanding population. Municipal governments all across the continent understood the connection between revolutionary fervor and the availability of food at what were popularly held to be just prices. Bread riots, after all, were not uncommon, and such spontaneous outbursts had been known to set off much larger uprisings. Issues of provisioning thus were often urgent.

Although the towns and cities of Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries certainly featured many shops, most foods other than bread and sometimes meat, were sold in the daily markets, the vast majority of which were still held in squares with no protection from the elements. Industrialization forced authorities to face the task of making the old urban market system work under conditions of greater density and changing social composition. Most cities first pursued a strategy that involved expanding the number of stall permits and extending the length and number of vendor rows in already-existing markets. As a consequence, food markets simply became larger and more crowded. In many places, such expansion reached the limits of the possible during the first half of the nineteenth century: where city walls remained in place and population density high, streets became impassable during market hours and neighbors complained about piles of garbage and raucous noise. Problems of sanitation led to outbreaks of disease and caused considerable additional concern on the part of municipal authorities. Another solution had to be found. Nearly everywhere in this period city governments sought to expand the provisioning system by establishing new markets. But space within old urban cores was scarce. In Barcelona, new markets were built on the lots made available as a result of the popular anticlerical attacks that led to the destruction of several convents in the 1840s. Elsewhere space for markets was made either where port facilities were being expanded to meet the needs of the industrial system of maritime transport or in the areas beyond the defensive walls that were being developed as new bourgeois residential districts.

One of the principal characteristics of nineteenth-century cities was an increase in scale, especially with the emergence and extension of the rail network that facilitated the transport of raw materials to the burgeoning factories located in close proximity to the source of labor. Cities spread over what had been fields and peasant cottages, and new districts with streets laid out in grid patterns often became fashionable areas. In these areas, cities were built from the ground up in relatively short time, and room was nearly always reserved for new markets. In fact, the general physical appearance of most nineteenth-century cities underwent considerable transformation. In addition to the new peripheral bourgeois neighborhoods, broad boulevards, monuments to national figures, and larger public squares and parks became characteristic parts of the industrial city. These new elements in the physical appearance of cities were promoted by the political authorities, who sponsored them as tangible evidence of progress, efficiency, and both municipal and national pride. The Hausmannization of Paris is just the best-known example of a much larger trend in nineteenth century urban makeovers. All across Europe, from Vienna to Madrid, the results of the nineteenth-century urban transformations remain visible to even the most casual of observers.

Alongside triumphant arches and grand boulevards the older organizational arrangement of urban public markets often represented discordance and incongruency. No matter how large markets grew or how many were authorized by municipal authorities, as long as they were held in the open air they remained sloppy and noisy affairs that were increasingly less acceptable to emerging middle-class aesthetic sensibilities. The solution that many municipal authorities chose was to build market halls and move market sales indoors, where consumers and vendors alike could escape the elements and engage in exchange under more permanent, hygienic, and rationalized conditions. Market-hall design ranged from sturdy one-story poured-concrete structures with arched porticoes along exposed walls to grand iron-truss halls with glass roofs and elaborate decorative elements. By the 1860s, both London and Paris had constructed a series of new covered market halls linked to the rail network. Berlin did not begin its market-building project until twenty years later, and there, the results were less successful (Lohmeier, p. 111).

More generally, the new combination of municipally operated covered markets located near train stations worked well, allowing for a more efficient and larger-scale wholesaling system that linked the city directly to both its immediate catchment zone and to distant sources of provisions. European municipal authorities built such structures as part of a larger strategy to expand the provisioning system and to rationalize the use of urban space. The inauguration of market halls, such as the one which took place in Barcelona in 1876 to mark the opening of the Born structure, were often accompanied by much fanfare and ceremony glorifying both the modern state and the progress that governing authorities could bring through their stewardship of the industrialization of the economy.

The second half of the nineteenth century also marked a new era in the history of fairs. London's 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations set the standard. In the following decades mammoth fairs became more common. Designed as international exhibits of modernity, nineteenth-century fairs involved large-scale construction projects that often looked like fairylands of light, water, and space. London's Crystal Palace from the 1851 Exhibition is one such example. The Ciutadella Park in Barcelona, built for the 1888 Exposición Mundial, is another. Inaugurated by the highest-ranking political authorities, nineteenth-century fairs drew in tens of millions of visitors and put the host region's highest cultural expressions on display while serving to lift bourgeois confidence in progress to new heights. Like the old Champagne fairs, they brought together potential buyers, sellers, and onlookers and established the tone for trading relations that operated at the uppermost levels of economic exchange. Most historical interpretations of the nineteenth-century European world's fairs also emphasize the important role they played in diffusing popular criticism of the established political and social order.

In eastern Europe, where urbanization and industrialization proceeded more slowly, large state-sponsored international exhibitions were organized less frequently; nonetheless, the region certainly had its vibrant nineteenth-century fairs. Those held at Leipzig and Novgorod were especially well known for bringing European and Asian merchants together to exchange a wide variety of goods. Moscow also held a series of larger fairs, international in scope, but not industrial exhibitions in the same sense as the western European and American varieties.

A second era of world's fairs in western Europe began with the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes and was followed by a number of others during the years of the Great Depression. Here, too, the European industrial world's fairs of the twentieth century promoted consumer confidence in a future that promised to be much brighter than the difficult present in which they were set.


In most areas of Europe, but especially in the northwest, municipal authorities stopped building covered markets in the early twentieth century, when the number and variety of food shops and stores increased while many of the covered markets began a process of long and slow decline. The growing capitalization of the distribution system and technological advances in the food-processing industry drove much of this shift. Increases in the scale of agricultural production, mechanical refrigeration, and the food-processing industry had stimulated the expansion of wholesale distribution networks for several decades. Food retailers able to buy in larger quantities could reduce costs and increase profit margins. Individual market vendors with small retail establishments found themselves at a disadvantage.

While grand covered markets moved toward extinction in most places, some municipal authorities undertook great efforts to facilitate the adaptation of public food markets to twentieth-century economic conditions. The best example of this is Barcelona, where the city government issued a new municipal market code in 1898 that prevailed with only minor modifications over the course of the next half century. Modern refrigeration chambers were added to all of the city's markets, and individual vendors were allowed to double and triple the size of their stalls and eventually to bequeath their vendor licenses as real property from one generation to the next. Such measures facilitated the social and economic consolidation of urban-dwelling retail vendors who purchased wholesale from middlemen, privileging them over rural producers who had long traveled into the city on a daily basis to sell the surplus from their small family plots. Under such conditions, market stalls came to resemble small shops, and indeed the shopkeeper and vendor population became difficult to distinguish. Barcelona's urban retail market vendors took their place in the ranks of the new lower middle class alongside telephone operators, department store clerks, and minor office workers. Where public policy explicitly protected vendors, daily food markets stood a better chance of enduring through the middle of the twentieth century and beyond.

More generally through western Europe in the postwar period, supermarkets and self-service stores, and then suburban hypermarkets, gradually laid claim to the bulk of retail sales in food. Outside the communist block, Europeans increasingly chose to make fewer, albeit bigger, provisioning excursions, and as in the United States, the weekly grocery-shopping trip became a domestic ritual. Daily shopping in public markets in most places became the province of older women who maintained the traditions followed by their mothers. Most historians of markets, in fact, assert that their ultimate demise was set in motion by the combined effects of higher levels of female employment outside the home, mass marketing of electrical refrigeration, and the spread of the automobile. All undermined the need for daily shopping trips as part of a household routine. Nonetheless, the vast majority of European cities had at least one or two public markets still in operation in the late twentieth century, although many of these featured a significant number of small shops aimed at tourists alongside stalls that catered to neighborhood consumption. Again, the city of Barcelona is noteworthy in that forty-one food markets remained in operation there at the close of the twentieth century, with significant modernization undertaken by a public-private governing body.

The decline of public markets in twentieth-century European cities brought changes in urban sociability patterns. As long as every household in the city was provisioned daily through a trip to a public market and to specific shops neighborhood women were linked together in a network of commercial and social relationships. With vendors often living in the immediate environs, markets were hubs of neighborhood news and information and places where face-to-face contact was maintained in an otherwise densely populated and largely anonymous setting. Going to market daily had been one of the main ways that women in the burgeoning industrial cities got to know who their neighbors were, heard about their neighbors' affairs, and found out about some of the goings on in other apartment houses of the district. The decline of public markets reduced levels of neighborhood social exchange among women and dried up a crucial pool of local gossip and information. The structures through which urban cultures and subcultures were created and re-created among women were changed as a result.

While self-service stores, supermarkets, and hypermarkets proved to be profitable enterprises that created new employment, their expanding share of the retail sale of food reduced women's independent entrepreneurial opportunities in many areas. Women, held in Western culture to inherently possess verbal skills useful in petty trade, had dominated the ranks of market vendors since time immemorial in most regions. Through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, operating a market stall was a reasonably accessible option for women from the lower ranks of the social order. Market-stall operations required little capital and could usually be undertaken alone and combined with the responsibilities of household and children. With the eclipse of markets by shops, stores, and supermarkets, women's independent opportunities in the retail commercial sector were narrowed.


Although by the end of the twentieth century the fairs and markets that operated all across the European landscape from the eleventh-century revival of urban life through the nineteenth century remained in most places only as relics of the past, a degree of persistence and continuity was still identifiable. Small regional fairs remain common, and some cities' provisioning systems, such as Barcelona's, feature a combination of municipal markets, shops, and super/hypermarkets. In many ways the European variant of the late-twentieth-century shopping mall, and even internet dotcoms, can be viewed as larger scale versions of traditional markets. Their distinction from the older institutions for retail commerce lies more in scale, capitalization, and technological foundation than in fundamental arrangement. Likewise, trade fairs and exhibitions, common in virtually every area of the economy, are distinctly reminiscent of the old European fairs whose role in high finance and wholesale trade had been crucial in the process of economic expansion. Fairs and markets have been integral parts of Europe's history, and their study promises to reveal much about the way the economy works today.

See also other articles in this section.


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